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Hospital renovation unearths parts of Crimean synagogue long thought destroyed

Construction workers find metal frame with Star of David locked inside at site of 19th-century house of worship in Bilohirsk that was built by and for Krymchaks

The mortar-covered frame of a synagogue's stained glass window is visible following renovations at the hospital of Bilohirsk in Crimea. (Crimea24 via JTA)
The mortar-covered frame of a synagogue's stained glass window is visible following renovations at the hospital of Bilohirsk in Crimea. (Crimea24 via JTA)

JTA — The renovation of a hospital in an area that Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014 yielded the discovery of parts of a 19th-century synagogue that was thought to have been completely destroyed.

The synagogue in Bilohirsk, a city in central Crimea, was built in the middle of the 19th century by and for Krymchaks, a Jewish minority who related to to Karaites, another dwindling Jewish group, and are believed to be descended from Georgian Jews.

In 2007, the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress estimated there were only 300 Krymchaks in Ukraine, when Crimea was still controlled by that country. Russia invaded and annexed the territory in 2014.

In the early 20th century, Communist officials shut down the synagogue and turned it into a warehouse. Later, a hospital built at the location was heavily bombed during World War II, then rebuilt. All traces of the building’s previous function were thought to have been destroyed.

So construction workers were astonished to discover a circular metal frame with a Star of David locked inside it during renovations at the hospital last month. Boasting a diameter of nine feet, the frame was trapped in a slab of concrete and once was one of the synagogue’s several stained glass windows. An expensive and elaborate feature, it reflected the relative wealth of the Krymchak community during what many historians consider its heyday.

The window’s arch also survived, leading to a reassessment of the construction plan so that engineers can preserve what remains of the former synagogue, the Crimea24 broadcaster reported.

As all other Jewish communities, the Krymchak one suffered under communism. But the Nazis nearly destroyed it and the Karaites. Now, only a few hundred people, most of them middle aged, identify as Karaites or Krymchaks.

The rich history of Crimean Jewry has not been thoroughly documented, Mikhail Kizilov, a historian who specializes in Karaite history, told Crimea24 that aired last month about the find.

“Little is known about who built our synagogues. For example, there were about 12 synagogues in Simferopol, but we have no data on the architects of any of them,” he said about the capital city of Crimea. “And there are practically no photographs,”

Earlier this year, Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky unveiled a bill that he said was designed to preserve the heritage of the Krymchaks, the Karaites and the Tatars, a Muslim people.

But by designating those groups “indigenous peoples,” Zelensky, who is himself Jewish, angered Russia, which zealously guards the interests of Ukraine’s ethnic Russian minority.

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