Helping an orphan of history recover its past


LVIV, Ukraine (JTA) — It’s not every day that you can help a city recover its history.

But that’s what happened recently in Lviv, in western Ukraine, when I served on the jury for an international design competition to mark and memorialize key sites of Jewish heritage.

Sponsored by municipal authorities in association with the Lviv Center for Urban History and the German Society for Technical Cooperation, the competition was aimed at counteracting widespread, and sometimes willful, amnesia about the city’s rich and convoluted past.

This amnesia, Deputy Mayor Vasyl Kosiv reminded us when our jury first convened, was the product of a century of often violent upheaval that left Lviv something of an orphan in history.

“Over the past 100 years, the ruling government changed at least eight times, often dramatically and often followed by tragic changes,” said Kosiv, who also was a jury member.

An elderly person literally could have remained in Lviv all his or her life but have been born in Habsburg, Austria (when the city was known as Lemberg); gone to school in Poland (when it was called Lwow); spent adulthood in the Soviet Union (when it was known as Lvov), and be retired now in Ukraine.

War and conquest radically altered populations as well as borders.

Before World War II, when the city was part of Poland, more than half the population was ethnic Poles, about 15 percent was Ukrainians and one-third was Jewish. The more than 100,000 Jews formed the third-largest Jewish community in Poland.

But the Jewish community was annihilated in the Holocaust, with nearly all synagogues and other traces of Jewish history destroyed. And after the Soviet Union took over in 1944, most of the local Polish population was expelled westward and replaced by Ukrainians and Russians moved in from the east.

Lviv became a focus of Ukrainian national identity, its multi-ethnic history largely suppressed or forgotten.

The design competition for Jewish sites, the biggest such competition ever held in postwar Lviv, was conceived as a step toward recovering collective memory.

The official brief was “to respond to the growing awareness of Lviv’s multi-ethnic past by contributing to the rediscovery of the city’s Jewish history and heritage through creating public spaces dedicated to the city’s historic Jewish community.”

It singled out three key sites of Jewish history to be redesigned as memorial areas:

* the “Valley of Death” that was linked to the notorious Janivski camp set up by the German occupiers in World War II, where more than 100,000 Jews were killed;

* the site of two destroyed synagogues in the city’s former downtown Jewish quarter, situated next to the visible ruins of the 16th century Golden Rose synagogue near the main market square;

* and the so-called “Besojlem,” the small piece of open ground that is the only part of the destroyed old Jewish cemetery not built over. All the rest is now covered by a big bazaar, the Krakovsky Market.

Architects from the United States, Israel and 12 other countries submitted a total of 70 designs for the three sites.

Our nine-member jury was an international mix of architects, urban planners and other experts, each of whom was looking at the proposals from different viewpoints and experience.

For two days, in a drafty hall where the designs were displayed, we debated each proposal not simply on its appearance but on its feasibility of implementation, sensitivity to place and, importantly, on its sensitivity to Jewish concerns, including halachah, or Jewish law.

I was among three Jewish jury members. Though I am not an architect or urban planner, I have spent years analyzing the restoration and redevelopment of former Jewish quarters in post-communist Europe.

The other two Jewish jurors were the Lviv-born architectural historian Sergey Kravstov, from the Center for Jewish Art in Jerusalem, and Josef Zissels, the longtime head of one of Ukraine’s national umbrella Jewish organizations.

The submissions were anonymous, so we had no idea from where they came.

In the end, remarkably, we were nearly unanimous in our choices for the three designs we awarded first prize in each category.

The team of Ming-Yu Ho, Ceanatha La Grange and Wei Huang, from Irvine, Calif., won first prize for the Janivski concentration camp site with a project that would turn the site into a form of land art — a raised walkway curving around a slope covered with slabs representing symbolic tombstones.

The Berlin-based team of Franz Reschke, Paul Reschke and Frederik Springer won first prize for the synagogue square site, a design that incorporated the archeological excavations of one destroyed synagogue and traced the form of another.

And Ronit Lombrozo, of Jerusalem, won first prize for Besojlem with a design that was particularly sensitive to the fact that the space was a cemetery where bodies are still buried. It envisaged a raised walkway and also the use of unearthed tombstones as part of a memorial site.

Other prizes and honorable mentions went to designs from Italy, Poland, Germany, Austria and Ukraine.

It remains to be seen, of course, when and whether the winning projects will be carried through. Kinks in the designs need to be worked out, and funding must be raised. Still, the entire process bodes well for the future.

Indeed, I was particularly impressed that the winners included several young architects from Lviv who were in their early 20s. Their approaches to reintegrating a component of local history that has far too long been suppressed, ignored, forgotten and/or distorted were thoughtful and sensitive — even though the world whose memory they were attempting to recover must seem to them by now like ancient history.

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,”  and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at She is currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute.)

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