Why an Orthodox Jew Is Fighting the Construction of a Holocaust Memorial in Ukraine

Meylakh Sheykhet, who grew up in Soviet Lviv, worries that the remnants of a once-thriving community will be turned into a tourist trap.

A plaque identifies the remnants of the former Golden Rose Synagogue in Lviv, Ukraine.
Daniel Hoffman

LVIV, Ukraine – Three construction workers, their faces covered in white dust from stonework, meticulously toil away on what later this year will become the first city-sponsored Jewish memorial in Ukraine’s history. On a worn plaque tucked away in a corner, a Star of David sits next to a text that identifies the ruins here as the remnants of the Golden Rose, Ukraine’s oldest synagogue. Between the fenced windows on the wall opposite the plaque, someone has hastily graffitied a black swastika.

Yet there is something more unsettling than the juxtaposition of a Jewish symbol and a Nazi emblem: The main opponent to the memorial project is Meylakh Sheykhet, a long-time fighter for the protection of Jewish sites in Lviv and western Ukraine.

As an Orthodox Jew, Sheykhet finds it offensive to do anything less than rebuild the Golden Rose, which the Nazis burnt to the ground, as a functioning place of worship. And he makes it known in theatrical ways.

“Get out of here, that isn’t yours!” he shouted to the open-mouthed construction crew on a recent visit to the site, kicking wooden boards and ripping up string lines. “You’re doing what the fascists and Soviets did!”  

Despite his objections, the project and others like it are well underway. After years of silence, Ukraine has begun to officially recognize its Jewish past. In a land where almost one million Jews were murdered during World War II, synagogues, cemeteries and other Jewish landmarks destroyed by the Nazis have been left derelict for decades. But the situation has started to change as of late.

In addition to the Golden Rose memorial, the government is now funding a new commemorative complex in Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev where German death squads shot more than 30,000 Jews in 1941. And across the country, dozens of private initiatives aim to restore or preserve Jewish heritage sites.

In Lviv, an international selection committee came up with plans in 2010 for a memorial next to the Golden Rose and at two other Jewish historical sites. “The goal of this project is to bring this edifice into urban presence, to expose it, to open it, to bring the tourists,” says Sergey Kravtsov, a Jewish architect and urban planner who wrote a history of the Golden Rose and was on the selection committee. “To show that once, Jewish history was also a part of this city.”

Nationalist movements, which enjoy popularity in Lviv, have long praised figures like the controversial Stepan Bandera, who fought for an independent Ukraine during World War II but whose forces have been accused of massacring Jews and Poles. Far less emphasis has been placed on figures like Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter, or the celebrated Yiddish-language author Sholem Aleichem, who both lived in Lviv.

“The multicultural history got forgotten because its components, the Poles and the Jews, were expelled or killed,” says journalist and researcher Ruth Ellen Gruber, who was also a judge on the international selection committee. “People don’t have a connection with this history today. But projects like this one are an attempt to bring it back.”

The hard-line opposition of Sheykhet and his organization, the United States-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, goes against the general consensus on the initiative, which has been widely supported by local officials and other Jewish groups.

Growing up in Soviet Lviv, Sheykhet says maintaining his faith under communism required bravery and a strong will. Atheism was state doctrine, and so he remembers his family was constantly watching over their shoulders for the KGB. “We were always afraid,” he says. “We were afraid of everything.”

His father was the leader of underground religious services, which had to convene in a different location every day. In his one-room apartment, he hid prayer books behind stacks of Soviet-approved literature.

After the USSR collapsed and Ukraine gained independence in 1991, Sheykhet devoted his energy to the preservation of western Ukraine’s decaying Jewish sites, facing indifference and finding little external support. Over the years, however, his relentless efforts have been lauded. Near his office desk, a letter signed by John McCain is proudly tacked on a wall. In it, the Republican U.S. Senator congratulates Sheykhet for his important religious and cultural work.

A breaking point

But the Golden Rose initiative was a breaking point. Despite the municipality’s intention to promote the memorial as its flagship project, those involved in the building say Sheykhet began expressing concerns about the city’s plans after he was not included in the selection committee.

“At the very beginning of this initiative, it was a conversation across the table,” says Sofia Dyak, the director of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, an institution that has monitored the Golden Rose project. “But after the competition, a split happened. Meetings became more tense.”

Sheykhet has since filed lawsuits to hold up the memorial’s construction in the courts.

For long, it seemed he was alone in his struggle to preserve Jewish history. Now, as a movement to protect the sites seems to be gaining momentum, Sheykhet is fighting as fervidly as ever for more to be done, though at times even against his newest allies.

While neighboring Poland has led an active policy of commemoration for the past two decades, Ukraine’s efforts to remember its Jewish past are still in their early stages.

“I like to compare Lviv to Krakow,” says Gruber. “Twenty-five years ago, the Jewish quarter in Krakow was a derelict slum. Little by little, because of tourism, things started to happen: Cafés popped out, synagogues were restored, museums opened. Lviv has the same potential. There is enough tangible material to deal with.”

Whereas Jews comprised a third of Lviv’s population before the Holocaust, today there are around 2,000 left in the city. The Golden Rose memorial was meant to be an effort that recognizes those Jews’ contribution to the city’s unique character.

“It’s such a nice project that was meant to unite,” says Liliya Onyshchenko, the head of the Lviv Department of Historic Environment. “But unfortunately we haven’t yet been able to reach understanding with Mr. Meylakh.”

The Orthodox leader worries that the memorial will become nothing more than a tourist trap in the same vein as an Ashkenazi-inspired restaurant, standing right next to the construction site, where servers dress up as stereotyped Jews and try to convince diners to haggle over the final bill.

Many have criticized Sheykhet’s vision as unrealistic; in the midst of a crippling economic crisis, critics think it’s currently infeasible to rebuild the synagogue. Onyshchenko says that when the city consulted with local Jewish groups, they wanted something built quickly on the site. “What we’re doing doesn’t mean that it can’t be rebuilt at anytime in the future if there are funds for it,” she says. “Right now, nobody visits those ruins.”

The Golden Rose is located right in the heart of Lviv’s historical center, just down the street from a popular bunker-themed bar dedicated to Bandera and his forces. Sheykhet holds Shabbat dinners in the crumbling former entrance way of the synagogue. Just a few octogenarian coreligionists gather under the eroded arched ceilings, sitting largely in silence over their plates of buckwheat and fish.

None of them is originally from Lviv, but they’ve forged close links with Sheykhet over the years. After dinner and sparse conversation in Russian, Ukrainian and some English, the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) was recited in Hebrew and guests shuffled out into the starlit spring night. Wishing everyone a peaceful Shabbat, Sheykhet gave a dejected smile and a shrug of his shoulders, promising a larger and livelier gathering on a different occasion.