Old Jewish Cemetery Rehabilitation Project

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The old Jewish cemetery today

A view from Rohatyn’s old Jewish cemetery in its current condition. Photo © 2008 Jay Osborn.

The condition of the first or ‘old’ Jewish cemetery in Rohatyn is a primary concern of the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage program. Although the site is acknowledged and preserved by the city in its original purpose as a burial place, it has lost its connection with the city as a place of memory and continuity. Denuded of almost all its hundreds or thousands of headstones, the family and community stories once written in stone there are largely lost. Although there is a partial fence, two monuments to the Jewish community which was destroyed in the Shoah, and (recently) an ohel covering the graves of known and revered rabbis, the site today is almost bare of meaning: overgrown with vegetation, and rarely visited by townspeople except for occasional animal grazing. Residents of Rohatyn respect all burial sites, but with no local Jewish community there is little incentive for local maintenance on the scale the site needs.

And yet the lost headstones from this place of memory are slowly returning, due to ongoing efforts by townspeople and descendants of Rohatyn Jewish families, as described in the Jewish Headstone Recovery Project. The goals of the Old Jewish Cemetery Rehabilitation Project are to:

  • clean and clear the cemetery of unwanted vegetation and refuse
  • develop the landscape to reduce the intrusion of unwanted vegetation
  • make an enduring place to receive and display headstone fragments from around Rohatyn
  • invite townspeople and visitors to walk and stop in the space, with its exceptional views of the town and the surrounding river valley
  • create a place of respect and contemplation about the Jewish past of Rohatyn
  • engage townspeople and visitors to study the surviving matzevot, to reunite fragments, and to better understand the connection between the stones and the past and current residents of town

Overall project cost estimate: $TBD. Total funds allocated to date: $0.
Overall project timeline: TBD. Project progress: 0% complete.

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


Jews are recorded living and working in the Rohatyn area from the 16th century. Details of the origin and development of the first Jewish cemetery in Rohatyn are scarce, but permission to establish a cemetery was granted to Rohatyn Jews by Władysław IV Waza, King of the Polish Commonwealth, along with other municipal rights in 1633; those rights were confirmed 30 years later by King Jan II Kazimierz Waza. It is likely that the Jewish cemetery was established and in use before the adjacent wooden church of Saint Nicholas was built in 1729.

1846 cadastral map of Rohatyn

Rohatyn 1846 cadastral field sketch, sheet 15 (detail); original map from the Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine in Lviv (TsDIAL); photo © 2011 Jay Osborn.

The cemetery appears as a large parcel in use on the 1846 cadastral survey field sketch of the town, near the large cross which marked the top of Jerusalem hill above town. The cemetery is marked with small triangles, indicating Jewish headstones. A much smaller adjacent plot is also marked as a Jewish cemetery.

Just south of the cemetery as it existed at the time is another parcel owned by the Jewish community of Rohatyn, probably reserved for cemetery expansion. In 1846 there were few structures around the cemetery, the wooden Saint Nicholas church is not shown because it was in the adjacent cadastral area to the east (the pink line on the map is the border).

1921 cadastral map of Rohatyn

Rohatyn 1921 cadastral sketch of the old Jewish cemetery; original plan from the State Historical Archives of Ukraine in Ivano-Frankivsk; photo © 2013 Rabbi Moshe Leib Kolesnik.

Apart from these land records, no other information about the cemetery survives from Rohatyn’s time under the Austrian Empire, through World War I. In 1921, records indicate that the Jewish community was in need of additional cemetery space, i.e. that the original cemetery was reaching capacity. Surveys were made of the cemetery and adjacent parcels, possibly as a study for expansion of the burial grounds. But eventually a new additional site to the north of town was chosen to extend the capacity of the burial grounds, and that cemetery was put into service soon after (see the New Jewish Cemetery Rehabilitation Project for more information about that ground).

During World War II, the old Jewish cemetery suffered a fate similar to Jewish cemeteries all over the region: nearly all of the headstones, marking the graves of Jews buried here for hundreds of years, were removed and used as construction materials for roads, new building foundations, and other masonry and fill purposes, mostly disappearing under street surfaces and building facades. The cemetery was practically denuded of markers and the physical memory of the Jewish community which was destroyed at the same time.

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.

In 1944, after the liquidation of the Rohatyn ghetto and only four weeks before the Soviet liberation of the region, German Luftwaffe airplanes flew over the area capturing aerial images of towns, roads, and features of military significance. The images of Rohatyn show the old Jewish cemetery, with residences on only a portion of its perimeter, and vestiges of its once-dense array of headstones. Elsewhere in town, key buildings of the now-lost Jewish community were still intact at this time, though a number of houses appear destroyed near the center of town.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of independent Ukraine, the old Jewish cemetery has been owned and managed by the City of Rohatyn, which continues to preserve it as an historical burial ground. There are no signs in town indicating the location or significance of the cemetery, but it appears on a commercial street map of the town.

In the 1990s the cemetery became a new place of remembrance of the Jewish lives lost in WWII, and two memorial steles were erected near the top of the grounds. In 2011, an ohel was built over the graves of three rabbis of Rohatyn by an Israeli Chassidic organization working in central and eastern Europe. And the cemetery is now a gathering point for rediscovered headstone fragments being returned in anticipation of a future memorial.

The surviving cemetery is about half a kilometer (a little over a quarter of a mile) from the town square, accessible from town on minor roads. The cemetery is roughly rectangular in shape, comprising about 1 hectare in area (around 2.5 acres). It is bounded on two sides by public roads, on a third by a driveway serving several houses; the north side is the edge of a steep downslope to adjacent residential properties. The cemetery is near a high point in the town, and its gentle slope provides a wide panorama of Rohatyn and the river valley it overlooks.

Plan view sketch of the old cemetery, current state

Plan view sketch of the old Jewish cemetery in its current state (Summer 2015). Image © 2015 Jay Osborn.

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

The concept for rehabilitation of Rohatyn’s old Jewish Cemetery, as defined by artist Andrij Bojarov, addresses all of the program goals of memorial, education, and engagement of Rohatyners past and present. It provides a gathering place for headstone fragments as they return, a space in which to contemplate the lives of and interconnections between Rohatyn’s residents, and a quiet place to talk and relax. The design aims for gentle treatment of the grounds, using a minimum of hard materials, working with and around the surviving fixed stones and monuments, and adding sustainable layers of plants in a state of almost constant change: growing, blooming, and dying back with the seasons, returning more robust each year without a need for frequent re-plantings. The gathering of stones is intended to be open and dynamic, like the landscaping, to encourage individual visitors to participate in the recovery and reassembly of the fragments.

The project includes these elements:

  • clearing and cleaning the grounds, stabilizing as needed
  • survey and documentation of all surviving fixed markers and memorials, with treatment as needed
  • landscape design and plant selection
  • hardscape design and materials selection
  • signage and information design
  • installation of the landscape, hardscape, and signage
  • ongoing maintenance

As described in the project plan, the project elements are phased to permit cycles of refinement as resources of funding and skills become available; small initial project expenditures will be used to generate and solicit preliminary plans and cost estimates, and work and expenditures against those plans will begin only after review and fundraising for the specific tasks is complete. All elements will proceed with the continuing involvement of the Rohatyn city office and the office of the Rabbi of Ivano-Frankivsk.

Plan view of Rohatyn's old Jewish cemetery, rehab & memorial concept

Schematic plan view of the concept for rehabilitation and memorial in Rohatyn’s old Jewish cemetery, proposed final state. Image © 2015 Jay Osborn.

Concept for placement of headstone fragments

Concept for placement of headstone fragments, northeast view toward St. Nicholas church. Image © 2015 Jay Osborn.

Concept for landscaping

Concept for landscaping, northeast view from cemetery north edge toward Rohatyn town center. Image © 2015 Jay Osborn.

Clearing and Cleaning the Grounds

photos of the cemetery in its current state

Six recent views of the Rohatyn old Jewish cemetery including examples of large and growing shrubs and trees, garbage, and half-buried headstone fragments; photos © 2008, 2011, 2014 Jay Osborn.

Clearing and cleaning the cemetery grounds is an essential preparatory first step of the project; it will aid in the assessment of soil conditions, in locating fixed and loose headstones and fragments, and in retarding further decay of the site. Clearing and cleaning will focus on the removal of unwanted fast-growing and woody shrubs and trees, as well as the removal of accumulations of glass, metal, plastic, plus loose rocks and garbage. Several clumps of small trees, especially at the south side of the cemetery, will be removed. The clearing process will reveal hidden headstones, grave covers, and the base stumps of broken headstones. In addition, clearing will permit the ground to be examined for soft areas, sinks, and large embedded rocks, and likely will reveal other grounds issues which are currently unknown.

We hope to partner with experienced cemetery rehabilitation organizations working in central Europe, in particular US-based The Matzevah Foundation (TMF), which has led volunteer projects clearing and rehabilitating Jewish cemeteries of Poland since 2005, managing a growing number of projects per year. To help us understand their methods and the challenges they face, we joined TMF at a cemetery clearing project in 2016.

Site Survey of Existing Fixed Markers and Memorials

Fixed markers and memorials in the cemetery

Six views of fixed markers, memorials, and infrastructure at Rohatyn’s old Jewish cemetery; photos © 2011, 2014 Jay Osborn.

Concurrent with or immediately following the old Jewish cemetery clearing and cleaning, a site survey will be performed to 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. Information from this survey will be used in the planning and design of the landscaping, walkways, hardscaping, and signage of the rehabilitation project. Informal surveys have been performed by members of the Rohatyn District Research Group on several occasions in the past, and show at least 22 fixed complete or partial headstones and grave covers, plus the ohel over three graves, and two standing stele memorials to the Jews of Rohatyn murdered in WWII. It is likely that the cemetery clearing will uncover additional fixed headstone fragments and some loose fragments.

To clean, stabilize and conserve the fixed matzevot in the cemetery, we hope to partner with expert cemetery stonework rescue organizations in central Europe, in particular the Stowarzyszenie Magurycz (Magurycz Association) of Poland, now with three decades of experience in rescue and rehabilitation of distressed cemeteries of all faiths in Poland and Ukraine, especially those where the original community was displaced or destroyed and no local members are able to care for the stones and grounds. We have already joined Magurycz volunteers on a project in southern Poland to assist and to observe their methods, tools, and materials first-hand.

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, and for their influence on the project plan.


Cemetery site and project concept review with Rabbi Kolesnik and Mikhailo Vorobets; photo © 2014 Jay Osborn.

Cemetery site and project concept review with Rabbi Kolesnik and Mikhailo Vorobets; photo © 2014 Jay Osborn.

Landscape Design and Plant Selection

The concept for landscape design as a element of the Rohatyn old Jewish cemetery rehabilitation is adapted from the ideas and 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.

Gardens in Maximilianpark

Garden views in Maximilianpark, a former coal mine in Hamm, Germany, designed by Piet Oudolf; photos © 2015 Piet Oudolf.

Key components of the Rohatyn cemetery landscape design include:

  • plants selected primarily from local native grasses and flowering perennials, which are accustomed to the area’s seasons and soils, and respond to native pollinators, with hardy hybrid grasses and perennials mixed in for added color and structure
  • tightly-packed plantings of up to 100 lightly-interlaced species, inspired by meadows and mixed to provide undulating levels, seasonally-varying color, texture and structure persisting through winter, movement in response to wind and touch, and slow but almost constant change
  • walkways in crushed stone, pebbles, and/or durable compact grasses
  • minimized plant failure and maintenance by nurturing the renewal of local perennial plants which gain strength each year
Seasonal interest table for Maximilianpark

Seasonal interest table for a portion of the plants in Maximilianpark, Hamm, Germany; adapted from “Planting: A New Perspective”, p.97 © 2013 Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury.

The design is meant to appeal and attract in all seasons, not only during spring and summer when the foliage and colors are richest. Oudolf’s design guidance, in books such as his Planting: A New Perspective (with Noel Kingsbury), advises that the skeletons of plants are as important as the flowers, and seed heads should be left standing when dry and empty; some plant species should be chosen for their structural integrity in the leafless dead of winter. In landscapes of this type, “the dead and dormant plants of midwinter are sculptural but not harsh, poignant but peaceful, standing out in subtle or arresting ways.” (Sally McCrane, New York Times)

Ultimately the concept is to create a varying, dynamic space of beauty, not static or ‘dead’. A place to visit often, at different times of year, and reflect.


Oudolf garden designs in winter

Winter scenes with dead and dormant plants in public gardens designed by Piet Oudolf; photos © 2015 Piet Oudolf.

Hardscape Design and Materials Selection

The Rohatyn old Jewish cemetery rehabilitation concept involves very little coverage of the grounds with hard materials, respecting that the cemetery has been an honored burial ground for hundreds of years. The centerpiece of the hardscape design, though not the center of the cemetery itself, is a low white concrete plinth which will receive the Jewish headstone fragments which have been collected from around Rohatyn. Placed near the high north edge of the cemetery, the plinth will project only about 30cm (about 12 inches) above the soil surface, and with a shallow footing into the soil of only about 20cm (about 8 inches), to minimize disturbance to buried human remains.

White concrete samples

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

The material for the plinth is a special white concrete with relatively fine aggregate developed for monument use in Germany and Ukraine. The white color is an intrinsic property of the concrete and not a coating layer; the material weathers well and does not require treatment or care to maintain its integrity and appearance. The white color will lend a visual lightness to the plinth and will minimize conflict with the varied colors of the headstone fragments.

The surface area of the plinth will be approximately 1.5m (about 5 feet) wide by 75m (about 250ft) long, in a sweeping arc from a high point near the north edge of the cemetery to a point near the shallow-slope lower west edge; the location is intended to place the gathered headstone fragments in front of visitors who take in the long views of Rohatyn’s downtown and the countryside to the northwest, and the plinth will edge one of the paths which lead to this viewpoint. The top surface will be slightly sloped to shed rainfall.

An important aspect of the concept is that the returned headstone fragments will not be fixed to or embedded into the concrete of the plinth, as in a typical lapidarium. Instead, the fragments will rest loose on top of the plinth, symbolically detached from the cemetery while embraced within its perimeter. Because the majority of the stone pieces which continue to be discovered around Rohatyn are quarter-sections or less of the original matzevot, and currently the matching pieces of many of these ‘orphan’ stones have not been found, we want to enable the reunion of fragments of individual matzevot now and long into the future. The loose stones will encourage visitors to consider how the pieces may fit together, and, we hope, will also encourage new stones to be brought to the cemetery and placed on the plinth as they are uncovered in Rohatyn.

Existing headstone made of pink granite

Broken headstone made of pink granite, in Rohatyn’s old Jewish cemetery; photo © 2011 Jay Osborn.

In addition to presenting the returned headstone fragments, to highlight the original and continuing purpose of the cemetery as a place of remembrance for the dead who are buried there, the surviving fixed headstones will also be presented for viewing and reading. No hard materials will be used for this purpose unless needed to maintain a path or view to the fixed headstones. Headstone stumps without design or lettering, whether projecting or buried under the soil surface, will not be highlighted in this way, but will be recorded as noted above in the site survey section.

The concept also includes a small number of benches for resting along the paths and at the best viewpoints. The benches will be simple in form, and made of pink granite from nearby Horodenka, a hard material which matches the material of several of the later surviving headstones in the Rohatyn Jewish cemeteries.

We anticipate that new stairs and a handrail will be required at the southeast entrance to the old Jewish cemetery, to enable safe entry to the cemetery at that point. The design of this feature will be visually simple and functional, and will depend on the physical assessment as part of the site survey noted above.

Existing cemetery fence

Existing cemetery north side fence; photo © 2014 Jay Osborn.

A new, visually open fence will be installed along the northern edge of the cemetery where the steep downslope requires some safety barrier. For much of the length of that side, the plinth itself and the planted landscaping will effectively serve as barriers to walking, so the fence need be little more than a pair of stiff metal rails. Beyond the top edge of the plinth to the east, the landscaping and a somewhat more closed fence will prevent mistaken wandering to the edge of the slope.

So that the rehabilitated cemetery will openly welcome Rohatyn townspeople and visitors from other towns and countries, no closed barrier fencing or lockable gates are planned for the other three sides of the grounds. An open, symbolic fence to identify the perimeter of the cemetery (and to preclude accidental parking on the grounds) may be installed if the site survey suggests that the border is not marked clearly enough by land gradients and vegetation. Open ornamental gates made of substantial metal will frame the preferred entry points at the southeast and southwest corners of the cemetery, to guide visitors to signs and paths and to reduce visitor impact on nearby residences.

Signage and Information Design

Physical signs for the old Jewish cemetery will integrate with other signs in Rohatyn indicating and explaining the historical Jewish community of the town, the surviving tangible and intangible Jewish heritage in Rohatyn and abroad, and will link to further information on the related website. The overall information goals are described in the Information Points Physical Project and the Information Points Digital Project.

Jewish cemetery sign in Siret, Romania

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

At the old Jewish cemetery’s upper (southeast) corner entrance, a vertical metal sign measuring approximately 1.5m by 1.0m (about 60 inches by 40 inches) will describe the history of the site and its current purpose, and invite visitors to walk the paths and consider the lives of those who are buried here. The sign will include images, and the same text will be given in three languages: Ukrainian, Hebrew, and English. A QR code will be included in each text, to access a language- specific page on the heritage website for more information about the Jews of Rohatyn, the cemetery, the heritage projects, and links to other reference information.

An identical sign will be installed at the cemetery’s lower (southwest) entrance.

Sample QR code, for the front page of this website

A sample QR code, for the front page of this website.

Within the cemetery, at each end of the plinth with recovered matzevot pieces, a slanted metal sign measuring approximately 1.5m by 1.0m (about 60 inches by 40 inches) and installed about 0.9m (about 3 feet) above the ground surface, will describe the wartime fate of the matzevot and their journey back to the cemetery, with some example images and a discussion of the ongoing recovery project. Here also, the same text will be given in Ukrainian, Hebrew, and English, and again QR codes will lead to language-specific pages on the heritage website for more information about the headstone recovery project.

The sign at the upper end of the plinth, where views of the town of Rohatyn are best, will also include a map of the city with past and present heritage sites indicated.

A smaller sign in three languages may also be installed adjacent to the ohel, to explain its purpose ad the significance of the rabbis buried within. A few small signs may be installed adjacent to significant surviving fixed headstones to provide translations of the inscriptions on the stones.


The installation concept will necessarily depend on details of the landscape, hardscape, and signage plans, which are yet to be defined. Installation will be tracked in the overall project plan in order to keep this important aspect a part of all other plans.


After installation of the landscape, hardscape, and signage elements, ongoing maintenance of all of the details will begin. The overall project plan should include a cooperative agreement between the contractors who do the installation and/or the City of Rohatyn, and costs for that will be estimated as part of the initial planning each of the elements, to help guide the plans to low-maintenance designs.


No plans have been detailed for this project beyond the concept outline described here, no project costs have been estimated, and no funding has been raised or allocated to the project. Initial project planning will include descriptions of the phases, the individual tasks and sequencing, who has taken responsibility for each task, and predicted or actual costs and calendar start and end dates. All information presented here will be detailed and/or adjusted as the project progresses, and the designs mature.

An essential early step in the planning process will be to identify a reliable local project manager to arrange the work using regional resources and materials, and to coordinate with the City of Rohatyn on specific issues.











Current Status and Issues

As noted in the Introduction, Rohatyn’s old Jewish cemetery is a priority for our heritage program because it is a centuries-old place of memory yet is almost forgotten itself. Recently it has begun serving again to gather visual and material reminders of the town’s Jewish past, but it is not integrated into the town’s consciousness and it is difficult for visitors to locate. After the essential and ongoing Jewish Headstone Recovery Project, this cemetery rehabilitation work will be our next major effort; this project’s goals are important to reconnect this memory site to the town and others with an interest in the once-diverse communities of Rohatyn.