Serhii Kravtsov: During the Soviet period, attempts were made to erase the traces of urban Jewish communities
Iryna Slavinska: Today the Encounters program is hosting Dr. Serhii Kravtsov, an architectural historian at Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. We are talking about Jewish architecture and its traces in Ukrainian cities. First, we discuss the visibility of this heritage.
Serhii Kravtsov: The answer to this question is ambiguous because the situation is different from city to city, and throughout the entire Soviet period maximum efforts were undertaken in order to erase these traces; erase them both visually, physically, and, one might say, ideologically. By this I mean a change of names, historical names connected with Jewish habitation in certain areas. Even in Lviv, if we look at the old Jewish quarter within the city walls, we will see that the street which was called Zhydivska since the fourteenth century is now called Ivan Fedorov Street. And Veksliarska Square is now called Koliivshchyna Square. In other words, here we see not even memory and the erasing of memory but sometimes simply a counter-narrative, a counter-memory. In many cities such efforts are not necessary. Synagogue buildings are either in a pitiful state, sometimes they are utter ruins, sometimes they have been adapted to some other function, and often they do not have any memorial plaque, or a single marker saying that this was once a synagogue. I’m not saying that this is a general practice, because there are buildings that bear conservation plaques, [stating that] this is a synagogue from such-and-such a century. The dating is not always very accurate. But what is noticeable is that there is the will to mark a place where Jews lived in the urban environment. One should also understand what happened to the structures of synagogues that, as I have said, are in various conditions.
Iryna Slavinska: I ask Serhii Kravtsov whether it is possible to summarize the scenario of the decline of these buildings. Are we talking about demolition or something else?
Serhii Kravtsov: Let’s try to answer this question historically. That is, after the war they were mostly in a ruined state because the Germans destroyed synagogues systematically. This does not mean that they utterly destroyed all synagogues. It was convenient for them to use some synagogues as, say, storehouses or some other kind of auxiliary premises, and they were simply preserved with some traces of reconstruction. The majority of synagogues were totally destroyed. There are some that suffered damage. Sometime approximately in the mid-1950s, we don’t know the exact date and we don’t know what it’s connected with, obviously there was some resolution passed by the party or state authorities—probably one and the same thing—to verify the condition of these ruins. And if the ruins were in such a state that it was possible to restore them for some kind of use, the most utilitarian one, then efforts were undertaken to do this. There were state investments; for example, the old, large synagogue in Zhovkva was partially rebuilt, or the synagogue in Brody. There are photographs from the 1950s and 1960s, where these buildings look significantly better than in subsequent years. The fate of some synagogues was indeed marvelous, like the large synagogue in Lutsk, [from] the seventeenth century. It is a well-dated synagogue, and unique. It was in a terrible state but not a total ruin. And there was a project, measurements were taken, there were conservation and restoration projects. But things didn’t reach that point, and it was turned into a small square for training civil defense. In other words, various events were held there, which furthered the deterioration of this ruin. In the 1970s, the efforts of enthusiasts, who happened to work in the Directorate for the Protection of Monuments, made it possible somehow to preserve this building in some form—I mean Lutsk—but it also lost very many valuable elements. So, the situation changes from monument to monument.
Iryna Slavinska: Were there synagogues that continued to function as synagogues in the Soviet period? To what extent was this situation possible?
Serhii Kravtsov: This situation was possible until the early 1960s, but afterwards very many synagogues were closed for some kind of bogus violations—most often economic ones—on the part of the synagogue administration. For example, the last synagogue was closed down in Lviv and in many other cities. Then these buildings were then transformed into other establishments such as gyms or assembly halls; something different in each city.
Iryna Slavinska: In Kyiv, for example, there was a puppet theater in one synagogue.
Serhii Kravtsov: Yes, in the so-called Brodsky synagogue. But the Soviet authorities introduced some new functions to synagogues, which did not cause any material damage to these buildings. They were preserved, for the most part, with some losses. The large synagogue in Ivano-Frankivsk, say, was divided by flooring into two halls, and it served the medical institute, if I am not mistaken. Afterwards it was returned to the Jewish community. The community does not consider it appropriate to dismantle this flooring, which has already caused this damage, and that’s the end of the matter.
Iryna Slavinska: Besides synagogues, are there other traces indicating the presence of Jewish communities in Ukrainian cities?
Serhii Kravtsov: It is, perhaps, easiest and simplest to spot a Jewish cemetery, which has also mostly reached a very bad state because the Germans made special efforts to destroy Jewish cemeteries. The local population—let’s describe it as unaware—used the matzevahs, headstones, for construction work in their yards, while the Germans purposely paved streets with these slabs. Those who recall postwar Lviv remember how the slabs from the new Jewish cemetery, relatively new granite slabs, were used for paving work with the inscription at the top, so that you could see what this new street was made of. And these cobblestones were preserved, and the matzevahs, for which there was no time to use them according to their new designation; in other words, building material was delivered and dumped somewhere in a courtyard. Right now, people are finding them. At the present time there is a new movement in Ukraine. It is not taking place according to some administrative compulsion from the top down. People simply want to rid themselves of those traces, meaning, they are requesting that they be removed. They themselves deliver these fragments of matzevahs to plots in the old cemetery. There are enough organizations that deal first and foremost with fencing off cemeteries, cleaning up cemeteries, documenting cemeteries; in other words, recording…well, epitaphs, because this is very important material for genealogical research, although surnames are not indicated on the old matzevahs. But if you can somehow trace the course of the funerals of people by their names, a father’s name, a grandfather’s name, which are sometimes found on matzevahs, you can somehow locate the plot where the people from a certain family are buried.
Iryna Slavinska: Why are Jewish cemeteries in Ukrainian cities sometimes in a pitiful state? For example, I am referring to the cemeteries in Berdychiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and other cities.
Serhii Kravtsov: Sometimes it also depends on whether it is an old cemetery or a new one. The cemetery in Ivano-Frankivsk, as far as I can guess, is a so-called new cemetery, and less attention was paid to it, or it was in such a state that nothing could be done there. Those who began dealing with cemeteries were religious figures, because the cemetery is his territory, his earth; they are sacred to the pious Jew. You cannot disturb, touch, move the bones and remains of the dead because they are supposed to be preserved there until the Messianic age. At the same time, this religious…this religious approach, it has its shortcomings, let’s say. Because, as I heard from the religious figures of that period, from the point of view of Jewish common law, the matzevahs, the headstones, do not have any artistic or cultural significance. It is the burial place that matters. That is why religious figures tried to enclose a cemetery. If the cemetery held the grave of a tzaddik, a well-known Hassidic rabbi, and he was sometimes buried inside a kind of mausoleum, a kind of stone tent, then they would try to restore this construction above it, [above] their graves. And if such graves were pilgrimage sites in the prewar years, this custom was revived in the postwar years.
Iryna Slavinska: At this point we conclude the first part of today’s Encounters program. I remind our listeners that our guest today is Dr. Serhii Kravtsov, an architectural historian at Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem.
You are listening to the Encounters program on Hromadske Radio. Today we are speaking with Dr. Serhii Kravtsov, an architectural historian at Hebrew University’s Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem. This conversation was recorded in the courtyard of this university. We continue our talk about Jewish architecture in Ukrainian cities. After the discussion about synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, we talk about other traces attesting to the presence of Jewish architecture.
Serhii Kravtsov: Mikvehs have been preserved. These are ritual baths in which Jews immerse themselves for ritual purification, both women and men; this depends on the ritual current of Judaism.
Iryna Slavinska: How can they be recognized? If we’re talking about the territory of a city—some of our listeners are not very well versed in architectural features and cultural differences—how can these places be recognized?
Serhii Kravtsov: It is impossible to recognize them from the outside. You have to go inside, and you have to find a pool with stairs, several pools in order to understand that these are in fact pools for ablution with spring or rain water. The water is also supposed to be pure, ritually pure in such places; that is, only a small part of it can be added by human hands through a water main; it has to be natural.
Iryna Slavinska: Next, we go on to talk about Jewish neighborhoods, with the city of Lviv serving as a good example.
Serhii Kravtsov: You need to understand that, if we are talking about the Jewish quarter of Lviv within the city walls, it was not entirely a Jewish one, and not from the very outset. There were plots that were called, well, they were royal lands. In other words, since the times of King Jagiełło they belonged to the Crown, to the state treasury. Later they were transferred, under certain conditions, to one owner or another for the defense of the city and other needs. They were an object of trade, sale, or inheritance, but eventually the majority of these plots passed into Jewish hands. At first, construction took place on a small, superficial level, but eventually the area was densely built up. In reality, this quarter was overpopulated. If you look for some traces of Jewish habitation, then these are above all the so-called mezuzot. A mezuzah means “doorpost” in Hebrew, but a mezuzah is also a small container for a piece of parchment with a blessing for a person entering this building. In the home of a pious Jews such a mezuzah is not only on the front doors but also on the doorpost of each room and bedroom.
Iryna Slavinska: And their traces can be recognized, for example, by the small holes near front doors, because the containers themselves are now gone.
Serhii Kravtsov: Yes, yes, they were simply pulled off. They are missing for the most part. They could be made out of the simplest material, these containers, but they were simply pulled off. As Jewish life and the infrastructure of the Jewish community developed, other types of buildings arose, which no longer belonged to the traditional society. Let’s take National Homes. Just like the German National Home in Chernivtsi, the Polish National Home, or the Ukrainian Home, there was—and is—a Jewish People’s Home, and it is being restored. The Jewish museum in it is being restored. There was also a National Home in Lviv. It held one of the two Jewish libraries in the city, and a Jewish museum. It was also home to various civic organizations. I mentioned that there were two libraries. There was another library on Riznytska Street, now called Nalyvaiko Street. There was indeed a larger public library there, to which wealthy people, who had simply collected private libraries for their families, for example, the Bernard Lewenstein library or the Horowitz library, and others, donated their collections. And for all these books, space was found together with old publications, together with the so-called pinkases of these communities, that is, books containing a record of the most important events in the community.
Iryna Slavinska: Does it make sense to make such spaces, quarters, places visible?
Serhii Kravtsov: Asking such a question begs another question: sense for whom? There is a generation of people who lived through the Catastrophe, the Holocaust, or did not survive it. And their descendants are living in Israel. And sometimes they are truly quite indifferent to whether it is visible or not. For them, practically nothing pains them anymore, they have said goodbye to that place. There are people who have feelings for their people, their roots, a kind of nostalgia for their own places, who come and look, but one can hardly expect them to invest some private family means in order to make these synagogues more noticeable or these spaces more noticeable. I think that this question is instead for Ukrainian society. Does it want these spaces to be more noticeable, to recount a bit more about these minorities and these spaces that belonged to them? Or to continue to keep silent, to continue this Soviet tradition? This is indeed a Soviet tradition, and it began sometime in the 1950s.
Iryna Slavinska: Can one say that today there is concealment or, at least, silence about the different experiences of other minorities in Ukraine?
Serhii Kravtsov: No, I think that it’s the opposite. I think that we are witness to the awakening of interest. This is simply a process, not a one-time event, and this process demands a lot of investments, because the owners of those buildings or those plots have changed, and completely different people have their own interests. They are parking cars there or walking with their children, or God knows what. Well, life is life, and I think it is society on the whole that has to decide what it wants to have and through what government structures to resolve these questions. Then, maybe, it will be easier—and that’s what’s happening—to find investments in order to bring what was there and what is there to some sort of acceptable aesthetic appearance.
Iryna Slavinska: Who are the actors in this process?
Serhii Kravtsov: The researchers are mostly historians, who are steeped in the past and who do not necessarily have any vision of the future. This is, of course, a task for architects. But sometimes architects are not architects but simply wage-earners. A task must be set before them. They can take part in competitions, they can also submit ideas on a voluntary basis in their spare time. But in order to bring such a project to the drafting stage and especially the stage of implementation, some serious financing is required. In very, very rare exceptions this can be done on a voluntary basis. It must be said that civic societies, unions also have various interests sometimes. For example, in Lviv one of the religious communities was completely uninterested in making this space generally accessible. I think it was seeking—and still is to this day—the reconstruction of that Golden Rose synagogue in the form in which it existed at a certain stage of its existence. And a considerable conflict of interests took place against this background. But what happened happened. That is, the actors who were involved, who were gathered around, say, the Center for Urban Culture [Center of Urban History of East Central Europe—Ed.], they succeeded in explaining their politics to a broader circle of people—investors, the municipal authorities—and this secluded, half-forgotten corner of Lviv turned into an open, public space. This did not happen all by itself.
Iryna Slavinska: And at the end of the program, a bit about architecture in Israel. Does it contain any references to Ukrainian architecture or the architecture of the countries from where people moved to live in Israel?
Serhii Kravtsov: If you look at construction until the 1960s, until the Six Day War, you will see many buildings that are standing on columns, especially in Tel Aviv, for example. This is an architecture that is like a dream, it is in the air. By the way, it is similar to our National Library, which stands on posts, just like the Villa Savoye in Poissy, which inspired the architect who worked on this building. What changes after the Six Day War? Architects, especially landscape architects, are trying to show an enrootment in this land by architectural means. Numerous terraced landscape complexes appear. And this is an allusion to terrace cultivation, which flourished here two thousand years ago, when it was necessary to have an adequately large amount of agricultural land in order to feed, for example, all the pilgrims who come to the Temple in Jerusalem; all this economic activity that existed around the Temple. And this has been a very widespread element of landscape architecture in the last decades. Right now, this is changing a bit, but in principle this is a language with a certain ideology.
This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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