Lviv (western Ukraine) is proceeding to implement the Synagogue Area Project in the old Jewish Quarter where only walls and foundations of the Golden Rose Synagogue have survived.
The Lviv community and City Council have been talking for years about organizing memorials to the Jewish population that suffered greatly during the German occupation. The city centre is undergoing major reconstruction and renovation of the Second World War remains of the Golden Rose Synagogue and House of Learning.
The Jewish Quarter covers several streets in the heart of the city. Today, it is in ruins and fenced off from passers-by. It was the centre of Jewish religious and cultural life up to the Second World War.
The first synagogue was built in the 14th century, but the building burned down in 1527 during the great fire, which spread through the entire city. The Golden Rose synagogue was built in 1582, and a new synagogue was added in 1801. The House of Learning – Beit Ha-Midrash – used to stand between them. Funds allocated by the local community and the German government will be used to reconstruct the Synagogue Area.
Meylakh Sheykhet, Director of the Centre for Jewish Studies and Chairman of the Jewish religious community Turei Zahav believes that the area has not been properly preserved and there is a major problem with groundwater. He complains that the City Council ignores how the Jewish community feels about this sacred place:
“Archaeological studies have not been conducted everywhere. A scientific council was supposed to convene and examine the material, but it didn’t. This is a national cultural heritage site under the supervision of the Cabinet of Ministers and UNESCO. Any major reconstruction decisions should be taken by our government and not the local City Council. In September, Lviv municipal authorities modified the limits of the historical city centre, thanks to which the city has been included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites. One explanation – the city council wants to do what it likes in this area. Members of the City Council are acting in a very negligent way.”
The Lviv City Council maintains that next year a section of the Jewish Quarter – the Synagogue Area – will be open for inspection – this is a mutual understanding with the Jewish community and rabbis – and permits will be issued for the restoration and conservation of these ruins.
Liliya Onyshchenko, Head of the Lviv Department of Historic Environment:
“We must preserve the synagogue; the Jewish community wants to rebuild it. Restoration is always problematic. For example, a piece of plaster came off and we found inscriptions on the synagogue walls. It was traditional to write prayers on the walls because not everyone had a prayer book, so people could turn and read their prayers.”
However, if this section of the Jewish Quarter is rebuilt and becomes another tourist spot, the other area – the former Religious House of Learning located next to the synagogue – may be lost forever. The remains were purchased for 19 million UAH in 2007 by Ukrainian Investment Systems (a Kyiv-based company), which also bought the right to lease the land for 49 years. It began pouring the foundation for a hotel, but the Jewish community appealed the case, claiming its rights to the territory. The construction of the hotel was recognized as illegal and stopped.
“They have no right to build a hotel on this land. They received permission for a smaller area, but proceeded to take over the whole courtyard.” says Meylakh Sheykhet.The court has ordered the City Council to mount a plaque on the building, which is overgrown with trees and plants, stating that the area is a historical monument under state protection.
“But this is private property and the owner has no access to it. The owner – Ukrainian Investment Systems – is leasing the land. They have appealed the decision as they’ve already paid for leasing rights.” remarks Liliya Onyshchenko.
The city administration admits that if nothing is done in this section of the Jewish Quarter, it will be completely destroyed. The dispute has lasted eight years and during this time, the area has become a total ruin, where open construction pits threaten neighbouring buildings. The mayor’s office is at a dead end… Meanwhile, the Kyiv Economic Court of Appeal has ordered the Lviv City Council to pay Ukrainian Investment Systems 71 million UAH compensation for an unlawfully issued construction permit. The City Council will appeal the court decision, but the more time is lost, the greater the chances of seeing an important national heritage site disappear forever.
According to various sources, 130,000 Jews lived in Lviv, but only 800 people survived the Second World War. The preservation of the Jewish Quarter is a tribute to the Jewish community, which together with Ukrainians, Poles, Armenians and other nationalities contributed to the unique atmosphere of the city.