Marla Raucher Osborn, who has been researching her family history in Galicia (mostly Rohatyn, in western Ukraine) recounts her successful quest to learn about her family history in a long essay posted on JewishGen.org. Her story provides something of a step by step manual of how to trace family roots, but it also reflects on the meaning and impact of the process and discoveries; how tracing family history became a much larger and broader project: “Future Rohatyn visits suddenly had a clear purpose that had been revealed from the unanticipated revelation of these traces from the past: the headstones. The focus would be—HAD to be—to locate, photograph and document these headstones, and then arrange to move them to one of the former Jewish cemeteries for safekeeping and future study.”
What material, tangible evidence remains of a person’s life when that life is over?
Can I, the great-grandchild or great-great-grandchild of a person who died 50 years before my birth, today find a piece of that person’s life? Can I walk the streets of the Old World—my ancestor’s world and find a physical imprint of that person’s former presence?
These are questions that have always intrigued me, even as a child when I would press elderly grandparents and cousins for family stories, town descriptions, photos, and memories, but rarely receive anything other than a casual but kindly dismissal that “nothing still exists,” that “everything disappeared,” or that “no one wants to remember.” Like many budding genealogists, I, too, heard that the town from where part of my family came—the town where my Horn and Liebling families had lived (and died) over multiple generations—was no more. Gone. Disappeared. Destroyed. No longer on the map.
How could that be possible? How can a person live a life—in all its complexity, personal and historic—only to then disappear completely from this world, leaving not a trace behind?
Finding answers to these questions ultimately propelled me in 2008 to travel to a little Galician town named Rohatyn, located today in western Ukraine, and to return six more times between March and September 2011.