For decades, Larry Lerner of Warren has been especially concerned about anti-Semitism and other human rights violations in Ukraine, the land where his parents were born.
Now as president of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ), he is concerned that Ukrainian municipal governments, especially in the city of Lviv, are not willing to protect Jewish historical sites, many of which date back as much as seven centuries.
On April 5 and 6, he and six other members of UCSJ met with State Department officials in a session led by Ira Forman, its special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
Ukraine is no longer “an anti-Semitic country,” said Lerner. “It is one that tolerates and supports religious freedom.” What the delegation talked mainly about, he said, was “protecting Jewish cemeteries and Jewish culture.”
Lerner said he and his group continue to seek U.S. government support in a series of legal challenges to enforce rulings in favor of preservation.
For the past three years, UCSJ has been losing a battle with a private real estate developer who has already torn down parts of Lviv’s Golden Rose Synagogue, which was built in 1582. The hotel planned for the site would endanger the mikva and other Jewish artifacts at the synagogue.
Another focus of UCSJ’s preservation efforts are Lviv’s two Jewish cemeteries; one dates back to the 1400s, a newer one opened in 1914, and both are in danger of being plowed over. A hotel and spa complex has already been built on the site of the Nazi-run Janowska concentration camp in Lviv, where nearly 7,000 Jews were killed by Ukrainian nationalists and German troops during World War II.
In order to fight the preservation battle, UCSJ maintains an office in Lviv run by Meylakh Sheykhet, “a religious Jew who is deeply concerned about the destruction of Jewish cultural sites,” Lerner said. But the emissary seems to be losing his argument with city authorities.
“Sheykhet goes to the City Hall in Lviv and complains, ‘You can’t do that. These are historical sites and the Ukrainian government has signed agreements to protect them.’ They ignore him,” Lerner said.
The UCSJ has appealed to the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, to encourage the government to protect the Jewish sites. Pyatt, said Lerner, is a “caring and concerned ambassador…especially on the issue of preserving Jewish cemeteries and cultural sites.”
In a document Lerner e-mailed to NJJN, Sheykhet wrote to Pyatt on Feb. 29, “Every day the desecration of the Jewish graves in Lviv is growing.”
Citing laws and agreements that date back to 1994, Sheykhet has urged the ambassador to file a court case against the government. “At least we might start to move the case to the goal of preservation and free the site of the illegal construction and privatization,” he wrote. “When the court case would be filed it might cause an open huge scandal.”
The Washington meetings were a prelude to a mission to Ukraine that Lerner’s group will make from May 11 to 23. “We are now setting up sessions with Pyatt, and we are looking to make appointments with all the other officials that we can,” he said. “We are trying to get officials in Lviv and the central government of Ukraine to sit down with members of the Jewish community, and that is an ongoing negotiation.”
They plan to visit the Ukrainian cities of Dnipropetrovsk, Odessa, and Kiev and to meet with rabbis “who have the eyes and ears to know what’s going on,” said Lerner, and with Jewish leaders such as Josef Zissels, vice president of the World Jewish Congress and chair of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress.
It will be Lerner’s 10th visit to the area since he first went there in 1979.
“I found the Ukrainians to be the bravest people in the world because they were fighting for freedom in the difficult heart of the evil empire,” he said. “I can’t change the world but I can have some effect in the area.