Spaces of Synagogues, Lviv

Here they are again, the people whom I had never known, and whom I cannot imagine.  Here they are again, waves of loss, beating against the mind’s shore.  …I strain…to give loss a content.  But there are limitations to what the imagination can do.  ––Eva Hoffman


A little more than a year ago, in September 2016, the city of Lviv celebrated the opening of “Spaces of Synagogues,” a new memorial complex on Staroievreiska (“Old Jewish”) Street in the heart of the old city.  The complex commemorates the Jewish community of the city, which was present at the city’s founding in the mid-thirteenth century, and which grew to become a key part of the city’s economy and culture in subsequent centuries, forming almost a third of its population on the eve of the Holocaust.  It is not an exaggeration to call the prewar city a capital of Jewish civilization in eastern Europe.

Dozens of synagogues and other community properties existed in all parts of Lviv, but emblematic of Jewish spiritual life was the thicket of religious buildings on Staroievreiska Street, most importantly the Great City Synagogue, the Beis Medrash beside it, and the pearl of it all, the Golden Rose Synagogue.  Comnpleted in 1582, the Golden Rose was designed by the master Italian architect Paolo Italus, and acknowledged across Europe as a masterpiece of Renaissance religious architecture.  The Germans destroyed all but two of the city’s prewar synagogues, including the religious buildings on Staroievreiska Street, leaving a hole that was psychic no less than it was physical, and persisted through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods alike.  The purpose of the current project is not to fill that hole––it cannot be filled––but to restore and honor the memory of the city’s deep Jewish past, a key step in the city’s long path to healing from the wounds of the twentieth century.  

The need for an ambitious commemorative project had been painfully obvious for years.  The Golden Rose and Beis Medrash had sat as overgrown ruins behind a corrugated metal fence, as in this picture I made in 2010:

This was the territory of the Beis Medrash as it had come to exist prior to the memorial project:

This was the Golden Rose:

And this was the site of the Great City Synagogue:

In the decades after the war, Jewish commemorative works in the city existed only because of the initiative of the local Jewish community itself.  These older works consisted mostly of brief informational tablets at the site of destroyed synagogues, and at key Holocaust sites such as the Janowska Street camp and the Kleparivka railway station, plus a large sculpture to the Lviv Ghetto, which is distinctly in the grandiloquent Soviet style.  The implied message was that such commemoration was not the broader public’s business, and represented a decidedly marginal point of interest underneath the dominating structure of national history (whether Soviet or Ukrainian).  The small tablet that was placed in the 1980s beside the site of the Golden Rose acknowledged the site as a ruin, but explained nothing––nothing about the Jewish community, or the larger city in which it was embedded, or the genocide.  It also evoked nothing––nothing of the voices that comprised that community over time, nothing of the differences between those voices, nothing of the difficulty of encountering the past by way of rupture and collective trauma.  A ruin is, after all, not self-explanatory, much less a ruinless void. 

Initial work toward a memorial began in 2008, when Sergei Kravtsov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem led a guided site walk at a conference organized by the Center for Urban History––the city’s leading institute of urban and cultural studies.  A conversation emerged from that walk that led to an international competition in 2010, originally for three key sites of Jewish heritage in Lviv, the Spaces of Synagogues, the old Jewish cemetery, and the Janowska Street Camp.  For the Spaces of Synagogues site, the German landscape architect Franz Reschke’s winning design was chosen.  A broad coalition emerged with a decision to focus first on the Spaces of Synagogues, and indeed on only half of it, namely the Golden Rose and Beis Medrash sites.  The formation of that coalition marked a key turn in the memorial culture of the city.  The coalition included the Executive Committee of the Lviv City Council, the city’s Office of Historical Environment Preservation, the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, the German GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), plus Lviv’s Chesed Arieh, the US-based Gesher Galicia, and the Israel-based Association of Commemoration of Lwów Jewish Heritage and Sites.  

From the international competition all the way to the memorial’s dedication, principal leadership came from non-Jews, most of all Sofia Dyak, the Ukrainian director of the Center for Urban history, Iris Gleichmann, the German director of GIZ, and Vasil Kosiv, the Ukrainian former vice-mayor of Lviv.  All of them stewarded the project with great skill, often working below the public radar.  The intellectual vision, material integrity and political openness of the new memorial owe most of all to their professionalism, their brilliance and their effectiveness.

Beyond Sergei Kravtsov’s initial contribution, Jewish participation in the project did exist.  Journalist and Jewish heritage expert Ruth Ellen Gruber served as a juror in the 2010 international competition, and Jewish scholars from around the world contributed texts for the historical inscriptions to be included on the memorial’s stellae.  Ada Dianova and Rabbi Siva Finerman of Lviv’s Chesed Arieh organized the long and often emotional town-hall discussions within the Jewish community that decided by vote which texts to include.  However, the city’s Jewish community is without official leadership, which partly accounts for the main problems the project encountered in the form of the fanatical opposition of one Lviv Jew, Meylakh Sheykhet.  Sheykhet is the lay leader of a small ultra orthodox religious group that meets in the historic Kahal House on Fedorova Street, just behind the Golden Rose site.  Sheykhet worked for decades to rebuild the ohels of famous rabbis in devastated Jewish cemeteries in western Ukraine, and earned, in his own eyes, a proprietary control over the historic synagogue ruins on the other side of his back wall.  Pitched against any non-religious plans for the site, he did everything in his power to halt the efforts to preserve and commemorate it.  He filed lawsuit after lawsuit attempting to block the memorial complex, and gave countless interviews to foreign journalists––or more to the point, delivered paranoiac rants framing the memorial complex as an anti-Semitic plot to further desecrate sites of Jewish history.  In Sheykhet’s view, ruination and neglect were preferable to anything shy of rebuilding the synagogue, an idea that was and remains utter fantasy.

In the summer of 2015, with Sheykhet’s legal options finally exhausted, construction began.  The ceremonial beginning of building works included an open-air exhibition of my project The Golden Rose, which was installed on the metal fence as a kind of farewell to the era of amnesia and disregard. 

By the winter of 2015, the site was already drastically transformed, and work continued steadily through the summer of 2016.




Now complete, the project is the most significant Jewish commemorative undertaking in Lviv since the Holocaust, and one of the most significant in any major Ukrainian city––for several reasons.  First is its scale and location, comprising a three hectare area in the very center of the historic city center, itself a UNESCO world heritage site.  Second is its dual emphasis on the physical traces of prewar Jewish patrimony and the erasure of those traces, both of these as encountered together, as part of a single memorial reality.  Third is its conceptualization of memorial space as a catalytic space within the city’s flow rather than an inert space pitched against daily life, which is to say the creation of a memorial space under the sign of immanence rather than transcendence (the latter typical of Soviet memorial culture)––a space not to be gazed upon or looked up at, but entered, dwelled-in.  Finally, the memorial complex does not speak at its visitors, again in contrast to the Soviet model, but to them, addressing the public emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically and ethically all at once.



While in Lviv in the summer of 2017, I wanted to see how the ideas behind the memorial played out in practice.  I began to study of the Spaces of Synagogues as a functioning memorial.

As these photographs show, the Spaces of Synagogues complex does function as a memorial space.  Visitors do study the site, read the inscriptions and the informational boards, contemplate the past, and strive to glimpse the differences between the contemporary and the historical city, and the aftermath of the genocide of the Jews.  Some of these visitors come on their own, others in groups.  The new complex is a ready destination for city tour guides.



And at the same time, it would be wrong to call the new complex entirely or even principally a site of memory.  It is also a public meeting space that attracts visitors for reasons having nothing to do with its history, or with the practice of memory.  Many visitors like the space because it is clean, attractive, well-lit, and hip.  Since my first visit to Lviv in 2010, the center of the city has seen enormous gentrification, especially the opening of upscale bars, restaurants and boutiques in its pedestrian-only cobblestone streets.  On weekends, it increasingly resembles an adult playground, which is both the cause and effect of greatly increased tourism to the city.  After sitting in the new space for many hours, at all times of day and night, on all days of the week, it was obvious enough to me that a great many most visitors simply do not register the space as a memorial, or do so only vaguely.  More than it is a memorial, the Spaces of Synagogues is a food court at the end of the Staroievreiska promenade, and a meeting space with Jewish appurtenances on its periphery.  



A food court:  the prosperous restaurant group !FEST owns four blockbuster establishments immediately adjacent to the Spaces of Synagogues site––“‘At the Golden Rose’ Galician Jewish Restaurant,” “House of Legends,” “Arsenal Ribs and Spirits,” and “Trout, Bread and Wine,” among the eighteen upscale restaurants it owns in the old city.  Construction of the Spaces of Synagogues entailed dismantling the outdoor terrace of the “At the Golden Rose” restaurant––which has been widely condemned as a mockery of Jewish culture––but this loss of seating is more than made up for in the expansion of restaurant seating on the site of the Great City Synagogue.  In the summer, that site is now entirely covered in restaurant tables, and the increased business is doubtless worth a great deal of money to the !FEST group.  Though the Center for Urban history claims that the Great City Synagogue portion of the Spaces of Synagogues complex will be built, common sense would argue that the !FEST group has a significant reason to oppose it, and the political connections to get its way.



Visiting the Spaces of Synagogues, you do not have to look hard to see activities that are, at least on the surface, not the acts of contemplation that the memorial was designed to invite, especially the drinking and carousing.  And it was certainly not part of the conservation plan that the Golden Rose itself should become a public toilet, and yet that is precisely what it has become, as kids routinely jump over the low fence, descend the steps, and piss against its southern wall, which is below street level and out of sight of the viewing platform.  It was easy to photograph the fence jumpers of the Spaces of Synagogues.




Lest I sound moralistic, I should be clear that I don’t know how a Jewish memorial space in Lviv should be.  As a practicing artist, I know very well that intentions are only starting places, and that works change as they are realized, often evolving into themselves in relation to what happens after they are completed.  The same is true for memorials, especially those that are thoughtful and interactive, such as the Spaces of Synagogues.  And I understand that a memorial to genocide functions best as a place of invitation, a free space in a radical sense:  a place free of obligatory pieties, free of pro-forma acknowledgment, free of compulsory behaviors.  It is not, after all, that a place of memory must be a place of solemnity, or a place of sorrow, and the Spaces of Synagogues is an open, invitational space in the right ways.  And yet, in practice, I question its efficacy.  After so much thinking, so much heart, so much planning and so much struggle, it seems that the memorial is not enough, that something is lacking––that a practice of memory culture demands more than a physical memorial, that stones and texts are not sufficient to catalyze the recognition that the memorial was designed to bring.  It seems that the city of Lviv is not yet prepared for its Spaces of Synagogues.  

It could be that in time, the city will adjust, and the memorial will come to motivate and inspire memory in the ways its planners envisioned.  I think, though, that memorials acquire their purposes in relation to larger narratives, and the Spaces of Synagogue site needs proactivity in shaping a memorial narrative––as against the already dominant narrative of the old city as a leisure zone.  What the Spaces of Synagogues needs, in a word, is docents, on-site storytellers, volunteer or paid, to talk to people, talk with people, tell them the history, bring the stones and the grass and the sky above to memory and to life.  My suspicion is that the memorial stands to become itself only with a concerted effort to speak a path for it toward the future.

San Francisco, October 2017