Nash Holos: Zhovkva Synagogue

Zhovkva is a beautiful and extraordinary town located 25 kilometers from Lviv.

From its earliest days, Zhovkva’s population was a mix of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. Today the town’s architectural, historical and cultural diversity make it popular with tourists.

Zhovkva was founded in 1594 as a private town, by Polish military commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski. It soon became a center of religious life, arts and commerce. In the 17th century the Polish king established a royal residence there.

The Jewish community’s roots in Zhovkva run deep. The oldest Jewish tombstone in Zhvovka dates back to 1610. In 1690, local Jews established a Hebrew printing press, and a Jewish tailors’ guild dates back to 1693.

By the 18th century, Zhvovka was an important center of Jewish study, worship, and administration for Jewish communities in the area.

In the late 1690s, a magnificent synagogue with a late-Renaissance appearance was built for the rapidly growing community.

It was an outstanding example of a fortress synagogue. Designed to protect Jews from invasions, it had a passageway to the roof, and underground shelters.

Over the centuries, the synagogue underwent a number of restorations. The most significant followed two devastating fires in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the worst devastation occurred in the 20th century.

At the start of World War II, Zhovkva’s Jewish community made up half of the town’s population of 10,000. The synagogue was the center of religious life, and secular Jewish institutions included a school, a cultural society, and a football team.

In 1941, that all ended. Nazi occupiers demolished the synagogue, leaving only the walls standing. German troops destroyed the cemetery and used the tombstones to build roads.

Most of Zhovkva’s 5,000 Jews were either murdered in a series of local executions, or deported to death camps. Only a few dozen survived the war, and most emigrated.

Of the once-vibrant Jewish presence, very little remains: The ruins of the synagogue, fragments of tombstones, and a statue commemorating the town’s murdered Jews. A market stands on what was once the Jewish cemetery.

For decades, Zhovkva’s 16th- and 17th-century architectural treasures remained in shameful disrepair.

Since Ukrainian independence, the situation has improved somewhat and a slow but ambitious restoration plan is under way.

In 1994, the Ukrainian government declared central Zhovkva a State Historical-Architectural Reserve. Fortunately, the synagogue is located in this area.

In 2000, the World Monuments Fund declared the Zhvovka synagogue one of its 100 most endangered sites and provided a grant to support the development of a restoration plan for the synagogue.

Narrated by Renata Hanynets,

Listen to the program here.

Ukrainian Jewish Heritage is brought to you by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a privately funded multinational organization whose goal is to promote mutual understanding between Ukrainians and Jews. Transcripts and audio files of this and earlier broadcasts of Ukrainian Jewish Heritage are available at the UJE website and the Nash Holos website.