Friday, November 7, 2008

Ukraine -- Restoration Works on the Synagogue in Zhovkva

On Tuesday, before flying back to Italy from Ukraine, I spent part of the day in Zhovkva, about a 40 minute drive northwest of L'viv, where a massive fortress style synagogue, built in the 17th century, is under (slow) restoration as part of longterm efforts to develop the entire center of the town -- declared by authorites in 1994 as a historic preservation district. Mihajlo Kubai, who is in charge of the restoration and development plan, took me and two colleagues, including Sofia Dyak of the L'viv Center for Urban History, on a tour of the synagogue and other historical sites in Zhovkva and described the ambitious, 15-year restoration project.

Founded in 1594 by the Polish nobleman Stanislaw Zholkiewski, the town -- known as Zholkva in Yiddish and Zolkiew in Polish -- was laid out as an "ideal city" by the Italian-born architect Paulus Szczesliwy (AKA Pavlo Schastliviy). Jews settled here from the start, and Zhovkva became an important Jewish center -- before WW2, about half the population was Jewish, more than 5,000 people. (See a web site on the town and its monuments.)

The synagogue, one of the key buildings in town, dates from 1687. Its flat roofline has the crenellations and blind arcaded tracery typical of the style and period. The Germans tried to dynamite the building in 1941 but only partially succeeded in destroying it. The interior was gutted, but the outer walls survived. Inside there are also some traces of wall paintings and the decorative carving surrounding the Ark. Some restoration work was carried out in the 1950s and 1990s, but for the most part the grand building has remained empty and derelict. (Read a description by Boris Khaimovich, writing in the Jewish Heritage Report.)

Thanks in part to the efforts of Sam Gruber, the synagogue received a Jewish Heritage grant from the World Monuments Fund and was also placed on the WMF's Watch List of 100 most endangered sites. Work has been going on sporadically, and state funding has also arrived.

Currently, workers are rebuilding the crenelations and also restoring the facade on two sides of the building. Not much is going on inside, but Mr. Kubai said that once restoration is completed, there were still plans to use the synagogue as a museum of Galician Jewish history and culture.

Other sites we visited included the castle (where work was proceeding on restoration of the huge central courtyard), the main market square, which retains some of the arcaded buildings that once surrounded it, and the huge, early 17th century Roman Catholic church of St. Lawrence, used in Soviet times as a warehouse but restored beautifully by international experts after Ukraine gained independence in the early 1990s. It includes the tombs of Stanislaw Zholkiewski and other members of his family.

I was pleased to find that there is a tourist office for the town (near the castle) with material in English and an English-speaking staffer.


  1. Pawel Szczesliwy could not design a city, as he was "only" a master mason. Cities were designed by military engineers. By the way, Paolo was exactly that mason who had built the Turei Zahav Synagogue in Lviv in 1582, and rebuilt it in 1595.

  2. Thanks Sergei! What should we say, that he "built" the city?