Dozens of survivors provided first-person testimony about this day in a Yizkor book which my mother translated and appended while compiling Remembering Rohatyn and its Environs. Donia Gold Shwarzstein, orphaned while a teenager, passed away in June just before approving the final version which will be available from booksellers later this month.
Ten individuals wrote about what happened on September 21, 1942 and, while they tell the story from different vantage points, their accounts corroborate the essential facts – hundreds of Jews rounded up in Rohatyn and neighboring villages were killed and/or sent to Belzec and Auschwitz on that day and the next.
At a time when facts are questioned, history is being rewritten and there are few survivors who can speak for themselves; these unevenly written first-person testimonies are more important than ever. In these accounts, the history comes alive—the stories are personal.
“Early in the morning on Yom Kippur, not far from our house, a car drove up with men in green uniforms. We knew at once what their arrival announced. We jumped out of bed in our nightgowns; Mother drove us from the room, so we would go into hiding. But there was no talk of her coming with us, for she was then already in agony, yet completely clear thinking.
And we, grown wild, mean – I have no words to describe our low moral state – we did what Mother ordered. We left her behind in bed and went into hiding. What do you think of us? I know, we deserve your contempt, but perhaps the time will come when you will understand us. That pogrom lasted two days. You can’t imagine what it’s like to sit on a scorching day in a dark underground hole, nearly without any access to air, without food. How much of our strength it took, when every few seconds we heard the steps of those criminals above our heads. Our hearts beat with hammer blows when they were already beside our bunker, and it was solely thanks to the good fortune of fate that they did not find us out. My pen is too poor to describe all this to you. But were I able to do so, you would still not comprehend it. To sit and to listen intently if a shot isn’t fired upstairs – for that is where our dear Mother was lying – and when we didn’t hear one, we were sure, that we will still find her alive. But though the murderers didn’t kill her, our unfortunate Mother died of dreadful fright.” Genia Messing, Rohatyn.
“We were praying at the time, not in the synagogue, as the Germans had turned it into a granary. When we saw from afar the car full of Gestapo officers, we knew right away that a great catastrophe was about to occur. The young fled and sought cover in the bunkers that we had previously prepared in fields or barns. The Gestapo shot at those who fled and killed scores of them. Others were caught and taken to one of the buildings next to the Judenrat. My father, an elderly man of 84 years old and my brother-in-law and his three little children were removed from the house of prayer and seized by the Germans. In all, 300 Jews were seized and taken in groups to the station, to Rohatyn.” Leon Schreier of Bukaczowce
The Yom Kippur event was preceded by a massacre in Rohatyn on March 20, 1942. On that day, well over 3,000 Jews were murdered. My mother and her grandfather were in line to be killed. Her grandfather didn’t make it, but Jewish townsfolk managed to save her. The publication of Remembering Rohatyn is a repayment of a debt— through it, she brought the entire town she knew back to life.
This book is an ode for those who had no one to speak for them, a reference for those who want to learn about their ancestors and a volume intended for use by academics who want to learn not only about the Holocaust but about a vibrant, colorful world that has been erased. It is a tribute to the thousands of Jewish doctors, lawyers, pub-owners, rabbis, farmers, tanners, heretics, teachers, tailors, furriers, shoemakers, musicians, et al during Rohatyn’s 800 years. Every major Jewish movement either left its mark on the town or was affected by those from Rohatyn itself.
The history was preserved by the Rohatyn Societies in Israel and the United States. In 1999, I accompanied my mother along with other members of the societies to Rohatyn. The cemeteries were unmarked and in terrible disrepair. They aimed to restore them, to say Kaddish and to dignify the Jews who had called Rohatyn home. Before they disappeared, the societies granted my mother the right to translate and append the Yizkor book.
Today, descendants of Rohatiners are running and supporting various efforts to keep the memory of Rohatyn alive. The Rohatyn Jewish Heritage is seeing through the job of restoring and preserving the Jewish sites and history. The Rohatyn Shtetl Research Group to conducting genealogy research. An active community of people located around the world share their stories with each other on an ongoing basis.
Yom Kippur, 2019
At Yizkor, I will remember my mother, Donia Gold Shwarzstein. I will say kaddish for her parents – there is no one else who can. I will also say kaddish for her grandparents and other relatives who were killed during the Holocaust. I will also evoke the memory of those Rohatiners who might have been forgotten if it were not for Remembering Rohatyn and its Environs.