* Clarification and update appended
Last month, I watched as bulldozers began to demolish parts of the adjacent remnants of what was once one of Europe’s most beautiful synagogue complexes: the 16th-century Golden Rose in Lviv. Most of the rest of the synagogue was burned down, with Jews inside, by the Nazis in 1941.
Critics say the work has already put at risk the remaining, highly fragile sandstone walls of the synagogue, and that the local authorities have allowed the construction to continue even though the Lviv district court ruled on August 19 in favor of the Jewish community to have the worked stopped.
During the war, 42 other synagogues were destroyed in Lviv, which for much of its history was known by its Hapsburg (and Yiddish) name, Lemberg, then in the 20th century renamed Lwow by the Poles, and later Lvov after the Soviets annexed it in 1945. The remnants of the Golden Rose are one of the few remaining vestiges of Jewish existence in Lviv, the majority of whose residents, in 1940, were Jewish.
Lviv had already been the third largest Jewish city in Poland before the war, and then after the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, over 140,000 Jews fled from the Nazi-controlled part of the country into the relative-safety of Soviet-occupied Lvov.
It is not only morally wrong for bulldozers to drill through the last traces of this vibrant past without first giving the handful of remaining Jews here a chance to restore this site, or turn it into a memorial. It is legally wrong too. Ukraine’s own laws are designed to preserve such historic sites.
Residual Anti-Semitism And Real-Estate Greed
The Ukrainian authorities are not the only ones at fault. The synagogue ruins were designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 and yet UNESCO has not protested.
And where is the European football body UEFA?
The Ukrainians plan to build a hotel on the site in time for next year’s European championships. So much for UEFA’s much-hyped campaign to “kick racism out of football.” (In addition to there being some residual anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the authorities seem to be motivated by cultural and historical illiteracy, as well as real-estate greed.)
During the Holocaust, 420,000 Jews, including over 100,000 children, were murdered in Lviv and its environs. The killing was so efficient that the Nazis brought Romanian, Hungarian and other Jews here to be killed once they were done killing the Polish and Ukrainian Jews. There were almost no survivors. Yet you will hardly find any reference to this in the official guide books or in Lviv’s museums. There is no monument to the murdered Jews in Lviv’s old town.
One of Lviv’s last Jews, Meylakh Sheykhet, stands in front of the Citadel Inn. Now a hotel, tens of thousands of Jews and others were tortured to death in this building by the Nazis.
A few elderly people still remember. One woman who approached me as I stood at what used to be the ghetto entrance told me she remembered as a child seeing Jews whipped as they were forced to walk on their knees back and forth for hours until they collapsed and were then shot.
Robert Marshall’s “In the Sewers of Lvov” is a harrowing account of a group of 10 Jews, including two children and a pregnant woman, who managed to survive for 14 months by living among the feces, rats and darkness of the city’s sewers. The Nazis used dogs and grenades to flush out the other 500 who tried to hide there. (The pregnant woman’s baby, born in the sewer, died.)
Fencing Off The Past
The Lviv authorities know it is an outrage to destroy the remains of the Golden Rose, which is why last month they placed a tall fence around the site to hide it from view. Meylakh Sheykhet, one of Lviv’s last Jews, and I needed a long ladder to watch the drills at work.
For more than 20 years, Sheykhet has campaigned to stop the authorities destroying any more historic Jewish sites and to encourage them to mark the sites of over 1,000 mass graves with memorial plaques.
“It is hard to imagine these sites being treated less respectfully," he says. “Over the tombstones of some of history’s greatest rabbis, there are now movie theatres, discos and car parks.”
Two years ago, another site of mass murder in Lviv, the Citadel -- where tens of thousands of Jews and others (including citizens of many countries) were tortured to death -- was converted into a five star hotel. Amazingly, the hotel is owned by Volodymyr Gubitsky, the deputy regional governor responsible for the preservation of culture and heritage.
In the 16th century Lemberg was a tolerant city where many ethnic groups lived side by side. Is the world today really so intolerant that it can’t countenance conserving the remains of this once flourishing Jewish community and leave the murdered to rest in peace?
[UPDATE: The construction of the new hotel that threatened parts of the remnants of the 16th-century Golden Rose synagogue complex in Lviv has been abruptly halted after a domestic and international outcry.
Anna Herman, an adviser to Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the capital, Kyiv, said the president’s office had asked the authorities in Lviv to stop the work, and the Lviv authorities had now complied.
“This place is important for the memory of hundreds of thousands of Jews murdered in the Lviv region,” the leading Ukrainian news magazine "Korrespondent" reported Herman as saying. “Even the communists never built over this place. Or should we be more barbaric than them?”
Meylakh Sheykhet, a Jewish leader in Lviv, confirmed that the work had stopped but said he hoped it would not resume at a later date, and that the authorities in Lviv will now proceed with the construction of a Holocaust memorial in the old Jewish quarter, something that Lviv’s handful of remaining Jews have long asked for. He said that some damage had been caused to the remains of the Golden’s Rose’s mikveh and other Jewish artifacts before the construction was halted.
He also said that another new hotel project built on a former site of mass murder in Lviv, the Citadel, in which tens of thousands of Jews and Russian, Ukrainian, and other prisoners were killed between 1941-44, remains a five-star hotel, and activists are campaigning for the site to be turned into a place of memorial or a museum.]
* This commentary was originally published on September 7. The first two paragraphs were subsequently amended for purposes of clarity. An update has also been added by the author.
Tom Gross is a former East European correspondent for "The Daily Telegraph." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL