Russian shelling shatters Kharkiv’s Jewish heritage

Ukraine’s largest synagogue damaged in missile attack


The Jewish world has reacted with horror at the damage being wrought on the Ukrainian community’s shuls and memorials, in addition to the devastating human cost of the conflict.

“While people’s lives are the utmost priority, we need to ensure that heritage sites are also protected from harm,” said Michael Mail, chief executive of the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage.

Kharkiv’s Choral Synagogue was the first synagogue in the country to report damage as a result of Russian bombing.

On 9 March, the windows of the Chabad-run shul were shattered after a Russian missile struck a nearby shopping centre. At the time, more than 100 Jewish refugees were sheltering in the synagogue’s basement. Photographs taken on site show shattered glass and windows taken off their hinges.

Ukraine’s largest synagogue, the Choral Synagogue, was built between 1909 and 1913. In 1923 it was converted by the Soviets into a workers’ club. It also served as a cinema and sports club prior to its restitution to the Jewish community, following Ukrainian independence.

The synagogue underwent renovations in 2000 following a fire. The Choral Synagogue is not the only shul in Kharkiv damaged by the war; on 15 March, the Chebotarskaia Synagogue was directly hit by shelling. The two-storey prayer house was built in 1912, and during the Soviet period served as the headquarters for the local police department’s traffic division. It was looking worse for wear when documented by the Centre for Jewish Art in 2001 but has since undergone renovations under the auspices of Chabad, which today runs the building.

The journalist Shimon Berman posted photographs showing how its roof has been pierced by an incoming missile. Two locals acting as guards were injured when it struck. Mr Berman did not exclude the possibility that Russian forces were using outdated maps and fired on the synagogue believing it still housed the police’s traffic department.

Last week, Germany’s antisemitism commissioner Felix Klein heard the testimonies of two Ukrainian Jews, referred to simply as Irina and Ilona, of the terrible damage being inflicted on Jewish sites across Ukraine. Jewish Heritage Europe records that the country is home to some 1,500 sites of Jewish heritage, including more than 400 historic synagogues.

The post-Soviet revival of Jewish life saw the restoration of synagogues. “The Jewish presence in Ukraine goes back many centuries and this is reflected in the remarkable Jewish heritage in the country,” Mr Mail said.

On 26 March, the Holocaust memorial at the Drobitsky ravine in Kharkiv came under fire. Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba shared a photo of the menorah-shaped monument showing at least two of its arms had been blown off.

Around 130,000 Jews lived in Kharkiv prior to the Holocaust.

In January 1942, a Nazi death squad rounded up Jews and took them to Drobitsky ravine where 15,000 were shot or gassed.

Mr Kuleba asked: “Why [does] Russia keep attacking Holocaust Memorials in Ukraine?”

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