In a Ukrainian parking lot surrounded by apartment blocks, Aharon Haver gets
down on his knees to blow away dust from the pavement. Hebrew letters slowly
appear on a limestone slab below. The letters show the name Frankel as well as
fragments of birth and death dates in the 19th century.
desecrated by the passage of pedestrians and cars, lies in Kolomyia, a pre-World
War II Polish town that is today part of western Ukraine. It is one of the last
reminders of the Jewish community that once thrived here. But this marker of
death, along with other abandoned gravestones, is turning out to be a source of
During the past summer, Haver and 15 other Israeli and
Russian college students spent two weeks exploring the remains of Jewish
cemeteries in western Ukraine.
Their expedition was part of an effort to
research the cultural heritage of the Jewish communities of Galicia and
Bukovina, pre-World War II regions in Poland and Romania, where more than a
million Jews once lived.
“The Nazis ravaged the Kolomyia Jewish cemetery
and used many of the tombstones to pave the grounds of the Gestapo
headquarters,” explains Hebrew University historian Ilia Lurie to the students
as they tour Kolomyia, a city whose population was once half
Unlike Kolomyia, the Jewish burial grounds in the nearby towns of
Jablonow and Kosow remain largely intact. Those two graveyards were the main
focus of last summer’s expedition, led by Lurie and fellow historians Boris
Khaimovich and Marina Bruk.
The research team cut away weeds and bushes,
righted toppled tombstones, brushed away dirt from weathered Hebrew letters, and
then meticulously listed and photographed the inscriptions. A map of the
graveyards and the details of each individual tombstone, including its GPS
location, will be listed on an electronic database
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“The project is about much more than just
cataloguing,” explains Khaimovich, an expert in Jewish art, who has been
studying tombstone engravings for more than 25 years.
inscriptions make up a language of their own,” Khaimovich tells The Jerusalem
Report. “By deciphering the text and images we can learn a great deal about how
communities lived, their relations with their neighbors, the status of
individuals, their economic level and religiosity, and many other
He points out that throughout the 700 years that Jews lived in
Galicia, even though Yiddish and Polish were the main spoken languages,
tombstone inscriptions were generally written in Hebrew.
“This makes the
historical texts readily accessible to a contemporary generation of Hebrew
During a trip to the Jewish cemetery at Satanow, Khaimovich presents the students with an example of how a tombstone
with a puzzling motif can provide insights into the mindset of people who lived
several hundred years ago.
Many of the tombstones in the cemetery show
easily recognizable Jewish symbols, such as menoras and prayer books, but
Khaimovich singles out one that depicts an illustration of three rabbits linked
The use of this imagery seems odd, says Khaimovich, because the
symbol of the three rabbits was widely used in other cultures, especially among
Christians who associated it with the Holy Trinity. “So why would Jews use it on
their graves?” he asks.
There is no definitive answer, but Khaimovich has
observed that whenever the symbol of the three rabbits is used on tombstones, at
Satanow or in other Jewish cemeteries, one of the names of the deceased is
Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.
“So the use of the three rabbits symbol
apparently is connected to the three patriarchs of Israel, while the linked
chain between them may refer to the cycle of life mentioned in the yizkor
[memorial] prayer,” concludes Khaimovich.
Walking through the cemetery,
the students come across other peculiar tombstones that capture their attention
and stimulate discussion, including an elaborately engraved tombstone with a
woman described in flowery Hebrew as being pikchit vechachmanit – clever and
“I get the impression she was well off,” says Shlomi Golan, a
23-year-old yeshiva student who smiles at the unusual choice of words. “Maybe
this also tells us something about the status of women in those days that they
also could achieve positions of prominence,” he muses.
tombstones at Satanow, the inscriptions that the research team discovers at
Jablonow and Kosow turn out to be less eye-catching. There are some interesting
drawings but, for the most part, they provide only names and dates of birth and
Still, the researchers are satisfied with their accomplishments.
“It is hard to find the words to describe what it is like to uncover something
that no one has seen in hundreds of years,” says Marina Bruk, while cutting away
two-meter high vegetation that has grown over much of the Kosow hillside
cemetery. Bruk’s Jewish Studies and Hebrew language students at St. Petersburg
State University have been regular participants in the cemetery expeditions since they began in 2009. Her students, as well as the
Israeli members of the contingent, note that the experience has changed their
view of Jewish life in Galicia.
“I have to admit that I had a picture in
my mind of the Jews living here as being pitiful,” says Golan. “But once you see
the elaborate craftsmanship in the engravings and the ruins of some of the
magnificent synagogues we visited nearby, it completely changes your
“When my friends in Israel heard that I was going to the
Ukraine to study graves, they told me I was crazy,” says Refael Naftali, 23, a
participant of Yemenite descent back for his second expedition.
I discovered here was an entire world that was unknown to me.”
want to forget what was once here,” says Katya Karaseva, a Moscow University
student, reflecting on the significance of the project. “Hopefully the lives of
these people won’t disappear from the face of the earth. Their names will go
down in history.”PERSONAL PROJECT
Prof. David Wallach’s interest in the history of Galician Jewry began when he
discovered documents about his grandparents in his parents’ house after his
mother passed away.
“One of the last things my mother said before she
passed away was her regret at not being able to bring her mother here [to
Israel] before the Holocaust,” says Wallach, a biology researcher at the
Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. “My mother never talked about her
family who perished, and I realized that I knew nothing about them.”
began a journey that took Wallach to his mother’s hometown of Maniava, where he
tried to get the local village council to erect a memorial near the well where
his grandmother was killed.
“When the village council turned me down I
decided to do something else instead. As a researcher it was only natural
for me to think of promoting research about this region as a way of preserving
my family’s legacy,” says Wallach.
In his own work as a biologist,
Wallach has devoted decades of work to basic research, successfully unraveling
key biological processes relating to the phenomenon of cell death. His
discoveries have led to a number of scientific breakthroughs, including the
development of a major life-enhancing drug.
“I believe in the importance
of basic research,” Wallach tells the Report, referring to the type of research
that aims to obtain knowledge without a predetermined application.
order to support basic research about Galician Jewry, Wallach established the
Besides documenting Jewish cemeteries, which is done
together with the Jewish Galicia and Bukovina Association of Jerusalem, the
project supports the study of Jewish culture by Ukrainian doctoral and
post-doctoral students, who conduct part of their studies in
Teaching their young people about the cultural achievements of
the Jews who lived with them, says Wallach, is a way of getting back at the
Ukrainians for their part in the Holocaust and for refusing to let him build a
memorial for his grandmother.
The Ludmer Project is also currently
supporting research by two Israeli scholars who are analyzing Hasidic texts
written in Galicia.
Wallach is determined that the history and culture of
Galician Jewry will not be forgotten. “If we abandon this legacy, it is almost
like we are letting the people there die again. But if we seek out and preserve
this rich heritage, there is a great deal that we can learn.”
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