Sambir is an administrative centre for the Lviv region, or Raion, located 73 kilometers from the city of Lviv.
Founded in 1199, Sambir has a rich Jewish history, little of which remains. The first mention of Jews living in Sambir dates back to 1447.Over the years, conflicts between Christian and Jewish merchants arose. This led to royal decrees in the mid-fifteen hundreds restricting Jews from trading or living within the city.
As a result, the Jews settled outside the city … in an area called Blich, or Bleich in Yiddish. The name comes from the craft of bleaching fabrics.
The community thrived. Because the Jewish merchants were more industrious and resourceful than their Christian counterparts, they controlled commerce in Sambir.
In 1629 there were almost 2000 Jews living in the Blich quarter. In 1732 they were granted permission to build a synagogue and create a cemetery.
By 1910, the town had a Jewish library, school and theater. In 1920s, around 80% of the town’s population were Jews, 18% Ukrainians, and 2% Poles.
On September 8th 1939 the German army attacked Sambir, plundering Jewish property and assaulting Jewish workers. Less than two weeks later, Sambir was taken over by the Red Army. The Soviets began nationalizing private businesses, and by 1941, few privately owned shops remained. Many wealthy and middle class Jews were sent to Siberia.
In June 1941the Nazis returned to Sambir. They ordered Jews to wear the Star of David, ransacked Jewish homes, and confiscated their valuables. Over the next two years, they sent thousands of Jews to Belzec extermination camp.
In Sambir, the Nazis further underscored their inhumanity. They carried out mass killings of the Jews who escaped deportation on sacred Jewish holidays: Pesah, Yom Kippur, Shavuot. On the first day of Passover in 1943, more than twelve hundred Jews were shot and dumped in mass graves.
In 1939, Sambir’s Jews numbered ten thousand. By 1944, barely 100 were left.
The Soviets continued where the Nazis left off. In 1972 authorities ordered the bulldozing of Jewish cemeteries in western Ukraine. Hundreds of gravestones in Sambir were uprooted. Many were used as foundation blocks for a new candy factory.
After Ukraine became independent, advanced communications and international pressure slowed down the desecration.
In the late 1990s, the Jewish cemetery in Sambir was surrounded with a stone wall, and renovations began. In 2001, Jack Gardner of Victoria, BC, founded a memorial in the old Jewish cemetery. Mr. Gardner was a Holocaust survivors and a native of Sambir. He died in 2003.
Other Canadians are playing a significant role in the restoration of Jewish sacred sites in Ukraine. They are also working to improve relations between the Ukrainian and Jewish people … which for centuries outside forces have been trying to poison.
Unfortunately, their legacy lingers. During WWII, the Nazis also killed a number of Ukrainians at the Sambir Jewish cemetery. Recently,huge crosses were placed in the cemetery. … by former communists now posing as Ukrainian nationalists. This has aggravated the ongoing dispute with local authorities, and halted restorations financed by the late Jack Gardner. Jews consider the imposing crosses disrespectful of the non-Christians buried in their cemetery. But authorities still refuse to have them removed, even at the specific request of Ukrainian Catholic hierarchs in Ukraine and Canada.
For the past five years,Canada’s Ukrainian and Jewish communities have been supporting the work of Meylakh Sheyket, known as the guardian of Jewish cemeteries. Meylakh is also director of the Jewish Heritage Museum in Lviv.
The museum is dedicated to preserving what is left of Ukraine’s rich Jewish heritage and intercultural influence.
You can find out more about Sambir and other Jewish communities in Ukraine at their website.
Narrated by Renata Hanynets, Research Fellow at the Faina Petryakova Center in Lviv, Ukraine.