Friday, 15 July 2011

Ukraine’s Vanquished Jews: Daunting struggle to preserve Jewish heritage

LVIV – By the end of World War II, Lviv had not only seen its Jewish population nearly eliminated, but also suffered the destruction of much of its heritage, including the city’s two main synagogues.

Little effort was made during the Soviet period to preserve Jewish culture, leaving historians, politicians and activists now with a tough quandary – how do you safeguard and promote a culture several decades after it was almost wiped out?

Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine’s representative in the Union of Councils for Jews in the former Soviet Union, is a driving force in preserving western Ukraine’s decaying Jewish cultural heritage. He said his aim is to try to preserve as much of it as possible, however challenging that may be financially or practically.

“These things remind us of the extraordinarily beautiful culture that was in Halychyna,” said Sheykhet. “It was a glorious community life that definitely shows there was harmony between Ukrainians and Jews.”

For nearly two decades, often working with limited resources, Sheykhet has tirelessly traveled throughout western Ukraine to ensure Jewish cultural remnants are preserved. It has not been an easy job for the 58-year-old, who has lived in Lviv nearly his entire life.

Not only is Sheykhet racing against time, neglect and the elements, he is also fighting apathy from some segments of the Ukrainian population, which does not always recognize Jewish culture as part of its own.

For instance, since 2003 he has been at loggerheads with local officials in Sambir, a town south of Lviv, to remove three large Christian crosses erected in the Jewish part of the cemetery. Visits by international figures like former Canadian-Ukrainian parliamentarian Borys Wrzesnewskyj and Mark Freiman, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, have not changed local minds.

Before World War II, today’s western Ukraine boasted artifacts that reflected a culturally rich Jewish life. The landscape was dotted with cemeteries and synagogues, while towns and villages, often home to a population comprised largely of Jews, bore entire Jewish quarters with unique religious and residential structures
By the end of the war, much of that heritage, including some of its most precious treasures, was deliberately destroyed or desecrated by the Nazis, and later the Soviets. Lviv lost two remarkable synagogues – the ornate 16th century Golden Rose Synagogue and its surrounding religious complex, and the 19th century Temple Synagogue, a Baroque structure with a large dome.

In Lviv and Ternopil oblasts, once storied cemeteries which boasted headstones from the 14th century became overgrown with weeds. Others became trash dumps or favorite spots for children to play in or for livestock to graze.

Other necropolises, like those in Lviv, were destroyed all together. Headstones, many elaborately decorated and telling the stories of their owner’s lives, were torn out of the ground and used to pave city streets. Lviv’s ancient Jewish cemetery became the site of a local bazaar, Krakivsky Market, where stalls and booths were erected atop ground where some of Judaism’s most revered rabbis are buried.

Sheykhet’s efforts, however, have borne fruit on a small scale, although the success is decidedly mixed. He has ensured that a fence be placed around a Jewish graveyard in Brody to keep grazing livestock at bay, although the city’s synagogue, which only a few years ago could have been saved, now has a collapsed roof that puts in doubt its resurrection.

n Ternopil’s Pidhaitsi, he was also able to get a fence placed around the cemetery, even though he had heated discussions with local authorities over where one section actually ended. He still has been unable to raise money for a desperately-needed roof to cover Pidhaitsi’s synagogue, even though it is one of the region’s oldest remaining structures of Jewish heritage.

Sheykhet has researched on several continents old maps and archival documents to locate more information about Jewish places of interest, and has obtained aerial photos to find locations where Jews were shot during the war en masse – such as in nearby Vynnyky – in western Ukraine. Now he just needs local municipalities to acknowledge and honor those places.

Sheykhet also received a $32,000 grant from the U.S. government to fund archaeological research in 2010 at the Golden Rose Synagogue and it religious complex. Digs, however, have been suspended as he battles a developer in court who wants to build a hotel complex in the heart of Lviv’s old Jewish district.

The hotel structures would incorporate a one-time yeshiva – a religious school for boys – and closely border what remains of the Golden Rose.
Recently, however, Sheykhet scored a major victory when the government in Kyiv decreed that two priority locations in Lviv have religious and historic significance. The diktats noted that Krakivsky Market was sacred ground, opening the door to its possible relocation, although everyone recognizes the difficulties involved.

The other order involves Lviv’s Citadel, a 19th-century military fortress located in the middle of town that the Nazis used as a prisoner of war camp during World War II.

“Jewish prisoners of war were separated from their countrymen and kept in particularly harsh conditions, stripped naked, confined in the basement, 30 men to a cell, and starved to death,” Sheykhet said. More than 144,000 inmates died of disease or were executed at the Citadel, some of them buried in mass graves in the fortress courtyard.

Jews and officers were executed at the Citadel’s main tower, which was known as the “Tower of Death,” Sheykhet said. The tower now houses a luxury hotel and restaurant.

Because the bazaar and the Citadel are now protected as part of Ukraine’s historical-cultural heritage, Sheykhet will have more room to maneuver to prevent further desecration of the cemetery at Krakivsky Market. The decrees may also finally halt plans on the part of Lviv’s municipal authorities to build a hotel complex, with a large conference center, on the Citadel.

On June 22, on the 70th anniversary of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, authorities unveiled a large cross honoring the many nationalities that perished there during the war.

The journey in preserving Jewish memory has at times been a lonely one for Sheykhet, who is single. He has watched his friends, including his sister, emigrate over the years.

Still, Sheykhet said he has no plans to give up his fight. “Who else will do it?” he asked.

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