Mykhailo Vorobets Remembers: at the South Mass Grave Site

Introduction

Mr. Vorobets speaking to the group

Mr. Vorobets speaking to the group at the south mass grave site. Photo © 2017 Jay Osborn.

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the killing of thousands of Rohatyn’s Jewish citizens during the Holocaust under German occupation, following a memorial prayer by the Rabbi of Ivano-Frankivsk and a short commemorative speech by Marla on behalf of Rohatyn Jewish descendants, retired local school teacher Mykhailo Vorobets recalled for the assembled group his own experience as a child at the mass grave site where the group was then standing. We described Mr. Vorobets’ talk briefly in the news article we posted from that day, but on this page we present his words in full, along with additional information and interpretation. Mr. Vorobets has spoken about this topic to us and to others on several occasions; we are fortunate that we have a recording from this event which we can share. This testimony closely relates to a series of interviews with local Ukrainian witnesses to the Holocaust in Rohatyn conducted by Yahad – In Unum the previous year (and which Mr. Vorobets helped to arrange).

Jennifer Dickinson accompanied us that day and made the recording and a transcript for this page, as well as an artistic interpretation of Mr. Vorobets’ act of remembrance; we include all of this below. Our long-time friends and supporters Ihor Klishch and Iryna Matsevko provided interpretation to English on that day at the site, and helped to interpret questions and answers as Mr. Vorobets spoke. We are grateful to these three friends and to all who joined us on that sad day.

The events Mr. Vorobets described took place on 20 March 1942 and through the days which followed, when he was a boy of seven years old. The place where the events and Mr. Vorobets’ experience took place, and where we stood in commemoration of the lost lives (and way of life) exactly 75 years later, is now known as Rohatyn’s south mass grave, near an unpaved road connecting the Babintsi neighborhood of Rohatyn with the village of Putiantyntsi to the southeast. Two memorial markers stand adjacent to the road near the site, but the locations of the mass graves themselves are unmarked.

Mr. Vorobets’ Remembrance

Meeting Mr. Vorobets at Rohatyn's library

With Mr. Vorobets and Ihor at Rohatyn’s library in April 2011. Photo © 2011 Jay Osborn.

Mykhailo Vorobets was born in a village called Verbylivtsi (pre-war: Wierzbiłowce), only 2km south of the Rohatyn town center. His father worked in the area, so the family was frequently in Rohatyn, and Mykhailo has spent his adult life working and living in Rohatyn, as a teacher and historian and in several other capacities. He is well known in Rohatyn, in part because he was a teacher to nearly everyone who lives in town, but also because of his decades-long dedication to preserving and communicating the history and heritage of the town and its multicultural past; he also serves as an informal ambassador on behalf of Rohatyn to visitors from around the world.

We first met Mr. Vorobets in April 2011 on our second visit to Rohatyn after taking an apartment in Lviv, and in that meeting we learned from Ihor that Mr. Vorobets had been caring for the Jewish heritage of Rohatyn and serving as a contact for Jewish survivors and descendants in Israel for years, but his connection had been lost because of the passing of those survivors. Mr. Vorobets introduced us to the persistent presence of Jewish headstone fragments buried under streets and yards around town, dating from the time of the German occupation, and our heritage project began with this initial exchange, picking up from what Mr. Vorobets and others had done in the past.

Here are his words, recorded on video by Jennifer Dickinson; an English-language version of the full address is also provided at the bottom of this page.

[embedded video with subtitles here…]

An Artistic Interpretation of the Long Reach of Memory

Rabbi Kolesnyk, Marla, and Jennifer

Rabbi Kolesnyk, Marla, and Jennifer at the site. Photo © 2017 Jennifer Dickinson.

Dr. Jennifer Dickinson is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Vermont (UVM) and faculty Director of UVM’s Center for Teaching and Learning. She is a specialist in cultural and linguistic anthropology; her research focus has integrated storytelling, the use of language and graphic design in material culture, and the anthropology of work. Among other interests, she studies how personal narratives intersect with social change in the lives of individuals and communities.

At the time of the memorial event in Rohatyn in 2017, Jennifer was teaching and researching in western Ukraine on a Fulbright Scholar grant. This recent work, with sponsorship through Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, combines ethnographic and oral history studies to explore continuity and change in personal identities in the Deaf community of Ukraine. Her recent work work continues more than two decades of research and extended residence in western Ukraine, through which which she has also acquired facility in Ukrainian spoken language and dialects, and in Ukrainian Sign Language.

Jennifer is thus proficient and knowledgeable in the transformation of experience into personal history and identity through a variety of communication means and media. She also experiments with the distillation of her own and others’ experiences through the medium of comics of her own design, often silent (without text). After participating in the Rohatyn memorial event, she drew a four-panel comic strip of her impressions of Mr. Vorobets’ speech at the mass grave site, shown here below.

Although frequently associated with humor and light topics, the medium of comics expanded and adapted in the 20th century into a variety of genres for entertainment, social commentary, and complex story-telling, including in graphic novels adapted from earlier conventional fiction or from original plots; Will Eisner was a well-known cartoonist who worked in many themes and styles. Although the medium of comics once seemed antagonistic to themes of the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman’s Maus helped to soften that apprehension in the public’s eye, and comics are now recognized among the many different art forms which have the ability to articulate and testify to experiences which are difficult to express in words, or only in words. In 2017, coincident with the commemorative event in Rohatyn, France’s Holocaust museum in Paris (the Mémorial de la Shoah), presented a multimedia exhibition on The Holocaust and Comics, illustrating the history and development of comics as an art form capable of reaching beyond common boundaries of experience.

In the strip below, Jennifer interpreted Mr. Vorobets’ story about his experience as a young boy standing on the edge of horror, and the lasting impact that day 75 years before has had on him. Jennifer’s summary of the scene follows the graphic.

Mykhailo Vorobets at the Rohatyn south mass grave site

Mykhailo Vorobets at the Rohatyn south mass grave site, in 1942 and 2017. Graphic © 2017 Jennifer Dickinson. Click on the image to enlarge it.

1. On March 20th, Jews were marched out of Rohatyn and taken to two locations, where they were killed and thrown into large pits. Mykhailo recalls that his father, who had many ties with the Jewish community, was told by an acquaintance about the killings. His father, at first scared and reluctant to go when he had his seven-year-old son with him, decided in the end to see what had happened.

2. The two walked out of town and up the road to an open field, where two giant pits had been dug a ways off the road, one closer, and the other farther away, at a diagonal from the first. Mykhailo, holding his father’s hand, wanted to look away from the horror of the thousands of slaughtered Jews, already lying in the open graves for several days.

3. Later, grain was planted in the fields, and there were two spaces, large rectangles, one positioned diagonally behind the other, where the barley grew higher than everywhere else, as if the roots were nourished with some unusual richness in the soil.

4. “This was my one mistake” he says now, “that I never fixed in my mind, or measured where those two rectangles were. If only I had, we would know the location of those graves.” It is this regret that Mykhailo, now in his 80’s, returns to again and again, as if picturing those tall barley stalks in his mind could make the ground speak.

Translation of Mr. Vorobets’ Remembrance [‘Transcript’, for the Ukr page]

We thank Nataliya Kurishko for the transcript from which this translation was made:

[temporarily, the Ihor+Iryna real-time translation is listed here; this will be corrected from the full transcript in Ukrainian…].

[11:20] I saw all of those events because I was a child at that time, I was seven years old, and I was with my father, who had tight connections with the Jewish people here in Rohatyn.

[11:59] So when I went to the town with my father, some people suggested to my father that he should go to this place, to see the area where German soldiers had shot Jewish people.

[12:24] My father at first did not want to go here, because, as he said, “I am with a small boy, my small son, and it’s dangerous, because German soldiers could catch us, or something like that.

[12:57] But after all, we decided to go here.

[13:38] So when we came here, there were holes, uncovered, which must have happened on the 20th of March, and we came there two or three days later.

[14:18] I think that the first hole was over there [points], where the ground is a little bit lower.

[14:33] The second grave is near, roughly over there [points].

[14:52] The holes are not at those exact places, but maybe there are some specialists who can explore this area and say where is the exact place.

[15:14] I made one mistake; I can explain what kind of mistake I made.

[16:04] What kind of mistake? Many years ago, this field was planted with barley, and it was very visible, even if you were on the road, to see that the place where the grave was, the barley and the grass was much greener, it was very visible. So I should have noted the exact places; it was possible for me to do that at that time.

[16:56] Now if you want to know the exact places, you will have to ask specialists.

[17:10] [Rabbi Kolesnik speaks about his impression of the grave locations; Ihor translates: [18:09] In the early nineties, I was here also, and tried to figure out the exact places. I had an instrument () and I agree with Mr. Vorobets that the places are here, as he said.] [21:34] There was one Jewish citizen who survived during one of the aktions; he jumped into the mass grave but the Germans had not shot him. This story was described by a [Kyiv-based] Ukrainian academic from Rohatyn, Liubomyr Pyrih [?] in his memoirs. After the shooting, this man went to Liubomyr Pyrih for help and then he continued to live here in Rohatyn. But in the beginning of the Soviet period he was killed. And it’s a pity, because if he had lived he could have been a source for history. It’s a controversial story, because when the Soviets came, this Jewish man began to cooperate with the Soviets, and I don’t know who killed him, but it could be UPA, it could be Soviet militia, we don’t know.

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

Mr. Vorobets cleaning the monument at the south site. Photo © 2013 Jay Osborn.

[24:23] What happened here was a tragedy, and those who I saw here still remain deep in my eyes and mind, and I can still remember all of their bodies here in the grave. It’s a real tragedy that such a part of the population of Rohatyn was just killed in one day.

[25:15] During today’s lecture at the gymnasium, I am going to tell a couple of stories about local Ukrainians here in Rohatyn who helped Jewish people here to survive.

[25:43] One (Jewish) woman is still alive, her name is Maria Tsapar.

[28:06] She still lives here in Rohatyn. At that time she was seven years old. Her parents were killed, but she survived. She went from one nearby village to another. She went to the church, and people wanted to help her, and they treated her, but did not want to keep her. She went to another village, and again to the church, and told her story to the priest, and he baptized her to give her a Christian identity, and in this way to save her. A Ukrainian family took her in as one of their own. Then she came back to Rohatyn and made her own family, and now she is still living here.

[29:53] The house where she had lived, her parents were the owners, was returned to her later by the local administration, also with my help.

[30:35] These are just some fragments from the lecture I will give later today at the gymnasium.