Mass Grave Memorials Rehabilitation Project

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The condition of the Jewish mass grave memorials in Rohatyn is good, thanks largely to the annual care provided by local retired teacher Mikhailo Vorobets and by students he encourages to assist him in cleaning, plantings, and watering of the flowers. The City, residents, and the farmers and business people who work around the memorials all respect the monuments and the ground which covers the Jewish mass graves. Rohatyn Jewish Heritage has already contributed to repair and maintenance of one monument and we continue to monitor them all on each visit to Rohatyn. A project priority for 2017, as described in detail below, is professional determination of the boundaries of the mass graves at the north and south end of town, and possible third site at the new Jewish cemetery.

The goals of the Mass Grave Memorials Rehabilitation Project are to:

  • survey/measure the mass grave sites to accurately define the unmarked boundaries of the burial areas
  • inspect and conserve the existing monuments as required
  • establish ongoing maintenance of the memorial markers and grounds
  • coordinate other projects’ information signage to guide people to the mass graves

Overall project cost estimate: $24,972 (£18,817, sites survey and analysis) plus ~$3200 local support (interpreting, logistics, etc.).
Total funds raised to date: $4624.

Overall project timeline: 01Jun2016 thru 30Sep2017 (sites survey and analysis), and ongoing (maintenance).
Project progress: ~5% complete.

All of the project costs summarized above are associated with the graves survey work. Once the survey is complete and the results published, new costs associated with the existing and any future memorial markers will be estimated and recorded.


Two sets of memorials mark the dates and places in town of the murder of Jews from Rohatyn and surrounding towns and villages; one pair of monuments is installed at each of the two locations where the killings and burials occurred. The first set of monuments was erected under Soviet administration, and remembers the victims of Fascism during World War II. The second set of monuments was erected by descendants of Rohatyn Jewish families in 1998, and dedicated at a joint ceremony with the City and local religious leaders; these monuments specifically name the victims as Jews, and identify dates, numbers, and the local origins of the people who died there.

The mass grave memorials

The mass grave memorials: northern (top) and southern (bottom); at left, general views; center, the 1998 monuments in Hebrew, Ukrainian, and English; right, the earlier Soviet monuments in Russian. Photos © 2011, 2014 Jay Osborn.

The actual burial grounds are not fenced or marked, and there remains disagreement in town and among Jewish survivors and descendants about the exact location and size of the grave boundaries, although it is generally agreed that the monuments all are positioned near the mass graves.

The remote location of both mass grave sites from the center of Rohatyn was likely a strategic decision by the occupying forces at the time of the killings, and still serves to keep the memorials out of mind of most Rohatyn citizens and visitors.

The north and south mass grave memorial sites are indicated by red pins on the interactive map below; by dragging the map and zooming (click the + and – buttons at the lower left), you can see the sites in the landscape of Rohatyn:

Although the circumstances of the death and burial of thousands of Rohatyn Jews and their neighbors from nearby villages at these locations are cause for extreme grief, and the burials were neither planned nor directed by the Jewish community, the sites are nonetheless Jewish cemeteries and deserving of the same respect and care given to other community burial grounds. In Hebrew, a cemetery is called bet kevarot (house or place of graves – Neh. 2:3), but more commonly bet hayyim (house or garden of life) or bet olam (house of eternity – Eccl. 12:5). According to Jewish law, a cemetery is a holy place more sacred even than a synagogue. Strict laws regarding burial and mourning govern Jewish practice. For Jews, the care of cemeteries is an essential religious and social responsibility. The Talmudic saying “Jewish gravestones are fairer than royal palaces” (Sanh. 96b; cf. Matt. 23:29) reflects the care that should be given to Jewish graves and cemeteries. In normal circumstances, the entire Jewish community shares the protection and repair of cemeteries willingly. [USCPAHA Ukraine report 2005]

Project Concept and Elements

The overall concept for rehabilitation of Rohatyn’s memorials addresses the key program objectives of memorial and education, and creates a long-term maintenance plan for the sites. It aims to perpetuate the material reminders of the Shoah in Rohatyn and the region. The concept design aims for gentle treatment of the grounds, working with and around the existing monuments and paths. The only additional planned task is new research to document the extent of the actual mass grave sites adjacent to the monuments.

The project includes these elements:

  • site survey and research to document the boundaries of the mass graves
  • inspection and repair/treatment to all monuments (both Soviet and descendants’)
  • clearing and cleaning the grounds around the monuments, stabilizing as needed
  • ongoing maintenance

The primary project element (non-invasive archaeological survey and research) is in the planning and funding phases now. All elements will proceed with the continuing involvement of the Rohatyn city office and the office of the Rabbi of Ivano-Frankivsk.

The additional project goal of physical and digital signage to inform visitors and Rohatyn residents about the location and purpose of the memorials will be included in the physical signage project and the digital information project; the mass grave memorial monuments already include self-explanatory signs at the sites.

Non-Invasive Archaeological Survey and Research

There has been uncertainty about the precise location and size of the Rohatyn Jewish mass graves since before the 1998 memorial markers were erected; even surviving Jewish wartime witnesses who saw the killings and burials disagree about the exact locations more than 50 years after the events. In mutual respect with the Rohatyn residents, farmers, and business people who avoid working and trampling on the graves, we believe it is important that we try to determine the real boundaries of the wartime pits. The City of Rohatyn has also expressed a desire to convert the industrial land around the northern site as a park with a reserved space of memory over the actual mass grave. We hope to define the grave boundary corners clearly for all, to remove the ongoing uncertainty.

A panoramic view of the southern descendants' monument and surrounding fields

The soil to the left and behind the southern descendants’ monument in this panoramic view likely covers two mass graves. Photo © 2015 Jay Osborn.

1944 Luftwaffe aerial photo

The southern mass grave site, seen in the 1944 Luftwaffe aerial photo.

A number of technologies are available to us to investigate the grave boundaries. For example, a Rohatyn descendant with skills in analyzing military aerial images has already evaluated the 1944 Luftwaffe photographs of Rohatyn and drawn some tentative conclusions about the number and size of the southern graves; more work can be done with this resource and method. Surface botanical surveys are unlikely to be useful here because of the ongoing disturbance of the sites through animal grazing and the annual vegetation clearing traditional to the region. Another technology, ground-penetrating radar, has been used in archaeological research in many historical cemeteries and could be applied here, though the costs and limitations of that method with the specific soils in Rohatyn have not yet been evaluated. Similarly, ground magnetic surveying may be able to reveal key differences in soils and subsurface materials. Because of the religious prohibition against disturbing remains in Jewish cemeteries, we are not considering any form of excavation to establish grave boundaries.

Our research into resources for a non-invasive archaeological survey of the Rohatyn mass grave boundaries led us to Dr. Caroline Sturdy Colls and the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University in the UK. Dr. Sturdy Colls is a leading archaeologist of Holocaust sites in Central Europe and elsewhere, has developed research methods suited to sites of conflict while respecting Jewish law and tradition, and is the author of an important text on the topic, Holocaust Archaeologies: Approaches and Future Directions. In 2016 the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) recognized her unique work in Holocaust archaeology by awarding her the European Archaeological Heritage Prize. In June 2016, we submitted a request for proposal (RFP) to Dr. Sturdy Colls and the Centre, and in July we received a detailed research proposal from her. In early August, we committed to the proposal by commissioning the Staffordshire team, with site work to begin and complete in spring 2017.

Some reference information about the proposed survey survey work and related research:

Copies of the RFP, the archaeology research proposal, and the site survey range maps have been shared with the City of Rohatyn and with Rabbi Kolesnik of Ivano-Frankivsk; we also discussed the proposal and preliminary planning work in person with the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Rohatyn in September 2016.

The project is now in the preliminary planning phases, including essential permissions from Ukrainian state offices for cultural heritage preservation and local Rohatyn landowners for land access. See below for project stage schedules and progress.

A view toward the probable mass grave area at the northern site in Rohatyn

A view toward the probable mass grave area at the northern site in Rohatyn, as seen from the memorial markers. Photo © 2016 Jay Osborn.

Conservation of Existing Monuments

Mr. Vorobets cleaning the descendants' monument at the southern memorial

Mr. Vorobets at work. Photo © 2013 Jay Osborn.

Both the Soviet monuments and the descendants’ monuments were designed and constructed well, and are aging gracefully; they are almost 40 and 20 years old, respectively. Occasionally a surface on one of the monuments cracks or fails due to weathering, and there are other signs on the monuments from past decay and repair. The most recent report of damage was in April 2013, to the Soviet monument at the southern mass grave site; that damage has since been repaired by local concrete workers under the direction of Mr. Vorobets and using program funds. No further decay or damage has been observed at any of the markers since then, through 2016.

As the memorial markers appear stable, the planned archaeological survey work will take the majority of our attention and funds at these sites  in 2017. Following the survey work, and as part of any consideration for possible supplemental memorial spaces to be developed by the City of Rohatyn, we will revisit the condition of the existing markers. We anticipate the need for ongoing periodic inspection and occasional repair work, at what will probably remain low cost for the foreseeable future.

Inspecting age-related decay of the southern Soviet monument

Inspecting age-related decay of the southern Soviet monument. Photos © 2013 Jay Osborn.

Clearing and Cleaning the Grounds

Once the actual mass grave boundaries have been defined and the data has been shared with the City of Rohatyn and local landowners, the project focus will shift to site care.

Because the ground around the existing mass grave monuments and over the perceived mass grave areas is intentionally not used for industrial or agricultural purposes by Rohatyn residents and by the City, that soil tends to produce tall grasses, weeds and fast-growing brush on an annual basis. Mr. Vorobets has cleared the soil and planted flowers within the marked monument borders for the past two decades, and local farmers have burnt off the wild growth outside of the planted areas when they prepare their adjacent fields on an annual cycle; our first task at the sites will be to establish long-term plans and arrange City, volunteer, or paid personnel to do this work regularly.


When the one-time work has been completed on this project, ongoing maintenance will continue the current tasks of clearing, cleaning, and light maintenance on a economical schedule determined by the City of Rohatyn. We will continue to support the City in that work.


A detailed description of the elements of the non-invasive grave sites survey task is included in the Staffordshire University Centre of Archaeology (CoA) research proposal, linked above. Those steps plus several to be performed by Rohatyn Jewish Heritage (RJH), the Rohatyn City Office (RCO), and others, are outlined here to enable progress tracking:

project design and agreements:

  • submit RFP for non-invasive archaeology research: RJH, completed 01Jun2016
  • perform initial desk-based research and submit detailed/costed project proposal: CoA, completed 21Jul2016
  • commission the project work, commit to funding: RJH, completed 06Aug2016

administration, permissions, etc.:

  • discuss research proposal with Rohatyn City Office: CoA and RJH, completed 06Sep2016
  • set fixed dates for site survey in Rohatyn: CoA, completed 06Mar2017
  • identify landowners in proposed survey areas, deliver contact info to RJH: RCO, completed 14Feb2017 [all land is City-owned]
  • begin fund-raising to cover research costs: RJH, in progress starting 01Jan2017
  • inform affected Rohatyn landowners of research plans, request permission to access land: N/A [all land is owned by City]
  • request rabbinical guidance for non-invasive survey work in the northern (‘new’) Jewish cemetery: RJH, completed 04Jan2017
  • identify full CoA research team to be present in Rohatyn: CoA, by 31Mar2017
  • secure legal permission to perform non-invasive surveys in Ukraine: CoA, N/A [no permissions needed for non-invasive survey]
  • inform Rohatyn city residents of research plans and schedule, invite observation and participation: RJH, with RCO, ongoing

site preparation and surveys:

  • remove loose surface debris from industrial areas at northern site: RCO, by 23May2017
  • trim vegetation (grasses and small shrubs, plus field crops if any) to 5cm above soil level at all intended survey locations: RCO & RJH, starting 18May2017
  • walkover survey of all research sites in Rohatyn: CoA, 24~25May2017
  • site surveys: CoA, 25May~02Jun2017

data analysis and reporting:

  • post-survey analysis and report: CoA, by 60 days after site survey
  • translation and publication of research report: RJH, by 30 days after receipt of report

Current Status and Issues

Currently there are no known impediments to progress of the Jewish mass grave boundary research and survey work. Initial meetings with the City of Rohatyn concluded well, with actions taken by us and by the City to allow notification and discussion in town of the project. Key deliverables of the initial project phases are permissions from stakeholders both local and at the Ukraine national level.

Although fundraising to pay for the archaeology work has not yet begun, we have personally guaranteed to cover the costs if we are unable to raise sufficient funds through sources outside the program, so that the Centre of Archaeology can proceed with their technical, administrative, and legal and work in advance of the site work, and so that we can set a date for the start of that site work.

Apart from the need to accurately define the boundaries of the mass graves, the mass grave memorial markers are relatively stable, and they have received seasonal attention from Mr. Vorobets to prevent significant deterioration. The installed monuments serve their memorial purpose well, but we can do more to help visitors find the sites, and to integrate them into the town’s consciousness.