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Canadian lawyer fights to restore Ukrainian mass grave

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Mark Freiman

Lawyers who scale back their practice at the end of their careers might do some consulting, teaching, mediation or just kick back. Mark Freiman, who has left his Toronto law firm after eight years, is devoting himself to a mass grave in Ukraine.

He will also deploy his skills to try and defuse tensions that have been festering in the area for some 19 years.

Freiman, a former deputy attorney-general of Ontario and the last president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, has visited the Jewish cemetery in the western Ukrainian town of Sambir as many as 20 times since 2009. He’s hoping that by the spring, a big step will be taken to remove a major sore point from the site.

The controversy over the Nazi-era mass grave in Sambir – one of two in the town situated about 70 km southwest of Lviv – dates back to 2000. At the time, a large stone Star of David was erected on the property to mark the spot where between 1,200 and 1,500 Jews were shot by German troops on the eve of Passover, 1943.

The landscaping and Star of David had been sponsored by Jack Gardner, a Jewish-Canadian philanthropist from Victoria who was born in Sambir and had received permission to rehabilitate several formerly Jewish sites, including the mass grave.

But local residents wrecked the Jewish symbol and replaced it with three 10-metre-high crosses in the middle of the cemetery.

(Mark Freiman photo)

Despite support from all levels of government and the Greek Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches to remove the crosses, the symbols have stayed and have been an irritant ever since.

Now, Freiman is hopeful that a resolution is near and that a religious ceremony in which the crosses will be transferred to another place could take place soon.

“We’re headed into a very important stretch,” Freiman told The CJN. “The project has the backing of the central government in Ukraine (and of) the two most important Christian denominations in Ukraine.”

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The focus now is on some townsfolk who are resisting the relocation of the crosses. The presence of the crosses pose “an important test as to whether things have changed and whether anti-Semitism really has diminished, or is still an important issue in that part of Ukraine,” said Freiman. It could be a small number of people “who have frightened the local politicians in a disproportionate way.”

“We’re going to do a little bit more work over the winter,” he went on. “We’re going to work with members of the local clergy who are willing to work with us. We’re going to work with the local politicians who are willing to work with us. It will be a test as to whether things have changed or not. If they have changed, that’s great and we will have a way of demonstrating that Ukraine has turned a corner and is indeed a better place. If it hasn’t, then we will tell the world that it hasn’t.”

Freiman has been buoyed by support from young local Jews. “What I’ve learned, and actually it’s been a revelation, is that there’s a lot of resonance to this work,” he said. “There are young Jewish people in western Ukraine who are rediscovering their Jewish roots, who are working with me on this project as volunteers, and there are other similar projects restoring synagogues, cleaning up mass graves. I’ve become energized by the whole concept.”

Freiman has a personal stake in Sambir. It’s where many of his family members were murdered on Shavuot in 1943 and buried in the other mass grave, located on the outskirts of town.

“The Nazis had a sick sense of appropriateness and conducted many of their atrocities on Jewish holidays, among other reasons,” he observed.

Massacred in that action were Freiman’s grandparents on both sides, two aunts and an uncle on his father’s side, and two uncles, an aunt, a half brother and a nephew on his mother’s side. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Jews are buried in that mass grave.

There’s a granite memorial, but the site is overgrown and in “a deplorable state.” It’s next on Freiman’s list. “That’s a less controversial project. I want to do the cemetery first because it’s more difficult,” he said.

Freiman said the crosses could be moved to two possible locations. One is a cemetery that houses the remains of Ukrainian volunteers who took part in the uprising of 1918, and the other is a local church, where they would be placed alongside plaques explaining that they’re dedicated to Ukrainian patriots who died during the Second World War.

(Mark Freiman photo)

Local lore is a powerful reason for why crosses were erected at a Jewish burial site in the first place.

One story has it that the Nazis executed and buried 17 members of a Ukrainian nationalist organization at the Jewish cemetery. It’s a controversial, largely anecdotal narrative, but “rather than fight that, we’ve accepted that story,” Freiman said. “We’re not going to contest it.”

In fact, in consultation with rabbinical authorities, Freiman said it would be permissible to set aside a portion of the cemetery where there would be no Jewish burials, and to allow for a memorial there.

Freiman is pragmatic about local sensitivities. “There has to be some modicum of local consensus or all we’re going to do is end up with a vandalized cemetery and memorial,” he reasoned.

A symbol-free cemetery is one possibility. “What we want is a dignified memorial that will allow people to understand what happened in the cemetery,” said Freiman. “Religious symbols aren’t key to that. One of the things that we’re conscious of is there’s always going to be a few people who are willing to take advantage of their ability to disrupt things, to try to vandalize or otherwise desecrate things, so we want to keep the possibility of vandalism to a minimum.”

Besides, he’s not acting alone. Freiman said he’s had “wonderful” cooperation and sponsorship on the cemetery project from Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canadian non-profit that works to further understanding between Ukrainian and Jewish communities, both in Canada and Ukraine.

Sambir, which was called Sambor when it was under Polish control, was once up to 40 per cent Jewish. There are only a handful of Jews today in the city of about 30,000.

Freiman shows some of his legal resolve when speaking about the project’s future. “I’m not giving up on this,” he said. “I’m coming back. We will keep coming back and acting either as a positive force or as a guilty conscience.”