Fiat justitia ruat caelum
The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities with the support of donors reconstructed Jewish memorial in order to establish a Holocaust Museum of Bukovinian Jews.
The ruined building of “Beit-Kaddishin,” or “House of Farewell,” a historic Jewish memorial, has for the last half of the century been one of the symbols of Chernivtsi, South-Western Ukraine. Located on the territory of the Jewish cemetery on Zelena (Green) Street, the Nazis did not even touch this unique ritual structure. But in the post-war times, the Soviet government wanted to destroy it in the most sophisticated way; a way that was often practiced on religious buildings. To erase the memory of its true purpose, it was transformed into a warehouse building which stored row materials.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the warehouse was closed, but little changed. The building was simply abandoned. It towered above the cemetery as a symbol of the Soviet “era of destruction,” with broken windows and walls destroyed by heavy trucks. Some locals said that it symbolized what the country became after decades of Jewish migration and economic descent of the town of Chernivtsi itself.
But some disagreed. A group of local activists proposed to restore the building and return it to its original symbolic meaning: the house of memory of the deceased. Since the cemetery itself is no longer functioning and is, in fact, a memorial complex, they proposed a Holocaust Museum to be established there.
One of the main initiators of the reconstruction was the head of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (Vaada) of Ukraine, Josef Zissels. He has been trying to implement this idea for several decades, but only during the last two years has he finally succeeded.
Another famous activist, Honorary Consul of Austria in Chernivtsi Sergei Osachuk, told us, “Since the late 80s, Josef Zissels was working on the reconstruction of the Jewish cemetery in Chernivtsi, and in particular on the restoration of ‘Beit Kadishi.’ I joined his efforts in 2006 and with the support of Austrian partners from the ‘Land of Styria,’ we received a grant. It allowed famous Austrian architects, restorers with the highest level of recognition that only can exist in Austria, to come here.”
“They have restored the Winter Hofburg Palace and were involved in the restoration of the Austrian Parliament. They carried out the analysis and developed the project documentation with the definition of restoration and repair tasks,” Osachuk said.
According to him, the main issue is now a search of funds for restoration, which has turned out to be a rather difficult task.
“In the summer of 2015, I sent a letter to the German ambassador, Dr. Christoph Weil, and received a response from him. The ambassador redirected the letter to Berlin, from where he received the response that in the framework of the current program for the restoration of Jewish burial sites in Eastern Europe, the German government was providing 100,000 euros. After that, three of us – Ambassador Wail, Josef Zissels and myself – had a meeting as a result of which it was decided that the operational management, repair, restoration and re-equipment of the building for the Memory Center will be managed by the Vaad of Ukraine, as an organization with excellent reputation, experience, and most importantly, with a desire to make it happen,” said Mr. Osadchuk.
So, it became a real crowd-funding, private-public, multi-partners project. The local authorities of the town gave five thousand euros to adjust documentation developed by Austrian architects to Ukrainian standards.
“This work was carried out by Vyacheslav Kishlyaruk, former Chief architect in Chernivtsi. As a result, by the time we received the funds, the action plan and documentation for the project design were ready,” said Sergei Osachuk.
Reconstruction work began after the approval of vendors in mid-2017. Today, the project is in the active stage, says Josef Zissels.
“Active restoration work began in July. For now, we are only dealing with the façade following demands of the German government, which provided funds for external repairs only. Then for a short time, for the winter period, we will suspend construction, but will continue working on communication infrastructure and interior repair. Besides this, we plan to build an additional gallery behind the main building,” said Co-President of Vaada about the construction processes.
According to him, active reconstruction works are planned to continue in spring.
“We intend to install engineering facilities: water supply, electricity, ventilation, microclimate, etc. And if we get permission, we will build this pavilion behind,” said Josef Zissels.
“We do not have one, so to say, general donor of the project, so we raise funds from all over the world. The whole budget of the reconstruction itself is about 400,000 euros. The same amount, approximately, will be needed for the equipment of the museum. We have already managed to find sponsors, both private and corporate. For instance, there is an association of immigrants from Bukovyna in Israel, which promised to raise funds. Our organization will also allocate money. Also, we have a big private sponsor, Iurii Borysov, a well-known businessman in Ukraine, who originally is from Chernivtsi and agreed to take part in this project. We are negotiating with a number of other people, organizations and institutions, with the Austrian Embassy, which is not indifferent to Chernivtsi and Bukovyna issue. The Romanian Embassy expressed interest as well as various Funds. Considering that we already have commitments for a significant part of the funds, I think that we will be able to get what we are still lacking,” said the Head of Vaada.
As a result, a new museum with a very interesting concept will appear in Chernivtsi.
“It will be a memorial center dedicated to the tragedy of Bukovynian Jews, the Holocaust. At the same time, in the building, there will also be a museum of the cemetery itself, eminent personalities, who lived in Chernivtsi at different times were buried there – scientists, poets, writers, city mayors, university presidents. So, the museum will include two components: Holocaust commemoration and remembrance of people who lived in this city. The building itself is suitable for this. It used to be the “House of Farewell,” where funeral service was held, and then the deceased were buried in this cemetery. Inside of the building, there are still prayers, and this we also want to preserve. From this point of view, the ritual character of this building is just right to perpetuate the memory of those Bukovynian Jews, who are no longer with us,” explained Josef Zissels.
The creation of such museums, according to Josef Zissels, is an extremely important issue, as such tragic pages of history, which was the Holocaust for Jews, became a part of their national identity.
“The Holocaust among the Jews, like the Holodomor among Ukrainians, is part of their national history, which means that it is also a component of the national identity. It is very important to remember and to know,” stressed the head of Vaada.
And at the same time, Josef Zissels believes that the museum is about remembering past tragedies and honoring the memory of the dead. Nations should be able to experience their own history, leaving the past to the past and moving along the way to the future.
“I would like to emphasize that it is very important in the cultivation of one’s own tragedy not to go over a certain reasonable boundary, when it becomes some kind of irretrievable path to the image of a ‘sacrificial nation.’ And the point here is not even the excessive sacralization of certain events, national temperaments, but in order to have energy for further development, you should focus not on the past only; you need to look to the future. Of course, you should not forget the past. You have to clarify it for yourself, and build on it. Moreover, you have to remember not only what harm was caused to you, but also what harm you caused. This is very important. In this case, history should prompt us the way to the future, not just to trampling on the spot with the head turned back. This is also very important. Here is Israel, which managed to push off, and now is moving into the future. They paid tribute to the memory, and built a very worthy museum ‘Yad Vashem.’ They recognized the Holocaust as the tragedy of their past, but they did not stay with it. I think that Ukrainians should also realize this and, pushing themselves away from their past, go further. After all, in the experience of this past, in a certain catharsis, you just get the right energy for moving forward. This was demonstrated by Israel, and I hope that Ukraine will demonstrate it sooner or later,” said Josef Zissels.