Lviv: Notes on Jewish Oblivion

On September 2nd, 2018, an article addressing the efforts of the Lviv urban authorities to preserve the memory of the city’s Jewish population killed in the Holocaust appeared in the Torontonian newspaper Star. It referenced the commemoration ceremony dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the elimination of the Lwow ghetto. The ceremony was attended by the city mayor — currently also a presidential candidate in the 2019 elections — Andriy Sadovyi. On the photo featured in the article, Sadovyi was depicted together with Marla Osborn, the leader of the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage project, which takes care of restoring Jewish heritage in the area, primarily focusing on cemeteries and tombstones. On the picture, Sadovyi and Osborn hold a glass copy of a metal key from one of the city’s pre-war synagogues. In the words of Iryna Matsevko, the deputy director of Lviv’s Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, the ceremony was “the first time the western Ukrainian city has acknowledged the efforts [to preserve the Jewish heritage] in such an extensive way”. She added that she would “want [the process] to be quicker, but for the last 10 years we have seen how the Jewish heritage is returning to people’s consciousness and a lot of activities are taking place”. Our group went to Lviv to see whether the situation around its Jewish heritage and memory indeed corresponds to Ms. Matsevko’s description.

Holocaust Memory in Lviv: Oblivion, Nationalism, and Touristification

Since Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the situation around the Jewish heritage in Lviv has been continuously marked by the interplay of two dynamics — that of virtual Jewishness and that of Ukraine’s nationalist identity building. Out of approximately 260,000 Jews that inhabited Lwow on the eve of the WWII, 215,000 were murdered in ‘Jewish actions’ and pogroms, shot in the Holocaust by bullet, “gassed at Bełżec, or worked to death over a period of three years” (Brandon and Lower, 2008, p. 5). The Soviet anti-semitic policies and the emergence of the post-1991 possibility to emigrate freely contributed to the further decline of the city’s Jewish population, which today is estimated to be around 2,000 people. With its Jewish life almost non-existent, the city of Lviv provides a striking example of what Ruth Ellen Gruber has famously called “virtual Jewishness”, a notion that refers to the increasing emergence of Jewish-themed cultural and touristic events and enterprises without the involvement of Jews themselves (Gruber, 2002). Probably the most infamous example of the usage of “Jewishness” for attracting tourists is provided by a Pid Zolotoju Rozoju restaurant, where non-Jewish waiters use Jewish names and wear fake payot, and where the menu has no prices, because “it’s a Jewish tradition to haggle and bargain afterward”. The restaurant’s name refers to the destroyed Golden Rose Synagogue, whose ruins are located no further than 20 meters from its door. Less notorious cases include — but are not limited to — the city’s upscale Baczewski Restaurant, which has an eating room with menorahs on the tables and “Jewish” (but non-kosher) dishes in the menu. 

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Interior of Baczewski Restaurant in Lviv. Author’s photo.

Such touristification of “virtual Jewishness” takes place at the backdrop of a near-complete oblivion of the Holocaust memory in the city. Very few monuments or memorials exist in Lviv today, with two major ones being the Monument to Lviv Ghetto Victims, which was installed — without any public assistance — by the local Jewish community in 1992, and the monument outside of the former Janowska Forced Labor Camp, which was erected by its survivor, Alexander Schwarz, in 1993. Schwarz’s further efforts “to create a commemorative complex on the site of the former camp […] have failed due to resistance from the local authorities” (Bartov, 2008, p. 324). The individual and communal efforts to establish and preserve the memory about the Holocaust that began in the early 1990s could not be sustained without governmental support: rather than remembering to forget, Lviv never tackled the oblivion of its Jewish memory. At the same time, since 1991 “the city has been asserting its Ukrainian character, primarily by representing itself as the main victim of totalitarianism, prejudice, and violence” (Bartov, 2008, p. 325), thus creating a nationalist identity that came to rely on a very selective use of the region’s past, specifically with respect to the memory about OUN-UPA, an organisation that carried out ethnic cleansing of Poles in the region and whose members were involved in acts of anti-semitic violence during and after the War.

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Monument to Lviv Ghetto Victims (1992). Photo by Slava Afán.

During our visit, we decided to see how exactly is the city’s Jewish heritage being brought to the public discourse and how well it is being preserved by the city authorities and by the local NGOs. In order to do that, we focused on three separate, yet very much intertwined, issues: on the condition of one of the Lviv’s two remaining synagogues, on the modus operandi of two of the city’s Jewish NGOs, and on the role of the local authorities in supporting the preservation of the Jewish heritage. The following text is structured around these three themes as it reconstructs the story of our visit.

Jakob Glanzer Shul: The Case of Recent Oblivion

Prior to our arrival, I established contact with Sasha Nazar, the director of Sholom Aleikhem Cultural Center, an NGO that strives to preserve the Jewish heritage of Lviv. Located in the non-functioning Hassidic synagogue named after Jakob Glanzer, a merchant who funded its construction in the mid-nineteenth century, Sholom Aleikhem takes care of the building, which stands largely abandoned since 2005. Jakob Glanzer shul, one of the city’s two remaining (out of 42) synagogues that survived WWII and the Holocaust, was shut down by the Soviet authorities in 1960 under the false pretext of fighting organized contraband trade. The lists of those accused by the Soviet authorities included, unsurprisingly, a disproportionally high number of Jewish residents of Lviv, thus allowing the authorities to close down the weakened community’s synagogue (Amar, 2015, p. 261-282). From 1960 to 1989, the building housed the Sports Department of the Lviv Printing Institute, which used the prayer hall as its gym. It was given back to the Jewish community on December 13, 1990, when the first democratically elected city council allowed to lease it to the Sholom Aleikhem Cultural Center. In May 1993, the building was properly returned to the Jewish community, and in 1996, with the arrival of a new Rabbi, Mordechai Shlomo Bold, prayers resumed in the synagogue.

In 1998, Jakob Glanzer shul became home to another Lviv Jewish NGO, Hesed-Arieh, which, supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, carried out a major overhaul of the synagogue. The prayer hall was repaired, and even a small medical room for the elders of the community was built and maintained. 

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Interior of Jakub Glanzer shul, 2003. The original frescos are completely covered with paint. Photo by Iosif Gelston.

However, since Hesed-Arieh’s relocation to another office at Ivana Kotlyarevskoho street in 2005, the Jakob Glanzer Shul became almost abandoned, and today its condition — especially after the 2009 thunderstorm that damaged the building’s roof — is deplorable. Upon our arrival at the former synagogue, we were greeted by Slava Afán, a native of the city of Lviv and one of the volunteers of Hesed Arieh’s Lviv Volunteer Center. During our meeting, Mr. Afán acted not only as a representative of the LVC but also as an informal ‘spokesperson’ on behalf of the contemporary Lviv’s Jewish community in general. For instance, Afán spoke about the preservation of the Jakub Glanzer Shul, even though the former synagogue is managed solely by the Sholom Aleikhem Cultural Center and not the LVC. Throughout our visit it emerged that, surprisingly, while there is a lot of interpersonal communication between the members of the Lviv’s tiny Jewish community, there is little mutual financial support between the two organizations, even though Sasha Nazar manages to combine the positions of Sholom Aleikhem’s director and of the leader of the LVC at the same time

 

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Interior of the prayer hall of Jakub Glanzer shul, 2018. The remains (blue) of the original frescos are visible. Photo by Slava Afán.

 

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Interior of the prayer hall of Jakub Glanzer shul, 2018. The remains of the original frescos on the ground floor. Photo by Slava Afán.

As Afán explained to us, a few years ago the volunteers of Sholom Aleikhem had to remove parts of the prayer hall’s ceiling decoration because of the danger that they would fall down. Recently, the NGO has also purchased a boiler and is busy constructing a new heating system in order to allow its members to work in the building throughout the winter months. However, the overall condition of the prayer hall, compared to the situation in 2003, is regrettable: layers of paint, which was put in place during the 1998 overhaul, have fallen off across significant parts of the walls and the ceiling. The old signs in Yiddish are hardly readable and there are from little to no traces of the initial color scheme of the hall’s interior (the original frescos were covered with oil paint during the years when the synagogue functioned as a gym). There also no traces of the Torah ark inside the prayer hall, except for the contour on one of the walls (at the same time, the immured window, visible from the outside, is a much clearer indicator of the ark’s location). Shlomo Aleikhem, which, according to Afán, is mostly funded by private donations that come from the descendants of the Jews that once lived in Lviv and Galicia, simply lacks the resources to hire professional restorers. Being dependant on contributions from foreign individuals (mostly American and Canadian), Shlomo Aleikhem exists, for years, in a very difficult situation, facing the necessity to decide between several projects, all of which are crucial for preserving the building of the Jakob Glanzer shul.  

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Interior of the prayer hall of Jakub Glanzer shul, 2018. Torah ark was adjacent to the wall on the right side. Photo by Slava Afán.

 

Lviv Volunteer Center: The Recoverers of Matzevot

Speaking of the plans for the future, Mr. Nazar hopes that one day the former prayer hall will function as the cultural center of the city’s Jewish community. As explained by Afán, one of the projects that the organization wants to house in the Jakob Glanzer shul is an exhibition of 3-D models of all of the Lviv’s 42 pre-war synagogues. The first layouts are ready, and, if the scarce financial support will not shrink, Shlomo Aleikhem hopes to finish this project in 2-3 years. While we were examining the prayer hall, we were joined by Nataliya Tolok, a tour guide, an interpreter, and a secretary at the Israeli Honorary Consulate in Lviv. Together, we made it to the second floor of the building, where Afán has shown us two presentations about the activities of Lviv Volunteer Center. From the presentation, it became clear that the NGO’s most successful project is not related to Lviv proper but is a summer volunteer camp, whose participants work on preserving Jewish cemeteries in the Lviv region. Next to the small hall where we watched the videos, there were a few other rooms, one of which serves as a Shabbat room for Sholom Aleikhem’s tiny community. Due to the lack of a Rabbi, the services are informally led by Nazar himself. “If I’m not present, there’s someone who is responsible [for holding the ceremony]. And vice versa,” said Nazar in a private message.

Upon leaving the Jakob Glanzer shul, we, accompanied by Mr. Afan and Ms. Tolok, visited Hanny Barvinok street in the city’s Frankivskyi District. There, last July, LVC, together with Ms. Osborn’s Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, excavated approximately 120 Jewish tombstones, or matzevot, from underneath the asphalt. The practice of using matzevot for paving roads was widely spread among the Nazi regiments in the period of the Nazi German occupation of the region of Galicia in 1941-1944. According to both Afán and Nazar, neither they could imagine the city authorities giving permission for excavating roads with the sole purpose of retrieving the matzevot, nor would the NGOs have financial resources for doing that. Therefore, in the case of the Barvinok street excavations, the LVC successfully seized the opportunity: “They were repairing the road, so we organized it all quickly, brought the tractor, and did the whole work in a few days,” said Nazar in a phone conversation. In the words of Afán, local residents were hardly enthusiastic about the recovery: “Mostly they were just unsatisfied that we were taking so long. Some people were curious, but those were a tiny minority”.

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Recovery of matzevot at Hanny Barvinok street, 2018. Photo by Marla Osborn.

The recovered matzevot were brought to the Jewish part of the Janowska cemetery (which dates back to the Soviet period), where the LVC hopes to construct a ‘memory wall’ from them in the near future. When we visited the cemetery on October 10th, 2018, dozens of tombstones were lying next to the entrance. While not questioning the importance of the recovery of matzevot or the work on the cemeteries in the Lviv region, it is, nevertheless, necessary to point out to the choice of the prioritized projects of the LVC. The fact that this NGO, which has a much better funding than Sholomo Aleikhem, decided to invest its resources into the volunteer camp and not into the preservation of the Jakob Glazner shul testifies to the complex intra-organisational dynamics within the Jewish community of Lviv. 

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Recovered matzevot at the Janowska cemetery, 2018. Photo by Slava Afán.

 

The City Hall and the Jewish NGOs: Understanding or Exploitation?

The recovery of matzevot from the Hanny Barvinok street was the major procedure of its kind in Lviv and surroundings (the LVC already retrieved tombstones from the same location in 2010 and 2017 retrospectively), where matzevot were actively used to pave transport and pedestrian roads. As Nazar remarked, despite there was no municipal support for the recovery, “there was understanding” on behalf of the authorities: “they did not prevent us [from doing the work]”, he wrote in a message. The understanding of the importance of the cause of preserving Lviv’s Jewish heritage, according to Nazar, has come around three years ago. Today, Nazar has direct phone access to the deputy mayor: this allows to solve many bureaucratic issues relatively quickly, which was not the case when the NGOs had to deal with heads of municipalities and precincts. “I try not to overuse [this possibility], I call only when there’s something important”, Nazar remarks in a message. “I position myself as a representative of the Jewish community, without an affiliation to an organisation”, he says.

Yet Nazar’s opinion about the growing political support for the Jewish heritage projects may also be understood from a different perspective, which was expressed to me on the conditions of anonymity by a source close to the Lviv Jewish organizations. This position can be summarised by saying that the authorities of Lviv, and specifically Andriy Sadovyi, who is now running for the President of Ukraine, are playing the ‘multiculturalism card’. In other words, by displaying attention to the cause of preserving the Jewish memory and heritage, the current mayoral team is trying to present the city of Lviv — and, therefore, it’s mayor — as ‘properly’ Europe-oriented, also by showing their understanding of the necessity to acknowledge and commemorate the crimes of the Holocaust, which occupy the central position in contemporary European identity politics. “Neither the city nor the state gives us anything, they only participate when it’s relevant for them,” said the source that requested anonymity.

 

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Jakub Glanzer shul, 2018. Photo by Slava Afán.

However paradoxical that might appear, the two points of view mentioned above are not mutually exclusive. The case of the cooperation between the authorities, who did not interfere with the excavations at Barvinok street, and the Jewish NGOs, which included the LVC, can be seen as an example of an emerging understanding of the importance of the preservation of the Jewish heritage on behalf of the municipality. Whether this understanding appeared out of political necessity or has different origins is hard to tell without interviewing the representatives of the city hall and local political analysts. At the same time, after witnessing the devastating condition of the Jakob Glanzer shul (as well as the terrible conditions of the former Janowska concentration camp, which we visited without Afán), one will be left certain: the city could undoubtedly do a lot to help to at least preserve the building — one of the few objects of Lviv remaining Jewish heritage — that is currently in deplorable condition. Whether Mr. Sadovyi’s attendance of the ceremony in the early September 2018 will open a new chapter in the relations between the city authorities and the local Jewish NGOs will be clear with time. What our short trip, however, has shown is that Lviv’s dynamic of memory is determined by a strong interaction of local and transnational (EU, US) interest groups. It is in this context of competing Jewish appropriations, heritage tourism, and political agendas, that the restoration of Jewish heritage sites like the Jakob Glanzer shul or the recovery works at Barvinok street should be understood.

 

References

 

Amar, C.T. (2015). The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bartov, O. (2010). White Spaces and Black Holes: Eastern Galicia’s Past and Present. In Brandon, R., & Lower, W. (Eds.). (2010). In The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Brandon, R., & Lower, W. (Eds.). (2010). Introduction. The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Gruber, R. E. (2002). Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

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