Zhovkva is a beautiful and extraordinary town located 25 kilometers from Lviv … an easy day trip away.
From its earliest days, Zhovkva’s population was a mix of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. Today the towan’s architectural, historical and cultural diversity make it popular with tourists. More than 27,000 visited last year.
Zhovkva was founded in 1594 as a private town, by Polish military commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski. It soon became a center of religious life, arts and commerce. In the 17th century the Polish king established a royal residence there.
The Jewish community’s roots in Zhovkva run deep. The oldest Jewish tombstone in Zhvovka dates back to 1610. In 1690, local Jews established a Hebrew printing press, and a Jewish tailors’ guild dates back to 1693.
By the eighteenth century, Zhvovka was an important center of Jewish study, worship, and administration for Jewish communities in the area.
In the late 1690s, a magnificent synagogue with a late-Renaissance appearance was built for the rapidly growing community.
It was an outstanding example of a fortress synagogue. Designed to protect Jews from invasions, it had a passageway to the roof, and underground shelters.
Over the centuries, the synagogue underwent a number of restorations. The most significant followed two devastating fires in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the worst devastation occurred in the 20th.
At the start of World War 2, Zhovkva’s Jewish community made up half of the town’s population of 10,000. The synagogue was the center of religious life, and secular Jewish institutions included a school, a cultural society, and a football team.
In 1941, that all ended. Nazi occupiers demolished the synagogue, leaving only the walls standing. German troops destroyed the cemetery and used the tombstones to build roads.
Most of Zhovkva’s 5000 Jews were either murdered in a series of local executions, or deported to death camps. Only a few dozen survived the war, and most emigrated.
Today, only about 10 Jews live in Zhovkva. Of the once-vibrant Jewish presence, very little remains. The ruins of the synagogue … fragments of tombstones … and a statue commemorating the town’s murdered Jews. A market stands on what was once the Jewish cemetery.
For decades, Zhovkva’s 16th- and 17th-century architectural treasures remained in shameful disrepair.
Since independence, the situation has improved… somewhat … and a slow but ambitious restoration plan is now under way.
In 1994, the Ukrainian government declared central Zhovkva a State Historical-Architectural Reserve. Fortunately, the synagogue is located in this area.
In 2000 the World Monuments Fund declared the Zhvovka synagogue one of its 100 most endangered sites … and provided a grant to support the development of a restoration plan for the synagogue.
Although progress is slow, it is steady. When restoration is complete, we look forward to the establishment of a Central Museum of Jewish Culture of Galicia.
Narrated by Renata Hanynets, Research Fellow at the Faina Petryakova Center in Lviv, Ukraine.
This feature aired on Nash Holos Ukrainian Roots Radio on August 18, 2013 (Vancouver Edition) and August 21, 2013 (Nanaimo Edition).
Listen or download: