Across the Former Soviet Union Gas, Bathroom and Shoah Memorial: Proposed Construction Causes Uproar

For decades, World War II memorials erected in Ukraine did not specifically acknowledge Jewish suffering.

Now Ukrainian Jews are facing a new controversy connected to memorializing the war’s victims at a proposed commercial construction site near the location of a mass grave for thousands of Holocaust victims.

Some leaders of the Jewish community of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, are protesting a proposed gas station and adjacent stores on a busy highway near a recently unveiled monument that marks the site of a Holocaust-era massacre.

“The Kharkov Jewish public was not informed about the planned construction,” and if it had it would hardly give its consent to the proposed development, said a recent article by Pavel Sokolsky, a local Jewish leader, and Vladislav Nagriner, a journalist.

The article was published last month in the Jewish Observer, a Kiev newspaper.

The authors of the article called on the city council to overturn its earlier decision that would allow the construction of a gas station with a car wash, parking lot, food service and shops for drivers near the memorial in Drobitsky Yar. The memorial is outside Kharkov, home to about 50,000 Jews.

The two activists have called on Jewish organizations in Ukraine and abroad to support their fight against the proposed construction, which they said would compromise the sacred nature of the site.

City authorities, at first reluctant to discuss the issue with journalists, said last week they may reconsider their September 2002 decision to allocate land to Gefest.

Between December 1941 and January 1942, Nazis and local collaborators killed more than 15,000 Jews in Drobitsky Yar.

A memorial was dedicated in December of 2002 in the presence of Ukraine’s president, Leonid Kuchma. A 9-foot-tall menorah stands beside the highway at Drobitsky Yar and above the valley below.

To one side, a tree-lined road winds to a massive white arch with the years “1941-1942″ framed in a circle on the outside and bright blue Stars of David within. Below the arch is a sculpture depicting the tablets of the Ten Commandments. “Thou Shall Not Kill” is engraved in several languages, including Yiddish and Ukrainian.

Sokolsky, editor of the local Jewish paper, Shalom, blamed Leonid Leonidov, chairman of the Drobitsky Yar Memorial Committee, and Larisa Volovik, director of the Kharkov Holocaust Museum, who last August approved the commercial construction project without consulting the Jewish community.

“A single organization cannot decide such questions in secret,” Sokolsky said. “It is necessary to move either the gas station or the menorah.”

Volovik said, “The construction of a gas station and accompanying structures will be held away from Drobitsky Yar, away from the entry to the memorial complex.”

She said the company that will build and operate the station already has shown enough sensitivity to the issue by contributing to the renovation of the Kharkov Holocaust Museum. The company also agreed to plant trees near the service station and will pay for a spotlight to light the memorial menorah nearby, according to Volovik.

“We cannot prohibit the construction that will be conducted outside the memorial zone on the land belonging to the city,” Volovik said.

A representative of the company that will build and operate the service station said the construction will take place more than 80 yards from the memorial sign and more than 800 yards away from the actual burial site of the victims.

Svetlana Streltsova, a spokeswoman for the Gefest firm, said she believes the gas station will bring more visitors to the memorial site.

“When stopping to refill the car and have a rest, people will stop automatically by the memorial,” she said.

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