Dr. Alex Feller cleaning a headstone fragment found at roadside in Rohatyn

Jewish Headstone Recovery Project

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Jewish headstone recovery is the first project of Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, and the only material heritage project currently in progress. It is also the only project likely to outlive us all.

In Rohatyn, April 2011

Top: Mr. Vorobets with Marla in Rohatyn, 13Apr2011. Bottom: The garden covering Jewish headstones, the same day. Photo © 2011 Jay Osborn.

From Marla’s report a few days after our 13Apr2011 visit to Rohatyn for genealogical discussions with townspeople:
[Retired teacher] Mr. Vorobets took my arm and motioned for us to take a walk.  We did, briskly, with Jay following closely behind to shoot snapshots.  First stop from the library was up Ivan Franko Street, in the direction of the Rynek; Mr. Vorobets pointed out a private garden between two houses, where unseen under the soil silently lie an unknown number of Jewish headstones; he estimates as many as 13-15.  Plans are in the works by us to have these stones unearthed and moved to the ‘new’ Jewish cemetery for safe-keeping…

According to Mr. Vorobets, there are over a dozen pieces of Jewish headstones located in several places around town (not in either cemetery).  […]  When stones were unearthed in recent years, Mr. Vorobets contacted Boris Arsen [a Rohatyner who survived the War and then moved to Ivano-Frankivsk] and arranged for them to be moved to the ‘new’ Jewish cemetery…  In addition to [those in] the vegetable garden, there are one or more pieces stacked behind the Courthouse (today, next to the former Sokol) after being unearthed during recent excavation work in town installing new communication lines.  At present, we are working on making formal arrangements for the  collection and transportation of all known detached Jewish headstones (and pieces of headstones) to the ‘new’ Jewish cemetery, where the remains of other headstones are already located.  We will try to photograph any of these headstones moved by the time of our next visit to Rohatyn (with Alex Feller) on 13 May, and will make arrangements for moving and documenting the rest later, using local contacts, once we have concluded our time in Lviv in mid-June…

The work prompted by the 2011 revelation continues, and likely will for decades. The goals of the Jewish Headstone Recovery Project are to:

  • recover any Jewish headstones and fragments unearthed or otherwise discovered in Rohatyn, and transport them back to the old Jewish cemetery for conservation
  • cooperate with the City of Rohatyn and its citizens in ongoing recovery work, when street repairs, utility trenching, and other public and private works are planned in town
  • tag and treat the recovered stones to slow their further decay
  • document via photographs, descriptions, and (where possible) transcription and translation, all headstones and fragments recovered
  • publicly post images and text from the recovered headstones to enable further historical and genealogical research, and perhaps the virtual re-assembly of fragments
  • identify and compensate a resident project manager to coordinate recovery work, repair of grounds and buildings from which headstones are removed, transport of headstones, and initial conservation and documentation of headstones
  • raise funds sufficient to ensure at least three years of future work

Annual project cost estimate: $TBD. Total funds allocated for future work: $TBD. Past funds paid: $TBD.
Overall project timeline: unending. Project progress: more than 500 headstone pieces and fragments recovered to date; total number of displaced headstones unknown but likely exceeding 2000.

If you wish to support this work, please see the page on this site called “How to Help“.


The wartime destruction of Rohatyn’s Jewish cemeteries is hardly unique. The Nazi campaign may not have been systematic or complete in Central Europe, but it was determined and extensive, and few cemeteries survived mostly intact; damage was particularly severe in smaller towns and in older cemeteries. Theft of broken Jewish headstones and near-leveling of cemeteries occurred under German occupation and subsequent Communist rule. [USCPAHA Ukraine report 2005] thus even Jews already dead and buried before the war did not escape the Shoah; the attempt to erase all memory of them almost succeeded.

1944 aerial photo of Rohatyn

German military aerial photograph from 27 June 1944; original image in the US National Archives Cartography Department; copy acquired by Dr. Alex Feller.

Like 40% of the Ukrainian Jewish cemeteries surveyed by the USCPAHA, the cemeteries of Rohatyn each have fewer than 20 surviving matzevot, not counting the loose stones now being recovered. While the new Jewish cemetery in Rohatyn had begun service less than two decades before WWII, the old cemetery had served the community for centuries. An estimate of the number of headstones or stumps in Rohatyn’s densely-filled old Jewish cemetery, made from analysis of a 1944 Luftwaffe aerial photograph, suggests well over 1000 large stones once stood there; the pre-war Jewish population of Rohatyn and long history of the community there support an even larger estimate of original headstone numbers.

Jewish headstones had resurfaced in Rohatyn long before our 2011 visit. Mikhailo Vorobets had long studied Rohatyn city history, including the Jewish community, and in 1998 he participated in the civic and religious dedication of monuments to Rohatyn’s Jews murdered by the Einsatzgruppen and their auxiliaries at the two mass grave sites in town. He remained in contact with Boris Arsen and with Jewish former citizens of Rohatyn in Israel to arrange for transport of discovered matzevot fragments to the new Jewish cemetery. Over time, however, Mr. Vorobets lost contact with the aged survivors, even as new stones continued to appear.

Citizens of Rohatyn help clean matzevot on their street

Citizens of Rohatyn help to clean matzevot on their street. Photo © 2011 Jay Osborn.

What is the value of a displaced matzevah? Or a fragment of one? If there is too little surviving text on it to ever enable pairing the stone with the person it memorializes? What is the point of moving the stone or fragment back to its cemetery of origin, if we cannot locate wherein it belongs, and if that cemetery can never be restored or ‘fixed’? These broken headstones are not immovable heritage, unlike even ruined synagogues, nor are they intangible heritage, though images of their designs and script can help create that. What to do with the heavy stones?

Marla and a resident talk while work proceeds

A shared experience during headstone recovery work. Photo © 2012 Jay Osborn.

Not surprisingly, we find that there is great value in these stones, both for Jewish descendants of the families they relate to and for current residents of Rohatyn, in the processes of uncovering, extracting, transporting, cleaning, reading, and setting the stones in a more fitting place. A single stone or fragment is a curiosity, but a gathering of matzevot, with their decorative flora and fauna and their strange script, begins to create meaning, and to spark questions of who and why and how. If at first glance even the gathered stones seem like rubble, the care with which foreigners linked to the town treat the pieces confirms that these stones have a place, and a value. And we believe that the recovered stones will enhance the power of the Jewish cemeteries as places of memory (lieux de mémoire) for Rohatyn, its people and its visitors.

A girl of Rohatyn watches headstone recovery

We wonder what she asked her parents that evening. Photo © 2011 Jay Osborn.

We have seen repeatedly, in more than 10 trips to Rohatyn to pursue this project, that the townspeople are more than curious about the project; they want to help, and they see this as an opportunity to show respect for the memory of those who once lived there. Some approach us or Mr. Vorobets in the street with information about the locations of stones; others watch as we record new discoveries, or help us clean the stones; some just quietly observe, or hold our hands while the work proceeds. And always there is discussion; the older people remember, and the younger ones listen. Our visible work around town is probably the first exposure many of the youngest residents have had to the truncated Jewish community of Rohatyn; that provides us with an opportunity to represent those who are missing.


Project Concept

Workers unload headstones in the new Jewish cemetery

The collection grows: workers unload recovered stones in the new Jewish cemetery. Photo © 2012 Mikhailo Vorobets.

First and foremost, the project is intended to recover newly-revealed matzevot and fragments, and provide them with safe haven in Rohatyn’s old Jewish cemetery. The project is thus significantly reactive, responding to reports either to us or to the City office or to our representatives in town, of any new stones around town. Those reports may be spontaneous, or encouraged by the churches in town and other social networks. The recovery rate of stones from these occasional events is impossible to predict, but experience from the past four years suggests scores of matzevot per year are likely.

A small matzevot fragment

Matzevah fragments appear in all sizes. Photo © 2011 Jay Osborn.

The project also includes an active element, to solicit reports of loose stones in disused buildings, gardens and walkways, culverts, etc. that Rohatyn residents may have seen or otherwise be aware of. A less-frequent but likely greater source of recovered headstones is public works by the City of Rohatyn, where road excavations and trenching may reveal scores of stones in a single dig; our cooperation with the City should enable us to plan ahead for larger recovery work and transport. And the conservation of the stones also requires active onsite skilled labor.

The project has outgrown our original efforts to document the individual matzevot. Thus the project concept includes a plan to uniquely identify the physical stones and to create a true database of images and characteristics. This is especially important now that we have seen the continuing decay of the stone fragments; we recognize that someday there will only be the database.

The project thus requires an annual budget for recovery, plus a contingency budget for overflow and for special tasks such as conservation and documentation. We can use past expenditures on our behalf by Mr. Vorobets as a rough guide to future costs. However, the direct labor hiring and oversight provided by Mr. Vorobets on a free volunteer basis over the past years is not possible to extend; Mr. Vorobets is over 80 years old, and understandably wishes us to retain a permanent project manager. So a key part of the project plan is to identify a local project manager and arrange compensation for the management work.

Ongoing Headstone Recovery

The interactive map below shows the locations in Rohatyn where headstones have been recovered since the beginning of the project, in 2011 (green), 2012 (yellow), 2013 (blue), 2014 (red), 2015 (purple), 2016 (white), 2017 (olive), and 2018 (orange). As noted in the map description, in most cases more than one matzevah (often many) have been recovered at a single location in a single year. As the map indicates, three areas in town have been especially ‘fruitful’ in the past few years.

A large number of recovered matzevot in Rohatyn's downtown

Rabbi Kolesnik with project volunteers in the courtyard off vul. Mickiewicz. Photo © 2014 Marla Raucher Osborn.

In the downtown area, the gardens, courtyard/parking area, and older buildings bounded by vul. Ivan Franko, vul. Mickiewicz, vul. Shevchenko, and vul. Halytska, are important both historically and for the current project. Historians, including Mr. Vorobets, have told us that Gestapo headquarters in Rohatyn were located on vul. Halytska of this block during the war. The garden Mr. Vorbets led us to in April 2011 is here. The largest and heaviest loose headstones unearthed to date (in 2012) were here. And the largest number of matzevot in a single excavation (in 2014) were here. On a visit to Rohatyn in 2013, a companion doubted our guess that many stones making up the foundation of a disintegrating building in the parking area were actually Jewish headstones, pulled a random loose stone from the crumbling wall, and uttered an expletive when the stone revealed Hebrew script. On a review visit in late 2014, when we thought all the ground had been turned over, a companion noticed a stone under some trees adjacent to the building and pulled weeds away to reveal another Hebrew inscription. We now believe there will be many more headstones recovered from this site when conditions allow. This is a dark and special place, and we are grateful for the cooperation of the surrounding residents in allowing us to extract the matzevot.

A matzevah under the road on Zelena Street

Zelena Street in Rohatyn; in the foreground, a Jewish headstone used for stabilization of the soil. Photo © 2012 Jay Osborn.

Due east of town center, beyond the former village of Babince and about 1.5km (1 mile) from Roxolana Square on the road to Kuttsi, vul. Zelena (Green Street) has yielded matzevot almost every year. In 2012, thanks to sewer pipe upgrades under the street, trenching unearthed several large and significant stones (including one of a prominent historical rabbi of Rohatyn), and while walking the road to inspect and clean those we found several others barely concealed under the road surface. More stones had been recovered by the creek here in 2011, 2012, and 2014, and we believe this road covers many more; as the city extends utility services to the residents along the road, we will be ready to recover those.

Headstone recovery at the riverside in Rohatyn

Headstone recovery at the riverside in Rohatyn. Photos © 2011 Jay Osborn and © 2013 Alex Denysenko.

Southwest of town center and across the Hnyla Lypa River, in the Zaluzhzhya village area, and especially on vul. Zavoda (‘across the water’) and at the banks of the river itself, Jewish headstones have turned up every year so far. Residents of the area have told us that they suspect some of the service buildings in the neighborhood have matzevot in their foundations or floors, and as those buildings are rebuilt or renovated, more stones will surface. We don’t know why so many stones have been found on both sides of the bridge here, but we guess they were used to channel the river and protect the structure during and since WWII. Overall this is an area where we have had many reports from residents alerting us to new findings.

Trenching on vul. Yuri Rohatyn unearthed several matzevot

Trenching on vul. Yuri Rohatyn unearthed several matzevot. Photo © 2012 Jay Osborn.

Elsewhere in town, several stones have been unearthed in street work for utility changes and set at the roadside or moved to a safe location for our review; for example, five stones in two locations on vul. Yuri Rohatyn were a result of City-managed trenching there in 2012, and we were informed of the finds by the City office. Matzevot exhumed by a utility company before our first visit in 2011 were set beside a City parking area, waiting for someone to reclaim them.

We guess (and have heard rumors in town) that other areas are likely to yield headstones as well, as work is done in the streets and in private yards. There is an unverified rumor that vul. Danilo Halytskoho running parallel to the train tracks toward the rail station “was paved with many Jewish headstones.” Culverts crossing a small creek there are built with stones having the right size and shape, but it is not yet certain if any are matzevot. We choose not to disturb the lives of the residents there yet, just to investigate, but we are prepared to work when an opportunity arises.

Similarly, an essential part of our recovery work is repair and replacement of soil and other features of any ground or structure which is disturbed or removed during the recovery process. In leading the local work to date, Mr. Vorobets has been scrupulous in this regard, which helps immensely in our relations with the City administration and with Rohatyn residents. Although many stones have been found on or near the ground surface, or have been unearthed during other planned work, in some cases we have requested trial digs and more extensive excavation. The vegetable garden on vul. Ivan Franko (mentioned in the Introduction above) is one example: The owner had found evidence of Jewish headstones under the soil of her garden and reported that to Mr. Vorobets, but requested that any digging be postponed until the harvest season was over, and we agreed. Unfortunately, when late Autumn came, the weather was extremely wet and it wasn’t possible to dig in the garden or transport the heavy stones across the cemetery grounds. So when the weather improved, although the owner had already planted early vegetables, we struck an agreement with her to excavate and then replace the lost soil and seeds, which worked well.

Progress of the excavation in the Ivan Franko street garden

Progress of the excavation in the garden on vul. Ivan Franko: original state, April 2011; digging, Winter 2012 (two views); restoring soil, Winter 2012; the stack of headstones on the sidewalk, Winter 2012; the replanted garden, Spring 2012. Photos © 2011 Jay Osborn; © 2012 Abe Lyons; © 2012 Jay Osborn.

Initially we had designated the Rohatyn new Jewish cemetery to receive all of the recovered headstones, and we transported many pieces there following the example of those who preceded us. However, an assessment of more than 100 recovered stones in Rohatyn in late 2014 by Rabbi Kolesnik of Ivano-Frankivsk led him to conclude that all had originally stood in the old Jewish cemetery. So on his recommendation, a decision was made to return all future recovered stones to the old cemetery, and to move the earlier stones there as well (see the Old Jewish Cemetery Rehabilitation Project). That move was made in early 2015.

Partnership with the City of Rohatyn

With Rohatyn City officials

Alex and Marla at the Rohatyn Mayor’s office; the Deputy Mayor with us at a temporary headstone transfer site. Photos © 2011 and © 2014 Jay Osborn.

Officials of the City of Rohatyn have been supporters of this project since before there was a project. The current Mayor of Rohatyn, Volodymyr Husak, was also Mayor in 1998 and a co-organizer of the Jewish memorial event that year. The former Vice Mayor, Stepan Demchyshyn, has accompanied us several times to review and discuss recovery work, even on weekends. Other City officials have alerted us to new finds, and have met with us to discuss our hopes and ideas. We hope that one component of the ongoing project may be a more formal cooperation with the City, in which City engineers and workers are part of the crew which plans, manages, and implements headstone recovery tasks, cemetery grounds preparation, etc., or works with us to identify suitable local private resources for that work. In all forms, our relationship with the City is for the long term.

Conservation of the Matzevot Materials

This project includes research into and application of stone conservation methods and materials; our learning will also be applied to the Old Jewish Cemetery Rehabilitation Project. We plan to make use of a variety of resources and experts in this task; see the References page for links to specialist organizations in Europe and North America, and for reference books and papers on the topic.

The matzevot in Rohatyn deserve this care; each of them is an heirloom, and they have important stories to tell. Even before we are trained to handle and clean the headstones properly, we are encountering stones of great beauty, and some which once stood over the graves of known historical figures. In 2012, while working on vul. Zelena, we found several large stones which had been unearthed by sewer work under the road. Even caked with mud, the image of a lion and some writing was visible. As washing and scrubbing continued in the evening, the full design became clearer, revealing a second lion, a crown, and more script. Returning the next morning, translation of the text revealed that the stone belonged to a prominent rabbi in Rohatyn. The stone was transported to the cemetery; soon after a Hasidic group built an ohel over three graves of rabbis in the old Jewish cemetery, and returned this stone to its place as the first reconnected stone since the war.

The rabbi's matzevot on Zelena

The rabbi’s matzevah on vul. Zelena: discovery; cleaning; Jeremy Borovitz translates; return to the cemetery. Photos © 2012 and © 2014 Jay Osborn.

We realize that ongoing decay and disintegration of the surviving headstones is inevitable, and that at best it can be slowed. The stone materials from which nearly all the recovered matzevot are made is very soft; these stones would also have decayed had they stood in the cemeteries for the past 70 years. So it is imperative that we record what we can about these survivors before they fade.

Documentation of the Matzevot and Fragments

A headtone continues to decay

It’s important to capture a record of the stones before they disappear. Photo © 2014 Jay Osborn.

As the number of recovered stones has grown significantly, so has the need for identification and documentation of the stones. Active members of the project no longer recognize individual stones and fragments, as once was true in the first years of recovery work. Several of us have worked to record camera images of the stones and to post them on websites for review, transcription, and translation, but after several moves it is now difficult to tie those images with the individual stones they document, and the sheer number of stones recovered recently has overwhelmed our ability to informally document them during brief visits to Rohatyn. So the project concept includes a plan to tag all the stones which are able to carry markings, and to capture more information and photographs of each of the headstones, both those already recovered and all new recovered ones.

It now appears clear that we need images of all sides of each stone, to do more than catalog and transcribe them. We need a way to reunite fragments of stones, like three-dimensional puzzles, using their features, shapes, sizes, and materials, and we need technology to help us bring the parts together. Not only are there fragments of single stones recovered at different times and places, but even the matzevot recovered somewhat intact are crumbling due to the stresses they have experienced.

We will document the stones as best we can, but we welcome suggestions for better ways to identify, record, and associate these fragments of the past.

Online Matzevah Database

This project shares the task of creating an online database of headstone fragments with the Information Points Digital Project.

A sample of the many matzevot styles among the recovered stones

A small sample of the many matzevot styles among the recovered stones. Photos © 2011, 2012, 2014 Jay Osborn.

As the collection of recovered headstones grew in the first years of the project, two online catalogs of images were created to help us track and interpret the stones. The first was a simple photo site, with folders for stones documented on each trip to Rohatyn; as stones were moved to the cemeteries and then occasionally moved again, new photographs were taken of some of the stones. This site provided an opportunity to transcribe, translate, and discuss the individual stones in a separate forum (focused primarily on genealogy). The second catalog improved on the first by numbering each recognizable matzevot and fragment based on images, linking all images of the same stone, and linking a transcription and translation to each stone where that was available, together with the images; however, the second catalog was only accessible by members of the closed genealogy group.

Those initial efforts helped to preserve images of the fragile stones as they resurfaced, and to begin connecting the fragments with descendants of Rohatyn Jewish families. But each matzevah has many more characteristics and images to show and tell: dimensions, materials, colors, features, symbols, styles, etc. And much more can be done with a more open, academic approach to the physical data.

So the project concept proposes a true database of images, data, and metadata to record each headstone’s characteristics and images tied to a physical tag, which we hope can be permanently affixed to the stone. The database design and essential data categories are yet to be created, but to make the most of public interest by Rohatyn Jewish descendants, current Rohatyn residents, Rohatyn students and teachers, and our friends and colleagues around the world, it is clear that access to and contribution to the database must be both open and curated. Ultimately, while the features in stone slowly disappear, this will be the bet olam (house of eternity) described in the Wisdom Books.

Local Project Management

Regular accounting of the project expenses

Regular accounting by Mr. Vorobets of the project expenses. Photo © 2014 Marla Raucher Osborn.

This project cannot proceed without continuous local project management. We have been extremely fortunate to have the dedicated volunteer efforts of Mr. Vorobets in town for the past two decades; he worked on behalf of history before we even met him, and then continued and amplified his selfless work as we engaged and attached contributions, additional volunteers, and community interest. In between our working visits over the past four years, he has exchanged information with Rohatyn residents and the City office, hired laborers to excavate and transport headstones, overseen work to care for the recovered stones and protect the property of neighbors, and acted as our advocate for the project in this important long-term work in town. Throughout these years he has refused payment of any kind to himself, has negotiated good labor rates on our behalf, and has meticulously documented all labor and repair costs for the project in Rohatyn in an accounting which occurs at each in-town meeting. He is the embodiment of the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Torah commandment to love your neighbor as yourself.

Occasionally we are able to recover and transport matzevot ourselves

Only rarely are we able to recover and transport matzevot ourselves. Photo © 2013 Alex Denysenko.

The need to engage local labor and management is essential. When the first stones were brought to our attention in 2011, we had no real understanding of the magnitude of this project, or even the effort needed to move individual matzevot. Only occasionally are the recovered stones small enough that we can move them with our own backs, and transport them with ordinary vehicles; the many tons of Jewish headstones scattered around Rohatyn are a testament to the effort it must have taken to destroy the cemeteries. More importantly, the project depends on local knowledge, contacts, and communications; even Ukrainian oversight from Lviv cannot effectively manage the details of terrain, property boundaries, available labor, community action, and events in Rohatyn. And we feel strongly that labor on this project should engage the citizens of Rohatyn both for occasional employment and for community spirit.

So an important project task is to identify, hire, and develop a part-time local headstone recovery project manager who can take over the project responsibilities from Mr. Vorobets in Rohatyn and allow him to retire without concern. With the help of Mr. Vorobets we have already considered some candidates, but we have not yet identified one to work with for the coming years. Hiring a replacement for Mr. Vorobets may be the most important short-term task of this project.

Ongoing Funding

More than US$5000 has been raised for all Jewish heritage projects in Rohatyn as of October 20, 2015; the majority of those donations have been allocated to the ongoing Jewish headstone recovery project under US tax-deductible rules through Gesher Galicia, Inc., but we are grateful also for early donors who gave to the program before tax deductibility was possible. See the How to Help and Partners and Donors pages for more information.

Current Status and Issues

The Rohatyn Jewish Headstone Recovery Project is an active project with more than four years of progress. To date, we have:

  • recovered and moved more than 500 headstone fragments from locations around town to the Rohatyn old Jewish cemetery
  • coordinated several headstone recoveries with Rohatyn city management
  • photographed a majority of the fragments and posted those images on a website for transcription, translation, and comment
  • informally numbered the individual fragments for identity in research
  • raised and transferred funds for ongoing headstone recovery, tracked expenses, and reported results

In the same four-plus years, we have failed to:

  • conserve any of the stones apart from removal to the old Jewish cemetery
  • identify a suitable replacement for Mr. Vorobets as resident project manager

While we are pleased at the visible progress in headstone recovery and the positive impact our work has had in town, we are very concerned about the long-term significance of the project and the memorial value of each fragment we recover.