Galicia and Bukovina are covered with partially or totally destroyed Jewish cemeteries. The grave stones were abused as building material during the German occupation and the years of Soviet rule. However, history does not just disappear. During construction works fragments of Jewish grave stones come to light. These stones raise questions – first of all the question of how we want to deal with the past.
In October 2012, I noticed them for the first time: Fragments of Jewish grave stones, stored in a small park between the Rappaport hospital and the Krakow market, where once was the medieval Jewish cemetery of Lviv (Lwow, Lemberg) was. Hebrew characters are visible on them, rosettes and other ornaments. The stones are carefully arranged. Someone wanted to understand what is there to read.
I ask my friend Alex, what is going on with the stones and where they originate from. “They have been offered as building material to someone,” he says. The buyer had a bad feeling when he saw what he had purchased. He asked what to do, and was advised to bring the stones to the park behind the former Jewish hospital. “The stones have now been studied,” says Alex. There is reason to believe that they actually come from the old Jewish cemetery of Lviv and not from one of the many destroyed cemeteries in the region. In spring 2013 a large amount of stones is added. Unsorted they are on a big pile.
Both Jewish cemeteries of Lviv were destroyed during the German occupation. The prisoners of the concentration camp at Yanovska road had to destroy the traces of centuries-old Jewish community. The grave stones were used as building material. At least at one location in the city center, this is still visible: on a cobbled square in front of the Golden Rose – the oldest synagogue in Ukraine – where once another synagogue and a house of learning stood.
The modest economic upturn in recent years has ensured that at least some people have money to build or make major renovations to their homes. Since then the remains of the Jewish past re-appear – when a staircase is renewed or an old wall is demolished.
In Rohatyn, a local historian calls for bringing the grave stones – which are found mainly in ditches and yards – to the former new Jewish cemetery. There they are arranged around a memorial. What will happen to them? An unsolved chalenge.
In Ivano-Frankivsk, there are within and next to the Jewish cemetery two large heaps with grave stone fragments. They have been brought there during the recent years. Most of the fragments probably do not originate from here. In Ivano-Frankivsk, there were two Jewish cemeteries – an old and a new one. Both were completely destroyed, the site of the old cemetery was built over. Some of the fragments that are seen on the new cemetery – created in the interwar period – probably derived from the old cemetery. Lizards sunning themselves on the ruins. No one will be able to reassemble the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle.
In Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) the “Turkish stairs” – leading from the former Jewish district to the Upper Town – were renewed in preparation of the 600th anniversary of the city. During the construction works appeared grave stone fragments that likely come from the old Jewish cemetery – destroyed in the 50s by the Soviets. One of these stones was placed at the base of a crucifix, which stands at the top of the Turkish stairs. There it is – a sad comment on our history.
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My article last year for Jewish Heritage Europe on the Rohatyn headstone recovery project (and more):