Published in 2A Magazine Issue #45 – Summer 2020
Displacement evokes tragedy and loss of home, of place. In science, displacement is value neutral, it describes a spatial condition. It is charged with
value by the human condition. Displacement is oppressive when imposed against our will-yet it may be liberating
As a political refugee and the child of double refugees, 1 have known the trauma of displacement intimately. It has impacted my family and my personal life. At stake is not displacement per se; it is the violence as the source of displacement and the ensuing trauma, which may linger for years afterwards. Professionally, displacement has motivated my passion and compassion to heal places, to pursue Tikkun Olam, to repair the world through design. This empathy for people and places that have suffered turmoil and loss have informed our choice of projects, most recently for projects in Ukraine.
These projects are both meaningful and difficult. As a child of the Cuban Revolution, growing up under communism, I felt empathy for the Ukrainian people during EuroMaidan (2013), their recent struggle for freedom and selfdetermination. Our first project, “Constellations” (2015), received two awards, one for the memorial, one for the master plan. As the grandchild of Holocaust victims killed in Treblinka, I have a direct personal stake. “Yahrzeit Candles”, (2016) in Babyn Yar, in Kyiv, the most infamous “genocide by bullets site, received an award for the Master Plan and memorial. This led to our current commission, “Remember Sambir.”
to restore DIGNITY to the survivors, to the dead and to the place.
Here we will present the history and our design for the old Jewish Cemetery in Sambir, in Western Ukraine, near the Polish border. Sambir is 70 km (43 miles) from Lviv, the Capital of Galicia under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a great center of Jewish life prior to World War II. Sambir still feels isolated, lost in time and space. The site is the old Jewish Cemetery at the edge of town; it feels abandoned. It bears the scars of three acts of violence.
In 1943, under Nazi occupation in Sambir, 10,000 Jews, half of the population, were killed through four main “Aktions.” This is the Nazi euphemism for meticulously planned mass murder, each deliberately coinciding with a major Jewish holiday. At the Sambir cemetery, 1200 innocent children, men and women were killed in cold blood, the living and the dead buried in a mass grave. In 1944, over a hundred more Jews, who had been hiding, were found, then killed and buried in the smaller mass grave (Figure 1).
In 1974, the Soviet regime ordered the destruction of ancient Jewish cemeteries throughout Ukraine. There are two accounts. One, cemeteries became State properties because there had been no burials in 25 years. Two, this was in retaliation for the Yom Kippur War of 1973, with the Soviet Union supporting the Arab League’s aggression of Israel. In Sambir, over 200 years of Jewish life were purposefully erased. The gravestones were broken up with farm equipment, the land cleared to build a Soccer stadium. The gravestones were recycled for road construction; a few were rescued and buried to protect them. The old Jewish synagogue was usurped by the former Mayor, who now owns it as a disco-bar.
In 1999, after the fall of Communism, Mr. Gardner, a Jewish philanthropist and Sambir survivor, used his own funds to restore the cemetery. They built a large parterre with a Star of David in front of the mass grave. The Jewish Star offended the sensibilities of a local Ukrainian Nationalists. Within days, the site was vandalized in the night and the Jewish Star parterre was destroyed. They installed three crosses on the Jewish Cemetery: one cross on the smaller mass grave, the other two on fake mounds dedicated to Ukrainian Nationalists, and they brought a priest to bless them. No one was ever held accountable. This was not a benign gesture of piety, it was a violent and sacrilegious Holocaust denial. Mark Freiman, our client, is the son of two of the 100 Holocaust survivors from Sambir. They survived by hiding in the basement of a stable for 18 months. After World War II, they emigrated to Canada, this displacement was both forced and a liberation from a horrific past.
In 2007, Freiman visited Sambir and was dismayed by the scene of destruction. Ever since, he has sought to restore the cemetery and graves and relocate the crosses. This has become a very delicate task, highly controversial for religious and political reasons. Patiently and tenaciously, he has built an interfaith and international coalition to restore the dignity to the site. In September 2016 a new mayor and city administration and the Ukranian-Jewish Encounter signed a Memorandum of Understanding which outlined the preliminary program.
We met a few days later in Kyiv, during our official presentation for Babyn Yar and he invited us to join his team.
of these tragic sites? We listen with an open mind and an open heart. The circular perimeter path tells events, the linear path tells an idea.
- The circular path along the perimeter tells the history of the site.
On the east side is the oldest Jewish Cemetery. It tells the story of pre-war Jewish life and the fate of history under Communist occupation. To remember now is an act of resistance to the Soviet imposed amnesia (Figure 2).
The large mass grave to the west tells the story of the Nazi occupation and the 1200 innocents killed in cold blood during the “Holocaust by Bullets” in 1943 (Figure 3).
The smaller mass grave in the north west corner holds the remains of the 1944 massacre; over a hundred more Jews, who were in hiding, were betrayed by their neighbors, rounded up, killed and buried (Figure 4). Garden walls will frame the two mass graves to protect them and create more intimate, contemplative spaces. Concrete panels will protect the mass grave; the aggregate will reflect the light and sparkle. This alludes to the poem: “There are stars up above.”
There are stars up above, So far away we only see their light Long, long after the star itself is gone. And so it is with people that we loved – Their memories keep shining ever brightly Though their time with us is done. But the stars that light up the darkest night, These are the lights that guide us. As we live our days, these are the ways to remember. Hannah Senesh, 1921-1944 At the north entrance there will be a new memorial to 17 fighters for Ukranian Freedom. It tells the story of the patriots that lost their lives in 1943 resisting Nazi oppression. The design includes a Christian monument. The plaque and landscape feature viburnum plans to allude to the Nationalist anthem (Figure 5).
- The central linear path is a new contemplative garden. It tells the current story of interfaith collaboration. It celebrates the new freedom to remember in the new Democratic Ukraine.
The historic traces of the site define a central triangle between the ancient cemetery walls and the existing north south path. This interstitial zone is free of graves and free for a new common story Low retaining walls will provide seats and light the path. Birch trees shade the space and columnar evergreen trees frame the triangular zone. Beech, oak and maples extend the forest to the south. A wetland garden to the west doubles as a drainage zone for storm water management.
The common monument is located at the highest elevation and will be seen from all the entrances. Walking through the dark entrance to the light beyond, we reenact the experience of the survivors, who overcome oppression to reach freedom. From the upper level we overlook the common garden, and the panorama of Sambir beyond. Our body, standing on the balcony, like a live sculpture, animates the space and focuses the energy of the place to an intimate scale (Figure 6). Conclusion
“Remembr Sambir” will tell these tragic stories with respect and reverence. It will honor multiple generations: the memory of the once vibrant Ukrainian Jewish community, the innocent martyrs of the Holocaust and the current generation’s righteous efforts to remember them and to heal. This new landscape will bring these memories back into daily life and honor the freedom to remember in a new Democratic Ukraine.
To remember the truth is to stand against oppression. It binds people to places and affirms love and life.