Ukraine city plans real estate project on top of Holocaust victims’ burial site

Israeli ambassador, Jewish community slam municipality of Poltava for refusing to back down; envoy calls on mayor to ‘stop this historical injustice’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Pupils of a Jewish school in the school vegetable garden in Poltava, Ukraine, before 1917. (Yad Vashem/YVA Photo Collection 4147/55)
Pupils of a Jewish school in the school vegetable garden in Poltava, Ukraine, before 1917. (Yad Vashem/YVA Photo Collection 4147/55)

A Ukrainian city is going ahead with plans to construct residential buildings on top of a site where thousands of Jews were murdered and buried during the Holocaust, drawing the ire of the Israeli ambassador, Hebrew-language media reported.

In September 1941, shortly after Nazi German forces reached the city of Poltava in eastern Ukraine, some 5,000 local Jews were shot dead at the site, known as the “artillery depots,” along with many non-Jews, the Israel Hayom daily said in a Saturday report.

Israeli envoy Joel Lion was said to have written a letter to Acting Poltava Mayor Oleksandr Shamota, urging him to cancel the plan.

“As a representative of the State of Israel, the state of the Jewish people, and as a son of Holocaust survivors, I speak on behalf of those who cannot speak anymore and appeal to your conscience and to the members of your city council to stop this historical injustice,” Lion wrote.

Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Joel Lion. (Wikimedia Commons/Dovernewyork )

“I expect immediate action. You can choose between justice and injustice,” he added in the letter, a copy of which was sent to Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, Culture Minister Yevhen Nyshchuk, and Jewish community leaders.

The plan to enable real estate projects on the land will be discussed next week at the Poltava municipality, the Ynet website reported Monday.

It has faced condemnation from the local Jewish community and the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, the report said. But despite the efforts, including intervention by the Culture Ministry, the municipality is not backing down.

Poltava was known as one of Ukraine’s main Jewish centers in the early 20th century. In 1939, almost 13,000 Jews lived in the city. Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, was born in Poltava, and two major ultra-Orthodox newspapers — Hamodia and Hapeles — were founded in the city.

Many of the Jews managed to escape before Nazi troops occupied Poltava in September 1941. A census showed there were some 5,000 Jews living in the city at the time. The Germans conducted two major murder operations by November.

Last year, a swastika and the words “Heil Hitler” were spraypainted on a monument for Holocaust victims in the city. The vandals, who to this day have not been identified, also wrote, “Death to the kikes.”

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