TORONTO — Meylakh Sheykhet is on a mission to preserve Jewish cemeteries and grave sites in Ukraine.
“We are obliged to do this,” he said in an interview last week while on a visit to Toronto to raise awareness about his work. “We’re one people, with one destiny, and if we don’t do this we will not be forgiven.”
For the past 25 years, Sheykhet, a 58-year-old resident of Lviv, has scoured Ukraine in an attempt to save its Jewish heritage from neglect and abandonment.
Thanks to financial assistance from foundations and private sources, he has preserved about 180 cemeteries and grave sites in Ukraine, whose registered Jewish population stands at around 120,000.
Yet he has only scratched the surface.
In his estimation, there are 2,000 Jewish cemeteries and from 5,000 to 6,000 grave sites in this vast country, which attained independence in 1991 and suffered through a Soviet and a Nazi occupation.
During the Nazi period, 600,000 to 750,000 Ukrainian Jews were murdered, either locally or in concentration camps, and some were buried in mass graves. Cemeteries were bulldozed and headstones were used as paving stones to build roads.
Under Communism, particularly after World War II, a number of Jewish cemeteries were razed and used for a range of different purposes.
Public and private buildings were constructed, and vegetable gardens and grazing land for cattle sprang up. In one bizarre case, a cemetery was flooded to make way for a fish farm.
“The Soviet system was not better than the Nazi system,” claimed Sheykhet, a representative of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union who lives close to the historic Golden Rows Synagogue in Lviv. “The Soviet system implemented a spiritual Holocaust.”
Born in a small town near Zhitomir, Sheykhet, a telecommunications expert by training, was raised in a traditional Jewish household in Lviv when atheism was the state religion.
“You could be fired from your job if you were openly observant,” said Sheykhet, who became visibly Orthodox in mind and body after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Sheykhet’s parents escaped to safety during the Holocaust, but 20 of their relatives were killed.
He was driven to action after stumbling upon the remnants of forgotten Jewish cemeteries in the Ukrainian countryside that had been violated by the Nazis and the Communists.
Working with teams of surveyors, scientists and historians, Sheykhet preserves cemeteries by erecting protective fences around them.
Whenever possible, he arranges for a monument to be erected on a site.
His work has taken him to such fabled towns as Tarnapol, Brody, Berdichev and Belz, where long-established Jewish communities once existed.
He has also travelled to lesser-known places such as Sosnivka, Mikulince, Tartakow Miasto, Lutsk, Olesko, Olyka, Turka, Stratin, Yampol and Sambor.
Last year, in Lviv, he found 200 mass graves.
Outside Ukraine, he has been involved in projects in Belarus.
Sheykhet works with a group of 20 experts and an annual budget of about $60,000, which he described as ”a drop in the ocean.”
In an ideal world, he observed, he would have access to much greater funds to hire many more experts to work in every one of Ukraine’s 25 regions.
He doesn’t receive funding from the Ukrainian government. “They haven’t given us a penny,” he said.
The central government, however, has passed decrees designating Jewish cemeteries and Nazi killing sites as protected areas.
The problem is that regional authorities don’t enforce these decrees.
“The official bureaucracy opposes us, acting against government edicts,” he noted, suggesting that land grabs take place when individuals seize cemeteries or decrepit synagogues falling apart.
Ukrainian organizations in Canada and the United States have responded sympathetically to Sheykhet.
“We have a good dialogue with them,” he said. “They’re supportive. But everything comes down to money.”
In Canada, Sheykhet has forged relations with Mark Freiman, the last president of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, and Janet Kerekes, a Toronto researcher who has visited Ukraine.
Speaking in a tone of regret and disappointment, he claimed that Jewish organizations in Canada have lost touch with their eastern European roots.
As he put it, “It’s a shame to say they don’t feel connected.”