It seemed the meeting went quite well. At the end of his presentation on preserving a Jewish cemetery in Sambir, Ukraine, Meylakh Sheykhet received a standing ovation from the estimated 200 guests present at a Ukrainian cultural gallery.
Both the president of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and religious dignitaries applauded his presentation.
Sheykhet, who was visiting Toronto from his home in Lviv, Ukraine, believes his message resonated with the assembled guests.
“I said we should do something together to cement our efforts for countryhood and statehood within which our history was one of the nicest parts of the Jewish Diaspora and which was an example to the gentiles,” he said.
Specifically, Sheykhet is hoping local Ukrainian leaders, who are held in high regard in Ukraine, will call upon their compatriots there to right a wrong that has been festering for close to 10 years – the removal of three crosses that stand over the Jewish cemetery in Sambir.
Sheykhet, a former IT lecturer who’s made it his life’s work to preserve Jewish sites in Ukraine, has been actively embroiled in a dispute with municipal authorities in the western Ukraine city of Sambir, where three 10-metre metal crosses have been placed in a historic Jewish cemetery. Despite apparent sympathy from national and regional governments, nothing has been done to remove the Christian symbols, which were erected by local ultra-nationalists.
As the story goes, following the collapse of communism and the establishment of an independent Ukraine, a Jewish philanthropist from Victoria, B.C., Jack Gardner, who hailed from Sambir, received permission to rehabilitate several formerly Jewish sites, including the cemetery in Sambir.
The grave site had been used by the Jewish community for centuries. In 1941, just prior to the Nazi invasion, Sambir was home to about 10,000 Jews – half the city’s population. Several “actions” destroyed the community. In one, on the first day of Pesach 1943, some 2,000 Jews were rounded up and taken to the cemetery, where they were shot and buried.
Mark Freiman, president of Canadian Jewish Congress, said he lost about 100 relatives – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – during the war. His parents were two of only 100 Jews from Sambir who survived.
After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in anger at the Israeli military victory, the Soviet government bulldozed the cemetery, removed headstones (some were used in the walls of a candy factory) and turned it into a public park. Actually, it was more of an open field where local farmers grazed their animals or used it as a garbage dump, Freiman, who visited the site in 2007, said.
Sheykhet, who headed local efforts to reclaim the cemetery, said every time steps are taken to mark the site, such as putting up a surrounding fence, “local people came and took it in the middle of the night.”
In 2001, after a stone Star of David was placed on the property, vandals tore it up and erected three crosses, which were then painted to look like birch trees, Freiman said.
The national and regional governments say the municipal government has jurisdiction, but it has done nothing to resolve the issue. The Ukrainian supreme court “has been entirely unhelpful and came out with a decisions that defy legal rationale. It makes no sense at all,” Freiman said, noting the decision ruled that since the cemetery was bulldozed, it lost its status as a cemetery and therefore is not protected as such under the law.
Freiman, a lawyer and former deputy attorney-general of Ontario, noted that Canadians through the Canadian International Development Agency have supported a program of legal education in Ukraine.
Sheykhet said he hopes his message emphasizing the Jewish people’s integral role in Ukrainian history and their mutual suffering at the hands of the Communists will prevail upon local Ukrainians to take up their cause with the government of Ukraine.