In the Ashkenazi heartland, a struggle over ruins and Jewish memory

In the Ashkenazi heartland, a struggle over ruins and Jewish memory

In Lviv, Ukraine, it’s not uncommon to spot faded Hebrew letters on the exterior of buildings as in this photo. (Photo by Jason Francisco)
In Lviv, Ukraine, it’s not uncommon to spot faded Hebrew letters on the exterior of buildings as in this photo. (Photo by Jason Francisco)

Walking through Lviv, a Ukrainian city near the Polish border whose Jewish population is a small fraction of what it once was, it’s not uncommon to spot faded Hebrew letters on the outside of shops. Scattered through town are plaques commemorating vanished sites of Jewish heritage. Graffiti swastikas here and there tell of an age-old hatred etched into cultural memory.

But perhaps the most emblematic symbol of the city’s forgotten Jewish past is the Golden Rose synagogue. In 1941, during the systematic destruction of Lviv’s Jewish population by the occupying Nazi army, it somehow escaped total obliteration.

Now, the ruins sit in a rapidly gentrifying portion of the downtown area, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A flagstone prayer hall once covered by a vaulted dome is now open to the elements and choked with weeds; only the facility’s western wall stands.

Nearly 80 years after the 16th-century synagogue was plundered and brought down with explosives, a battle over its masonry remains is now being fought in the Ukrainian courts and within the local Jewish community.

In July, the city announced in a press release that it would be moving forward with a project dubbed the “Space of Synagogues,” aimed at “raising awareness about the tragedy of the Holocaust, visualizing the common past, and creating new memorial and educational spaces in the city.” Scaffolding went up

and a news conference on the site scored a visit from Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi, a rising star in Ukrainian politics.

But the fanfare has so far failed to drown out the vehement protest and legal opposition of one local Jewish activist, who has almost singlehandedly managed to block the project for years.

Standing more than six feet tall in Hasidic garb and sporting a long white beard, Meylakh Sheykhet appears to be a character taken straight out of the region’s past. His official title is the Ukraine director for the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to protect human rights in Eastern bloc countries.

For Sheykhet, through its destruction by the Nazis and many years of stagnancy under the totalitarian Soviet regime and an independent Ukraine, the synagogue site remained — and will always remain — a place of worship.

“The sites of prayers never lose their sanctity,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how far they were destroyed, they still carry on their sanctity, and they must be respected accordingly.”

Sheykhet claims to safeguard a spiritual connection between world Jewry and its past in the region where Hasidism was born and a rich Ashkenazi culture took seed. But his critics contend that he operates according to his own agenda, without any attempts to build consensus.

The ongoing project, in Sheykhet’s estimation, is an attempt to commercialize Lviv’s Jewish heritage by creating a space and an attraction for surrounding restaurants.

According to Sheykhet, who leads a minyan in a rented hall across from the ruins, anything less than a full restoration of the Golden Rose to its former glory would be a reaffirmation of the Nazi destruction of the city’s Jewish community.

“We don’t want to show that we were, we want to show that we are, despite everything that happened in the bloody 20th century,” he said.

This position has brought Sheykhet into conflict with members of the Lviv Jewish community who contend that the synagogue’s advanced state of dilapidation belies Sheykhet’s dream of a full, historically accurate restoration.

“There are those who say, ‘Let’s build another synagogue,’” Boris Dorfman, 92, one of the city’s oldest Jewish residents, recently told Ukrainian news website “But we live in different times.”

A prevailing sign of those times is that in a city once replete with Zionist, religious and Jewish cultural groups, the synagogue’s restoration is led and funded by a trio of secular organizations: Lviv’s municipal leadership, the Lviv-based Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, and the German Society for International Cooperation development firm. Notably, the project has the support of the local Jewish charity Hesed Arieh.

The renovation effort dates back to a conference on Jewish history in Eastern Europe eight years ago, where Sofia Dyak, director of the Center for Urban History, found herself in a group of historians and museum directors discussing a critical problem in Lviv’s Jewish history: that the heritage of a once-vibrant community is largely invisible to passersby.

“By walking through the streets there’s a very good chance you’ll miss that — that you will actually not know that here there was a synagogue, here there was a Jewish association, and there was a concentration camp,” she said.

After making this “fairly obvious and grim observation,” Dyak and her organization partnered with the city to launch an international competition in 2010 to memorialize Lviv’s Jewish sites, including the Golden Rose. The winning entry for the synagogue site, from a Berlin-based architect, proposed to install “a quiet green area” for solemn contemplation and “a suspended wooden walkway leading from the street [that] becomes a viewing platform from which the archaeological remains of the synagogue can be seen.”

Notably absent from the panel of judges that selected the winner was Meylakh Sheykhet. Dyak said that since it was impossible to include all of Lviv’s Jewish and historical organizations in the panel, the organizers decided to include none. Although Sheykhet was previously on board with the memorial project, he broke with the organizers sometime around the selection of the judges, she said.

Eventually, Sheykhet would successfully obtain an injunction from the Supreme Economic Court of Ukraine to halt the project — until last month.

Sheykhet ascribes the project’s renewal to a photography exhibit at the site by Jason Francisco, a visual artist as well as a professor of photography and Jewish studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Francisco said his interest in the site began after a “deep encounter with this section of Lviv” in 2010 that awoke a direct connection with the destruction of World War II. He undertook the photo series documenting the ruins of the Golden Rose “without necessarily an expectation of becoming sort of a historical agent.”

Nonetheless, the artist concedes that his exhibition generated the political will in Lviv’s city hall to move forward with the project in spite of Sheykhet’s legal objection.

“The exhibition which went up was a kind of signal that was being sent to the city … that people are thinking about the Golden Rose,” Francisco said.

He added, “it dovetailed nicely with plans for larger changes at the Golden Rose.”

Dyak said the project currently being undertaken was not the same as the one Sheykhet sued to stop, and therefore sidesteps his injunction. But it employs the same architect, and she said that the 2010 winning design will assume a “consulting role.”

Dyak stressed that the project would be reversible, according to UNESCO guidelines, meaning a theoretical effort to rebuild the synagogue in the future would be unimpeded.

“It’s the same project with a different name,” Sheykhet said, adding that he is in the process of again taking legal action to halt work on the site.

Francisco described Sheykhet’s opposition as a one-man campaign that doesn’t reflect the opinion of the larger Lviv Jewish community.

“The root of this problem is a lack of coordinated plan for Jewish heritage in Western Ukraine and in Lviv specifically,” he said. “There’s no leadership. The kind of chaos that we see here and the infighting and so forth evolved from that.”

“Really, I think that this project …would be good opportunity for our community to have a very nice Jewish quarter, because at the moment we have a destroyed Jewish quarter,” said Alona Adronitay, director of the local chapter of Hillel International, the Jewish umbrella organization working on more than 550 college campuses.

Adronitay described a working relationship between her organization and the city administration, saying they frequently cooperate on festivals and exhibitions. By contrast, she said that unity within the local Jewish community is decidedly lacking — and that doesn’t even cover the tumultuous relationship between Sheykhet and the city.

“I don’t know what we have to do [about the Golden Rose site], but first of all we have to understand each other,” Adronitay said. “And after that, we can understand what we have to do with our quarter and our history.”