Thursday, August 7, 2008

Ukraine: Lest We Forget Lviv’s Krakovsky Jewish Cemetery – Now a Bustling Marketplace

Ukraine: Lest We Forget Lviv’s Krakovsky Jewish Cemetery – Now a Bustling Marketplace
by Samuel D. Gruber

Visitors to L’viv (formerly Lvov, Lemberg) for the Urban Jewish Heritage and History in East Central Europe, Lviv (Ukraine), October 29-31, 2008, will have a hard time finding the old Jewish Cemetery of that legendary city of Jewish life and culture. That’s because the famous Krakovsky Cemetery (probably founded no later than the 15th century) has been hidden under an expanding marketplace (known as the Krakivsky Market) since early 1990s (I took these photos in 2006).

The cemetery was devastated during the German occupation of then-Polish Lvov during the Second World War when the Jewish population of the city was killed, and the thousands of gravestones of the cemetery were removed, presumably for building and paving materials. After the war, when Lvov (now Ukrainian L’viv) became part of Soviet Ukraine, the cemetery area was used as an open marketplace. After the fall of Communism and independence of Ukraine in 1991, free-market and black-market commercialism increased on the cemetery site. Very quickly what had been an open space for casual display of fruits, vegetables, and flea market items became a bustling market area of movable stalls, booths and semi-permanent structures.

The small Jewish community of L’viv protested, and asked for the cemetery to be returned to the community, and respected as a burial ground. In 1995 the city cited costs for moving the market at between $1 million and $2 million US dollars. Continued negotiations led to the recognition of the historic character of the site, and the signing of a protocol in 1996 stating the intent that the market should be moved and the cemetery restored in some way, to reflect its religious and historic significance. Several important political figures in the US and Ukraine (including now-New York Senator Charles Schumer) weighed in on the issue, calling for the restoration of the cemetery.

In 1997 US AID prepared a detailed review of the situation, reporting local estimates for the cost of removal of the market to another location, creation of the new market, and some form of restoration of the cemetery at between $4 and 12 million. Part of this was economic realism, but part was probably an attempt at political extortion. The municipality could say they wanted to do the right thing, but could not afford it.

In any case, no agency – private or public - was willing to put up that kind of money. And after a few years without moving, the market began to expand. What was once temporary has taken on a more and more permanent appearance. Part of that has been due to the erection of more and more market buildings, many of which have required some disturbance of the below-ground burials to allow their construction.

Now, a number of circumstances have people looking at the situation again. Some successfully negotiated projects removing structures from cemeteries in Poland have encouraged cemetery preservation groups. Renewed disputes about built-over cemeteries in Thessaloniki (Greece) and Vilnius (Lithuania) have brought the situation in L’viv back in mind to diplomats still pressing for property restitution laws and settlements (there is a big conference on this in Prague in June 2009). There is talk of a new international committee being formed to press to the issue, which some rabbinic leaders and governmental officials have been studying.

For now, the bustling market is more successful than ever, and more an essential, and seemingly traditional, part of L’viv’s urban life. There are absolutely no indications anyway - signs, symbols, memorial – about the history of this site and guide books and on-line tourist sites rarely mention anything more than the colorful produce and handcrafts for sale.

Readers who have information or questions about the cemetery are encouraged to contact ISJM.

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