Jewish leaders who for years have called on local officials to prevent vandalism at the site of a Holocaust-era massacre near this northwestern Ukrainian city finally have some hope.
Rovno’s newly appointed administration has promised to stop ongoing vandalism at Sosonki, just outside Rovno, where 17,500 Jews were slaughtered in a pine grove and buried in a mass grave over two days in November 1941.
Anatoly Zhukovsky, vice governor of Rovno since Viktor Matchuk was appointed as regional governor last November, told JTA that the vandalism in Sosonki “is a tragedy of all Ukrainian people” and that the new administration would protect the memorial.
“This spring we are going to repair the memorial together with the Jewish community,” he said.
Local leaders who met with Matchuk last November were reassured he would take serious action against the vandalism, which has included unearthing remains and scattering corpses around the site.
“After this meeting the pits were paved with asphalt, a turnstile was put at the entrance to the memorial and a mobile police squad regularly patrols the territory,” said Gennady Fraerman, a Jewish leader in Rovno and director of the local Jewish charity center Hesed Osher, which is funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
That’s a far cry from the attitude taken by the former regional government.
“Our former regional officials didn’t like Jews and did nothing to stop vandalism,” said Fraerman, referring to the previous regional governor, Vasily Chervoniy, who was a member of the nationalist Ukrainian People’s Party. “Now we have found mutual understanding with the new governor.”
But local Jewish activists say anti-Semitism remains an issue in the area.
After Ukrainian independence in 1992, Rovno was the only region in Ukraine where the far-right, ultra-nationalist party UNA-UNSO, whose paramilitary groups are akin to neo-Nazis, was officially registered.
“About 30 to 40 percent of the locals today share Chervoniy’s anti-Semitic views,” said Yakov Grifko, head of the Israeli Cultural Center in Rovno.
A leader of the local Jewish youth club said the situation is even worse among young people.
“Many young people here share anti-Semitic views,” said Natalia Bertash, noting that anti-Semitic vandalism in Rovno is not limited to the Sosonki pine grove.
“Last Chanukah windows were shattered in our synagogue,” she said, and some young people on the street often “poke fun at a rabbi in traditional clothing.”
Some 600 to 700 Jews live in Rovno, out of a population of 250,000. Jewish leaders believe the Sosonki vandals were digging up the mass grave looking for gold: tooth crowns, wedding rings and other valuables that some locals believe Jews had on them when the Nazis and local collaborators marched them to a forest more than 60 years ago.
Rovno became the center of Nazi-occupied Ukraine, or Reichskommissariat Ukraine, an entity created by the occupiers. A total of 98,000 Jews were murdered during the 1941-42 Nazi occupation in the Rovno region. Before the war, Jews had comprised half the population of Rovno.
Local experts believe masses of locals helped the Nazis in carrying out the executions.
“The level of collaboration was high, and local citizens mostly were neutral or supported the Nazis,” said Valentina Danilicheva, a researcher with the Rovno Museum of Local Lore.
In 1967 a Soviet memorial sign was unveiled in Sosonki, but it was only when Ukraine gained independence that the Holocaust memorial complex was built.
The memorial explicitly mentioned Jewish victims, not only the unidentified “peaceful Soviet citizens,” as was a common practice under communism. It incorporated the actual mass grave, an obelisk and 68 tombstones with victims’ names written in Yiddish.
Jewish activists who visited the site long noted vandalism at the mass grave, but only last year did local Jews see human bones dug out of the grave and scattered near the memorial.
Fraerman said vandalism was reported as early as 1995, but until 2006 no remains were found unearthed. He told JTA that last year he found several fresh holes and, much to his horror, some 40 fragments of corpses “scattered all over the site.”
Vandals had dug a tunnel under the memorial’s footpaths to gain access to the remains. But the paths began to cave in, making the damage to the memorial visible.
Last November, before the anniversary of the Sosonki massacre, local Jews took the unearthed remains and gave them a traditional Jewish burial at the site.
The troubles with the site were not limited to vandalism. In 2005, the Jewish community protested against an attempt to build a camping area just 90 yards from the site of the massacre.
And Jewish leaders were alarmed last year by a city council initiative to turn the memorial zone into a city land reserve, which would have allowed the council to make unilateral decisions about the area’s future.
“This was a further attempt to sell the memorial site,” Fraerman said.
Some Jews charged that Chervoniy failed to answer repeated calls to protect the memorial because of ill feelings toward Jews. Now, however, there’s optimism.
“Now we have someone to speak to,” Shneur Shneersohn, the rabbi of Rovno, told JTA. “Governor Matchuk visited our Chanukah festival and gave gifts to our children.”
The Jewish community has organized a campaign to raise funds toward the renovation. They hope it can be finished by Victory Day, May 9.
“Every member of the Jewish community makes a monthly contribution of one hryvnia” — about 20 cents — “but this is not enough,” Fraerman said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.