Old Jewish Cemetery Rehabilitation Project

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Mykhailo Vorobets with recovered headstones at the old Jewish cemetery. Photo © 2015 Alex Denysenko.

As noted on our heritage page about the 400-year-old first (or ‘old’) Jewish cemetery in Rohatyn, the site is acknowledged and preserved by the city in its original purpose as a burial place, but its connection with the city as a place of memory is much diminished due to its significant destruction during the Shoah and indifference during the Soviet era. Denuded of nearly all its thousands of carved and inscribed burial markers, the family and community stories once written in stone there are today largely lost.

Read about the history and heritage of Rohatyn’s Jewish cemeteries.

Browse our news articles for coverage of events related to this project.

In our article on Jewish traditions for death, burial, and mourning, we note that in Jewish law, a cemetery is a holy place more sacred even than a synagogue, and that the care of cemeteries is an essential religious and social responsibility. Care of the old Jewish cemetery in Rohatyn is a primary concern of the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage program. Residents of Rohatyn respect all burial sites, but with no living local Jewish community in Rohatyn today, there are few nearby resources available for care on the scale the site needs. The size of the cemetery (roughly one hectare, or about 2.5 acres) means that even simple maintenance, let alone major rehabilitation, scales too large for occasional remedial work.

The old cemetery is also the site of another important memory project we are managing in Rohatyn: it is currently the collecting point for Jewish headstones broken and stolen from the cemeteries during the Nazi occupation, now recovered from streets, walkways, building foundations, and private gardens in Rohatyn due to ongoing efforts by townspeople and descendants of Rohatyn Jewish families, and brought to the old cemetery for documentation, treatment, and display. This related effort is described in the Jewish Headstone Recovery Project on this website.

A few of the hundreds of recovered headstones. Photo © 2019 RJH.

The goals of the Old Jewish Cemetery Rehabilitation Project are to:

  • clean and clear the cemetery of unwanted vegetation and refuse
  • survey the site to document visible and hidden fixed memorial markers
  • develop the landscape to reduce annual maintenance effort and cost
  • create and install directional signage to lead visitors to the site, and informational signage to explain the history and heritage
  • create an enduring place to protect and display Jewish headstone fragments from around Rohatyn, inviting townspeople and visitors to study and learn from them, perhaps even to reunite fragments
  • create a place of respect and contemplation about the Jewish past of Rohatyn

As described below, progress has already been made on this project, beginning with a week-long volunteer cleaning and clearing event in 2018 and now continuing with additional volunteer events in 2019. We anticipate that the project will gain a significant boost in planning, design, and expert advice thanks to a Fulbright Program research grant awarded to Rohatyn Jewish Heritage president Marla Raucher Osborn for the 2019~2020 academic year, with specific focus on the old Jewish cemetery. As for our other projects, all RJH efforts will proceed with the continuing involvement of the Rohatyn city office and the office of the Rabbi of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Clearing and Cleaning the Grounds

Clearing and cleaning the cemetery grounds continues to be an essential component of the project; it aids in the assessment of soil conditions, in locating fixed and loose headstones and fragments, and in retarding decay of the site. Clearing and cleaning focuses on the removal of unwanted fast-growing and woody shrubs and trees, as well as the removal of accumulations of debris such as glass, metal, plastic, loose rocks, and garbage. The clearing process has already revealed hidden headstones, grave covers, and the base stumps of broken headstones.

A collage of images from our week working together in Rohatyn's old Jewish cemetery

A collage from the week-long volunteer event in 2018. Photos © 2018 TMF and RJH.

In 2018 we partnered with our friends The Matzevah Foundation (TMF), an experienced US-based cemetery rehabilitation organization which has led volunteer projects clearing and restoring Jewish cemeteries of Poland since 2005, to plan, purchase tools for, and conduct a major vegetation-clearing volunteer event at Rohatyn’s old Jewish cemetery in the summer. Together with several Ukrainian volunteers plus the considerable mind and muscle of many Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) serving in Ukraine, a first-pass clearing of more than 80% of the cemetery was completed; further progress was made in subsequent one-day efforts with Ukrainian and Swedish volunteers plus PCVs. Our strategy is now focused on annual grass and shrub mowing plus aggressive trimming of stumps (of trees and woody shrubs) flush to the ground; a series of events with PCVs and international volunteers in 2019 continues that effort.

Images from a volunteer clearing event in 2019

Images from a volunteer clearing event in 2019. Photos © 2019 RJH.

Site Survey of Existing Fixed Markers and Memorials

The old Jewish cemetery in Rohatyn, in winter

Two surviving headstones and a memorial monument, in winter. Photo © 2019 RJH.

Once the old Jewish cemetery has been significantly cleared and cleaned, it will be possible to perform a site survey to define the cemetery boundary and measure the variable elevation within, and then geo-locate, index, and document each of the existing fixed markers and memorials, whether headstones from before World War II or monuments created and installed after the war. At the same time, other fixed features of the cemetery (fences, gates, retaining walls, stairs, electrical power poles, etc.) will be geo-located and assessed for integrity and utility. Information from the survey may then be used in further planning and design at the site.

A preliminary boundary and elevation survey of the site. Image © 2017 ESJF.

Informal surveys of the markers have been made by Rohatyn Jewish descendants in the past, showing at least 22 fixed complete or partial headstones and grave covers, plus post-war memorials. Ongoing cemetery clearing will undoubtedly reveal additional fixed headstone fragments and some loose fragments; systematic gentle probing of the cemetery surface may also indicate more fragments. In late 2017, a first boundary and coarse elevation survey of the old cemetery was conducted by an engineer for ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, as part of a wide European cemetery survey program intended for cost estimation in cemetery fencing projects. Data from this survey can be used for preliminary planning in Rohatyn, but a more detailed and comprehensive survey of fixed elements in the cemetery is still needed.

Landscape Development

Gardens in Maximilianpark

Garden views from a design in Germany by Piet Oudolf, © 2015 Piet Oudolf.

Detailed design of landscaping to stabilize the appearance and minimize the recurring maintenance of the old cemetery will be developed as part of the Fulbright research project to be completed in June 2020. An initial concept for rehabilitation of the cemetery was created for RJH by Andrij Bojarov, a Lviv-based visual artist trained in architecture and frequently working on public spaces. That concept adapted ideas from projects of Piet Oudolf, a Dutch designer of many public and private gardens in the US and across Europe; significantly, Oudolf designed the Gardens of Remembrance in Battery Park in New York City as a memorial for victims of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, but his work also appears in many other types of public spaces and is celebrated for its year-round visual appeal, durability, and sustainability. For a project at the south mass grave memorial, Rohatyn Jewish Heritage has also engaged the design services of a Lviv-based landscaping firm, Green Garden. Plant suggestions, methods, and other aspects from both of these concepts will be considered in early research for the old cemetery project; decisions and detailed designs will be made with the advice of experts contributing to the Fulbright work.

A Memorial Monument for Recovered Headstones

A key feature of the rehabilitated old cemetery space will be a memorial monument incorporating the recovered Jewish headstones which are currently being collected in groups as they are returned along the western (lower) end of the northern edge of the cemetery. The design and technical details of the monument will be evaluated and defined as part of the Fulbright research project. An important factor influencing concepts for the monument is that the recovery of headstone fragments is very much still in progress, and likely will continue for decades to come; thus, even though hundreds of fragments and whole stones have been recovered, far more still lie undiscovered under Rohatyn streets, and the monument should be designed to accommodate their future inclusion. Most of the headstones removed from the cemeteries during the war were broken into two to four fragments; although we have yet to find two large fragments from the same original headstone, that possibility becomes probable when considering the number of stone pieces still hidden.

White concrete samples

White concrete samples during initial evaluation in Lviv, Ukraine; photo © 2014 RJH.

For this reason, our initial concept for the monument does not include a lapidarium or similar wall incorporating headstone fragments permanently fixed with hard materials, as has been constructed at many damaged Jewish cemeteries in Europe. Rather, following an idea developed by artist Andrij Bojarov, we are considering a low concrete pedestal to support the recovered stones, two or more meters wide and running in a sweeping arc along most of the high northern edge of the cemetery, with a path alongside and nearby signage so that visitors can study to fragments and consider their original placement.

In this concept, after cleaning and surface stabilization, the recovered stones would be placed on the pedestal, resting there rather than attached, yet still isolated from the earth to minimize moisture absorption. Bojarov has also proposed that the low pedestal could be composed of a special near-white concrete with relatively fine aggregate, as he helped develop for the beit midrash memorial monument at Lviv’s Space of Synagogues.

Existing standing headstones in the old cemetery will also be cleaned and treated, with signage to aid in their discovery and interpretation. Specific plans for these rare survivors will also be elaborated in the detail designs output from the Fulbright project.

Signage and Information Design

Jewish cemetery sign in Siret, Romania

An example Jewish cemetery sign in Siret, Romania. Photo © 2013 Julie Dawson, via Jewish Heritage Europe.

Physical signs for the old Jewish cemetery, both directional and informational, are important to our goal of reconnecting the cemetery to the town for both residents and visitors. The development of designs for these signs is also a key component of the 2019-2020 Fulbright project, and will be integrated with signage plans, formats, and materials created for other heritage sites by the city office in Rohatyn. Informational signs at the site will explain the history of the Rohatyn and regional Jewish communities who buried their dead at the cemetery, Jewish burial and mourning practices, and about the symbols and texts carved into the gravestones, with QR-code-style links to additional online information about this and other heritage sites, both on this website and on city history and museum sites. Physical signs, like the digital pages, will be written in at least two languages (Ukrainian and English). The overall information goals and strategies are described in the Physical Signs and Markers Project and the Digital Information Project.

Fence and Gate Repair (or Replacement)

Existing cemetery fence

Existing cemetery north side fence.
Photo © 2014 RJH.

The existing steel picket fence surrounding the old cemetery was installed two decades ago by Rohatyn Jewish descendants and the Rohatyn city office. It has begun decaying, some sections are missing, and both gates are missing doors. However, the fence still serves its primary purpose, to visually mark the cemetery boundaries; on the high northern side, the fence also serves to protect visitors from the steep ground slope just beyond. With the help of kind neighbors living adjacent to the cemetery, we are gradually repairing and replacing what we can of the existing fence.

It is important to our goal of re-integrating the cemetery into the cultural fabric of the city that the fence remains visually open, the gates remain unlocked, and the cemetery itself becomes more inviting to visitors. Our efforts to clear the cemetery grounds of overgrown wild vegetation includes cutting back unwanted aggressive shrubs at the fence, plus annual maintenance to inhibit those shrubs’ return, while retaining several of the decorative trees and hedges which have appeared along the fence in the last decades – all intended to improve visibility inward to the cemetery and outward to the surrounding neighborhood and the city.

Eventually the fence will require replacement, but we hope that the existing fence can continue to serve its primary purpose for years to come.


Recurring maintenance of the site and its features is an important part of all of our projects; planning and cost estimates for long-term maintenance will be included in the 2019-2020 Fulbright project research and development, and low-maintenance considerations will serve as essential factors in many design decisions. In the meantime, maintenance is limited to ongoing inspection, clearing, cleaning, and minor repair work as described above.

Project Costs

Oksana and Olena working at one of the few standing matzevot

Ukrainian friends working at one of the few standing matzevot. Photo © 2018 AP Photo / Yevheniy Kravs.

Cost estimates for long-term development of the old Jewish cemetery as a memorial site and memory space will be calculated as part of the 2019-2020 Fulbright research project. In the meantime, the 2018 clearing and cleaning effort required significant volunteer effort plus a substantial investment in hand and motor tools for clearing vegetation; overall in 2018 we spent more than US$6000 on tools and expenses for the old cemetery. In 2019, continuing the landscape clearing effort still depends heavily on volunteer effort, with tool investment now limited to purchase of a few specialized motor tools and repair/replacement of worn and damaged tools purchased earlier. A rough estimate of running costs for 2019 is US$1500 for tools, US$1000 for expenses in each of three major volunteer clearing events (these costs are shared with our projects at other sites such as the new Jewish cemetery), and perhaps US$1000 total for smaller work events (typically just RJH and a handful of friends) through 2019. All of these project investments and expenses are paid from donations to our NGO by individuals and organizations.