Rubin Schmer is an 82-year-old Holocaust survivor with cancer, but right now he’s not thinking of his past or his future. What’s on his mind is the fate of the Jewish cemetery, the mass gravesite and synagogue in his native town of Drohobycz (now Drohobych, Ukraine). For the past three years, Schmer has been single-minded in his dedication. He has traveled to Poland and Ukraine — even in a wheelchair — to move the project forward. He has been indefatigable and remarkably successful in his quest to get this job done. But there is still much to do, and Rubin feels that time is running out for him and for the legacy of Drohobych’s once-flourishing Jewish community.
Last month, I drove to Cooperstown, N.Y., to meet Rubin Schmer, a man I had known only as a telephone voice for several years. When that voice called me last December to offer Hanukkah greetings, it was so weak that I feared it might be the final time we would speak. But Schmer, who has rebounded several times in his life from adversity, has regained his health. After four months in bed, he is walking again. With the help of his wife and son (a doctor), he is determined to make at least one more trip back to his native city.
Drohobych before the Holocaust was a thriving town, with a Jewish population of about 15,000 people, some 40% of the total population. It was home to numerous artists, including painter Maurycy Gottleib (1856-1879), writer and graphic artist Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) and pianist Ignace Tiegerman (1893-1968). (Of these, only Schulz lived most of his life in Drohobych, and his work is imbued with the spirit of the place, though sometimes seen as in a dream.) The town prospered from the wealth derived from Galician oil, especially the oil fields located about six miles from Drohobych in the village of Boryslaw, where crude oil was so plentiful that, it was said, one just had to dig a hole in the backyard to collect it. Many Drohobych Jews owned oil fields, or participated in the oil business. The growing town was the home of businessmen, who built fine houses and, from 1842 to 1865, erected one of the most impressive European synagogues of the era.
This synagogue still stands, though for years now it has been a derelict hulk, a towering, brooding presence on one of the town’s main streets. Although the design probably owes something to the large Romanesque Revival synagogues built in Germany at the time — notably the synagogue of Kassel, erected in 1836-39 following designs of August Schuchardt and the young Jewish architect Albert Rosengarten — it also seems to draw on the tri-partite facade of Holy Trinity Church, one of Drohobych’s premier landmarks.
The massive synagogue facade, however, is deceptive. The plan of the synagogue is T-shaped, with the facade much wider than the sanctuary itself. Even so, the sanctuary space is very large, with a high-vaulted ceiling. An ornate multistoried ark, now gone, once covered the east wall. All this empty space is daunting, and restoring this building seems an almost impossible task. Still, the effort has begun and plans have been made, with the support of Rabbi Wilhelm of Zhitomir, to convert some of the space in the facade block into a small prayer room and a reception area. Thanks to the work of local Jews and to Schmer’s own efforts (he secured a $100,000 contribution from an American donor, as well as other donations), the synagogue has a new roof. This buys it some time, but hundreds of thousands of dollars are needed to save this building, and to make it a Jewish place again. How the great sanctuary space will be used in the future remains unclear. There are other former synagogues still standing in Drohobych, too, all transformed to new uses. But it is the Choral Synagogue that is the icon — the dramatic reminder — of the town’s Jewish past.
Schmer was born in 1925 in Drohobych to a family of carpenters. In September 1939, after the Ribbentrop-Molotov accord, the border kept shifting and the Jews of Drohobych did not known who would be in charge. First, Germans came for 10 days. Then, Russians replaced them. Finally, the border was settled and the town fell to Russian control. German forces entered the city again June 30, 1941, and the destruction of Drohobych’s Jewish community followed immediately. Over the next three days, Ukrainians, assisted by Wehrmacht soldiers, killed more than 300 Jews. In September and October, the killing continued with mass murders in the nearby Bronica Forest. A ghetto was established in Drohobych, and by the end of 1942 most of the town’s Jews were either killed or sent to Belzec death camp. On February 15, 1943, 450 of those who remained were taken out of the ghetto to Bronica Forest, where they were murdered. Executions in Bronica Forest continued until May, when the rest of the ghetto was destroyed and burned down.
Rubin, alone of all his immediate family members, survived war and the Holocaust. “I started to work in 1940 in a telegraph office, and on the first day on June 22, 5 o’clock in the morning, they called me to work and I never left the place,” he said He was drafted on the spot by the Red Army and did not return to Drohobych until 1947. He stayed just long enough to successfully challenge the ownership of what had been his grandfather’s house, and then he left for Poland, where he lived for 10 years until the antisemitic purges of 1956-57 forced him to move yet again. He moved to Israel and served in the army during the Six Day War, and then he moved with his family to New Jersey.
He did not learn the fate of the rest of his family until after the war. Apparently, Rubin’s parents built a hideout under their house, but in 1943 they were turned in by a neighbor who detected them while they were out foraging for food. “The police asked them where they came from and they found the hiding place, and took everyone out to Bronica and shot them at the mass graves,” he explained. Every member of his extended family who stayed in Drohobych died. “When the Germans came in, they gave the Ukrainians a free hand for three days, and about 300 Jews were murdered, among them was my father’s older sister. They beat her, took out her eyes and with sticks killed her. There is a mass grave of the people who were killed in those few days.”
The cemetery itself, which is about four hectares in size, was established in the 18th century, and the last known Jewish burial was held here in 1978. Until a few years ago, the cemetery was a weed-infested wasteland. The majority of stones had been torn down, and many had been stolen. Plaques on remaining gravestones had been removed, and stones had been vandalized with graffiti. The entire area of the cemetery was desecrated by frequent waste dumping. The masonry wall surrounding the cemetery was broken in several places, so local people were able to follow well-worn shortcut paths across the cemetery.
Now, however, the cemetery is clean and repaired, thanks to private contributions from a few dozen donors, totaling about $40,000. The first objective of the restoration was the clearing of the vegetation and the adequate documentation of the site, including photographing all stones, and listing people buried there. This has now all been done. The broken gate and walls of the Jewish cemetery have been fixed, and more than 40 open graves have been cleaned and covered with new concrete slabs. It was these gaping graves, filled with slimy green water, that most affected me when I visited last year — an awful indication of the terrible degradation this place had suffered. Since then, the work has progressed nicely, but funds are needed to complete work, and to guarantee regular maintenance.
An apartment complex now mostly covers an older cemetery near the center of town, though Ukrainian Human Rights activist Meylakh Sheykhet, who has supervised the protection of many Jewish cemeteries in the L’viv region, believes he has identified the site of an ohel in one small garden patch. Recently, the Supreme Court of Ukraine rejected a claim submitted to Sheykhet and the Union for Councils of Jews in the Former Soviet Union to reconstitute the cemetery within its historic boundaries. Even if the court had sided with Sheykhet, past experience has demonstrated that the few Ukrainian municipalities are willing to demolish and remove existing structures built atop cemeteries, and some have even defied the courts and allowed new construction to continue.
Outside Drohobych, in Bronica Forest, the site of mass murders and burial of thousands of the town’s Jews — including many members of Schmer’s family — have been identified, cleared and refurbished into a more fitting memorial. A simple monument was constructed in the 1970s with funds donated by Israeli Vilek Teper, who, like Schmer, was born in the town and survived. Concrete slabs were laid over the mass graves, and a small concrete stele was erected to which a commemorative plaque — with an inscription in Hebrew, Yiddish and Ukrainian — was attached. But rain and snow took their toll, and by 2000, when Schmer first visited the site, the concrete over the graves was already seriously eroded. Now, the concrete slabs covering 11 mass graves are repaired. The monument is as simple as can be imagined but, set in the forest, these large concrete-covered graves are enough to lead the imagination to the lives of those buried beneath, and the horrors they suffered beneath the trees. When I visited the site last year with local activist Zenon Filipow, we had to wade through mud to visit all the graves, but now I’m told the paths are paved with gravel, and this past April, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Filipow — a non-Jew — organized a modest remembrance ceremony at the graves for the first time in decades. Rubin Schmer will travel to Drohobych again this summer to visit his family’s and boyhood friends’ graves, and to keep pushing for their protection. Thanks to his work, these places are safe for now — but for how long? In the long run, the task of remembering and preserving these sites and hundreds like them throughout Ukraine falls to the next generations of Jews — and Ukrainians. It is uncertain if either group is up for the task.
Samuel D. Gruber is the Rothman family lecturer in Judaic studies at Syracuse University and president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments.