Yuri Andrukhovych and Eight Former Synagogues

The renowned Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych was featured in the inaugural Hromadske (Public) Radio broadcast of “Encounters,” a new program devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish relations. Yuri Andrukhovych is currently working on Eight Former Synagogues, or Labels for Johanna, which will be part of a photography album by the Berlin artist Johanna Diehl. The project is documenting buildings that are not functioning as synagogues, but are cinemas, gymnasiums, assembly halls, or other public spaces.


Yuri Andrukhovych: I met Johanna Diehl, not by chance to some extent, when I was presenting a talk at a Bruno Shultz evening in Berlin. She is fond of everything that is connected with Jewish remembrance. She already gave me a couple of her works. She photographs the interiors of former synagogues. The building had to be previously a synagogue, but because of well-known historic cataclysms it changed its purpose and maybe not even once. She does historical research on every location—what was there before, during what years, the name, and what is there now. Geographically, the project covers the entire Right Bank of Ukraine, especially the central Zhytomyr, Podillia, Khmelnytskyi, Vinnytsia, and Kyiv regions, and the former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that is, Western Ukraine. The artist plans to publish a large album with more than one hundred synagogue interiors. In order to develop our acquaintance, I sent Johanna my text about Ostrih, because I noticed she had a picture of ruins from out there. The text can be read in Lexicon of Mysterious Cities. She suggested I provide text miniatures to enhance her book, and I am very delighted with this work!

The fate of these buildings is lyrical, and even lyro-epic, because it is very diverse. There are gyms, cinemas, and even apartments in the synagogues. For example, in Ivano-Frankivsk it was an assembly hall in the medical school, and now it is a partially restored synagogue and partially a shop for building materials.

In Lviv, when I was studying at the printing institute, we used the gym on Coal Street. Here is the text on the Lviv interior and a little story of my own:

I visited this synagogue for years, sometimes twice a week, but I did not visit it for a ritual need. I did not know it was a synagogue. Or did I? What did I imagine thinking about this hall? Why is this hall the way it is? For example, those very tall arched windows, why are they the way they are? Did I really believe that this sports hall—where we ran, squatted, dashed about within our own shadows, perspired, and breathed—was always just a sports hall? Oh, neglect, you never care about the mystery! You do not even suspect its presence. Why is the street named after coal? From what century is this coal? From which antediluvian forests and from which abandoned fires? I did not ask myself. I was playing volleyball. This is a game that requires coordinated attention. Oh, neglect, the ball over the net is the object of worship and a victim, and it has to be made to fall on the opponents’ field. You look at only how it flies. You do not think about the Hassidim and their meetings in this case. You cannot even imagine that. Hassidic house? Here? Where there are so many sweaty girls in tight knits? Oh, Jacob Glanzer, I am sorry. Your house was taken away and, what is even worse, it was forgotten that it was taken away. You and other people who prayed here were forgotten forever, forgotten for all those long years, forgotten until the moment the ball hurls toward me and I defend myself, from beneath, with my hands locked. Damn it, too hard! The ball shoots upward and its trajectory is quite fatal. This is not the window. This is the world that is falling apart. Jacob Glanzer, I did not want this. I did not know.

One more notable property—much more famous than the sports hall of the printing institute—is the cinema in Chernivtsi, which is called “Chernivtsi.” Initially, it was the luxurious synagogue of the Reform community opposite the Orthodox. They were the representatives of the most refined urban middle class of Chernivtsi.

Cinema is the most important religion for all for us. It was here, where the mysterious appearances of Yves Montand, Alain Delon, Fernandel, and Phantomas happened. This crazy, crazy, crazy world gave birth to Lemonade Joe and Sophia Loren with all her marriages and divorces. It was not only in color, but also in widescreen, and A Faithful Hand – a Friend of the Indians took in three times more box office than War and Peace. Spartacus, Gojko Mitic, and Winnetou, not to mention The Soldiers of Freedom, gave a head start to epic liberations. Siberiade was not at all comparable with Disco Dancer. Big races turned into big maneuvers. Cleopatra’s name was Elizabeth, and Pierre Richard—Depardieu. Belmondo, Senor Robinson, Raj Kapoor, and even Ornella Mutti became patriarchs and prophets. It was the era of “October,” the great times of the synagogue. Then it became “Chernivtsi.” Strange. A city cinema had the same name as the city. Why not Vienna? Bucharest? Kyiv? Or, even Sao Paulo? Women sat separately in the galleries, and the men downstairs, and everybody could see the Ark. The marble plaque in the lobby commemorated Emperor Franz Joseph’s visit. The Temple was doomed to a wide format and color. Blue, red, and gold, and the capitals of the columns merged with Mauritanian arches. Everything was Mauritanian. This was a style—the style of wealthy Reform Jews, that is, Germans of Jewish religion. Then it was closed and taken by “the reds.” Later “the browns” burnt it. Then other “reds” arranged an explosion and detonated all of Mauritania, and only then the cinema started.

Perhaps another story? Sadhora. Once it was a separate and independent town, and now it is one of the districts of Chernivtsi.

Thus, when we were sent to Chernivtsi and back, we could not but pass behind it. It was the synagogue of the Friedmans, the Ruzhiner rebbes. I mean, not the synagogue, but what was left of it. We were cadets at the regiment in Sadhora. Red straps, bald skulls in the dark with sweaty caps that were kept there only by the ears, tarpaulin boots generously cleaned with shoe polish. Sometimes we had to run to the bathhouse and back, or to the shooting range in Storozhynets. In every case, we inevitably passed Ruzhyn’s synagogue. In case of war, our regiment would be battling against Belgians. Why them? I do not know. This is what we were told in our tactics classes—that we faced the Belgians from NATO. Actually, there was war at that time. But another one—in Afghanistan. So as not to be part of that war, we were becoming sick with jaundice. The war did not like such infected soldiers. In the word “Friedman” there is peace. The founder of the synagogue did not know that one hundred years later tanks would be repaired there. During his life tanks were not repaired anywhere as they did not even exist.

There was a splint on the ball of my right foot. It was still healing. However, to get it healed forever, I had to get sick with jaundice. Two months in the hospital, and everything was healed. But I tried to run past the Sadhora synagogue with the splint on my foot. It hurt.

The pain in my foot is the leitmotiv of my half-year in Sadhora. That is why I do not remember the ruined walls with the towers. But I couldn’t not notice them. I, quite possibly, could be attracted to this neglect. If unnoticed, limping, I could be behind the column; I could also somehow sneak inside. Take off the tarpaulin boots and foot wraps, relax the belt, undo the hook on the collar, lie down on the ground, on the broken bricks, just relax, lie down, and not get up. We have eternity ahead of us. Wunder rabbi Israel Freidman! This is what it meant.

Iryna Slavinska: These texts are about different synagogues that were altered because of social changes in Ukraine. Is it natural for you to write about them? Is it something that is interesting for you? Or is it more like research that you chose to do?

Yuri Andrukhovych: It is always an experiment and my attempt to do something even more differently. I am attracted to it because the texts have an auxiliary mission. This book is not about them, as they just create additional shading. This book features Johanna Diehl’s photographs. This is her major research, her big project, and her organized trips. I just contributed some random scribbles. Sometimes something happened to me in one building, and decades later–with another. And some of the buildings that appear in her pictures were also on my way somehow. But I did not deliberately choose the route to the synagogues. Quite often I did not even suspect that she was there. And such a confluence of her targeted search and the totally random and somewhat lost meanderings from my side could work in an interesting way in this book, I think.

Iryna Slavinska: This story that is described in the text about one of the Chernivtsi synagogues, the story about some running behind it without realizing that something is there…I think this is a characteristic metaphor for talking about Jewish culture in Ukraine. I think very often we pass by without noticing it. Do you agree?

Yuri Andrukhovych: Yes, I absolutely agree with this, but we should dive a bit deeper into the historical realities here. Ukrainian Jews, (as we should call them now, meaning those, who lived in modern Ukraine—the representatives of Judaism in those days), they were not very rich for the most part. There were cities where they achieved something, especially when it came to property and financial standing. Those were Kyiv, Odessa, modern Dnipropetrovsk, maybe partially Kharkiv, but mostly they were in provincial towns. Poor people, as we should call them, comprise a cultural layer that does not leave many monuments or mausoleums behind them. We do not have anything like the golden synagogue in Berlin. If talking about Vienna, Paris, and Prague with its medieval Jewish cemeteries, of course in the west it had a more monumental character, and it was hard not to notice it.

The Jews of Ukraine kept a low profile, and maybe pogroms played not the last role in that. Pogroms are not only a phenomena of the twentieth century. Here we have Khmelnytskyi, Koliivshchyna, and many more episodes in history. Therefore, I think they were trying to arrange their life according to the rituals and traditions, but they did it in the least visible way. Any gilding and monumentality would lead to the desire to ruin it. Therefore, when it went through the decay and destruction and so on, it would have become even less visible. That is why we find it hard to concentrate on it now. Besides, we do not have grandparents who would have told us about that, because they are mostly not Jews. They told us about some other monuments, and not these.

Iryna Slavinska: What do you think, is there a need or a feeling in contemporary Ukraine to try to experience more of this invisible culture that has become accustomed to hiding?

Yuri Andrukhovych: I think it would be such an exciting task, and a very cultural one. It should be possible to mobilize different cultural directions, not only architectural restoration, but also some reanimation in a broader sense, that is, music, performance, and poetry. Some pragmatic decisions could also be made, for instance to increase the flow of tourists. Now we are in Ivano-Frankivsk, and our synagogue is not that far from here. Over the decades it was also something else. For example, it was the assembly hall of the medical academy. There is a very interesting modern stylized hotel-museum just behind it, and it is called “Under the Temple.” Therefore, this is just one of the ways to express patriotic thoughts, to restore the trail of our Jews and not to consign them to oblivion.

There are whole generations of people who did not have any other land but this one. Of course, they had the Promised Land, but where is it? It was more in another dimension, in the religious and idealistic one. Therefore, it is our duty to see everything more clearly, to structure ourselves in the way we are now. We should fill in all the gaps and reanimate the most of everything.

Iryna Slavinska: Did you personally have any pages in your biography that are connected with the Jews from Ukraine, or maybe from any other country?

Yuri Andrukhovych: I was born into a world that was already Soviet. Ukrainian Soviet, as we can call it today.

Iryna Slavinska: Additionally, as far as I understand, there was a policy of antisemitism in the USSR.

Yuri Andrukhovych: It was muted, and could not be expressed directly. For example I had friends with whom I studied in the institute who were driven into all sorts of situations due to Paragraph Five in the passport, which specified your nationality as Russian, Ukrainian, or Jewish. It was not very easy to have a quiet life in this type of system as you were marked in all sorts of documents. Besides that, I remember in this city, in its suburbs, there is an artificial lake that was created at the end of the 1950s. I discovered later from stories from my parents it was the place where the Nazis organized mass shootings of Jews. There are different numbers, but they say there were 100,000 Jews killed. This is the analogue to Babyn Yar in Kyiv. Obviously, the ghetto that was here was replenished with inhabitants from other regions, because during those years Stanislav (the former name of Ivano-Frankivsk) did not even have 100,000 inhabitants of all nationalities and religions. And here more than 100,000 Jews were killed. During Soviet times, they for some reason decided to flood this location. I think this looks like a cover-up of the crime somehow. There is a Jewish cemetery nearby and there was a memorial sign during Soviet times about these shootings. But according to Soviet policy there was text something along the lines of “in this place German fascist invaders killed over 100,000 Soviet people” and that was it, nothing else. And only starting from 1992 did everything became clearer. The Jewish Diaspora actively started to work with this place, and now there are new memorial signs with text in Hebrew, English, and Ukrainian. They tell it like it was and do not talk about some abstract Soviet people. This was my personal story because when I was still a young poet I liked to walk there a lot. The area was a half urban and half rural zone and those walks were romantic and melancholic and I enjoyed them.

Iryna Slavinska: How is it possible in modern Ukraine to combine the formation of the political nation that everybody talks about and the cultural diversity that cannot be denied? How is it possible to unite the Soviet citizen, who forgot what was behind that citizen, with the Ukrainian citizen who forgot his origins?

Yuri Andrukhovych: I am sure it is possible, and objectively it started to take shape sometime at the beginning of the new millennium and during the Orange Revolution when our society set itself such a task. I am certain it was not the politicians who set this task, but society itself which was ready to become modern, civilized, open, and democratic. Such a task cannot be accomplished without the organic resolution of such a combination. There are no antagonistic confrontations here as this combination in reality builds two-way bridges. On the one hand in appealing to these ethno-national roots it bridges to the past, while on the other hand at the same time it builds bridges to the future. We are not creating anything new because there are historic antecedents such as the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Polish Commonwealth, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire when there were attempts to create a political nation.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian at: http://hromadskeradio.org/2014/10/18/yuriy-andruhovich-i-visim-eks-sinagog/

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk and Peter Bejger

Photo of Yuri Andrukhovych courtesy of Hromadske Radio