For one sister, it all began for me with a photo and a story from my Rohatyn grandmother. Jute HORN - Dr. Jute HORN - was my grandmother's idol, her paradigm, her inspiration. She was my grandmother's aunt - the oldest sister of my grandmother's father. The educated one with the medical degree from Vienna. The one who became the dentist. The one whose name appears somewhere on a plaque at a prestigious hospital in Israel recognizing her professional legacy there. The successful one. The responsible, confident one. The one who made the family proud and financially supported the others when times were hard. My grandmother often pointed out the uncanny resemblance she bore to Jute, “her favorite”. She had a 1947 photo of Jute taken in Haifa. Written on the back were the words, “You can see how much I have changed”.
For the other sister, it began for me in 1998 with a letter and phone call from a man - an aged, emotional man - who pitifully detailed for me how he grew up in Rohatyn, knew my extensive and comfortably middle-class HORN family. A man whose younger sister in the late 1920s married the youngest of the HORN sons and produced a family. A man who himself married the youngest of the HORN daughters, Bronia HORN - Dr. Bronia HORN - so she could leave Rohatyn with him for Palestine. The year was 1936 and this man saw the storm clouds gathering over Europe; he pleaded with his younger sister and her family to leave Rohatyn, to leave Galicia, to leave Europe, and come with him Palestine. He was not successful and they chose to stay. Bronia: 11 years junior to older sister Jute, and like Jute, my grandmother's aunt. But unlike Jute, barely 5 years separated Bronia and my grandmother in age. They were practically contemporaries. Sensitive, artistic, sad-eyed, Bronia.
In the beginning, Jute's and Bronia's lives would mirror each other's, offset by the 11 year gap in their ages. Each young girl would be sent away from the family home in Rohatyn to study and build an academic base for the future.
From 1916-18, Jute would attend the Universities of Vienna and Lemberg (Lwow), graduating from the latter institution in 1918. She would return to Vienna in 1919, from where she would earn her graduate degree in medicine in 1924. Bronia would also attend schools in Vienna and Lemberg. In 1914, at age 10 and with the War front and devastation headed to Rohatyn, she would be sent to the “Department School” in Vienna because the family was worried about having a vulnerable young girl in an enemy-occupied town. After WWI and while Rohatyn rebuilt itself, Bronia would resume her studies, this time closer to home at the University of Lemberg (now called Lwow), graduating in 1924 with a degree in German and French language and literature. Between 1924-29 she would “deepen her study of German language” at the University of Vienna and even live in the same Viennese apartment once occupied by older sister Jute. While Bronia was in Vienna, Jute would be in Krakow re-taking medical examinations at Jagiellonia University so she could return to Rohatyn to practice medicine in the newly-independent Poland. Bronia herself would follow and enroll in Jagiellonia in 1929 to pursue graduate work. In 1931, Bronia would apprentice as a teacher of German language at Krakow's prestigious all-boys school “A. Witkowskiego Gimnazjum”; the following year she would secure a paid teaching position at the “Marshal Józef Piłsudzki” school in nearby Busko-Zdrój, where she would remain until spring 1936.
Jute would emigrate to Palestine in 1934 after running for several years a successful dental practice in Chodorow (Poland), not far from Rohatyn, and marrying a handsome and ambitious lawyer from that town, 16 years her junior. She would thereafter continue her dental practice in Haifa and her husband would become involved with national politics and travel abroad extensively for Zionist Liberal Party causes.
Bronia would return to Rohatyn in 1936. That summer, she, too, would emigrate to Palestine, divorcing in 1937 - as per prior agreement - the man who convinced her to leave Rohatyn for a safer future.
After Israel gained Statehood, both sisters - together with Jute's husband - would go together to the Office of the Ministry in Tel Aviv to formally obtain Israeli citizenship. They would hold consecutive citizenship identification numbers.
In the intervening years, everyone and everything they loved and left behind in Rohatyn would be destroyed by the Nazis.
Jute and Bronia - these two Rohatyn sisters - aunts of my grandmother and sisters to her father - would be the only to leave Rohatyn (after my grandmother in 1914) and survive the Shoah. Neither would have children of their own.
But they would remain bound together for life, these two sisters.
In 1953, Jute and her husband would divorce in Mexico City. Jute would emigrate to New York City. Retired from the practice of medicine, she would live her remaining five years in America in a comfortable, tasteful apartment at 745 Fifth Ave. When she died in 1958, aged 65, she would owe on her Saks Fifth Avenue charge cards - debts that would have to be paid out of her small estate. Jute (now calling herself Julia), had had a weakness for fine clothes.
Bronia (now calling herself “Bernice”) would also be living in NYC in 1958 at 6 West 77th St., not very far from Jute, and working as a city social worker. Bronia would bear witness on Jute's death certificate.
Jute had always been there for Bronia and had even over the years helped her financially, both in Israel and in America. Now Jute was gone. Their oldest brother Isak (my grandmother's father) had also passed away.
Bronia was now alone, so she would decide to leave America and return to Israel. She would die 25 years later, aged 88, a long-time resident of the Vera Solomon Retirement Home in Kfar Saba.
Jute and Bronia HORN, two sisters born in the Galician town of Rohatyn, grew up on the eve of the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Their lives from childhood to womanhood would be buffeted by cataclysmic events: their beloved town would suffer as the front for both devastating World Wars; their homeland, official language, and nationality would change five times times during their lives; both would choose to leave their Rohatyn for Palestine, and by doing so, would survive the Shoah that would destroy their parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, and childhood school chums.
Through records and photos acquired from archives in Poland, Austria, Poland, Israel, and America, and armed with stories from my grandmother and others I met with roots in Rohatyn, I can factually reconstruct the course of these sisters' lives - from their childhood years, to their student and professional years - in Vienna, Lwow, and Krakow - through their departures for Palestine and America, and until their deaths, 25 years apart.
But, a can I - have I - really gotten to know them as sisters, as women?
Sometimes I feel like I have. I have lived in Lwow (L'viv). Today, I reside in Krakow, walking distance from where Bronia lived in 1930. I have traveled many times to Rohatyn and have sought out and spoken with people who knew them, or of them.
I have walked their streets and stood in front of their residences.
I have meandered along their academic corridors and sat in chairs in lecture rooms at their universities and schools.
Sometimes I think I feel them as I walk their streets. But can I, really? Can I realistically hope to bridge the 75 or 80 intervening years?
As daughters, can I ever truly feel what they must have felt when they learned that their loved ones lie in unmarked mass graves back in Rohatyn?
As sisters, did they cling that much tighter to each other when they learned they were now alone in the world? Did they have persistent and nagging doubts about whether they did all they could have done to convince the family to leave it all behind for the sake of maintaining life?
As women, did they find genuine love? Happiness? Fulfillment?
Can I ever really learn the answers to these timeless, human questions?
I don't think so.
But I will continue trying.....
Next week I am off to “Marshal Józef Piłsudzki” school to walk the corridors of Busko-Zdrój.