Restoring Jewish memory in one small corner of Ukraine



The new common monument is the climax of the composition; it will be seen from all the gateways. | Photo courtesy of Miriam Gusevich.

“Ukraine is a place with a lot of suffering,” said Washington architect Miriam Gusevich said. “And what happened after World War II was that Jewish memory was erased out of shame for what happened to Jews. It is of historical importance to recover these Jewish memories.”

Gusevich and Canadian architect Mark Freiman are working to restore memories of the Jewish presence in one small corner of Ukraine. Before World War II, the town of Sambor, Poland, was 29 percent Jewish.

In the ensuing years, the town was occupied by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and at the end of the war it became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. By that time the Jewish community of Sambir, as it is now called, had been wiped out.

Gusevich and Freiman’s project, “Remember Sambir,” seeks to tell the story of what happened there. Freiman came up with the idea 11 years ago when he visited Sambir. The town contains a Jewish cemetery where the Nazis murdered 1,000 Jews on the eve of Passover 1941. After the war, local residents erected a small marker in the cemetery.
Freiman said he found the cemetery decrepit, with weeds running over the mass grave, three giant crosses in the middle of it and livestock grazing freely.

“I thought, ‘This cannot be,’ and I knew I just had to do something about this,” said Freiman, whose parents lived in Sambir during the war.

Freiman began enlisting support, including members of the Canadian Parliament and Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a community relations organization. He and Gusevich met at an architectural competition in Kiyv, Ukraine, in 2016. They agreed to work to get the crosses removed and have the cemetery turned into a memorial park.

Gusevich said that before the pandemic began, a construction crew built a barrier to protect the mass grave and laid down walking paths. When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the crew was landscaping the site and erecting plaques that explain in three languages – Ukrainian, Hebrew and English – what had happened there.

Miriam Gusevich. | Photo courtesy of Miriam Gusevich

“People pretend that nothing happened there,” Gusevich said. “But, in fact, something did happen there.”

One large component of the project is the restoration of the “bullet wall,” in front of which thousands of Jews were shot and killed.

Thousands of Jews were shot and killed in front of the “bullet wall” in Sambir, Ukraine. | Photo courtesy of Miriam Gusevich

Gusevich and Freiman plan to build a monument on the site to 17 Ukrainian freedom fighters from Sambir who resisted the Nazi occupation.

“The design, by telling the full story of the site, can allow people to heal emotionally,” Gusevich said.

She said that since they are working on a historic Jewish site, they are not permitted to excavate to figure out the boundaries of the cemetery. Therefore, a lot of her design work involved looking at historic maps, photographs and documents. Gusevich said the result is a new landscape that respects the historic contours of the site.

In December, Freiman and Gusevich finalized an agreement with local leaders to move the two crosses. In their place, two markers will be installed. One will bear the inscription: “to the righteous of all nations.” The other: “to the victims of all totalitarian regimes.”

The work was supposed to be completed by May, but the Russian invasion put the plans on hold, Freiman said.

Gusevich said she feels moved to be able to make the history of the site visible and have the landscape tell the story.

“It’s a very tragic story, but it’s not about erasing the past,” Gusevich said. “It’s about honoring it.”

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