Ceremonies in September mark the inauguration of The Space of Synagogues, a new Jewish memorial complex in L’viv, Ukraine. JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber was on the international jury that in 2010 chose the memorial design following an unprecedented international competition. In this essay, the writer and photographer Jason Francisco, an associate professor of film and media studies at Emory University who has followed the development of the project, discusses its significance. We also post a selection of his photos that document the process.
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A New Day for the Golden Rose in L’viv
By Jason Francisco
The project located on Staroievreiska (“Old Jewish”) Street in the heart of L’viv’s old city is the most significant Jewish commemorative undertaking in L’viv in the last quarter century. Indeed, it is the most important since the Holocaust, given its scale, its location, its dual emphasis on the physical traces of prewar Jewish patrimony and the erasure of those traces, its conceptualization of memorial space as a catalytic space within the city’s flow (rather than an inert space pitched against daily life), and its capacity to address visitors emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically and ethically all at once.
The need for an ambitious commemorative project was painfully obvious. L’viv’s Jewish community existed for 700 years before the Holocaust, participated in every aspect of the city’s life, and formed a third of the city’s population on the eve of the Second World War. Dozens of synagogues and other community properties existed in all parts of the city, but emblematic of Jewish spiritual life was the thicket of religious buildings on Staroievreiska Street, most importantly the Golden Rose (Turay Zahav, or Taz) Synagogue, the Beis Medrash beside it, and the Great City Synagogue.
The pearl of it all was the Golden Rose. Designed by the master Italian architect Paolo Italus and completed in 1582, the Golden Rose was acknowledged across Europe as a masterpiece of Renaissance religious architecture. (See digital reconstruction HERE.). The Germans destroyed all but two of the city’s prewar synagogues, including the religious buildings on Staroievreiska Street, leaving a hole that was psychic no less than it was physical and persisted through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods alike. The purpose of the current project is not to fill that hole –– it cannot be filled –– but to restore and honor the memory of the city’s deep Jewish past, a key step in the city’s long path to healing from the wounds of the twentieth century.
It is precisely for this reason that the breadth of the coalition responsible for the project marks a key turn. That coalition includes the Executive Committee of the L’viv City Council, the city’s Office of Historical Environment Preservation, the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, the German GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), plus L’viv’s Chesed Arieh Jewish charity fund, the US-based Gesher Galicia genealogy association, and the Israel-based Association of Commemoration of Lwów Jewish Heritage and Sites.
Until now, Jewish commemorative works in the city –– of which there are several, mostly in the form of brief informational tablets at the site of destroyed synagogues, and at key Holocaust sites such as the Janowska Street camp and the Kleparivka railway station, plus a large sculptural monument commemorating the L’viv Ghetto –– existed only because of the initiative of the local Jewish community itself. The implied message was that such commemoration was not the broader public’s business and represented a decidedly marginal point of interest underneath the dominating structure of national history (whether Soviet or Ukrainian).
The small tablet that was placed in the 1980s beside the site of the Golden Rose (and until recently only accessible through the terrace of an insultingly fake-Jewish restaurant) acknowledged the site as a ruin, but explained nothing — nothing about the Jewish community, or the larger city in which it was embedded, or the genocide. It also evoked nothing — nothing of the voices that comprised that community over time, nothing of the differences between those voices, nothing of the difficulty of encountering the past by way of rupture and collective trauma. A ruin is, after all, not self-explanatory, much less a ruinless void. Thus the current commemorative project aims to embed the Staroievreiska site in a different conception of history, one directed toward the entirety of the public, under the auspices of the city government, whose authority is invoked — but not for the purpose of certifying a new official history from above.
It is likewise important to emphasize that the implementation of this project has depended almost entirely on non-Jews, most of all Sofia Dyak, the director of the Center for Urban History, and Iris Gleichmann, director of GIZ. Both of them have stewarded the project with great skill, often working below the public radar. The intellectual vision and material integrity of the new memorial owe most of all to their professionalism, their brilliance and their effectiveness.
Local and international Jews have played key roles in the process. Sergei Kravtsov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem led a guided site walk in 2008 (at a conference organized by the L’viv Center for Urban History), which prompted the discussions that led to the 2010 international competition from which the German landscape architect Franz Reschke’s winning design was chosen. Jewish scholars from around the world contributed texts for consideration as part of the historical inscriptions on the site, and Ada Dianova and Rabbi Siva Finerman of Lviv’s Chesed Arieh organized the long and often emotional town-hall discussions within the Jewish community that decided by vote which texts to include.
But the city’s Jewish community is without official leadership. And this vacuum has partly accounted for a situation that is both ironic and sad — but more sad than ironic: that is, the main impediment to commemoration of the great Jewish sites in the historical inner city of L’viv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been Jewish. In particular it has come in the form of the angry opposition to the Space of Synagogues project expressed by one L’viv Jew, Meylakh Sheykhet. Sheykhet has berated construction workers on the site, and for years filed lawsuit after lawsuit, written caustic letters and emails, and insisted to foreign journalists and others that the Space of Synagogues project is part of an anti-Ukrainian, anti-Semitic, neo-fascist plot to continue to desecrate sites of Jewish history, which, he feels, rightly belong solely to a small set of Orthodox Jews in L’viv that only he himself represents.
I have been a frequent visitor to L’viv over the last several years and have photographed at the site of the new memorial complex extensively. Toward an appreciation of the changes — the conservation of the ruins of the Golden Rose, the re-creation of the footprint of the Beis Medrash, and the installation of the historical inscriptions between them — the sequence of pictures on this page braids together the “now” and the “then” of this site, the deep neglect that was and the “possibility to know” which is, in the words of Sofia Dyak, the way forward.
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August 23, 2016
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Same view, before and after:
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Jason Francisco is a photographer, writer, book artist, curator, and educator. He is the author of numerous works on the complications of Jewish memory in Poland and Ukraine, and of An Unfinished Memory: Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia, a critical look into the Jewish past in contemporary eastern Galicia, now a permanent exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków. His work of photographs, texts and drawings, The Golden Rose, was shown in 2015 on the fence formerly bounding the site of the synagogue, as a farewell to the site’s neglect and as the first stage of its change. For more about his work, see: www.jasonfrancisco.net.