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The "Guardian Angel" of Ukrainian Jewish Cemeteries

Meylakh Sheykhet was in Toronto speaking about the plight of thousands of grave sites.

By: Dan Verbin
Published: April 13th, 2010 in News » World
Jewish cemetery of Chernivtsi, UkrainePic: wikimedia commons
Meylakh SheykhetPic: CJC
CJC President Mark FreimanPic: CJC

Meylakh Sheykhet has been described as the “guardian angel of Jewish cemeteries and mass graves in Western Ukraine” for his tireless efforts on behalf of preserving these sites.

Recently in Toronto speaking to Jewish and Ukrainian Canadian groups, Meylakh was originally a lecturer in the field of telecommunications at the post secondary level in Ukraine.

A traditional Jew who grew up during the terrible anti-Semitism and repression of the Soviet era, he initially became involved in two cases of preserving Jewish cemeteries after the collapse of the Iron Curtain. From there, he began travelling around Ukraine where he witnessed up close the destruction and neglect occurring to Jewish cemeteries and mass graves.

He told Shalom Life that initially, he decided to take part in volunteer work to preserve the graves, while continuing his professional career.

“I meant (to just do it) for a while but it has happened for life,” said Meylakh who is also the director for Ukraine for the Union of Councils for the Jews in the Former Soviet Union. He added that he eventually realized it was not possible to do both and decided to focus on preserving Jewish cemeteries full time.

Meylakh has made it his mission over the last 10 years to protect and preserve as many Ukrainian Jewish cemeteries and mass graves as possible.

He explained that during Soviet times, the authorities denied the legitimacy and existence of Jewish cemeteries and mass graves, while using propaganda to accuse Jews for all sorts of crimes and turning the Star of David into an evil symbol. As he was familiar with this history of falsification, he felt that he could be useful in navigating the complex bureaucracy in Ukraine during that early days after communism fell, Western visitors and dignitaries were getting the run around from the government which was giving them all sorts of excuses why it could not protect the cemeteries.

The cemeteries had even been removed from all maps and any mention of their existence was erased as if Jews never existed. Prominent Jews and rabbis who visited the country were even told that there were no laws on the book to protect cemeteries when the opposite was true.

“I made everything possible to show that they were mislaid and that the rule of law did exist for the burial sites and that the bureaucracy must follow it up and they have to respect the Jewish grave sites as required by international agreements and the rule of law of Ukraine,” he said.

So far, Meylakh has been involved in investigating more than 150 sites, producing documentation and physically protecting a third of those. However, he explained that there are literally thousands of such sites, currently in poor condition, that need to be protected.

“They need a lot of work, they need a lot of monetary investment and most important, they have to be reconstituted in a legal way because they have to be put back on city and town maps,” he said.

One would think after so many years of heroic dedication and hard work, the job would now be easier sadly, today it is the exact opposite because of the short-sighted economic policies of the Ukrainian government.

“It became much more difficult because Ukrainian government and local municipalities are busy with privatization of the land. A lot of times, the Jewish cemeteries were partially or completely built over by new construction. So they want to preserve (private property ownership laws) on land which is normally Jewish. We found old documents, maps and different documentation, to show they were Jewish cemeteries. So we try to file court cases to get the land back and reinstitute it as Jewish cemeteries but we always fail because the court system doesn’t want to listen to Jewish claims.”

This being the case, he is quick to point out that it is not regular Ukrainians who think this way but the country’s bureaucracy, which he explained is about 90 per cent former communists who now have a capitalist fervour in their bones – “To them everything must be on sale.”

Ordinary people in Ukraine are “very sensitive but they don’t’ have any power and they didn’t have power in the Soviet time and they still don’t have power,” he said.

The aim of Meylakh’s Canadian visit was to shed light on a specific Jewish cemetery and mass grave in the city of Sambir (formerly Sambor), Ukraine, which was formerly a part of Galicia in Poland.

Sambir had a population of about 20,000 in 1941, at the start of the Nazis’ march into Eastern Europe, and half the population was Jewish. However, by 1944, at the time when Russian troops took control of the region again, barely 100 Jews were left. Among the survivors were the parents of Canadian Jewish Congress President Mark Freiman, whose families were wiped out in Sambir during the Holocaust. Some of them were buried in a mass grave in the cemetery, others in an even larger mass grave in a nearby forest.

After communism ended, Jack Gardner, a Jewish philanthropist who had emigrated from Ukraine to Victoria BC, was given the green light to restore a number of cemeteries, including the one at Sambir. He got to the point of placing a Magen David made out of flagstones in front of the cemetery’s wall, which was riddled with bullet holes. Sadly, Ukrainian ultra-nationalists destroyed all that he had done, ripping up the Magen David and replacing it with three 30-foot crosses.

For the last year, Freiman has been working tirelessly to find a way to finally bring dignity to the cemetery.

Freiman said that repairing the ancient Jewish cemetery of Sambir will “restore one thing that’s missing now, which is respect and dignity.”

“Part of our challenge is to restore the dignity of this particular mass grave and cemetery and find ways to erect a proper memorial to the souls of those who died and suffered in that place,” he explained.

Freiman said the most difficult hurdle to cross is the municipal government in the area and the ultra-nationalists who exert strong local influence.

However, he is very hopeful. The Ukrainian community has been empathetic to Jewish concerns and the relationship between both communities – which has been not always been the best – is entering a new, promising chapter of mutual understanding.

“I’m very hopeful. One of the very promising signs is that the local Ukrainian can community has shown an awful lot of sympathy and respect on this issue and is genuinely looking to help find a resolution to the problem that respects the dignity of the graves and the memories of those who died there,” he said. “That’s one of the most positive aspects of it. I’m very pleased with the cooperation and with the open hand of friendship that is being extended.”

Meylakh noted that the situation in Sambir became anti-Semitic to the point where it was denied that the cemetery was even Jewish. “Mainly this happened because of the antagonism against the state of Israel. Those people who tried to preserve the cemetery made a big Magen David sign which the local nationalists didn’t like.”

Historically, during the communist era, Soviet propaganda portrayed the Star of David as an “anti-human symbol of Israel… the Magen David showed Jews as masons.”

“The soviet system in order to cover their anti-Semitic approach to Jews used anti-Zionist propaganda to cover their anti-Semitic behaviour,” he said.

Meylakh believes the Ukrainian community in Canada could do a lot of good because it has a very strong influence in Ukraine as they have helped their fellow Ukrainians in the transition to democracy over the years and retain strong ties to their homeland.

“I believe Ukrainians have an understanding. I’ve had meetings with them and I respect them very much and I have a good relationship with many prominent Ukrainian radicals. They would never do what happened in Sambir,” he said. “We respect them and we only want to wish that they should respect us Jews in the same way.”

During his trip to Toronto, Meylakh also spoke from the bimah during Shabbat services at Shaarei Shomayim synagogue.

“My coming to Canada happened because of the generous dedicated work of Marc Freiman. He travelled to Sambir and he put in a lot of effort and I praise him very much for doing such a great step forward to protect the cemetery,” said Meylakh. “I strongly believe that it will be fruitful because this is very sensitive to every Jew around the globe, no matter religious or not religious. We’re all sensitive and very emotional when it comes to the gravesites. I thank him very much and I call the community to support his great efforts in this very holy way.”

For more information or to find out how you can help, contact Canadian Jewish Congress President Mark Freiman at 416-638-1991.

Related articles: cemeteries, mass graves, Ukraine, Holocaust, Sambir, Sambor, Marc Freiman, Meylakh Sheykhet, fall of communism
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