Jews in Ukraine’s second-largest city are protesting a plan to build a residential area near the site of a World War II-era Jewish ghetto. Earlier this month, leaders of the Jewish community in Kharkov appealed to city authorities to halt the construction of an apartment complex that would require some Holocaust memorial markers to be removed from the area.
In a letter to the mayor, Jewish leaders, headed by Kharkov Chief Rabbi Moshe Moskowitz and Alexander Kaganovsky, chairman of the city’s Jewish religious community, described the plan as unacceptable because it would affect the site “where probably the most tragic events in the history of our city took place.”
During the World War II occupation of Ukraine, the area proposed for new construction contained barracks from which thousands of Jews were marched to Drobitsky Yar on the outskirts of the city. There, Nazis and local collaborators killed more than 15,000 Jews in December 1941 and January 1942.
Jewish leaders say the community was unaware of the construction plan until it was approved by the city and would not have consented to the proposed development.
The area under construction has a memorial zone dedicated in 1992 that contains several Holocaust markers, including the Wall of Sorrow and a sign commemorating Righteous Among the Nations.
Jewish leaders said they were outraged to learn that officials agreed to move those signs to a nearby location to make room for the apartment buildings.
The letters to Mayor Mikhail Dobkin and other city officials — accompanied by some articles in a local Jewish newspaper criticizing the construction plans — have not affected the plans, community sources say.
Larisa Volovik, director of the Kharkov Holocaust Museum, told JTA she obtained classified archival records from 1943 verifying that the site proposed for construction at one time was used to bury those killed in the ghetto.
Ironically, Dobkin is Jewish, as are the owners of Privat Bank — which, according to some sources, is funding the construction or, according to Volovik and some other Jewish activists, is to own the planned apartment complex.
Bank co-owners Igor Kolomoysky and Gennady Bogolyubov, and the chairman of its board, Alexander Dubilet, all hold honorary titles in the Ukrainian Jewish community.
Calls to the bank and City Hall went unanswered.
The city’s main architect said he saw no problem with the construction. In an interview with JTA, Sergei Chechelnitzky confirmed that the complex is to be partially built on the territory of the former Jewish ghetto.
But he said the memorial signs can easily be moved to another place because their current location is only symbolic and does not mark the site of the actual killings.
He added that the city would agree to change the plan or halt construction altogether if Privat Bank agrees.
If the construction cannot be halted, some community leaders suggested that at least the memorial signs could be spared.
“It can not be a reason to demolish a memorial complex if the planning organization failed to take into account the presence of the memorial complex on the site of the former ghetto,” Volovik said.
Jewish leaders say that if construction can’t be prevented, the city should overturn its earlier decision and approve a new plan incorporating the memorial zone into the complex.
But some Jews won’t accept that: Rabbi Misha Kapustin, a Reform Jewish leader in Kharkov, said no construction should ever take place on the site of the former ghetto.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.