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Controversy as Lviv opens Jewish memorial on site of historic synagogue

Community group says project in Ukraine is a ruse to create a public park at the expense of a heritage site

Memorial monument under construction at site of the Golden Rose Synagogue in Lviv, Ukraine, May 22, 2016. (CC BY-SA 2.0 Adam Jones/Flikr)
Memorial monument under construction at site of the Golden Rose Synagogue in Lviv, Ukraine, May 22, 2016. (CC BY-SA 2.0 Adam Jones/Flikr)

MOSCOW (JTA) — The city of Lviv in western Ukraine inaugurated a controversial memorial monument on part of what used to be the Golden Rose Synagogue complex.

The inauguration on Sunday, designated the European Day of Jewish Culture, of the Synagogue Space in Lviv was led by Mayor Andriy Sadovy despite legal action against it by Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Hundreds attended the unveiling.

The project, which is supported by some Jews in Lviv, including the Chesed-Arieh association, features a memorial space with commemorative stone slabs on one area of the 16th-century Golden Rose Synagogue complex, which the Nazis largely destroyed in the 1940s.

Started in July 2015, the Space of Synagogues project also includes the conversational cementing of some of the complex’s foundations and relics.

Sheykhet objected to the project, calling it a ruse to create a public park at the expense of a Jewish heritage site in a central area of the city, in a manner that he said serves tourist industry interests but falls short of international commemoration standards.

“It’s a disgrace and a project that sells out on the memory of the murdered,” said Sheykhet.

But Sofia Dyak, director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, which is leading the project in partnership with the Lviv City Council, defended the project as “something dignified that exposes countless Ukrainians to the destruction of Lviv’s Jewish community” precisely because of its central location.

Sheykhet, who is one of a handful of Orthodox Jews living in Lviv, has lobbied for the synagogue’s reconstruction in a city that has a Jewish population of 1,200 – a vision his critics say is unrealistic. Dyak said the current commemoration project may be expanded on in the future, but that right now, “something is better than nothing.”

In 1939, Lviv was home to 110,000 Jews — a third of its total population.

In 2014, a Ukrainian court issued an injunction against the city’s plan to move ahead with designs for memorial projects in three Jewish sites in Lviv, including the Golden Rose Synagogue complex. The designs were selected in 2010 in an international competition. The Higher Economic Court of Ukraine ruled that the plans did not conform to local and international standards and procedures.

But the city obtained from the Ministry of Culture permission to go ahead at Golden Rose with a design similar to the one selected in the competition, and by the same German architect, Franz Reschke. Groundwork on the Space of Synagogues projects began in July last year.

Sheykhet sued again, arguing the project violated the 2014 court ruling. A verdict is expected later this month. He said the courts were deliberately dragging their feet on his lawsuit, when in the meantime the project has been completed.

Dyak rejected this assertion, saying: “The project is fully compliant with the law, or it would not have existed.”

The city also plans to create a memorial park on part of the Old Jewish Cemetery of Lviv, a plan which Sheykhet has vowed to fight because he and some rabbis believe it would violate religious Orthodox laws against disturbing Jewish graves.

The issue of commemorating sites and persons connected to the Holocaust is divisive in Ukraine, where anti-Russian sentiment is rife and where streets were named recently for pro-Nazi collaborators whose troops killed Jews.

Jewish leaders critical of this development have also spoken out against the perceived desecration of Holocaust sites, including in the city of Kovel near Lviv, where this summer a traveling zoo was set up atop a mass grave of Jewish Holocaust victims.

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