I’m in Lviv, Ukraine, where the pre-Holocaust Jewish population was over 110,000, made up one-third of the city’s population, and constituted a major center of Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. The Jews who remain (roughly only 1,000) are battling the continuing legacy of cultural genocide. This photo was taken at what remains of the oldest Jewish cemetery in Lviv.
The cemetary was established in the 15th century and had an estimated 25 to 30 thousand people buried in it over the six hundred years of its existence. It was desecrated by the Nazis, along with the destruction of all of the city’s synagogues and murder of nearly all of the city’s Jewish residents during the Holocaust. The destruction of the cemetery was completed by the Soviets after the war when they built a market place on top of the majority of it. The old gravestones were used for paving streets and retaining walls.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the city’s remaining Jewish residents have been battling the local Ukrainian government over the expansion of the market into the last remaining small plot of undeveloped land where their ancestors are buried. Just two weeks ago, the community discovered the city in mid-excavation of a piece of that land, making way for more market space. City workers noticed the bones coming out of the ground, but did nothing to stop the digging until an injunction from the court through legal action taken by community leader and head of the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, Meylakh Sheykhet, stopped them. Now the members of the Jewish community are reburying the bones. I joined them for one day of this holy work. It was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking to watch my new friends pulling skulls, fingers, and other remains of their ancestors out of the mounds of dirt that had been dug up. I prayed deeply for the peace that had been disrupted for the souls that once inhabited those old bones to be restored.
When I told Meylakh and the other community members about the struggle at Standing Rock and the desecration of Native American sacred ancient burial grounds to make way for an oil pipeline, they shook their heads in grief and disgust. When I asked them if they wanted to participate in a global day of action called for by Standing Rock, to stand in solidarity with the water protectors, they said “Absolutely! Acting in solidarity is one of the most important things a person can do.” Though we’re half a world apart, we feel the connection to the struggle in North Dakota. We Jews know the pain of having our sacred sites destroyed. We know the pain of cultural genocide and ethnic cleansing. It is this knowing that compels those of us committed to the Jewish tenet of Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, to stand in solidarity with others fighting to protect their rights, sacred lands, and the sources of life for us all.
In the background of these photos are mounds of rubble and dirt from the centuries-old Jewish burial grounds the city excavated. And yes, that is a gas pipeline running through these burial grounds. That one was completed, but the one (on a much more massive scale) being built through North Dakota doesn’t have to be. May all who protect sacred lands and sacred waters be blessed with success.