Larry Lerner of Warren, a longtime activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry, has welcomed a breakthrough achieved in early March in the long campaign to preserve Jewish burial sites in Ukraine.
On March 1, at a meeting in Brooklyn with a number of people involved in the struggle, Ukrainian Minister of Culture and Tourism Mykhailo Kulyniak promised that his government will take steps to address Jewish concerns over the gravesites.
Lerner, president of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, credited the breakthrough to Meylakh Sheykhet, the union’s representative in Ukraine.
Lerner said the Union of Councils had battled to get such a pledge for 20 years.
Sheykhet led the Brooklyn meeting together with Rabbi Berel Polatsek, president of the International Committee for the Preservation of Cemeteries, Mass Burials, and Historical Sites, and Rabbis Osher Katz, Moshe Taub, and Naftali Meir Baba.
They expressed the greatest concern about two burial sites in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. One is a Jewish cemetery where the Krakivsky Rynok open-air market now stands, over the graves of some revered Jewish sages. The other is the Citadel, a fortress which, during World War II, the Nazi occupiers used as a prisoner of war camp.
According to the press release issued by Sheykhet and Polatsek, the camp, Stalag 328, held about 280,000 prisoners of war. The Jews were kept separate and subjected to particularly harsh treatment. More than 144,000 inmates died of disease or were executed, some of them buried in mass graves in the fortress courtyard. Jews and officers were executed at the Citadel’s main tower, known at the time as the “Tower of Death.”
That tower now houses a luxury hotel and restaurant. During a renovation in 2008, the remains of prisoners were carried off by truck to an unknown destination. According to Sheykhet, an additional “Las Vegas-style” hotel was planned for the site, but was blocked by Ukrainian and Jewish activists.
The Ukrainian government recently issued decrees describing the Citadel as a place of mass killing, and the Jewish cemetery under the Krakivsky market as sacred ground. As such they are protected as part of Ukraine’s historical-cultural heritage.
At the March 1 meeting, Kulyniak promised the open-air market will be removed from the Lviv cemetery site and that the Citadel will be protected from further desecration. He acknowledged the challenges, but pledged to listen to Jewish concerns.
In an e-mail response this week to questions from NJ Jewish News, Sheykhet wrote: “There so many examples of the Jewish sorrow neglected by the Ukrainian authorities of the previous cadences. The current President Mr. Viktor Yanukovich pays attention and for the first time acted properly to save several Jewish holy sites. The meeting in NYC was very important to start a dialogue in this field.”
He said even now, 70 years after the Nazi mass killings, Jewish cemeteries and mass graves are still subject every day to “desecration, vandalism, and destruction.”
He went on to say that 20 years after the country got its independence from Soviet control, “the recognition by the Ukrainian government means that it will start to listen to the Jewish claims and will protect properly with honor and dignity the Jewish grave sites and other kinds of the Jewish Heritage.”