In Ukraine, fight for Jewish heritage flounders

Efforts to uncover ancient cemetery in Lviv repeatedly thwarted.

LIMMUD FSU founder Chaim Chesler (left) sits with Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi (center) and Ukraine Ambassador Eliav Belotserkovsky at the organization’s conference in Lviv, Ukraine (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
LIMMUD FSU founder Chaim Chesler (left) sits with Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi (center) and Ukraine Ambassador Eliav Belotserkovsky at the organization’s conference in Lviv, Ukraine
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI)
LVIV, Ukraine – On a recent Saturday afternoon, shopkeepers at the Krakivsky Market, Lviv’s largest shopping outlet, sold everything from fish to army fatigues. At one of the entrances to the labyrinthine complex, a puppy adoption stand commanded the attention of passersby.
No physical evidence remains above-ground of the sprawling and ancient Jewish necropolis underfoot. Dating back to 1348, the old Jewish cemetery was ravaged during the Holocaust and subsequently paved over under the Stalinist regime.
Intermittent construction has continued since then and attempts at preservation have been repeatedly thwarted by a lack of political and financial capital – often equivalent in Ukraine’s post-Soviet bureaucracy.
The Lviv cemetery is a particularly vexing example of a problem facing the country’s Jewish heritage sites: the number and scale of such sites far outpace the ability of the depleted Jewish population to protect them.
A 2005 survey indicated the country of 65,000 Jews – many unaffiliated with any formal community – sported at least 731 Jewish cemeteries and 365 one-time places of worship, including 30 now used as warehouses or workshops, 16 as residences and three as churches.
Others have been converted into sports halls, administrative buildings, factories, and schools, among other private and commercial uses.
A history written in stone.
In most cases, treatment of these sites is a local issue and therefore at the whim of local authorities to adjudicate.
“In some cases it’s apathy, in some cases it’s worse than that, and in some cases it’s better,” said Yaakov Dov Bleich, Ukraine’s chief rabbi. “You have to understand there’s no national policy being implemented.”
In Lviv, Meylakh Sheyhket, a Jewish activist who heads the American-Ukrainian Bureau on Human Rights and Rule of Law, has been fighting since 1989 for a restoration of the cemetery and the protection of other Jewish sites.
In the lobby of a local hotel where more than 600 participants had gathered for Limmud FSU, an annual festival of Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe, he described the “terrible chutzpah” of city officials here.
“They don’t respect the Jewish right to own the gravesite and the historical heritage,” he said.
“They say they want the Jewish people to pay for them to leave (the market). This is very embarrassing for the Jewish people.”
For the three days of Limmud FSU conference, Lviv’s Jewish community captured the attention of city hall. A city official spoke at a panel with Eli Belotsercovsky, ambassador to Ukraine and Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi addressed the conference’s opening ceremony.
“I want you to have all your conferences here in Lviv,” he said. “We love (the Jewish community) and we wish you only positive and good things.”
In the course of the conference, city officials inspected a site where a group of prewar Jewish residents emerged from 14 months of hiding in Lviv’s sewer. They promised a plaque would be installed on the spot.
But Sheykhet, a long-time resident of Lviv, questions Sadovyi’s sincerity.
“I was shocked that the mayor of the city came to speak to the Jewish people who he himself desecrates, the Lviv Jewish citizens who perished just for being born Jewish,” he said. “And he doesn’t do anything to preserve their memory.”
The extent of city hall’s recent efforts toward preservation was a 2011 competition to design memorial structures for the city’s Jewish sites – a project Sheykhet opposed in a successful lawsuit, on the grounds that it would further degrade the sites.
Today, the municipality maintains a stony silence on the Jewish cause. Earlier this year, a Lviv official told Ukrainian news outlet Kiev Vlast that “today nobody in the mayor’s office discusses this issue or raises this question officially.”
The inertia from city hall on the cemetery restoration has withstood local, national and international attempts to move the market. Most recently, in 2010 the Ukrainian government placed the cemetery under Krakivsky Market on a list of the nation’s heritage sites, strengthening the legal battle to move the bazaar.
But much of the political will to protect Ukraine’s Jewish heritage sites comes from the United States, which in 1994 signed an agreement with Ukraine setting guidelines for their preservation.
In 1997, the US Agency for International Development commissioned and published a report recommending a relocation of the Krakivsky Market and offering three alternatives for how that might be accomplished.
The proposals ranged in price from $4 million to $12m.
The report noted that “the Lviv city budget cannot provide the capital investment required for even the lowest cost scenario.”
As a result, the city chose none of the above.
Instead, Sheykhet says, they asked the Jewish community to pay the $12m sum to move the market.
The sliver of park between the market and the old Jewish hospital to the south is the only undisturbed area where human remains are thought to lie. The rest of the burial area lies under the periphery of the market, stopping short of Krakivsky’s central structure.
Among those buried there are several prominent Jewish personalities, including David HaLevi Segal, a leading 17th Century scholar on the Shulchan Aruch Jewish codebook and the most notable leader of Lviv’s historic Turei Zahav synagogue, now in ruins.
Gravesites of rabbinical sages hold a spiritual attraction for Hassidim and other religious Jews. For instance, the tomb of Rabbi Nachman, the founder of Breslov Hassidim, inspires an annual pilgrimage to his burial site in Uman in central Ukraine.
Segal and other sages buried in Lviv face a less notable fate.
Many tombstones belonging to Lviv’s Jews became part of the foundation of the market, and some can be seen today girding the hills on which it stands.
Alex Nazar is the president of a Jewish society in Lviv that operates out of one of the city’s two remaining historic synagogues.
He said that tombstones were thrown into trash heaps when workers began hacking at the market’s foundation stones during expansion in the early 2000’s.
“When the market became bigger, they started to ruin the old foundation, and in the foundation was a lot of bricks and part of these... were matzevas (tombstones),” he said. “They threw them away like garbage.”
In their defense, the workers “didn’t understand what they were doing,” he said. Tombstones were later found in a pile of rubble intended to be repurposed as building material.
“When we found them, we started to take them back to the location of the Jewish cemetery,” Nazar said.
Flat, heavy tombstones were coveted by Soviet administrators as construction material, and its likely that many tombstones from the cemetery were carried away to be used in buildings around town.
“This happened all over the area, not only in Lviv” in the wake of World War II, said Shimon Redlich, an emeritus professor of history at Ben Gurion University. “What happened is that nobody keeps guard of a place like that, and since it’s Jewish it’s open to anybody and everybody.”
A native of Berezhany, about 90 km. outside of Lviv, Redlich assumes he was born in the old Jewish hospital next to Krakivsky, though he can’t be sure.
Redlich said that along with other former Berezhany residents, he made an effort to preserve the crumbling remains of the synagogue he attended as a child. He said the efforts were foiled when local authorities asked for “exorbitant sums” to care for the site.
Speaking in a weed-choked Holocaust memorial outside Lviv earlier this month, Tel Aviv University history professor David Assaf called this phenomenon hon vezikaron – capital and memorial.
“Generally in Eastern Europe and especially in Ukraine, since the zikaron (memorial) issue is not organized by national authority, it’s open to private initiatives, and so those who have interest and money and energy take initiative and build their own private memory,” he said Thursday.
In Lviv, hope for the relocation of Krakivsky Market looks dim. Responding to requests for comment from the Ukrainian newspaper, a representative of the market said, “there will be no relocation of the market and no other dreams that you describe coming true. The market functions and shall function,” she added, and hung up.
Undaunted, Sheykhet says he plans to file a new lawsuit for relocation in the coming months.
But the scale and number of Ukraine’s Jewish sites seems to resist scattered efforts from dedicated individuals like Sheykhet.
Even once Jewish sites are reclaimed by the community – and Bleich estimates that a “miniscule percentage” actually are – they still require large sums to stave off dilapidation.
Meanwhile, the stop-and-go construction has turned developers into unwitting archaeologists.
The excavation of a basement for a proposed hotel next to the Turei Zahav synagogue uncovered springs from the 15th century that appear to have been used for Jewish mikvaot, or ritual baths.
The construction site now stands silent. A successful lawsuit filed by Sheykhet ground the project to a halt – for now.