An edifice of a 19th century Ukrainian synagogue, known as the largest synagogue in Eastern Europe in the former Polish town of Drohobych, recently underwent a series of renovations at a cost of approximately $1 million donated by a Russian oligarch of Jewish origin.
Following five years of reconstruction, the building was inaugurated two weeks ago.
As part of the extensive restorations, the exterior of the synagogue patched up, alongside the original interior walls. The restoration included the repair of the building's frescoes and its historical-decorative elements.
The towering synagogue was built in the middle of the 19th century for one of the largest and most prosperous communities in Galicia, which according to its members today, was home to a population of no less than 17,000 Jews before the Holocaust—about half the city's population.
According to various sources, in 1942 and 1943, between 11,000 and 14,000 of the city's Jews were murdered by the Germans. Hundreds of Jewish families were massacred by the Nazis at the Bełżec extermination camp and in Bronicki Forest near Drohobych.
'Begin got married here'
The synagogue is depicted in the famous painting of Maurycy (Moshe) Gottlieb, "Jews Pray in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur", and is now being displayed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
According to Haim Ghiuzeli, director of the database department of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv, "This is indeed a synagogue from the town of Drohobych, as was painted by Maurycy Gottlieb who was inspired by his childhood memories."
"Drohobych had close to 20 synagogues and other Jewish prayer houses. Maurycy was born in 1856 in this eastern city of Galicia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire, then Poland, and western Ukraine. The famous painting depicts parts of the synagogue in the background." Ghiuzeli added.
According to members of the community, the sixth Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin, and his wife, Aliza, got married there in 1936. Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the revisionist Zionist leader who mentored Begin, was said to be among the guests at the ceremony.
The renovation project was the brainchild of the Ukrainian-born Russia oligarch and oil tycoon Viktor Felixovich Vekselberg, at the request of his father Felix who was born in Drohobych.
Vexelberg, also a native of the city, serves as head of the board of trustees of the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow.
The renovation included a monument to those who perished in the Holocaust. Vexelberg also contributed to a memorial site built in the forest where the town's Jewish population was murdered.
In memory of the Jewish community in Drohobych
Of the thousands of Jews who once walked the city of Drohobych, a mere 150 call it their home today. The head of the city's Jewish community, Rabbi Josef Karpin, said during the synagogue's opening ceremony that "the restoration of the Great Synagogue in Drohobych is important for the commemoration of the large Jewish community that lived there before the Holocaust. This synagogue is a testimony to the tragedy that the Jews experienced here."
Daniella Mavo, the president of The Drohybycz, Boryslaw and Vicinity Survivors and Descendents Organization, noted that while the community delights in the fresh renovations of the synagogue, the community is debating how to preserve the building for future generations.
"The elders of the community are passing away, the young are partly assimilated, so we want to make the place that was so important to our parents, to a center for education for tolerance and anti-racism in Ukraine, in order to give the site a meaning that reflects the suffering of our families who were cruelly murdered there," she said.
The local community said that tours of the site can be arranged in advance.