Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Visit To Jewish Communities
In Ukraine, Moldova
April, 1998



17. A city of approximately one million people, Lviv (Lvov) is the administrative center of Lviv oblast. Its architecture is strongly central European in appearance, reflecting its long Polish history.17 Its population today is overwhelmingly Ukrainian.

Lviv is considered the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism. UNA-UNSO (an acronym for Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self-Defense Organization) and Za Vilnu Ukrainu (For a Free Ukraine), a nationalist and strongly antisemitic newspaper, are based in the city.

18. On the eve of World War II in 1939, the Jewish population of Lviv was nearly 110,000, approximately one-third of the total number of residents. The Jewish population expanded to 150,000 by the time of the German occupation in mid-1941 as Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled western Poland fled eastward into Soviet territory. Large numbers of Lviv Jews were deported to the Belzec extermination camp and others were murdered in the Lviv ghetto or in the Janowska Road camp on the outskirts of Lviv, which served both as a transit camp en route to Belzec and as a separate extermination camp. Only a few thousand Jews remained alive when Soviet forces re-entered the city in mid-1944.

Lviv is perceived by many organizations as the administrative hub of western Ukraine, a largely rural and severely depressed area with numerous small cities and towns. Unemployment is high and the supply of water and electricity to homes is sporadic. Horse-drawn carts are common on roads in the area. Rich in Jewish history, the territory today is home to fewer than 15,000 Jews, scattered among such places as Lviv and Mukachevo, Chernovtsy and Ternopol.

19. Estimates of the current Lviv Jewish population range from 3,000 to 6,000. The titular head of the Jewish community is Rabbi Mordechai Bold, a Karliner-Stoliner hasid from New York, who is the only individual in the city authorized to speak on behalf of Lviv Jewry. However, the Jewish population is severely split into several groups. A group associated with the synagogue is loyal to Rabbi Bold. Yad Yisroel, the Karliner-Stoliner support organization in Brooklyn, provides the budget for the synagogue group and for the Sholom Aleichem Society, a secular organization of war veterans and former communists, which operates a cultural program and a secular Sunday school. The Sholom Aleichem Society itself hosts a messianic Jewish group known as Shalom; this group is reported to have gained entry into "mainstream" Lviv Jewry through misrepresentation and bribery. Shalom distributes messianic literature and some welfare items.

A local chapter of B'nai B'rith, which is directed from Germany, is registered outside the Jewish community. Its membership consists of about 50 individuals, mainly former communists. It has been at odds with the other groups about several issues, including the nature of a monument to be constructed at the Janowska Road site. Whereas the other Jewish groups insisted that such a monument represent Jewish suffering, the B'nai B'rith group was willing to approve a monument with a cross. A major argument ensued, in which mainstream Lviv Jewry enlisted international support, and a monument with Jewish symbols and without a cross was approved.

20. The Lviv synagogue is large and is being modernized with the assistance of JDC. Rabbi Mordechai Bold and his wife Sarah say that their goal is to build a Jewish community in Lviv. However, if Jews in Lviv wish to emigrate, the Bolds urge them to go to Israel. They try to help all emigrating Jewish children find places in Jewish schools in their new communities of residence.

21. Yad Yisroel operates a day school in Lviv enrolling between 130 and 140 pupils in grades one through eleven in separate classes for boys and girls. Pupil turnover in the school is very high due to emigration. According to Boris Mirkin, the school principal, the major attractions of the school to families are: a very strong secular curriculum taught by the best teachers in the city (who want to teach at Yad Yisroel because salaries, with a supplement, are paid on time); English instruction; small classes (whereas city schools enroll as many as 40 youngsters in a class); hot lunches; and the teaching of Jewish tradition, which is especially valued if families are planning to emigrate to Israel.

The school is located in a dormitory building. Rooms formerly occupied as student bedrooms are adapted to classroom use. Space in each classroom is very limited, even for the small classes that the school now enrolls.

Five older pupils from smaller Jewish population centers in western Ukraine live in an apartment near the school. The school will accept more such boarding students next year if suitable housing can be arranged. The majority of students commute to school each day by special buses.

Pupils are taught five hours of Hebrew language and five hours of Jewish tradition each week. The Judaic studies teachers are Rabbi Bold, Mrs. Sara Bold, two young women from England, and two young men from England and the United States. The young men and women teach in English, which is translated into Russian for the pupils. Prayers are said every morning. As each Jewish holiday approaches, meetings are held for parents in which the holiday background and ritual are explained. The school newspaper also includes information about holidays.

Six of the 10 pupils who graduated from the school in 1997 have emigrated. The school encourages departing students to go to Israel and helps them to find appropriate institutions in which to continue their education.

Yad Yisroel also operates a pre-school in Lviv, which enrolls about 40 children.

22. Reuven Weinstein is the representative of the Jewish Agency for Israel in Lviv. Mr. Weinstein had recently transferred to Lviv from Dnipropetrovsk. A retired Israeli police officer, he is well-liked in both cities.

Only about 13,000 Jews are thought to remain in the Galicia area, of which Lviv is the center. Mr. Weinstein believes that more Jews may reside in this region; antisemitism is very strong and deters many people from openly identifying as Jews. Aliyah of young people is high and will remain so because few people see any future for themselves in the area. Unemployment exceeds 80 percent. Mr. Weinstein said that the Naaleh program for high school students is very popular. Those Jews who remain in western Ukraine do so because their circumstances are no worse than those of anyone else; in Israel, they might be at the bottom of the pile, said Mr. Weinstein.

Mr. Weinstein believes that lack of economic opportunity, antisemitism, and nationalist pressure to speak Ukrainian are the main spurs to aliyah. Mixed marriages deter aliyah as do poor employment prospects in Israel for people more than 40 years old. Mr. Weinstein believes that work programs must be developed in Israel for older immigrants and that existing youth/young adult programs in Israel (Naaleh, Sela, and Chalom) should be strengthened.

Mr. Weinstein said that a JAFI summer camp in the area enrolls 200 youngsters. Seventy students attend a JAFI winter camp. JAFI also sponsors clubs for youth, students, women, and parents of young people in Israeli youth programs.

The writer visited a two-day seminar in Lviv for 20 local JAFI Hebrew teachers in the region. Several husband-and-wife teams were among the participants from Lviv, Chernovtsy, Uzhgorod, Mukachevo, Rovno, Drogobych, and Ternopol.18 Nehama Groman, an instructor from Israel, led a warm, spirited class that focused on the three forthcoming holidays of Pesach, Yom Hashoah, and Yom Haatzmaut. The teachers would incorporate seminar material into their Hebrew classes.

23. Giora Moiseev is the first representative of the Joint Distribution Committee to actually reside in Lviv. JDC previously served the area through twice-yearly visits by a senior field worker whose principal territory is Central Asia. Mr. Moiseev arrived in Lviv in December 1997. The belated decision to station a field worker in the area stems from the decision of World Jewish Relief to concentrate its relief work in western Ukraine and the reporting requirements of the Claims Conference.19 In common with Mr. Weinstein of JAFI, Mr. Moiseev previously worked in Dnipropetrovsk.

Mr. Moiseev estimates the Jewish population of Lviv to be about 3,000 people. He joked that it will probably increase to 6,000 as soon as JDC increases its activity in the city. He is still doing a census in Lviv, but his preliminary estimate is that about 60 percent of the Jewish population may be eligible for Claims Conference assistance, i.e., that 60 percent of the Jewish population is in the age group of Holocaust survivors.

JDC shares an office with the secular Sholom Aleichem Society in a building that is owned by the religious community. Rabbi Bold is his main partner. JDC is forming a hesed, a welfare association that will be organized as a regional hesed, rather than as a municipal group. JDC delivers meals on wheels to homebound elderly from the day school kitchen. It is expanding the synagogue kitchen and dining room so that as many as 500 elderly may eat there every day.

Mr. Moiseev said that JDC was arranging communal seders in eight regional cities, clubs for Jewish elderly, and a Hillel organization for students. He commented that most Jewish young people are leaving the area and that only the elderly will remain after about five years.

In response to a question, Mr. Moiseev said that the primary difference between Dnipropetrovsk and Lviv is that Ukrainian nationalism and antisemitism are much stronger in Lviv. Jews are more frightened in Lviv, more reticent. They carry themselves with less dignity (достоинство) than do Jews in Dnipropetrovsk. Consequently, continued Mr. Moiseev, it may be more difficult to find confident workers in Lviv.

17. Lviv (Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish, Lemburg in German) was founded in 1256 by a Ukrainian prince and captured by Poles in 1340. A great trading center in medieval Europe, it came under Austrian control after the first partition of Poland in 1772 and was named the capital of Galicia. Between 1919 and 1939, Lviv was an important city in independent Poland. In the 1939 partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, Lviv became part of Soviet Ukraine. It was occupied by German troops in July 1941 and retaken by the USSR in July 1944.
18. The Jewish population of Lviv and Chernovtsy is probably about 3,700 in each city. Perhaps 1,800 Jews remain in Ternopol, and fewer than 1,000 Jews live in each of the other cities.
19. The Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief is a British organization similar to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. It works closely with JDC, often employing JDC field workers for WJR projects.

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