Excerpt taken from the English Translation of the Rohatyn Yizkor Book coordinated by Michael Bohnen and Donia Schwarzstein.
This excerpt is from the chapter called "The Rohatyn Way" written by Dr. Isaac Lewenter and translated by Benjamin Weiner.
In the year 1914, life in the shtetl proceeded as in normal times. Jews rose in the early morning to worship at the house of prayer. The less religious were satisfied with coming only on the Sabbath and holidays. People traveled to fairs in other towns, and our own fair in Rohatyn was still held every Wednesday. Weddings took place as well as births, festive occasions, and misfortunes. Everything in the shtetl flowed in the usual channels as if nothing were taking place in the world at all. Nobody anticipated the catastrophe that was creeping upon us.
At the start of the summer of 1914, the army reserves were mobilized. The newspapers brought no good news.
When the Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, everyone knew it would lead to the outbreak of war. Yet people still comforted themselves with "maybe" and "perhaps."
After the war broke out, a great misfortune befell our shtetl. A division of Austrian infantry put up in Rohatyn. The fully equipped soldiers settled in to rest, following a difficult march. An entire regiment bivouacked in the middle of the marketplace.
All of a sudden, there was the sound of gunfire. Nobody knew where it came from or who had fired. It was probably the provocation of informers or spies. The soldiers answered by shooting blindly in all directions. It was a miracle that nobody was injured.
Yet panic took hold of the shtetl. On the second day, nearly the entire population fled, taking with them only small packs. They believed that they would soon return – and so left everything behind. Later, it became evident that the running would be without cease; that the wandering had just begun. They were forced to flee to Vienna and even further into Austria.
We went to Stryj, toward which the Russians were rapidly advancing.
After a few weeks away, we were able to return to Rohatyn. Unfortunately, our home was no more. After the Russians ransacked everything the Jews had left behind, they set fire to the houses. They were assisted in this task by our Ukrainian neighbors. Of the whole city, only a few backstreets remained. The Jewish bath still stood, as well, and there the young rabbi, Avrum-Dovid Spiegel, had gathered the remaining Jews together.
Nearly the entire large Beit Midrash (house of prayer and study) still stood, as well. The Russians had tried to set it on fire, but only a few floorboards had burned. The building remained intact. The Jews said that we had my old uncle, Alter, to thank for that, the "jester," who was a righteous man in his generation and had bequeathed to the house of prayer the beautiful holy ark and all of the Torah scrolls.
Materially, life was very hard. The remaining Jews of Rohatyn, together with those who had come in from the surrounding countryside, made their living through great hardship. They engaged in small trade. A few craftsmen managed to find work. The overwhelming majority fed themselves by calling in loans that their honest Christian neighbors returned.
In these ways, people coped with the new situation. The winter of 1914-15 passed. Spring came. In May, the German-Austrian offensive in western Galicia began. The Russian Army was defeated and fled east. As the Galician Jews were known to be Austrian patriots, they were deported to Russia by the retreating army.
Rohatyn was no exception. On a certain evening, the Russians dragged the entire male Jewish population of Rohatyn out of their homes, assembled them in the center of town and thereafter marched them to Podwysokie. The first night there was spent sleeping under the open sky. In the morning, the long march began and continued until we reached Kiev.
In Kiev, a special Jewish brotherhood committee attended to all of our essentials. There were also Jewish families who took us into their homes, guaranteeing to the Russian authorities, even though they did not know us, that we would not flee. After a few days in Kiev, we were loaded onto a wagon and taken to the Pezner province in the state of Chembar. Material life was not difficult there, but we were completely cut off from our families; we did not know anything about our wives, sisters, and little children who had remained behind. We longed for them greatly.
Only three Russian-Jewish families lived in Chembar proper. One was a pharmacist, another, a large manufacturer, and the third, an engineer, who, by the way, was a provisional railway man and worked on the laying of the local train tracks. I personally spent long hours in intimate conversation with them, discussing the situation of Jews in Russia and Austria. For all of us, everything that we reported to each other was fresh and new. We therefore felt that brother and brother could speak to each other about one and the same matter.
[Photo #1, p. 95 YB: “A group of Rohatyn Jews (men only) during the Russian captivity. From top right: unknown, unknown, Mendel Rotenberg, Shmuel Weissbraun, unknown, Monish Schechter, Aharon Schechter, Benzion Weissbraun, Nahum Mantenberg, Shaul Teichmann, Moshe Weissbraun, unknown, Wolf Steinmetz, Yehoshua Otner, Selig Nagelberg, Wolki Allerhand, Dr. Yitschok Lewenter, Neftali Rosenstein, unknown, unknown, Moshe Schechter (shochet—ritual slaughterer,) Neftali Spiegel, Bertsi Weissbraun, Selig Holz, Weissbraun, Zushe Holz, Meir Maor, Yosef Hammer, unknown, unknown, Nahum Milstein, Yehoshua Lipshitz, Yosef Mark, Rokeach Mivutshats, Yosef Widhoff, unknown, Alter Dorst, Yudel-Michel Sofers, Moshe Freiwald, unknown, Alter Lewenter, unknown, unknown, Yehoshua Stryjer, Volvel Weissbraun, Yehuda bar Zilber, Avraham Roten, Alter Faust, Urtsi Horowitz, Nehemiah Reich, Avraham Zeif, Noach Milstein, Dovid Weissbraun, Elisha Teichmann, Avraham-Yosef Ehrenberg, Kalman-Yoel Lipshitz, Uri Lipshitz, unknown, Yechezkel Honge, unknown, Lipshitz, Ehrenberg, unknown, Natan Wald, Shaul Panzer, Yosef Wald, Itsi Spiegel, Chuna Wachman, Pinia Spiegel, unknown, Nachman-Yeshia Wachman, Dovid Einshtum, Moshe Lewenter, Noach Leyner, Moshe Mitman, unknown, Yaakov Leiter, Avraham Lichtgarn, Yaakov Barban, Yantsi Leiter (actually Lichtgarn), Mendel Bernstein, Iser Glutser, Wolf Freiwald, Hori Pater, unknown, Meir Lewenter, Dovid Wald, Leyb Widhoff, Nuni Eichenstein, Moshe Faust, Moshe Freiwald, Itsik Bokser, Leyzer Bokser, Meir Glutser, Boris Teichmann, Hirsh Hochwald, unknown.”]
At the end of 1915, we were sent back to Galicia. We went as far as Tarnopol, as this was the last city remaining in Russian hands. We stayed there for almost two years, until the summer of 1917, when the Germans occupied it.
In Tarnopol, it was every man for himself. There was no joint Rohatyn committee to look after the group. Everyone sought out his own means by which to live through this terrible time.
Tarnopol was liberated after the first revolution in Russia. Kerensky had come to Tarnopol and delivered a speech on freedom and the justice of Socialism.
When we returned, full of longing, to our region in Austria, we found it pervaded by a strange spirit. The air was full of the nervous anticipation of something overwhelming. It was no longer the same land for which we had longed and yearned.
I cannot write about Rohatyn during that time, as I was among those sent away to Przeworsk. From there we went to Lemberg. I could not join my family, as my mother and the smaller children were in Austrian Silesia. In the meantime, I grew sick and was therefore released from the army for six months. This gave me the opportunity to renew my study of medicine in Lemberg.
In 1918, it was felt that defeat was imminent. Our armies were far from their borders, deep in Russia or in France. The general impression was of an oncoming catastrophe.
An influenza epidemic broke out in the city, claiming as many casualties as had fallen at the front. At the end of 1918, I also fell sick. After a short time spent in a hospital bed, I recovered. In November, we were told that the Ukrainians had taken Lemberg.
I remember that Friday when, still weak, barely able to stand on my feet, I went out into the street to gather news. The Ukrainian militia had taken over the rule of the city. Relations were tranquil. Early the next morning, a few incidents broke out between the Ukrainians and the Poles, and on the third of November, the battle between these two armies began.
A Jewish militia was organized on the Ukrainian side. It remained neutral in this struggle and had as its one and only objective protecting the lives and property of the Jewish population.
As the battle between the Ukrainians and Poles raged in Lemberg, the rest of the province was quiet. Rohatyn, too, felt the tranquility. It lay in a region occupied by the Ukrainians. This new power evinced loyalty toward the Jewish population.
Meanwhile, combat between the two sides continued in Lemberg. On 21 November 1918, a two-day cease-fire was declared. A thousand people took advantage of the occasion to leave the city. I took the opportunity, as well, and returned to Rohatyn where life flowed peacefully. The divided families were once more reunited. This occurred while the Austrians were still in the town. Throughout 1917–18, Jews returned to Rohatyn and resettled in their old homes.
In May and June of 1919, the Ukrainians were defeated, and the Poles occupied Galicia, including Rohatyn. The Jews, as usual, were victims of this shift in power. Before the Ukrainians left, they plundered the Jewish population. Many fell in this attack against the Jews. Persecution of Jews began as soon as the Poles arrived. I personally had to flee Rohatyn, because in Lemberg I had given a speech against the pogroms, and therefore a warrant had been issued for my arrest.