Shtetls: We Can’t Forget You. Please Remember Us.

Social media is ablaze with those yearning for stories of their ancestors in the shtetls. Travel agents are busy organizing shtetl tours. People are checking their DNA to examine the origins of their bloodlines and to search for lost relatives. At the same time there are people living in the lands that we dream of. These are towns, for the most part devoid of Jews, that are coping with life in the 21st Century. How do these towns remember us? What can we do to memorialize the Jewish presence that was such an important part of these town’s histories and satisfy our own hunger for our past?

Rohatyn Jewish Cemetery

In the course of examining my own roots I became familiar with Rohatyn, the birthplace of my paternal grandfather. I joined the Rohatyn Shtetl Research Group.  One of the most passionate members of this group is Ms. Marla Raucher Osborn. Marla was an attorney from California who gave up her practice and moved with her husband Jay to various European cities while researching their family roots. She has now become a renowned lecturer and has made several trips to Rohatyn.

In 1998 a dedicated group of Rohatyn survivors and their descendants trekked to Rohatyn and participated in the unveiling of several commissioned monuments at the sites of Rohatyn’s two destroyed Jewish cemeteries and two of the sites of the massacre of the town’s Jewish population during the Shoah.

What can be said of the people who now live in the town? Prewar, the ethnic makeup of Rohatyn, like so many of the Eastern Galician shtetls, was Polish, Ukrainian and Jewish. Now it is virtually all Ukrainian. A retired Rohatyn school teacher named Mr. Mikhailo Vorobets, began to document Rohatyn’s Jewish past. He also collected Matzevot, Jewish headstones or headstone fragments found in various parts of the town and arranged to have them moved to one of Rohatyn’s Jewish cemeteries.

In April 2011  Marla made her second visit to Rohatyn and was introduced to Mr. Vorobets.

Mr. Vorobets, Mr. Klishch, Ms. Osborn
Mr. Vorobets, Mr. Klishch, Ms. Osborn

As Marla described, “Over the next 2 1/2 years, working hand-in-hand with Mr. Vorobets as well as Rohatyn’s Mayor, the local Ukrainian Church, and Rohatyn’s head librarian Mr. Ihor Klishch, a project was born – a community project – to recover Jewish memory. Mr. Vorobets was contacted when someone living in town had or heard about a Jewish headstone. He coordinated the recovery and kept detailed records of each rescued stone. This work was mostly financed by the RSRG and sometimes by Mr. Vorobets himself.”

Dr. Alex Feller, the head of RSRG and Marla made a trip to Rohatyn in May, 2011 and personally investigated the ongoing project. The trip was covered by the local media and Alex and Marla were interviewed by the local TV station.

Summarizing this experience Alex said; Being in Rohatyn and seeing tombstones, words really cannot describe the feeling of finding Hebrew words even on a gravestone in a town void of Jews. You hear stories, you see houses , stand in front of memorials, but when you see a tombstone created before WWII, it really sends home that our ancestors were there. When we saw the found stones, you could not help but think that every stone you see could have been a tombstone. We started to look at any stone for Hebrew. It sounds obsessive, but in a few cases, where one may not have looked we did find fragments of tombstones. Remnants of our ancestors are still there. “

Dr. Alex Feller Examining Matzevot Found By A River Bank
Dr. Alex Feller Examining Matzevot Found By A River Bank

It was reported to the RSRG that by May 2013, about 150 headstones and headstone fragments had been recovered and lay scattered at the base of the 1998 memorial at the Jewish Cemetery. Each Matzevah was photographed, and a website was established to host the photographs and translations were provided of the Hebrew.

Headstone Fragments Around Monument in Rohatyn Jewish Cemetery
Headstone Fragments Around Monument in Rohatyn Jewish Cemetery

After much discussion a project was born. While still being primarily a forum for genealogists to research and discuss issues relating to Rohatyn, the RSRG was going to take an active role in preserving Jewish memory in the town and will take care of the one remaining vestige of our presence – the Matzevot. Marla has taken charge of this project and on November 5th, she will walk through the town and the cemeteries with an artist who will submit a proposal for the best way to preserve these priceless treasures from our past. In addition, there is talk in the future of the group taking an active role in the restoration of a building that was once a synagogue.

A project of this magnitude obviously costs money. The RSRG is actively raising funds specifically earmarked for the Matzevot project.

Years ago I mentioned to a friend that I wanted to visit the shtetls of my ancestors. He asked, “Why bother? There’s absolutely nothing there now.” Well that is slowly being changed all over Eastern Europe. The Jewish people may not be a much of a physical presence in these towns, but there is a determination of many to record our presence, our history and properly memorialize our sacred ancestors and martyrs of blessed memory.

About the Author
Dr. Steven S.Turner is a practicing dentist in Howard Beach, NY. He was educated in the NYC public schools, Queens College, and the NYU College of Dentistry. He spent a summer studying in the Hebrew University Mt. Scopus campus in 1971.
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