Thursday, April 12, 2018

Rawa Ruska

For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.”
― Elie Wiesel

Over the past half a dozen or so years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the internet researching the history and demise of the town of Rawa Ruska (pronounced Rava Rushka), the birthplace of my mother.

My mother and her parents and brother left Europe and came to Canada long before World War Two, and were, therefore, not subject to its horrors. All my mother was left with were some old dishes, grainy photographs of people whose names she was unsure of (“I think that was Hershel. He died in the War”), and child memories, which later proved to be somewhat inaccurate.

She did not often speak of the town, though I can’t remember a time when I did not know its name. On Passover, she would tell me how her family made all the preparations for the holiday on the day of the seder; that her mother would pluck and cook a chicken only late in the afternoon after the house had been cleaned of chametz; that they would sit down for the meal only after midnight, because it took that long to get ready. Even as a child, I realized that the story couldn’t be right – it just seemed like midnight to my then six-year-old mother. She once told me that theirs was one of the few houses that had a tin roof (I suppose the other roofs were wooden or thatched) and she could remember the thundering of the rain on the tin. She would sometimes, though infrequently, mention a relative – an aunt or uncle or cousin – and then say “They died in the War”. I am embarrassed to say that I was in my teens before I understood that ‘They died in the War’ did not mean these long-dead cousins had been soldiers, or that their house had been bombed, but, rather, that they had been murdered by the Nazis and their helpers; my mother’s family – MY family – were part of the six million.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t familiar with that magic number, six million.

6,000,000. Six zero zero zero zero zero zero.

All those zeroes. The very magnitude of the number makes it almost meaningless; a number so vast that it is next to impossible to imagine.

As a teenager, I was morbidly interested in the subject. I read Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus’ at age 12, and from there went on to read other, and much better books, dozens and dozens of them. By the time I graduated high school, I had read, not only Uris's Exodus, QBVII, and Mila 18 (which was the only book in my life that scared me so much that I found myself afraid to leave my room late at night and go to the bathroom, in case Nazis would find me),  but also books on the Nuremberg trials, Spandau, by Albert Speer, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, by Giorgio Bassani, The House on Garibaldi Street by Isser Harel, The Diary of Anne Frank, and most of Eli Wiesel’s books. I heard both Wiesel and Simon Wiesenthal speak and I received 100% in the Grade 12 Holocaust course I took, a class I could have given.

This was at a time when it was still not cool to talk about the Holocaust except in hushed whispers and euphemisms (‘they died in the War’); when there were many many survivors who would not, or could not, speak of their experiences; when so many facts and details were unknown and  most people did not want to know.

Rawa Ruska is a town in south-east Galicia, sometimes in Poland, and sometimes in the Ukraine. Founded around 1455, Jews were invited to live there shortly after its establishment to help with its economy. The history of Rawa mirrors that of other Galician/Polish/Ukrainian/European towns. Princes/Dukes/Lords rose and fell; the Jewish community was alternately protected and slaughtered. By the early 20th century, Rawa was a busy, relatively prosperous, railway town, and its population was approximately 12,000 people, of whom 5000 were Jewsabout 40 percent.

Again, the experiences of the Jews of Rawa between the years 1941 and 1943 mirror those of Jews across the Baltic and in much of Europe. The Jews of the town were first rounded up and herded into the old market area, which became the ghetto. There, they were starved and worked to death. Those who survived were either taken to be shot in fields surrounding the town, or taken by train to the nearby extermination camp of Belzec and murdered there. 

Until only a few years ago, it was difficult to find any information on what happened at Rawa Rushka. This was partly because there were almost no survivors of the horrors and partly because the rest of the town never spoke of what they saw and/or did.

It is only in recent years that a French Catholic priest, Father Patrick Dubois, took it upon himself to discover the fate of Jewish communities across the former USSR and uncover the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mass graves, where up to a million Jews lie strewn in the ground.  He has located eye witnesses in dozens of towns and villages, who at the time were children, and seem to have waited for the end of their lives to tell what they saw. They told him that the ground around Rawa Ruska moved for three days. 

It takes three days for a mass grave to die. 

Today Rawa Ruska is no longer prosperous. There are about 8000 inhabitants, which means that it never regained its pre-war conditions.

There are no Jews now in Rawa Rushka, almost none in all of Galicia.

The only Jews left in Galicia

Until 2015, there was no memorial, no memory, no indication of the lives once lived and brutally taken. It was only due to the efforts of Father Dubois that a memorial was put up on one of the killing fields. It is made up of Jewish gravestones.

The memorial at Rawa

The ghetto of Rawa Ruska, and the eradication of its Jewish community, was just one of over 40,000 Nazi camps and ghettos across Europe.

40,000. Fourty Thousand. Four zero zero zero zero.

Each of these camps had Nazi guards and commanders. Each one was situated either within or very close to a town or village, where the locals were witnesses to what was happening. 

The sheer numbers defy belief. Indeed, more and more people don't/won't/can't believe it happened. 

The importance of learning the facts and details and understanding the magnitude of the horror is greater now than ever. We are on the cusp of forgetting. 

The generation who lived through World War Two – the perpetrators, the victims, the witnesses, the bystanders – is almost gone. 
If my generation, the second generation, does not pass on the stories, the biographies, the descriptions, the names, the identities, the places, and the histories to the next generation, it will be lost.

As Eli Wiesel said: to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

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