Goodbye, Golden Rose
by Tom Gross, The Guardian, September 2, 2011
It seems parts of Europe are less tolerant now than they were in the 16th century. Last week, I watched as bulldozers began to demolish the adjacent remnants of what was once one of Europe's most beautiful synagogue complexes, the 16th century Golden Rose in Lviv. Most of the rest of the synagogue was burned down, with Jews inside, by the Nazis in 1941.
During the war, 42 other synagogues were destroyed in Lviv, which from the middle ages to the 20th century was known by its Latin name Leopolis and then by its Austrian (and Yiddish) name, Lemberg, before being called Lwow by the Poles and Lvov after the Soviets annexed it in 1945. The remnants of the Golden Rose are one of the few remaining vestiges of Jewish existence in Lviv, the majority of whose residents, in 1940, were Jewish.
It is not only morally wrong for bulldozers to drill through the last traces of this vibrant past without first giving the handful of remaining Jews here a chance to restore this site, or turn it into a place of memorial. It is legally wrong too. Ukraine's own laws are designed to preserve such historic sites.
The Ukrainian authorities are not the only ones at fault. Where is the UN cultural organization UNESCO? The synagogue ruins were designated part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998.
And where is the European soccer body UEFA? The Ukrainians are planning to build a hotel on the site to host fans and players at next year's European soccer championships, the world's third most-watched sporting event, which they are co-hosting with Poland. So much for UEFA's much-hyped campaign to "Kick racism out of football". (In addition to there being residual anti-Semitism in Ukraine, the authorities seem to be motivated by cultural and historical crassness and illiteracy, and denial of the past, as well as real-estate greed.)
During the Holocaust, 420,000 Jews, including over 100,000 children, were murdered in Lviv and its environs, more than in almost any other city in Europe. The killing was so efficient that the Nazis organized transports of Romanian and Hungarian Jews to be brought here to be killed once they were done killing the Polish and Ukrainian Jews. There were almost no survivors.
Yet you will hardly find any reference to this in the official guide books or in the museums of Lviv. There is no monument to the murdered Jews in Lviv's old town.
A few elderly people still remember. One Ukrainian woman who approached me last week as I stood at what used to be the ghetto entrance told me she remembered as a child seeing Jews whipped as they were forced to walk on their knees back and forth for hours until they collapsed and were then shot while Nazis laughed.
Few tourists make their way here these days but many readers may recognize the city since it is where Steven Spielberg chose to film parts of Schindler's List. This formerly Austrian and Polish town still resembles parts of pre-war Krakow, where much of the film was set.
Others may have read Robert Marshall's harrowing "In the sewers of Lvov" - an account of the only group of Jews to stay alive for any length of time in the sewers of Nazi-occupied Europe.
Ten Jews, including two children and a pregnant woman, managed to survive for 14 months among the feces, rats and darkness despite the Nazi use of dogs and grenades to flush out the other estimated 500 Jews who tried to hide there. (The pregnant woman's baby, who was born in the sewer, died.)
This group of 10 survived with help from Leopold Socha, an illiterate former Polish criminal who, on release from prison, became a sewer worker and made it what he called his "life's atonement" to save a few Jews by risking his life to bring them food as often as he could. (There is now a plaque to Socha at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem.)
The Lviv authorities know it is an outrage to destroy the remains of the Golden Rose, which is why last month they placed a tall fence around the planned hotel site and closed off most of the street so hide it from view. One of Lviv's last Jews, Meylakh Sheykhet, and I had to mount a long ladder to peek over a wall and watch the drills at work.
For over 20 years, Sheykhet has almost singlehandedly been waging a campaign to stop the authorities destroying any more historic Jewish sites in this region and to encourage them to mark the sites of over 1000 mass graves with memorial plaques.
"It is hard to imagine these sites being treated less respectfully," Sheykhet observed. "The Holocaust has not stopped here, the destruction goes on. Over the tombstones of some of history's greatest rabbis, there are now movie theatres, discos and car parks. At the very least the authorities could put up some marker on these sites."
Two years ago, another site of mass murder in Lviv, the Citadel - where tens of thousands of Jews and others were tortured to death - was converted into a five star hotel. Amazingly, the hotel is owned by Volodymyr Gubitsky, the deputy regional governor responsible for the preservation of culture and heritage.
Sheykhet failed to block the Citadel project. But he is campaigning to stop the destruction of the remains of the Golden Rose (as well as prevent the last preserved part of the Citadel being turned into a casino in preparation for Euro 2012).
In the 16th century, when the Golden Rose was built, Lemberg was a tolerant city where many ethnic groups lived side by side. Is the world today really so intolerant that it can't countenance conserving the last remains of this once flourishing Jewish community and leave the murdered to rest in peace?