Monday, June 7, 2010

Ukraine -- Profile of Meylakh Sheykhet

 Meylakh Shekhet, Sam Gruber, and me in L'viv

I'm delighted to share this link to a profile in Canada's National Post  of my friend Meylakh Sheykhet in L'viv, who has devoted much of his life to identifying and preserving Jewish cemeteries and sites of WW2 mass execution.  Specifically, it describes one of Meylakh's current projects, an attempt, with Canadian aid, to restore the Jewish cemetery in Sambir, near L'viv.
Ever since he ventured into the Ukrainian countryside and saw the remnants of bulldozed Jewish cemeteries, and ever since he saw Holocaust mass graves that lie unkempt in the forests there, Meylakh Sheykhet has fought for the right to remember.

Over the past 20 years, Mr. Sheykhet has found and worked to restore more than 150 Jewish cemeteries in Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, cemeteries that were destroyed or forgotten under Soviet rule.

With his greying beard and traditional Jewish dress, Mr. Sheykhet is known in Ukraine and beyond as the guardian of Jewish cemeteries. His voice is calm but impassioned as he speaks of his mission to preserve the history of a once-thriving Jewish community.

“When I witnessed the lost cemeteries for the first time, with their tombstones broken and bowed to the earth, I felt deeply connected,” said Mr. Sheykhet, who is in Toronto this weekend to address Ukrainian and Jewish audiences on his efforts. “I cannot explain it, but they called out for my protection.”

Among the villages assailed by the Nazis is the western Ukraine town of Sambir, which is home to Mr. Sheykhet’s latest quest: A centuries-old Jewish cemetery, where a Holocaust mass grave also lies.

On the first day of Passover in 1943, more than 1,200 Jews were shot and buried at the cemetery in Sambir, which was called Sambor when the town was part of Poland. Today, the cemetery — its tombstones destroyed in 1974 — doubles as a garbage dump and an overgrown pasture for cattle grazing.

Mark Freiman, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, made his own pilgrimage to the cemetery in 2007, paying homage with his brother to their grandparents and aunts and uncles who perished there during the Holocaust.

“All of my instincts told me I had to undertake an effort to memorialize this place,” Mr. Freiman said from his Toronto home. “Seeing the place, touching the stones, and lighting a memorial candle in front of the mass grave made the history entirely real and entirely personal.”

Mr. Freiman’s partnership with Mr. Sheykhet began in the fall of last year, and has so far sparked the beginnings of a historic assessment of the site. Their work, sometimes lonely and with few allies, picks up where another Canadian’s efforts left off.
Read more by clicking here

Meylakh was on a speaking tour in Canada and several articles about him and his worked appeared. Click HERE   for a lengthy piece in Shalom Life.

He told Shalom Life that initially, he decided to take part in volunteer work to preserve the graves, while continuing his professional career.

“I meant (to just do it) for a while but it has happened for life,” said Meylakh who is also the director for Ukraine for the Union of Councils for the Jews in the Former Soviet Union. He added that he eventually realized it was not possible to do both and decided to focus on preserving Jewish cemeteries full time.

Meylakh has made it his mission over the last 10 years to protect and preserve as many Ukrainian Jewish cemeteries and mass graves as possible.

He explained that during Soviet times, the authorities denied the legitimacy and existence of Jewish cemeteries and mass graves, while using propaganda to accuse Jews for all sorts of crimes and turning the Star of David into an evil symbol. As he was familiar with this history of falsification, he felt that he could be useful in navigating the complex bureaucracy in Ukraine; during that early days after communism fell, Western visitors and dignitaries were getting the run around from the government which was giving them all sorts of excuses why it could not protect the cemeteries.

The cemeteries had even been removed from all maps and any mention of their existence was erased as if Jews never existed. Prominent Jews and rabbis who visited the country were even told that there were no laws on the book to protect cemeteries when the opposite was true.

“I made everything possible to show that they were mislaid and that the rule of law did exist for the burial sites and that the bureaucracy must follow it up and they have to respect the Jewish grave sites as required by international agreements and the rule of law of Ukraine,” he said.

So far, Meylakh has been involved in investigating more than 150 sites, producing documentation and physically protecting a third of those. However, he explained that there are literally thousands of such sites, currently in poor condition, that need to be protected.

“They need a lot of work, they need a lot of monetary investment and most important, they have to be reconstituted in a legal way because they have to be put back on city and town maps,” he said.

One would think after so many years of heroic dedication and hard work, the job would now be easier; sadly, today it is the exact opposite because of the short-sighted economic policies of the Ukrainian government.
 Read More by clicking HERE

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