Human rights group: Jewish mausoleum fire in Ukraine possibly arson

Municipal authorities gave Jewish community permission to add memorial monuments to the park surrounding the mausoleum.

 Central part of Kolomyia, Ukraine (photo credit: SKOROPADSKY/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Central part of Kolomyia, Ukraine
A Jewish mausoleum in western Ukraine burned down in what a human rights group said may have been a deliberate arson attack connected with a dispute over a commemoration project.
The grave site of Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein, a 19th-century Jewish sage and former chief rabbi of the Ukrainian city of Kolomyia, was partially destroyed last week in a fire that began in the early hours of the morning, according to a report published on Monday by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.
The watchdog said the fire was the second arson within two months committed at the grave site, which is located inside a sealed room at the center of a Kolomyia park that used to be a Jewish cemetery.
The previous arson occurred on September 18 and was extinguished before it spread.
This month, however, the fire caused extensive damage to the structure around the grave site, consuming the walls and the roof.
Municipal authorities gave the Jewish community permission to add memorial monuments to the park surrounding the mausoleum.
Soviet authorities destroyed the Jewish cemetery that used to stand there.
But a dispute arose when the community said it would close off the park for two years for the duration of work on the monuments, according to the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (EAJC). Residents were angered by the closure, which began on September 17, the Kharkiv group wrote.
Western Ukraine is a stronghold of the nationalist Svoboda party, whose officials on many occasions have used anti-Semitic rhetoric.
The arson happened shortly before the second annual Jewish learning conference of Limmud FSU in Lviv, where hundreds of Jews convened over the weekend.
Anti-Semitic incidents are much more rare in Ukraine than in Western European countries. The Congress of National Communities of Ukraine documented 11 such incidents this year. The number of incidents documented in 2009-2014 ranged from 19 to 33 per year.
However, while anti-Semitic violence remains low by Western European standards, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) of Ukraine recorded a spike in anti-Semitic vandalism in the country last year.
Vyacheslav Likhachev, who monitors anti-Semitism for the EAJC and the VAAD, recorded 23 such incidents over the course of the year within both Ukrainian- and separatist-held territory.
Counts of vandalism had held steady at nine annually since 2011, having fallen from a peak of 21 in 2006.
Popular targets were Holocaust memorials, including Kiev’s Babi Yar. Several synagogues, in Zaporizhya, Simferopol, Mykolaiv, Kiev and Hust, were marked for attempted arson attacks.
In September, after a memorial for the Holocaust massacre site of Babi Yar was desecrated for the sixth time in a year, local Jewish leaders issued a demand that the government protect their heritage.
“The last act of brutal vandalism at Babi Yar – the site of massacre of tens of thousands of Jews – is not just a public insult of honor and dignity of the Jewish people, but also a humiliation for the country and its government, whose inaction made possible this crime as well as other similar acts of abuse in Kiev and other Ukrainian settlements,” the leaders of the several Jewish organizations said in a joint letter.
Representatives of the Jewish Council of Ukraine, Jewish Forum of Ukraine, Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, Ukrainian Jewish Committee, Council of Jewish Religious Communities, Council of Progressive Communities and Conservative movement in Ukraine, and others, decried the vandalism as part of a “much larger problem of abuse of hundreds of Jewish massacre sites throughout the country.
“We demand the immediate and effective steps to prevent vandalism in the future along with the strengthening of criminal responsibility for vandalism and punishment of the organizers and executors of this crime,” they wrote at the time. “[The] almost no reaction of civil society and mass media, no feedback from authorities and law enforcement agencies in respect to the events in Babi Yar clearly indicates ignorance of the society in respect to the largescale tragedy that happened to the Jews of Ukraine during the Holocaust.”
Following that attack, the Ukrainian prime minister issued a statement promising action and alleging that the country was “facing well-planned and thoroughly prepared provocations” whose purpose is to “throw discredit upon Ukrainian authorities and to destabilize the internal political situation in Ukraine.”
The issue of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism has been used by both sides in the conflict as a propaganda weapon.
Russia has repeatedly accused the Ukrainian government of being under the control of fascists and neo-Nazis while some Ukrainian Jewish leaders have countered by accusing Moscow of fomenting anti-Semitic incidents for its own propaganda.