What Went Wrong at the Golden Rose Synagogue?
A Ukrainian memorial to crimes against Jews has become a reminder of the country's own tendency toward historical denial.
LVIV, Ukraine — It’s understandable that tourists in search of cultural touchstones in Lviv might be lured in by the Galician Golden Rose Jewish Restaurant. Initially, the place seems inviting. Klezmer music plays in the background; the restaurant is warmly lit, decorated with menorahs, fading photographs of Orthodox Jews, and reproductions of drawings by Bruno Schulz etched on yellowing plaster walls.
Very quickly, however, it becomes apparent that things are not what they seem at this eatery, which, it turns out, is less than a decade old and is owned by ethnic Ukrainians. One clue is the absence of prices on the menu. “This is a Jewish restaurant, we are Jews, we negotiate for prices,” said my grinning waiter, who, with his billowing white shirt and unbuttoned vest, looked as though he was out of a shtetl in the prewar Ukrainian countryside. After some haggling, a price was set for my meal. But before I was served, a giggling waitress, also in dressed in Jewface, brought over a silver pitcher filled with what she said was holy water from Jerusalem and informed me that I had to wash my hands in it before I could eat my dinner.
Until recently, a terrace attached to the Golden Rose Restaurant provided the only view of the ruins of the adjacent Golden Rose Synagogue, once one of the most important synagogues in Eastern Europe. A corrugated metal fence erected to protect the ruins from vandalism also shielded the site from public access. From the restaurant terrace, you could see vaulted window casements and the ribs of Gothic arches on the synagogue’s remaining two walls. You could also see the neglect — chickens eating garbage amid the ruined synagogue’s foundations, which flooded when it rained. The only information about the destroyed building was a black stone plaque, installed on a wall adjacent to the site in the 1990s, after Ukrainian independence, that informed visitors that it had been designed by the Italian architect Pablo Romano in the 16th century.
The synagogue was an elaborate structure, embracing Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles, built by Isaak Nachmanovych, a financier to the king of Poland, for his family’s private use. Later, during much of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Golden Rose served as the main house of worship for the city’s historic Jewish quarter. Renowned scholars prayed there, such as David ha-Levi Segal, a 16th-century rabbi known for his work Turei Zahav (“The Golden Lines”). But this center of vibrant Jewish culture, which thrived in Lviv for more than five centuries, was destroyed when the Nazis invaded in 1941.
As of this past September, however, the ruins of the Golden Rose have been preserved and incorporated into a new memorial plaza called the Space of Synagogues. Alongside the ruins there is an installation called “Perpetuation,” consisting of a series of 39 dark gray stone tablets engraved with blurry images of prewar life, as well as inscriptions from former Jewish residents about their lives in Lviv, the Holocaust, and their post-Holocaust lives. Several of the stones are left empty in commemoration of the voices that were extinguished in the cataclysm. Adjacent to the inscribed stones, at the site of the former Beth Hamidrash school, white concrete slabs on a raised platform enclose a verdant lawn with four blank tombstones.
At the memorial’s opening ceremony in September, attended by city officials and diplomats from both Israel and Germany, speakers addressed Nazi culpability in the deaths of Ukraine’s Jews. But the Ukrainian paramilitary groups and civilians who collaborated in Lviv’s vicious anti-Jewish pogroms during World War II were lost in the mists of time.
Leszek Allerhand, one of the only living Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lviv, told the story of how his family was prevented from leaving their house in the summer of 1941 by men of unspecified nationality wearing armbands while the Golden Rose Synagogue burned. Neither Allerhand nor anyone else at the ceremony identified the nationality of the men in the armbands, despite the many written accounts from eyewitnesses, including one from Allerhand’s grandfather, that suggest they were among the Ukrainian paramilitaries who perpetrated widespread abuses during the city’s 1941 pogroms. Blue-and-yellow armbands served as the only insignia for the Ukrainian paramilitaries from the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), whose members often otherwise dressed in civilian clothes. (Reached by phone in Zakopane, Poland, the octogenarian Allerhand said he realized that Ukrainian collaboration was a controversial issue and that he couldn’t recall the nationality of the men.)
Threats of a lawsuit, under a Ukrainian law against inciting acts of interethnic hatred, also led to a quote from a survivor being edited before it was inscribed on one of the memorial stones. “They walked in silence, weighed down by their suffering and woe. Doomed,” Holocaust survivor Kurt Lewin wrote. “From either side, the better people looked on—Aryans. Poles and Ukrainians.” In the version inscribed on the stone, “Poles and Ukrainians” has been excised.
Lviv city officials say the Space of Synagogues is supposed to serve as a both a memorial and an area for reflection. But in calling attention to the Jewish culture that once thrived here, the space is also raising politically sensitive questions about how it was wiped out.
You won’t find much about Jewish history at Lviv’s Museum of Ethnography and Crafts or at its Historical Museum, where the emphasis is on the Ukrainian people’s struggles for independence from various imperialist oppressors. Indeed, from the display at those museums, viewers might conclude that the city — which by 2001 was almost 90 percent Ukrainian and 9 percent Russian, with a Jewish and Polish population hovering at about 1 to 2 percent — had always been that way. But before World War II, when Lviv was called Lwow and located in Poland, the city was truly multicultural, with a population that was 50.4 percent Polish Catholic, 31.9 percent Jewish, 15.9 percent Ukrainian, and 2 percent Armenian and other minorities. It was the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis, with the help of Ukrainian paramilitary organizations, and the forced resettling of Poles by the Soviets that changed the city’s identity.
One of the most glaring examples of how the city’s history has been edited is at Lviv’s Lonsky Prison National Memorial Museum. The museum is devoted to cataloguing the abuses that took place under what a plaque identifies as “three occupational regimes: Polish, Nazi and Soviet.” The museum ties earlier Ukrainian struggles for independence to the current war against Russia, ending with a contemporary photography exhibit of young Ukrainians soldiers dressed in both civilian clothes and in uniforms. One exhibit describes a bloody episode when the Soviet secret police killed 1,681 prisoners, including a large group of Ukrainian Nationalists between June 23rd and June 28, 1941, before retreating in the wake of a German advance. Wall text notes how Jewish citizens of Lviv were forced to carry the bodies of the massacre victims to an outer courtyard; it doesn’t note that both the Nazis and Ukrainian nationalist organizations blamed the secret police massacres on “Judeo-Bolshevism,” inciting the city’s civilian population to carry out the first major pogrom perpetrated in Western Ukraine, leading to the murder of 4,000-8,000 Jews.
In the past decade, Lviv has become a magnet for foreign and domestic tourists. The city’s downtown, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1998, is a draw for Ukrainians, especially those with roots in western Ukraine, who come to visit the city known as the birthplace of Ukrainian nationalism — it was here on June 30, 1941, that OUN declared a short-lived Ukrainian state before its leadership was arrested by the Nazis several days later — and see historic Ukrainian Catholic churches. Polish tourists come to visit palaces that once were occupied by Polish nobility and former Roman Catholic houses of worship, such as an enormous 17th-century Baroque church built by the Jesuits, which, after decades of being used as a book depository, was reopened in 2011 as a Ukrainian Greek Catholic church.
The Golden Rose stood on what is now Arsenalna Square, in the heart of the oldest Jewish neighborhood in the city. “The entire history of the Jews in this city comes together in this close, fenced-in little courtyard,” reads an inscription on one of the “Perpetuation” stones from an early 20th-century work by the Jewish historian Majer Balaban, who invited his readers to “[w]alk through these streets with me, enter these buildings that for centuries have hidden so many contradictions, so many things elevated and base, reconstruct in your fantasy what is no more.”
But today there is little physical evidence of the Jewish cultural hub that Balaban once described. The Nazis, with the assistance of Ukrainian paramilitary organizations, destroyed all but a few of the city’s more than 40 prewar synagogues. Later, under Soviet rule, when Lviv was called Lvov, the surviving Jewish cemeteries were plowed under, and ancient plaques inscribed with mitzvahs, or commandments, were appropriated for use as foundations for monuments to Soviet war heroes. Most of what is left of five centuries of Jewish history here consists of so-called “dark tourism” sites — places of loss and death.
The absence of the city’s most significant Jewish sites has occasionally been distressing for Jewish visitors who come from the West in search of their roots. “From the perspective of the city being confronted with tourists from the United States and Israel, it [the ruins of the Golden Rose] was shame,” said Harald Binder, the founder and president of the Lviv-based Center for Urban History of East Central Europe. “That was a major reason for [the city] to participate.”
A billboard at the Space of Synagogues now sets the record straight on the question of the city’s former Jewish presence. It mentions the names of prominent Jewish citizens and institutions from the city’s prewar Jewish community. Among the most striking facts on the billboard are Lviv’s prewar demographics, which show that the prewar population was a third Jewish. “People know that Jews lived here before the war, but they don’t know the percentages or the numbers,” explained Sofia Dyak, the Center for Urban History’s director.
In addition to the Space of Synagogues project, the city of Lviv also has plans to commemorate other sites of Jewish heritage. There already are designs for a memorial to a destroyed medieval Jewish cemetery that dated back to the 15th century and for a memorial to the victims of the Janowska concentration camp, which was one of the largest death camps in the region.
“Lviv was a multicultural and multiethnic city, and so Poles, Jews, Ukrainian people, and others — we are trying to remember about all of these ethnic groups and nationalities,” said Mykhailo Moroz, the head of the Culture Department of the Lviv City Council. “It is historical justice; we understand that something bad was done during the Second World War,” he said, adding that the other goal for the project was to make “something that is attractive for ordinary people, where they can not only memorialize but also live.”
However, the newfound effort to highlight Lviv’s significant Jewish heritage and to burnish its cosmopolitan credentials is proving combustible in a city where revered Ukrainian nationalist organizations that fought for independence during World War II also collaborated in the mass murder of Jews.
The leaders of OUN and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) were considered enemies of the state under the Soviet regime but have steadily earned rehabilitation as nationalist heroes since Ukraine won independence in 1991. Today, various Ukrainian militias involved in the ongoing conflict with Russia even openly cite those earlier groups as inspiration. In part, that’s because narratives of Ukrainian liberation promoted by state-run bodies like the Institute of National Remembrance don’t acknowledge the collaboration of groups like OUN and the UPA in the Holocaust, despite testimony by Holocaust survivors, photographs of the atrocities, and research by Western historians, such as University of Alberta professor John-Paul Himka, documenting their participation.
Binder says the historical work of the Center for Urban History, where the issue of Ukrainian collaboration is regularly discussed at symposiums, has always faced public pushback and that officials have done little to intervene. Several years ago, there was even an outcry over an exhibition created at the Jewish Museum in Berlin and later displayed at the center, which contained a passage about Ukrainian collaboration during the 1941 pogroms. “We were attacked just because we mentioned that Ukrainians were involved,” Binder said.
Calling attention to Ukrainian collaboration during the Holocaust also is a sensitive issue for many Ukrainian Jews in Lviv. In fact, the lawsuit threat, which led to the altering of Holocaust survivor Kurt Lewin’s quote at the Space of Synagogues, did not come from a Ukrainian nationalist. It came from a Ukrainian Orthodox Jew named Meylakh Sheykhet. It was the latest salvo from Sheykhet, who for the past several years, as part of his campaign to stop construction of the Space of Synagogues, has filed numerous other lawsuits against the project. He also has written letters to international organizations, including UNESCO, requesting their assistance.
Instead of a memorial and a public plaza, Sheykhet, who is the Ukraine director for the Washington-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, wants to rebuild the original Golden Rose Synagogue and make it a working house of prayer. “It looks like a cemetery — it looks like tombstones,” he said of the first phase of the Space of Synagogues. “When they show this like a site of death,” he said, “it is a desecration.”
Although the first phase of the Space of Synagogues is complete, Sheykhet is trying to use the courts to roll back the project so that the Golden Rose can be rebuilt. Aside from wanting to re-create the synagogue in its former glory, he also said he is worried that extreme elements in contemporary right-wing Ukrainian groups could be provoked by Holocaust memorials. “Of course the Ukrainians feel embarrassed,” he said, but “if not for the Germans, the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened. They invaded; they organized everything.”
Sheykhet has some curious allies in his campaign against the Space of Synagogues. One is Yuriy Shukhevych, a member of parliament who belongs to Ukraine’s right-wing Radical Party. Shukhevych, who is the son of OUN leader Roman Shukhevych, insists that there is an uncharitable agenda behind the foreign support for the memorial. “It is a political influence,” he said in Ukrainian, with Sheykhet translating. “The Germans would like to put the responsibility [for the Holocaust] on other ethnic groups, and that is why they invest money in this.”
Today, Lviv’s Jewish population numbers only several thousand, and they don’t have the political and economic clout that helped fuel the Ukrainian nationalist-led pogroms against them during World War II. But that’s not to say Lviv’s Jewish community is in hiding. In addition to the small synagogue Sheykhet operates out of his office, there is the Tsori Gilod Synagogue, one of only two Jewish places of worship to have survived the war. After being used by the Soviets as a warehouse, it was returned to the Jewish community in 1989, and today services are conducted there by the chief rabbi of Lviv and western Ukraine, Mordechai Shlomo Bald, a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn.
Several Jewish charitable and cultural organizations are also based in Lviv, such as Hesed Arieh, which holds an annual international Jewish music festival in the city center. Alexandra Somish, a team leader for Hesed Arieh, says she doesn’t notice any anti-Semitism in her daily life or in her work. “When we make our festival, we are very careful with security,” she said. “Not because we are afraid that Ukrainian people will come and hit us, but because we are afraid of provocation from someone who is very interested to spoil the image and to show the bad picture in the Russian news: ‘Look what they do with the Jews.’”
However, Somish also believes in the distorted historical narratives that the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance and right-wing politicians like Shukhevych are peddling. “[Stepan] Bandera became a kind of symbol for Russia, which they use in their propaganda against Ukrainian independence, so they use this difficult relation between Bandera and the Jews,” she said, referring to the controversial OUN leader. “Nobody knows the truth.… What I do know exactly [is] that the KGB, the old KGB, they changed their clothes, and the troops of KGB, they killed many people as well to make the impression that Bandera was very cruel.… So many people were killed not by Bandera but by the KGB who changed their clothes.”
Some say that, absent an accounting of Ukrainian culpability in the murder of Jews during the 1941 pogroms, the Space of Synagogues does a disservice to their memory. “You need to be honest about local participation,” said Ruth Ellen Gruber, the website coordinator for Jewish Heritage Europe. Gruber, an American-born Jew who served on the international jury that chose the winning designs for the sites of Jewish heritage on Arsenalna Square, is lobbying to get a more comprehensive account of the Holocaust included in additional text slated for the Space of Synagogues. “Otherwise it is a whitewash of history that feeds into narratives that you don’t want to feed into,” she said.
The city of Lviv may not be ready to face certain truths about its past. But the Space of Synagogues does at least offer an opportunity to consider more inclusive accounts of the city’s history. “The discussion of the Holocaust is central to all of this, but we should not lose sight of what was and what could have been,” said Borys Wrzesnewskyj, a Canadian parliamentarian, during a visit to the memorial site several days after its opening. “This really was a center — a very flourishing and vibrant center — of Jewish culture in all of its aspects for centuries, and those centuries, half a millennium of culture which has been lost … should not be lost, because otherwise Hitler will have in some ways achieved his goal.”
Photo credit: The Space of Synagogues Facebook page