(JHE) — We mourn the death of Hryhoriy (Grisha) Arshynov, a Jewish activist who fought for decades to rescue and preserve the Jewish cemetery in Ostroh, Ukraine — and over the past four years spearheaded the restoration of the town’s long-ruined Great Maharsha Synagogue.
Arshynov died November 1, of complications from COVID-19.
Born in Ostroh to an assimilated Jewish family that knew little about its Jewish heritage, Grisha was a civil engineer who worked on restoration. As a young man in the 1980s, he began exploring his Jewish roots and the rich Jewish history of his town.
Over the past four years, Arshynov wrought a stunning transformation in the long-ruined Great Maharsha Synagogue, built in the 17th century. In 2016 it stood a tragic hulk with a gaping roof; today, thanks to Grisha’s skills and vision, it stands almost fully restored.
In his last post on Facebook, just two days before his death, he wrote about the latest step in the restoration, the restoration of the base of the eastern facade.
Tributes poured in after his death, from friends, colleagues, and the Ostroh Municipality, where he served as a city councillor. It described him as a:
philanthropist, volunteer, patriot with a [capital P], historian, local historian, head of the Jewish community. He loved life, this world, family, his hometown. He cared for everyone. There was no far-sightedness only about his own life. No one should know this. Such is God’s will. He was in a hurry to live because he had done a lot in his short life.
At Jewish Heritage Europe we are proud that — as he himself stated publicly — Grisha was inspired to take on the massive task of restoration of the synagogue by an essay by Sergey R. Kravtsov published on JHE in December 2015: The Great Maharsha Synagogue in Ostroh: Memory and Oblivion. Have we reached the point of no return?
“Such a sacred building can be lost forever and Jewish people of Ostroh will be forgotten,” Arshynov told the web site Ukrainer (see the video below for his full remarks).
In the framework of Ukrainian history it would be a lost puzzle forever. And I thought: I have enough skills, enough opportunities, I have my own equipment, my own scaffolding, my staff. And this is the last point: if not me, because my older children are in the USA and it is unlikely that they will deal with Ostroh synagogue. I am the last one who can do it..[…] I thought that it is my last chance to make the most of my life.
He poured his own savings into the project, and also received support from the town, local activists and NGOs as well as individuals in Ukraine and abroad.
Watch this powerful video from last year, of Grisha describing his involvement with the synagogue restoration — and why he felt the urgent need. (There are subtitles in English).
Arshynov’s first major project was the years-long battle to rescue and restore the Jewish cemetery, which Soviet authorities had closed in 1968 and turned into a park; the matzevot were uprooted and used for the construction of buildings including a psychiatric hospital, a pigsty, a transformer substation, and military garrisons.
Over the years, he located hundreds of them and returned them to the cemetery site — and thanks to his efforts, in 2017 local authorities again officially recognized it as a Jewish cemetery.
“Legal and scientific support was provided by scholars from the National University of Ostroh Academy and the National University of Water Resources from Rivne,” Arshynov told JHE at the time. He said the costs for the work of the scholars and legal support were covered by the Brooklyn-based Hasidic businessman and philanthropist Louis Kestenbaum, Chairman of the Fortis Property Group, who has long been associated with Jewish cemetery preservation — his late father, Rabbi Zvi Kestenbaum, a Holocaust survivor, was the driving force behind the foundation of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of American’s Heritage Abroad.
“It is fitting that Grisha will be buried at the old Jewish cemetery of Ostroh,” Marla Raucher Osborn of Rohatyn Jewish Heritage, told JHE. Marla worked with Grisha on Jewish heritage projects and also shared family roots with him.
He loved that place. He almost single-handedly brought the cemetery back from neglect and oblivion to its present beautiful condition, by recovering dozens of its headstones from sites in the city and resetting them, building memorial walls from smaller fragments of matzevot, and caring for the grounds. His work is and has been a blessing for Ostroh city heritage, Ukrainian heritage, and for Jewish memory.
Arshynov was also the founding chief engineer of the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative. The ESJF said in a Facebook post:
It is difficult to overstate the contribution Grisha made to the preservation of Jewish heritage in Ukraine – for decades he worked to ensure that Jewish historical sites in Ostroh and beyond not be allowed to fall into neglect and disrepair, and he pioneered the protection of such sites across the country.
MAY HIS SOUL BE BOUND UP IN THE BOND OF LIFE! HIS DEEDS AND MEMORY ARE ALREADY A BLESSING!