As we have reported, Jewish heritage experts have denounced the destruction of the oldest part of the historic Jewish cemetery in Sataniv, western Ukraine, by a Haredi activist claiming to restore it. Many scores of centuries-old matzevot have been uprooted, reset in poured concrete bases, and artificially arranged in straight rows that bear no relation to the original sites of the stones and the burials they marked.
In this personal essay, Dr. Boris Khaimovich, Chief Curator of the Museum of Jewish History in Russia describes the cemetery and brands its destruction as barbaric and blasphemous. A world expert on Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe, Khaimovich was part of a team that documented the Sataniv cemetery in 1992. Mourning the loss of this valuable monument of Jewish culture, he calls for control measures and oversight to prevent further such episodes.
(The picture shows Khaimovich and students who documented the Jewish cemetery in Busk, Ukraine, in 2018.)
The Jewish Cemetery in Sataniv: a Destroyed Monument of Jewish Culture. Vandalism and Desecration Disguised as “Care”
By Boris Khaimovich
August 19, 2021
The Jewish cemetery in Sataniv, in western Ukraine, was one of the most unique monuments of Jewish history and Jewish art in Eastern Europe – until now.
I first visited there in 1990; this place became for me a gateway to the unknown world of “Jewish artistic antiquity”, which seemed to have been completely destroyed due to two world wars and Soviet rule. A medieval fortress-synagogue towered over the town; opposite, across the Zbruch River, on a high hill, there was the Jewish cemetery, an abandoned and mysterious world.
The epitaphs and decoration on the tombstones reflected the highest artistic skill. The letters of the epitaphs seemed to have descended from the pages of medieval Hebrew manuscripts; the continuous weaving of animal and plant motifs decorated the tombstones facades. The imagination of the Jewish artists was limitless. Later, having become acquainted with the archival photographs of the murals on the walls of wooden synagogues — none of which survived– I realized that the cemetery of Sataniv was one of the last rare fragments of the destroyed artistic culture of Eastern European Jews.
In 1992 I returned to document the cemetery of Sataniv as part of an expedition of the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in cooperation with the Jewish University in St. Petersburg. We cleared the cemetery, made measurements, made maps, copied epitaphs and made photos of about a thousand tombstones.
There were different states of preservation around the site; many of the tombstones had sunken deep into the ground, others were hidden by grass and moss. We tried to work very delicately and carefully so that, on the one hand, not to miss a single tombstone and not to damage the graves, and on the other hand, not to disturb the structure and landscape of the cemetery, thanks to which it was perceived as an integral “historical text” as well as an artistic object.
The levels of the hill with tombstones corresponded to historical periods. The lower level belonged to the 16th century. We found five 16th century tombstones here, the oldest of which dated back to 1576, literally the time when the community was established. The next level belonged to first half of the 17th century; here we found massive tombstones with extensive epitaphs and images of heraldic animals in the upper part of the stone face. These tombstones clearly corresponded to the heyday of the community and the time of the construction of a defensive synagogue.
The era of prosperity was interrupted by the Cossack-peasant uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnitsky, as evidenced by the absence of gravestones from the second half of the 17th century.
The largest area in the cemetery belonged to the 18th century — the revival of the community had taken place at the beginning of the 18th century. The epitaphs from this time indicated the places in the Polish Commonwealth from which the scattered inhabitants returned to Sataniv. The flourishing of stone-cutting art began from that time and peaked in the middle of the 18th century. This artistic phenomenon continued until the late 19th century.
This incredibly valuable historical monument no longer exists.
A man named Gabay — Rabbi Israel Meir Gabay — and the structures behind his actions, destroyed it.
They ripped old gravestones out of the ground like pulling teeth, leveled the surface of the earth, created ugly concrete foundations, and inserted tombstones into them in even rows with equal intervals between them, without any connection with their real location and real grave.
If the relatives of the people buried here were alive, they would not know where to come to pray.
We have never before encountered this kind of vandalism — a new type of vandalism that is gaining momentum, alas, successfully. Mainly in Ukraine but also elsewhere.
Similar destruction of ancient cemeteries has been carried out in other places, where for the sake of expanding or building an ohel on a tzadik’s grave, dozens of other gravestones of “ordinary” people were demolished (for example, in Medzhybizh, where the ohel of the Baal Shem Tov – Besht — is now surrounded by hundreds of matzevot and fragments set in concrete in more than two dozen long, straight rows).
Probably, the customers and contractors, having taken the “care” of the “holy graves” into their own hands, are primarily concerned with the development of funds and the creation of routes for pilgrims. They simply ignore our common historical past. They are absolutely not worried by the thought that by ostensibly “restoring,” but actually destroying our monuments, they deprive us of our history and our cultural heritage, which miraculously survived centuries of turbulent history.
An obvious question arises: how can they ignore the principle of respect for the dead? After all, it is written on matzevot that ”this sign was put on the grave in memory” («לזכר הציון הזה הוקם על קבר»). In a wonderful folk story recorded in one of An-sky’s expeditions, to Medzhybizh, it is said that the great Besht himself told his followers not to touch his grave and not to build an ohel (בית) over it. The violators were threatened with severe punishment. (As we can see today, that didn’t work…..)
The example of Sataniv is one of the saddest pages in our modern Jewish history. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to save the cemetery after the blasphemous and barbaric actions that have been carried out. We have lost one of the most amazing monuments of our culture.
But nevertheless, no matter how late it is, one should try to stop the progress of this madness. An expert council should be established immediately to oversee our historical heritage, especially in countries where local government oversight is weak.
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Dr. Boris Khaimovich, based in Jerusalem, is the Chief Curator of the Museum of Jewish History in Russia. He is one of the world’s leading experts on Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe.
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