A fight for the Jewish heritage in Lviv
Meylakh Sheykhet is the person that cannot be ignored in Lviv concerning the Jewish life. As the representative of the Union of Councils for the Jews of the Former Soviet Union in Ukraine, he acts to the promotion of the democracy in the country. His action stretches on various fields as the defense of the Human and minority rights, the preservation of the cultural heritage, as well as the handling of the antisemitism. If he uppermost helps the Jewish community, his action also helps to the cause of others persons as the assistance his organization brings to the prisoners, victims of miscarriage of justice. In a general manner, the main purpose is to support the construction of a Ukrainian civil society.
By himself, he is in charge of three organizations – non mentioning his work in the Union of Council : the Jewish Revival, the Petryakova Center for Studies and Researches on the Jewish Culture as part of the Ukrainian Culture and Jewish-non-Jewish relations, the religious community of the “Turei Zahav” synagogue or “Golden Rose” by its popular name1. Thus, concretely, his action is in really various fields: the Petryjakova Center is in charge of the Academic and Artistic Jewish Heritage, the Union gives financial, medical and food aid to penniless Jews and descendants of the non-Jews – Righteous of the World who helped Jews during the war, while the religious community gives services for Shabbat and other important Jewish celebrations.
Most the Meylakh’s agenda is however devoted to the preservation of the cemeteries and mass graves sites in all Ukraine. The task is huge regarding to the number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust in this region as well as the Nazi and Soviet policy concerning those places. Few cemeteries – among which some came back to the 14th c., were spared by the Nazis, who had as practice, to consistently bomb them and take away the tombstones to pave the roads. As for the Soviet power, it had built new buildings, market... on those place of burials. As an current example, he is fighting with other member of Lviv's civil society to stop the construction of a hotel on the Citadel site which was a concentration camp were thousands of Jews but also French and Italian soldiers were killed.
Picture : Meylakh Sheykhet on the archeologic site of Zhydachiv. The Jewish cemetery in Zhydachiv, destroyed by the nazis served as a field for a Soviet citizen to build a garage during the Soviet time. The cemetery was forgotten until the independence in 1991.
Beyond the importance of his action, it is the man in himself who is impressive. He walks around the city and the region in Jewish traditional dress – black coat and hat, greeting numerous persons. However, it is not his appearance but more his philosophy, present in all his discussions, which impresses. From our first meeting, the crux was said. Nothing of what he proposed us to discover, listen, film... should be used to any other purpose but only bring Peace. Whatever happened in the past, most important today is that Peace, Tolerance and Understanding must prevail and defended.
Envisaging the society as necessarily multiple, in which qualities and abilities of everyone will be used, he compares the hatred to a virus which once introduced, spread to the entire society. The Jewish community is always the first target as it is easily visible target and defenseless. However, the World War Two did not spare anyone, just by spreading the hatred and the thirst of blood. According to him, “what we Jews talk a lot about the Holocaust because the Jews supposed to be annihilated just because of being born Jews, but the non-Jews must also to talk that they suffered, after Jews were the first target the non-Jews became consequentially the second. The hatred can not be narrow focused, when started from Jews it infected the all World. The Nazi Regime hurt also the other People. Everyone is suffering now as the Holocaust to Jews turned to turmoil and terrorism to the World. “The memory of the History is a Common Memory, which is reflected in the human relations: the memory of the good past is a common memory – the same as the memory of the bad past is also a common memory”.
Concerning the Jewish heritage in Lviv, he evokes the flourishing Jewish culture and society before the war, specifying that all would not have been possible without the agreement, even tacit, of the others communities. He explains the solidarity between Jews and Ukrainians by the fact that they were both discriminated by the Polish authorities during the inter war period and then by the Soviet regime. “I like Ukrainian language. I always understood the sorrow of the Ukrainian students I taught. They were discriminated by oppressing their culture because the Jewish People in the Former Soviet Union was murdered, desecrated, forced to be taken away from the traditional Jewish life and fate, emptied by the Soviet propaganda. I understood that I lost tremendous a lot but Ukrainians and other people lost as well. I always lectured them in Ukraininan even the official language was Russian in the Soviet time”. A Jew has always sensitive feelings to others being oppressed and always ready to help the other people heartfelt. This explains that he’s always supported the Ukrainian independence.
As the Ukrainians, the Jewish community of Lviv also suffered a lot during the Soviet time, what Meylakh call the ‘Second Holocaust’. The difficulty, not to say the impossibility to maintain a communal and religious Jewish life, as it was banned by the Soviets; the disaster management of the memory places (forgotten, became built over, plagued to the memory of the Soviet people instead of mention openly – Jewish people), discriminations in all ways. He quotes an example when talking about the Jews as the “invalids of the 5th grade”. The 5th grade was the question about nationality on the employment form.
For him, the anti-Semitism was planted in into the Ukrainian society since centuries by the different domination powers before the Ukrainian independence as well as by the Christian discursive. However, he remarks that the anti-Semitism comes more from the authorities – moulded in the Soviet ideology, than on the common level. “When we come to regular people, face to face, you always find a way of understanding, common feelings and sympathy”.
Meylakh Sheykhet is certainly not the only one to play an important role for the Jewish community and its heritage in Lviv. Other charitable and cultural organizations are very involved in this titanic work. Thanks to his work, he nonetheless stays one of the only one – if not the only one, to fight for the recognition and preservation of the sites, the protection of the sacral and architectural patrimony. The problem that he faces in his action with the authorities seems to be more a general problem that a mere display of anti-Semitism. All that is connected to the memory in Ukraine lost its importance when facing commercial and financial interests, and this is not only for the Jewish heritage.
Picture : Meylakh Sheykhet in the front of a mass grave on the extermination site of Lysynychi, around Lviv. Were executed there more than 100 000 persons, mostly Jews but also Italian, French.... soldiers.
1 This private synagogue, from the Middle-Age, was destroyed by the Nazis in 1942 – as most of the synagogues of Lviv. The “Golden Rose” synagogue stay the most famous. Its site, in the center of the old town – in the former Jewish district, was safeguarded since the UNESCO’s intervention. It was also the most richly and luxuous decorated of Lviv, which created a lot of myths and legends around this religious house.