Kaliningrad Jews battle circus over restoring synagogue

Local rabbi: Circus turned down 400,000 euros to relocate from site of Russian Jewish house of worship destroyed by Nazis.

Crowd gather where Konigsberg Synagogue once stood (photo credit: Courtesy of Rabbi David Shvedik)
Crowd gather where Konigsberg Synagogue once stood
(photo credit: Courtesy of Rabbi David Shvedik)
Jews in the Russian city of Kaliningrad want to reconstruct a grand synagogue on the same spot where it stood before the Nazis destroyed it, but first they have to evict the current tenants: the local circus.
Rabbi David Shvedik told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday he has been trying for years to relocate the circus from the vacant plot where the majestic Konigsberg Synagogue once stood but to no avail.
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“We own the land but they won’t leave,” he said on the phone from Kaliningrad. “They’ve threatened us by saying if they were forced to leave and then all the children will be angry at the Jews because there’d be no more circus in town.”
The Chabad emissary said members of the local Jewish community have tried to pay the circus to move.
“We don’t want a war,” Shvedik said, “which is why we’ve offered them 400,000 euros to go but they said no.”
Kaliningrad is the capital of an eponymous Russian exclave bordering Poland to the south, Lithuania to the north and separated by hundreds of kilometers from the rest of the country. The city was formerly known as Konigsberg and was part of Germany until 1945 when it was conquered by the Soviets who expelled its German inhabitants renaming it Kaliningrad in honor of a communist politician.
Before the Nazis rose to power the city was home to a relatively small but influential Jewish community. Political theorist Hannah Arendt, Leah Rabin, the late wife of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Moshe Smoira, the first president of the Supreme Court, were born there. Many members of the community fled Nazi persecution before World War II. Most of those who remained were killed in the Holocaust.
Shvedik said the new synagogue in Kaliningrad would be an exact replica of the Konigsberg Synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938. Besides religious services, the rabbi said it would house a nursery and community center serving 2,000 Jews in the region.
Despite the deadlock, Shvedik laid a cornerstone for the synagogue last month in a ceremony attended by Kaliningrad Mayor Alexander Yaroshuk as originally reported by chabad.org.
“I believe it will take two years to build,” he said optimistically.
Asked if he were willing to consider another location, Shvedik categorically refused.
“We are continuing the tradition from when Jews lived here when it was Konigsberg,” he said. “There was a rich Jewish life here and we want to renew it.”