LVIV, Ukraine (JTA) — City workers in this western city suspended their digging at a former Jewish cemetery amid controversy over the unearthing of human remains at the site.
The discovery of bones, including pieces of skull and limbs, occurred last week at the Old Jewish Cemetery of Lviv where diggers with heavy machinery excavated a 40-foot trench despite previous objections to works by some members of the local Jewish community.
Officials said the dig, which went through without permission from local rabbinical authorities, was necessary to reinforce a damaged exterior wall. But Meylakh Sheykhet, Ukraine’s director of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, disputed this claim.
Sheykhet, who complained to police against the dig, said he believed the works were part of a multi-phase commemoration project which he has fought in court because he believes it would damage heritage sites and desecrate burial places needlessly in violation of the principles of the Halacha, Jewish Orthodox religious laws.
“This dig is as illegal as it is cynical: The city is desecrating Jewish graves it says it wants to commemorate,” said Sheykhet, who has collected pieces of bone throughout this week from the heaps of cemetery earth left exposed by the diggers at the site, which is adjacent to what used to be the city’s Jewish hospital.
The city, along with the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe in Lviv, has announced plans to build a memorial park near the area where the earthwork took place. That area is part of a larger Jewish burial place which today mostly lies under a main marketplace built during communist times.
However, the center’s director, Sofia Dyak, told JTA Thursday that the dig was not part of any commemorative project but rather an effort to repair a wall she said was “collapsing.” She added the works are legal.
“Before works started, consultations had to be made” with Lviv Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Bald. “It was done later, unfortunately,” she added. She also said a vice mayor of Lviv was now in contact with Bald.
“On Sunday Rabbi Bald reburied bones that were found. There are some new remains, and they will be reburied as well. Works proceed in communication with the chief Rabbi of Lviv and in consultancy with visiting rabbis,” she wrote in an email.
The plan to build a park near the cemetery is part of a larger commemorative project whose initial phase was unveiled in September, with the inauguration of a memorial monument on part of the former Golden Rose Synagogue complex.
Sheykhet opposed that plan as well and fought it in court, but it went ahead with the support of some Jews in Lviv, including the Chesed-Arieh association.
In 1939, Lviv was home to 110,000 Jews — a third of its total population. It now has 1,200 Jews.