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Reviving Jewish Lviv

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The Golden Rose restaurant. (Diane Slawych photo)

When three entrepreneurs decided to open a Jewish restaurant on Staroyevreyska street in Lviv, Ukraine about 10 years ago, they were denounced – at first.

At the time, the area was sorely neglected and filled with trash, explained Taras Masselko who works with Fest, the company that operates the Golden Rose restaurant and several other unique eateries in the city. “People were saying ‘you’re crazy guys, there was a synagogue here and you want to open a Jewish restaurant.’ It was scandalous,” said Masselko. “The Jews were saying ‘how could you. You don’t know anything about it.’”

While the eatery, with its cozy ambiance and themed décor, does serve some Jewish dishes, it doesn’t always stick to tradition. It isn’t kosher for example, and it created a few of its own rituals, including a quirky exercise in which diners can negotiate the price of the bill at the end of their meal!

But the goal, he said, was less about creating a strictly traditional Jewish eatery than it was about asserting the neighbourhood’s historical roots.

“We did our research,” Masselko said, pointing out that the area had once been the old Jewish quarter. In fact it had been the centre of cultural and religious life for Lviv’s Jews, who had resided here since as the mid-14th century.

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Until the Second World War, Lviv had a Jewish community of 150,000 people, which represented 40 per cent of the population. By 1943 most had been murdered by the Nazis at Lviv’s Janowska concentration camp and at Belzec in Nazi-occupied Poland. The German army also destroyed many important architectural monuments in the city. Today, Lviv’s Jewish community numbers only about 2,000, and of the 35 synagogues in the city, only four survived.

Of those that were destroyed, one of the best known was the Golden Rose Synagogue, located next door to the present-day Golden Rose restaurant. The oldest synagogue in Ukraine and one of the most beautiful in Europe, it was built in 1582 in Gothic style with baroque elements. It was funded by merchant and banker Isaac Nachmanovicz as a private synagogue that later became public.

The remaining wall of the Golden Rose Synagogue. (Diane Slawych photo)

Little remains of the original structure and  there were plans for a hotel development on the mostly empty parcel of land. But by 2015, the local government, responding to criticism, changed plans and instead, worked with other organizations to create the Space of Synagogues memorial site, which opened in September 2016. The effort recognized what had existed here prior to the war.

The remains of the Golden Rose Synagogue’s northern wall and some interior features were conserved; the foundations of the Jewish House of Learning (Beth Hamidrash) were marked out with Venezian terazzo white stone; new trees were planted; and several granite installations containing quotes from Lviv citizens of Jewish origin were placed on the site. A year later, another memorial space was opened nearby where the Great City Synagogue once stood.

Masselko meanwhile, believes the city was inspired in part by the establishment of the Golden Rose restaurant.

“They understood the need to make a monument here because this area is really historically important.”

He said the city’s action prompted the restaurant to add more authentic artifacts to its establishment. The interior walls are now covered with drawings, old photos of former Jewish residents and relevant artifacts found in the area. “So we say we changed the city, and the city changed us. That’s how it works in Lviv,” explains Masselko.

There’s more to learn farther down on Staroyevreyska street at the Museum of the History of Religion, which has several exhibits devoted to Jewish community life in Lviv, as well as a section on Jewish politicians and intellectuals.

A second Jewish district that existed in Lviv before the Second World War was located to the north and west of the present-day Solomiya Krushelnytska Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet.

Among the places to see here include the Jewish hospital, a Moorish-style building and architectural highlight, that contained state-of-the-art equipment when it was built in 1903. It’s located on a street named for a noted doctor of the time, Jacob Rappoport, one of the first in the world to advocate for universal vaccination. Behind the hospital is the Krakivsky Market that occupies the site of a 15th century Jewish cemetery. There’s also a religious school for boys called Talmud Torah dating to 1840 that is now used by the Sholem Aleichem Jewish Society.

Meanwhile, the latest effort to educate visitors about more recent history can be found on Chornovola Avenue.