Defiant Officials in Ukraine Build Atop Jewish Graves

By Nacha Cattan

Published January 10, 2003, issue of January 10, 2003.
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KIEV, Ukraine — The local municipality of a small city in Ukraine is refusing to stop construction of an apartment building atop a Jewish cemetery there.

Local officials in Volodymyr-Volynskyi are defying a December 17 appeals court decision that followed five years of legal battles waged by the Jewish community in Ukraine, with the help of American diplomats. The construction was to be terminated immediately following the decision handed down by the Appeals Court of Lviv.

But local government officials of the city of 42,000 in Ukraine’s Volyn region, near the Polish border, told the Forward in a telephone interview that they will not stop construction. They claim the Jewish cemetery there had long since been destroyed by the Nazis. They complained that it would cost the city too much money to abandon the building that is all but completed. They said they would appeal the decision.

But a previous decision from the same court in June had already recognized the plot as a cemetery. And the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad urged Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in a letter last month to help stop the building. Jewish community leaders in Ukraine say the graves, if not the tombstones, are still at the site and are being desecrated by the construction.

If the construction continues unabated it may cast doubt on the strength of the central government to enforce its own edicts in a country where some local municipalities are reluctant to recognize its authority. The case will most probably reach Ukraine’s Supreme Court.

“This is such a painful disrespect for the Jewish presence in this part of the world,” said Meylakh Sheykhet, director of the Ukrainian bureau of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union. Half of the city’s population before the Holocaust was Jewish, according to Sheykhet. The union brought the case against the local government of Volodymyr-Volynskyi.

Jewish community leaders say local officials are not sensitive to Jewish tradition, which does not permit development atop Jewish graves whether or not they are marked by tombstones. Although much of the land is already developed, Sheykhet said it was done during the Soviet era when his community could do nothing to stop it.

Last June’s court victory was described by Jewish community leaders there as an encouraging sign that the country’s legal system would back efforts to preserve Jewish heritage. Since the fall of the Soviet empire in 1991, the Jewish community had usually resorted to diplomatic pressures to protect its cemeteries in the region.

“In the past if we wanted to stop cemetery desecration we used diplomatic connections, but now we’re using the court. It allows us to see the law working,” said Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine, which also fought the local municipality in court.

“This is a special precedent,” Sheykhet said about the December 17 court decision. “We won because even though the law is very gray we were able to spell out the proper clauses in the Ukrainian legislation to use them for our protection.” But Sheykhet said that without intervention in this case by the U.S. preservation commission “we would have zero.”

Sheykhet, 47, who has been fighting cemetery desecration for years, said there are “thousands” of disputed plots in Ukraine right now. Sheykhet said he has only managed to win five cases, but his reputation as the guardian of grave sites has grown exponentially.

The long-fought battle against the apartment construction began in 1998 in the local courts of Volodymyr-Volynskyi, Sheychet said. After losing in the local and then regional courts, the Jewish community gained its first victory in June 2002 when the Lviv Appeals Court required the city to recognize the cemetery.

But that earlier decision had also fallen on deaf ears. An International Religious Freedom Report issued October 7 by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor stated that construction continued “despite a court ruling that the building lies within cemetery boundaries and a letter from the [Ukrainian] Ministry of Culture and Arts asking for a halt in construction until the court case is resolved.”

The chairman of the American preservation commission, Warren Miller, wrote a strongly worded letter December 10 to the prime minister and other high-level Ukrainian officials urging them to intervene to stop the construction, according to sources who had seen a copy of the letter.

Miller, who described his commission as an “independent agency of the U.S. government set up by Congress,” confirmed a letter was sent to the prime minister asking for assistance and confirmed that the United States has a “serious interest” in this case. But Miller refused to disclose the details of the letter.

A diplomat from the American embassy in Kiev visited the site of the cemetery and met with local officials December 16, the day before the ruling. “We want to find solutions to protect those sites,” the diplomat told the Forward. He asked to remain anonymous.

The first deputy mayor of Volodymyr-Volynskyi, Nikolay Veremchuk, defended his municipality’s decision to the Forward in a telephone interview. He claimed that the cemetery was razed 50 years ago and the area had afterward been developed by the Soviets. A high school and a movie theater are now on the plot where the cemetery once stood. The apartment building’s frame has already been erected. According to Veremchuk, the city will lose approximately $289,000 if the project is shut down. He said his office has tried to compromise with the Jewish community by offering them a large space to memorialize those buried in the cemetery.

“We offered them a reasonable compromise, but they took a hard-line position,” Veremchuk said.

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