Along with the looting of Ukrainian works of art by the Russians since the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, many other criminal cases are coming to light.
In 2014, thefts occurred in two of Ukraine’s ancient synagogues: the Chortkiv synagogue (18th century) and the Pidhaitsi synagogue (early 17th century).
Both Ternopil region synagogues are under the legal protection of the Ukrainian state. Unknown criminals stole a carved door from the Chortkiv synagogue.
In the same year, two relics disappeared from the ancient Pidhaitsi synagogue: a carved white baroque decoration made of stone from a niche of the prayer room; and a tablet at the entrance to the sanctuary, carved almost four centuries ago with an inscription from Psalm 118: “This is the door of the Lord, only the righteous may enter therein.”
Ukraine was the center of the birth and development of an important vein of Jewish culture, which was closely intertwined with the culture and history of the Ukrainians.
In particular, Ukraine was a center of Hasidism, which today is an influential component of Judaism.
Many prominent figures in the history of world Jewry came from Ukraine. The Ukraine Incognita association, an activist group for Ukrainian culture and natural treasures, recently raised the allegation that these thefts occurred on commission of the head of the Jewish community in Russia.
Their investigation started from an Aug. 14 report by the local Chortkiv City news outlet, noting that the door of the Chortkiv synagogue, sculpted three centuries ago, had reappeared in Moscow in the exhibition of the Museum of the History of the Jews.
An inside job
Yakov Baranov, head of the Chortkiv Jewish community, said: “The restored doors removed from the old Main Synagogue, stolen in 2014 are now in the Jewish Museum in Poklonnaya Gora, in the Russian capital. Influential people are involved in this scam.”
Baranov went further to accuse local Ukrainian Jewish leaders: “Unfortunately our religious leaders also had their own people – I will not name names – who carried out the orders of the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Berel Lazar. I know the names of all those who organized it, who carried out this criminal order, who facilitated it.”
He said that the artifacts could not be taken away from the synagogue easily, because until recently the territory was completely fenced off.
“All this is in the criminal report,” he added. “We appealed to the police, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the SBU, an others. I have all the documents, the answers to our letters of appeal. For obvious reasons, the case never makes it to court. I would like to look into the eyes of the young lieutenant who conducted this criminal investigation. There everything was ‘fabricated’ according to a plan drawn up directly by the top brass.”
Baranov said that he personally went to the office of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and warned that they were about to be removed, but no one did anything to prevent it.
“You should have seen the explanations in the report,” Baranov said. “They say: ‘the door was removed at the request of the residents and taken to the garbage bin.’”
On display in Moscow
On display in Moscow Objects from both thefts were on display in a December 2017 exhibition “In Defiance of Oblivion: In Memory of the Destroyed Synagogues of Eastern Europe.”
The doors were also displayed in a 2020 exhibition “A Challenge to Oblivion: Restoration,” which featured the museum’s work in “rescuing and preserving unique examples of Jewish cultural and artistic heritage.”
The Museum’s curators, Boris Khaimovich and Hillel Kazovsky, said the Museum purchased the pieces and brought them from Ukraine, as a measure to save the objects from neglected synagogue buildings.
“Long-term missions in different regions of the former Soviet republics have brought them to us, convinced that Jewish monuments are still being destroyed, as happened during the years of Soviet power; local authorities, at best, treat them with complete indifference,” he added.
“So, we decided that it was our task to save the monuments of Eastern European Jewish culture, which have miraculously survived and are on the verge of extinction.”
The Russian Museum of Jewish History rejected these accusations of thefts. The Ukraine Incognita association wrote on its Facebook page: “We received a letter from the curators of the museum, in which these relics are exhibited. The first thing to note is that the museum really purchased those artefacts and did not steal them.
"Yes, we believe it was done for the best reasons. But all penal codes in the world include an article that states that purchasing something that is stolen is a crime. Even more so when the stolen thing is smuggled into the territory of Russia. Regarding the rescue of the relics, we note that during the process of illegal and vandalistic dismantling of the Pidhaitsi synagogue tablet, the carved vegetal ornament that decorated the door frame, which was located immediately under the table, was destroyed; the fragile limestone simply crumbled. At the same time, the arched frame of the door was also destroyed.”
Moreover, Ukraine Incognita noted the coincidence in time of the thefts. Until a few years ago, the tablet that decorated the entrance to the synagogue, was also in the exhibition of the Moscow Museum, exhibited right next to the doors of the Chortkiv synagogue.
These highly valuable relics were stolen when the Russian-Ukrainian conflict was already underway. How these voluminous artifacts were transported to Russia is another point of interest.
The Pidhaitsi synagogue is located right in the center of the city. To dismantle huge stone blocks from the monument, extensive work was required that could not go unnoticed.
It is likely that the same organization carried out both thefts, Ukraine Incognita and Ukrainian rabbis suspect. Roman Malenkov, head of Ukraine Incognita, said that his organization will inform law enforcement agencies, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine about these thefts from monuments of national importance and their transportation to the territory of Russia.
There will also be an appeal to the Embassy of Israel, because these are acts of vandalism and looting of objects of the Jewish cultural, historical and spiritual heritage.
Thus far, no major international Jewish organizations have taken a stand about regarding the vandalism.
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