We owe it to our history to take active responsibility

Marla Raucher Osborn’s family originates from Rohatyn, a small town in Eastern Galicia. Since years she researches her family’s history. Is there something we can learn from it? Yes, says Marla, there is a bigger picture and a responsibility for remembrance and preservation. Marla has an audience for this message – in Ukraine, at Facebook, in the world. An interview with an impressive activist.

Christian Herrmann: Marla, you gave up your life in America to travel with your husband through Europe to research the history of your family. This looks courageous to me. You must feel a very strong need to know about the past. Can you describe the reasons for this?

Marla Raucher Osborn: That is a very expansive question Christian! I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1960s in a middle class Jewish family that was simultaneously both conventional and unconventional:  conventional, in that my parents yearned to buy a house in the suburbs, send their two kids to good schools, etc.; unconventional, in that my dad worked in the music business. So my parents socialized with musicians and artists, experimented with marijuana, consciousness-raising groups, nudist colonies, etc. We were not practicing Jews. This was even more true after my maternal grandmother died in 1968. After her death, no effort was made to keep the few remaining Jewish traditions alive and to stay regularly in touch with family.

My father came from a broken home and his mother – my Rohatyn grandmother – was openly atheist. If any Jewish traditions were to survive – or be introduced into the family – it would have had to come from my mother. She didn’t insist, so I was raised with no exposure to the traditions and ceremonies.

My mother’s failure to press for a Jewish upbringing always seemed anachronistic to me, as I viewed her as having had the more traditional upbringing and religious exposure.  Both her parents were immigrants from the Pale of Settlement with highly religious families. Both, for example, spoke Yiddish and lived in Los Angeles’ «Borscht Belt». My grandmother was a great cook and before she died, she hosted all the meals at the Jewish holidays, which included the traditonal prayers. None of this, however, was passed down to my mother. Thus, in one generation – the American-born generation of my mother – the window slammed closed on the Old World.

I have concluded that the decision of my grandparents not to expose mother more to their Old World traditions, language, and customs was deliberate. My grandparents wanted her to be as «American» as possible.  Everything old was effectively erased:  language, customs, traditions, even recipes. I believe the pressure to assimilate was even stronger for those that settled on America’s West Coast. Those that chose to «go «west» intentionally sought breakage with the past. Going west for them then was a second immigration: the first, from Russia to Chicago; the second, from old, dirty, crowded Chicago to new, clean, sunny Los Angeles. A new life and a new start.

Thus, by the time I was born there were very, very few reminders that my family had ever not lived in Los Angeles!

Ironically, in the last few years I have discovered in my research that there were also very strong religious and traditional traditions in my dad’s family as well, just not with his particular parents. My dad’s family was 100% of Galician-origin. His father (whom at age 14 I would track down in New York and convince to come out to California to see  my dad after 35 years of separation) was a bohemian and artist in Greenwich Village in the 1930s. Both parents were aligned with the New York Labor Movement and leftwing politics. So, you can imagine my surprise when my dad recently told me he had had a bar mitzpha!

Even as a small girl I was always asking questions about the past; always interested in our roots.

I never felt at home in Los Angeles. I couldn’t find contentment in the newness of it all. I cultivated a «separatist» attitude to cope with a feeling of belonging; of being different. This separateness was often misinterrpreted while growing up. Discontentment and restlessness for something different – a better fit – drove me to move to San Francisco in the mid-1980s. I went to law school and praticed law there on and off for 13 years.

In 2001, a job transfer abroad for a 3-year term was presented to us by my husband’s employer. We barely hesitated. We sold everything and left. From henceforth I lived with history all around me. For the first time in my life I felt at home.

When asked, I tell people I prefer the Old World to the New World (this is not entirely true as we also lived in 2010-2011 in Argentina and loved it). There is a calmness in me when I am in the Old World. I feel more engaged to life.  I need to have the Past alongside the Present. I never felt I had this when living in California.

Christian Herrmann: One part of your family originates from Rohatyn, a small town in Eastern Galicia. You visited the town several times. How was it to be there and what were your discoveries there?

Marla Raucher Osborn: My first visit was in 2008. We walked the town and shot photos, but I had no records, no photos, no maps, and no translator. It was the middle of winter and the days were cold and dark and everything was wet and muddy. We never found either of the two Jewish mass grave sites and only one of the two (former) Jewish cemeteries. I was so disappointed. I couldn’t reconcile the Rohatyn I had heard about from my grandmother with the Rohatyn of today. The gap between the stories and the reality was too great. The town seemed so poor, so dirty, so unappealing. I told my husband I never wanted to return.

By 2010, however, I felt differently. I had changed, the town had not. There are a lot of reasons for this which I won’t go into here. Suffice to say that I realized that I had contributed to my own disappointment with the 2008 trip. For one thing, I went unprepared for a non-European experience. The 2008 trip was my first foray into both Poland and Ukraine; I set off after having spent 3 years in Paris, the world’s most elegant city. Any place would have paled in comparision, especially in winter! But, there were other reasons for the disappointment, the main one being that we should have hired a guide who spoke Ukrainian.

By 2010 I had also joined a Rohatyn descendants group. This group was formed in the summer of 2009 by Dr. Alex Feller of Chicago. He saw on he internet my webpage of our 2008 Rohatyn trip. He invited me to join. I think I was member # 5. Today, the Rohatyn Shtetl Resesarch Group (RSRG) has over 150 members worldwide in America, Israel, Europe, South America, and Australia. We share photos, stories, and information; we pool resources for placing orders of records and historic maps; some of us lecture at genealogist conferences and write articles to raise awareness of the group. We are blessed that there are several very active members and some who, although largely unknown to others within the group itself, are quite admired and respected in larger Jewish genealogical circles and institutions. We all share a common link: Rohatyn.

Between 2010 and 2012 we returned to Rohatyn at least a dozen times, several trips overnight. On a few visits we had other members of the RSRG with us; once we had a French reporter writing an article about Jewish heritage tours in Galicia. In the summer of 2011, Dr. Feller and I gave an interview to local Ukrainian TV about our group.

Our discoveries I now realize are typical of discoveries I have since made on other visits to other towns of significance to my own family.

Jewish headstones - ripped by the Nazis 70 years ago from the two Jewish cemeteries – are still being found around town today.

Jewish headstones – ripped by the Nazis 70 years ago from the two Jewish cemeteries – are still being found around town today.
© Marla Raucher Osborn

On every visit, without exception beginnning with our second one in 2010, the latest discoveries would be brought to our attention by Mr. Vorobets, the 78-years old teacher and local hisotorian who, for more than 20 years, has been single-handedly maintaining the upkeep of the two memorials at Rohatyn’s Jewish mass grave sites and the two Jewish cemeteries, and moving any Jewish headstones found in town back to the cemeteries for safekeeping. No one imagined in early 2010 that this project would grow as it has. Every time the City opens a road for maintenance, headstones are uncovered; when buildings get torn down or renovated, headstones are being found. There is a retaining wall visible in a courtyard a few steps off the main street – a courtyard that once housed Gestapo Headquarters – that is made entirely of Jewish headstones. The project is huge. There is no end in sight. RSRG member donations cannot support this indefinitely, let alone cover a long-term project that might envision a memorial wall making use of these headstones.  This project continues to dominate our time during each new visit to the town.

Scraps of miscellaneous Jewish papers dating from 1941-43 – discovered in early 2011 during the renovation of a building that once housed a synagogue within the Jewish ghetto.

Scraps of miscellaneous Jewish papers dating from 1941-43 – discovered in early 2011 during the renovation of a building that once housed a synagogue within the Jewish ghetto.
© Marla Raucher Osborn

This building is currently a school for orphans and disadvantaged children. The Director of the school had the foresight to collect and hold in a box thousands of pieces of paper workers found when cabinets, floors, and walls were opened up during the buiding’s renovation. These include pieces of Torah scrolls, newspaper scrapss in Hebrew, German, Polish, and Russian, Rohatn Judenrat stationary, grovery lists, ration coupons, envelopes, and business receipts. Names of Jewish families are legible on many. I found in the box a stationary belonging to the lumber business of my Rohatyn family; a rceipt signed by the grandfather of an RSRG member was also recovered. In November 2012, this box – with thousands of pieces of paper in stained, moldy, rotting, crispy condition – was donated to Hesed Arieh in Lviv. The director of the school came to Lviv with a dozen of his young students, to attend the donation ceremony. Hesed hopes to someday shoot digital photos of each scarp and place the image on its website for translation, interpretation, and possible inclusion in some future museum exhibit. Yad Vashem had expressed interest but I do not believe anything further has been done since the donation.

As mentioned, one of the former synagogue buidings is today a school for orphans and disadvantaged children. The other, much larger, is in private hands and fenced off from public access. In 2012 Mr, Vorobets arranged with town administrators for us to tour the inside. Currently storing equipment and machinery, the building is leaking in the roof and several windows are broken. The physical integrity of the building is not known, nor the long-term plan for its use.  Several RSRG members have raised for discussion withint the group the possibility of acquiring the building. This has not been pursued with the City or private owner of the building today. Without a presence in the town to look after the maintenance and care of the building, I have not enthuastically endorced the RSRG proposal. There is also the issue of funds, which are probably lacking within the group.

Human remains – Jewish?

Human remains – Jewish?
© Marla Raucher Osborn

In May 2012, Mr. Vorobets told us that the human remains of 12 individuals – full skeletons, children and adults – had been discovered in January 2012 in an underground crawl space below the Ukrainain Church. The location of the Church places it at the entrance to Rohatyn’s Jewish ghetto established by the Nazis in 1941. Stories and accounts of underground tunnels leading from the Church, under the river, and away from ghetto persist in survivor accounts, including the Rohatyn Yizkor book and people I have interviewed. Mr. Vorobets, before our May visit, arranged for a coroners report which could not pinpoint with certainty the age of the bones except that they were > 50 years old, nor whether they in fact belonged to Jews. Without expensive DNA testing, this will never likely be known. Meanwhile, there is the issue of where to re-bury these remains. The Priest of the Church is understanably wishing to see this done as soon as possible, and is understandably looking to the RSRG to manage this. He wants to do the right thing, but of course none of us members are in a position to know what the right thing is. I believe the bones still remain below the Church. My next visit to Rohatyn is at the end April 2013 and I hope to learn more.

Christian Herrmann: You are very active at Facebook and have woven a network of people who regularly follow your research postings there. It shows that there is more than a private story and history in your studies, something that can be generalized and is interesting for a larger audience. What do you wish to teach us?

Marla Raucher Osborn: Of course, the discoveries I have made in my own family research have been rewarding and exciting; but it is not my primary motivation. Admittedly, my particular Rohatyn family was the primary reason I went to Rohatyn in 2008 on my first visit. My dozen subsequent visits – made possible by living for five months in Lviv in 2011 and three months in Krakow in 2012  – well, the reasons are more complicated now. Today, what fuels my research and travel passion is something much larger than my own family. Even being a member of the Rohatyn descendants group is less about discovering what there is in the group (photo-wise, record-wise) pertinent to my own family and more about trying to grasp, to re-create, to get a sense, of what life was once like in this town, for its Jews, its Poles, and its Ukrainians. I am far more intrigued by the larger picture:  the human condition within historical context.

There is also the question – or responsibility – of preservation. Preservation of buildings and artifacts of Jewish heritage, and preservation of memory. I feel at this point that all my research, all my travel, all my letters and enquiries, have led to this issue, and it is on this issue I now focus.

Are we, as genealogists, merely tourists when we travel to our ancestral towns?

When, as in the case of Rohatyn, we are unexpectedly confronted during a visit with the physical vestiges of a Jewish past – whether it be in the form of headstones, abandoned buildings, or scraps of paper – do we as Jewish genealogists have a responsibility toward these artifacts? If so, what?

Do we assume a responsibily merely by arriving in these towns, villages, and cities?

I would go so far as to reply that:

We not only have a obligation toward the preservation of these artifacts, but because we are Jewish genealogists, we have a higher obligation.

We owe it to our history and to the towns themselves – towns that continue to be steeped in OUR history – to take active responsibility to ensure the preservation of Jewish memory for future generations.

A genealogist friend of mine here in Paris recently visited his father’s shtetl in Poland. A farmer walked him into a barn. Underneath a protective cloth cover was a large Jewish headstone – fully intact and readable – of my friend’s grandfather. The farmer said: «what took you so long – I have been waiting».

I relate this story because there is truth in the farmer’s statement: in many of our ancestral cities, especially in the smaller towns and villages, there are people who have been waiting for «us» – the decedants of the Jewish families that once lived there – to return. They are waiting for us and they are looking to us to make decisions, to answer questions, to give guidance, to get involved, to assume an active (maybe even primary) role in the preservation and maintenance of our Jewish heritage, what little remains.

This theme motivates many of my Facebook postings.

Christian Herrmann: In Rohatyn you gave a lecture at the local high school in November 2012.  How was the reception by the sudents and teachers? How much did they know about the local history, the Jewish past of the town and the Holocaust?

Marla Raucher Osborn: The experience was priceless. About 150 students and teachers attended. Everything was coordinated by 78-year old Mr. Vorobets, my angel, most important connection in Rohatyn today. The lecture took place in the school auditorium which had been set up in advance with a digital projector and screen for my slides and microphones for me and Alex Denysenko (friend and translator, and a professional researcher based in Lviv). You could hear a pin drop when I started to talk. The students were attentive and respectful. I made myself available for as long as they wanted. There was a question and answer period at the end and at least a dozen students and an equal number of teachers remained to continue the dialogue. I am Facebook friends with several them now!

I cannot say how much the students had been told in advance of my visit. However, Rohatyn is blessed with Mr. Vorobets (known to all) and other locals who are interested in keeping knowledge of the town’s pre-war Jewish families alive. I think that, between the newspaper articles Mr. Vorobets regularly writes on this topic and the interview I did with Dr. Alex Feller (the founder of the Rohatyn decendants group to which I belong) in summer 2011 for local Ukrainian TV, the young people of Rohatyn know more of their local history – their Jewish history – than most Ukrainian high school students living today outside major urban areas such as Lviv.

Bear in mind that these students – these townspeople – have many reminders in their daily lives that Jewish people once lived and flourished in Rohatyn. These include the large stone memorials at the mass graves sites and cemeteries, as well as a plaque on the former Juderat building. Although only two former synagogue buidings remain standing (and one is fenced off and inaccessible to the public), everyone I have spoken with in the course of my dozen visits in 2011 and 2012 can identify at least one of those buildings as having been a Jewish building. The consciousness is there even if the specific details are not.

During my May 2012 visit (6 months before the lecture) I was introduced to a 40-year old lawyer in town who has written several small but well-documented booklets about Rohatyn’s 1,000-year history. When he got to writing about the 19th and early 20th centuries, he inevitably hit the «Jewish issue»: Rohatyn’s pre-war Jewish presence, which was substantial, as was typical for this region of Galicia.  Jews in Rohatyn – this was something he had not previously known about! What did he then do? He researched more, he met with Mr. Vorobets, he interviewed locals, and he wrote a supplemental pamphlet specific to Rohatyn’s Jewish families. He gave me a copy in November when he came to my lecture. I burned him a CD of some of my research.

I think for this lawyer’s generation – the post-war, Soviet-educated generation – Jewish memory was officially erased; it was not taught; and it still remains largely missing in the concsciousness of many townspeople. However, for today’s Rohatyn students and their generation – born since Ukrainian independence and with internet access  – I think some knowledge of the events of the Holocaust in Rohatyn and Jewish pre-war presence is known by most. I am confident that these weighty topics are also now making their way into the school curriculum. Based on the kinds of questions the students asked me during and after the lecture, the interest the teachers continue to express in  writing me on Facebook, and what I hear from my dear friend who works in Ukraine for the JDC (and who visits Rohatyn regularly), I am very encouraged.

It will take time, yes, but I am very, very encouraged!

4 thoughts on “We owe it to our history to take active responsibility

  1. I am pleased and proud to announce that the Rohatyn Matzevot Memorial Project is now an official project under the auspices of Gesher Galicia, Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation. Donations by US residents are therefore tax deductible. In addition, there is now also a Rohatyn Jewish Heritage website which provides background information on projects being performed to preserve Jewish heritage items and sites in Rohatyn. These include the Rohatyn Tombstone Recovery Project and the Rohatyn Matzevot Memorial Project. The site also provides the details and a link to make donations by either check, credit card, or PayPal:

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