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The condition of the Jewish mass grave memorial monuments in Rohatyn is good, thanks largely to the annual care provided by local retired teacher Mykhailo Vorobets and by the students and others he encourages to assist him with cleaning, planting flowers, and care of the sites. 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. As described in detail below, a project priority is professional determination of the boundaries of the mass graves at the north and south end of town, and a possible third site at the new Jewish cemetery.
The goals of the Mass Grave Memorials Project are to:
- define the actual boundaries of the unmarked mass burial areas
- enhance the commemoration and protection of the grave sites
- conserve the existing monuments and grounds
- establish ongoing maintenance of the memorial markers and graves landscapes
- coordinate with other information signage to guide visitors to the graves
Cost and timeline summaries (past and projected) to meet these goals are outlined separately below for each of the project elements.
Two sets of memorials mark the places in town where Jews from Rohatyn and surrounding towns and villages were murdered by the thousands; 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 was 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 actual burial grounds are not fenced or marked, and disagreement persists 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 tradition, a cemetery is a holy place, more sacred 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 enhancement of Rohatyn’s mass grave areas addresses the key program objectives of memorial and education, with minimum impact to the monuments and landscape at the sites, and to the neighboring fields and urban properties.
The project includes these elements:
- site survey and research to investigate and document the boundaries of the mass graves
- commemoration and protection of the grave sites
- conservation of all existing monuments and grounds at the grave sites
- ongoing routine maintenance at the sites
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.
All project elements involving physical work at the mass grave sites will proceed with the continuing involvement of the Rohatyn city office and the office of the Rabbi of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Defining the Boundaries of the Mass Graves
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 and Ukrainian wartime witnesses who saw the killings and burials disagree about the exact locations some 70 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 to try to define the real boundaries of the wartime grave pits. The City of Rohatyn has also expressed a desire to renew the industrial land around the northern site as a park with a reserved space of memory over the actual mass grave. We aim to define the grave boundary corners clearly for all, to remove persistent uncertainty.
Following discussions and an exchange of historical documents (witness testimonies, historical photos, etc.), in 2016 RJH commissioned a non-invasive archaeological survey using ground-penetrating radar techniques by an independent team from the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University (United Kingdom) of the two known mass grave sites (south and north) plus the new Jewish cemetery in Rohatyn. The site survey was conducted in late spring 2017; subsequent data assembly and analysis resulted in a final report at the end of 2017.
The intended territorial scope of the survey was agreed between the archaeologists and RJH based on historical documents and a review of the landscape at the sites. Unfortunately, the actual survey areas were smaller than planned, as nearly half of the intended survey area was not adequately cleared of vegetation and debris to permit passage of the radar antenna, and portions of the ground surface where measurements were made were too rough too obtain coherent measurements. However, within the reduced survey scope, two mass graves were identified with good confidence and clear boundaries (one at the south site and one at the north site), and a third, possible grave was identified at the north site.
These results provide new information about the actual boundaries of graves at the two locations, and also document other measured areas as likely without wartime graves, so that future work at the sites can be considered (both for commemoration and protection of the graves, and for other uses where no graves are present). A summary of the archaeology report with graphical images from the analysis is on our website in English (and in Ukrainian, soon). The full 2017 archaeology report, together with our original 2016 request and documentation summary plus the archaeologists’ proposal, is linked publicly to the summary pages.
Half a year after the non-invasive survey, in the first week of 2018 we were introduced to a retired manager of the “vodokanal” facility where the north mass graves are situated, and learned via interview that he had personally seen human remains unearthed in the 1980s at two additional locations at the site, between and beside the radar grid areas of the 2017 survey. Although the extents and boundaries of these additional graves are not known precisely, the former manager was quite certain about the locations of unearthed remains relative to the built and natural features of the site, so that we were able to define those additional graves geographically with reasonable clarity.
Costs and Timelines
The initial task to define the boundaries of the mass graves spanned two years (Oct 2015 to Dec 2017), including preliminary planning, RFP, proposal, document and topographic research, archaeological site survey, data analysis, and reporting.
The total cost of this task to RJH was US$29,004, including US$24,247 for archaeological research, sites survey, analysis and reporting; US$639 for pre-survey ground preparation (local contract labor); ~US$3200 in local support (interpreting, logistics, etc.); plus US$918 in administrative costs (currency exchange, wire transfer fees, etc.).
Of the total cost, US$6177 (21% of the total) was offset by donations from individuals, through Gesher Galicia and via a GoFundMe online campaign created by RJH; the remainder of the cost was borne by RJH through donation from the principals’ personal savings. Not counted was the considerable volunteer time donated by the Lviv Volunteer Center, RJH, the City of Rohatyn and many individuals in pre-survey ground preparation plus other support provided to the archaeology team before and during the site survey.
No timelines or cost estimates have yet been developed to continue the archaeological investigation beyond the initial survey areas.
Current Plans and Issues
The intended definition of the mass graves boundaries is presently incomplete. Although some grave areas have been defined with reasonable precision and confidence, and other areas have been identified as without graves, additional work will be required to extend the survey scope out to the original extent originally intended based on document and landscape analysis.
A key component of that future work will be adequate clearance of the territories to be surveyed, a significant challenge in that some of the land which was omitted from the initial survey is active crop-producing fields, or wild wooded areas, or contains significant quantities of post-WWII construction materials and debris. Thus any future archaeology work must be preceded by hard labor and waste management, some of which will likely require machinery.
Another essential component of future archaeological work will be evaluation of non-invasive technologies compatible with the soil and grave composition in these specific locations. The GPR data quality in the initial survey was compromised by the high clay content in Rohatyn soil; any future instrumentation needs to account for this issue and other material properties which may impair clear measurements.
At this time, no plans are in progress to continue the investigation into the targeted areas outside the initial survey grids. Although the original goals of the project are still valid, and information is still needed outside the initial survey, RJH does not have the resources (time or funding) to continue with a project of this magnitude at this time. We will consider extending the project after progress is made in commemoration and protection of the graves defined by the initial survey, and some of the related issues exposed by the initial survey have been addressed.
Commemoration and Protection of the Grave Sites
The non-invasive archaeology survey in 2017 was limited, but within the survey areas two probable and one possible mass grave have been identified. At the south site, the probable grave area extends outside the rectangular area informally marked with concrete posts, but is within the larger rectangular area historically set aside by local farmers as cemetery ground. At this south location, the need for protection is primarily to protect the identified grave from looting, an active problem which requires both law enforcement and administrative action. We will discuss this issue and other results from the archaeology survey together with the City of Rohatyn in 2018, with the intent to develop a joint plan for protection.
At the north site, the possible grave area lies beneath the existing memorial monuments but extends outside the small surrounding roped-off terrain; here, the City will need to be cautious about ground work and may benefit by extending the enclosure around the monuments. The probable grave trench is not currently protected, and while not in active development, the territory over and surrounding the grave will benefit from new physical marking and protection. These topics will also be part of discussions we have with the City in 2018.
Conservation of Existing Monuments and Grounds
Both the Soviet monuments and the descendants’ monuments were designed and constructed well, and are aging gracefully; they are roughly 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 RJH program funds. No further decay or damage has been observed at any of the markers since then, through 2017.
As the memorial markers appear stable, no specific work is planned for the coming years, and funding for occasional repairs will come from the RJH general fund, although we will revisit the needs of the monuments as part of overall site planning in 2018 and beyond. We anticipate the need for ongoing periodic inspection and occasional repair work, at what will probably remain low cost for the foreseeable future. If improved signage and information brings more visitors to the sites, we may need to consider an increased repair and maintenance schedule.
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. Unless/until landscape changes are made at the sites to enhance protection of the graves, the existing simple clearing methods should suffice.
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.