When Meylakh Sheykhet strides down the corridors of power in the musty halls of the corrupt and inefficient Ukrainian bureaucracy, whispers usually trail after him. If the functionaries who view the receding figure navigating the passageways have interacted with him before—and many of them have—their murmurs may likely consist of angry muttering: Oh no, he’s back! It’s him again! Won’t he ever give up? But from those government workers who are unacquainted with Mr. Sheykhet, an entirely different string of exclamations may very well erupt: Who is that? And what is he doing in our government office? Am I hallucinating or did I just see a tall man with a long black coat, black hat, beard and sidelocks glide by as if he belonged here?
He’s fearless and imposing and cuts a striking silhouette wherever he goes. Defying categorization and arousing incredulity, Meylakh Sheykhet is an outlier, an anomaly, and a hero in the contemporary annals of Ukrainian Jewish history. Singlehandedly, he has challenged and forced the Ukrainian government to dignify the Jewish dead, restore desecrated Jewish ruins, return expropriated Jewish sites seized by unscrupoulous developers, and, above all, preserve the Jewish past. He has done all this despite the fact that Lviv—the city where he grew up (he was born in Korosten near Veledniki) and still lives to this day—is now essentially Judenrein.
Meylakh Sheykhet is obsessed with Lviv’s Jewish memory, safeguarding and perpetuating it, making sure its identity as a center of religious Jewish life doesn’t disappear into the dark abyss that swallowed up hundreds of thousands of Jews during the war. His crusade has been a lonely one: Whenever religious Jews had an opening to flee Lviv over the course of the last half century, they seized it, rendering Lviv a virtual ghost-town frumkeit-wise. Meylakh, however, felt too torn, too anguished, to join them and abandon it himself. The burden was too great. He was the self-designated gatekeeper of the area’s decimated kevarim, shuls and yeshivos, and he believed that if he didn’t stay behind and watch over them, restore them, give them new life, they would surely be assigned an ignominious fate. And so he remained, for decades one of Lviv’s handful of religious Jews, somehow managing to remain true to halachah and the spirit of Yiddishkeit but also making enemies and leading an exceedingly solitary life.
Before the vortex of the Holocaust descended upon Lviv (once known as Lemberg), the city had teemed with 160,000 (mostly) religious Jews—half the city’s population. Forty-two shuls and many shtieblach reigned over the city, religious Jewish merchants dominated the business district, and prominent yeshivos dotted the landscape. The Haskalah movement and the litany of isms that leached religious fervor elsewhere made few inroads in Lviv, which was populated by pious Litvacks and chasidim who lived together in harmony. The glory days of Lviv were comparable to the vitality we see in Boro Park, Williamsburg, Bnei Brak, Stamford Hill and other neighborhoods—neighborhoods we cherish so much and could never envision crumbling into dust, chas v’shalom.
During the first two years of the war, Polish refugees trying to outrun the Germans had viewed Lviv as a haven and fled to its sanctuary, swelling its ranks to 500,000 Jews. Hitler’s non-aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939 seemingly (but ultimately duplicitously) guaranteed safety in Russia, so when the first invasions of Poland were launched, it was to this city that hundreds of thousands of Jews escaped. (Those who renounced their Polish citizenship were allowed to reside in the city. Those who refused, including my grandfather Reb Moishele Rubin-Halberstam, z”l, were deported to Siberia).
But on Sunday, June 21, 1941, Hitler reneged on all his empty promises to Stalin and launched a surprise attack against the Soviet Union, code-named Operation Barbarossa. Soon after the Nazis’ first incursion into Russia, mobile killing units began the mass murder of Soviet Jews. The legendary 16th century Golden Rose Synagogue was burned down with hundreds of Jews crammed inside—one of the first casualties of the Lemberg apocalypse. Eventually, almost all of its Jewish residents were murdered (in what was later deemed one of the largest exterminations in Europe), and of the 420,00 Jews who had sought sanctuary in this former jewel of Jewish life, only 800 survived.
“My parents were neither born nor raised in Lemberg,” recounts Meylakh. “My mother was originally from the Chernobyl area, and my father was from Belarus. Like other dazed survivors, their priority after liberation was to hunt for any remnants of their respective families, and they found them here. Lviv (formerly Lemberg) was desolate, deserted and almost completely devoid of any residents whatsoever, with thousands of furnished apartments standing empty. The Soviet regime sought to revive the city by giving these apartments away for free to professionals (as incentives to strengthen the Soviet occupation), and also to its soldiers who had fought the Nazis (as rewards).
“Since my two uncles had been in the Soviet Army on the front lines, they were qualified to receive free apartments in Lviv. Somehow other relatives found them and settled there, too. Miraculously, what was left of our family reunited and came together in Lviv.
The city looked forbidding with its rubble and devastation, but what we lacked in material comforts was more than compensated by the fact that we were with mishpachah.
“Slowly, more Jews emerged from their hiding places and, lured by the incentives offered by the Soviet government (mainly the free apartments), converged upon Lviv. We lived with the hope that perhaps our city—and our religious life—could be resurrected, but it was an illusion that was soon dispelled. After the war the communists carried out a second Holocaust against the Jews—not in physical terms but in spiritual terms.”
Communism had placed a complete stranglehold on the possibilities for religious Jewish revival. Oppression and anti-Semitism were blatant. Practically all the shuls were shuttered (although a few escaped detection), the yeshivos were closed and shechitah was verboten. Severe food shortages, the dearth of material goods in general, Soviet inefficiency and corruption—external circumstances that also affected the general populace—conspired to make day-to-day life harsh and unremitting for everyone. But Jews were particularly singled out, brutalized, punished, and even imprisoned for practicing their religion.
The loss of Yiddishkeit—the spiritual succor that had supported Jews in the leanest and meanest of times throughout the millennia—was too much to sustain. When it was still possible to leave, the Jews who had limped back into Lviv with hearts full of hope about its ultimate restoration limped out, acknowledging that resurrection was unlikely. Traces of their beloved city had been permanently vanquished—first by the bonfires of the Nazis, later by the communists’ bulldozers—and they knew that this time the farewells would be final. They picked up their meager possessions once again and fled.
“My father, however,” Meylakh recounts, “refused to join the exodus. He was a leader in his shul, the baal korei, and he gave shiurim. My father deliberately sought out simple employment rather than a more professional job or academic post so he could have the ability to take off Shabbos and Yomim Tovim. And he managed to go to shul every day. He didn’t care about kavod or money. What mattered to him most was Yiddishkeit.
“My mother was a real eishes chayil. One day a week she had what she called an ‘essentag’ when she cooked a big meal for all the frum Jews who were still left. We were quite poor, and often she had to borrow money to subsidize the free meals she organized, but she never canceled a meal. She used to say: ‘If we will keep the mitzvos, Hashem will save us.’ She knew the Yidden counted on it—and her. My parents had a deep sense of responsibility to the klal. Even when their other relatives eventually left Lviv, they refused to yield to the pleas of their family members to join them in places where safety and religious freedom prevailed. They just couldn’t abandon the remaining few, so they stayed. Their commitment to other Jews was boundless, and they inculcated this middah in me from a very young age.”
In 1962, the Soviets clamped down on the Jewish populace with even more stringent decrees, and Lviv’s last shul was shut down, padlocked, sealed and utterly inaccessible. The regime wanted nothing less than to eradicate whatever religious community was left. But the spirit of the Yidden wasn’t easily vanquished. Clandestinely, they began to gather in private apartments, and when that became dangerous they rented new ones, constantly alternating and changing locations to deflect the suspicion of the henchmen who stalked them.
“Bris milah was the most difficult of mitzvos to perform,” Meylakh recalls. “Our ranks were often riddled with informers, and bris milah was outlawed. We had to be very careful about whom we invited, and the ceremony was quick. That was the way we lived.”
Furtively. Surreptitiously. Skittish about an unexpected knock on the door and what it could augur. In Reb Meylakh’s home his mother lit Shabbos candles covertly, and while they flickered she shook with fear that they would be arrested. Any tell-tale evidence that they were frum was punctiliously concealed. Religious artifacts were hidden, and their sefarim were lodged on the second shelf of the bookcase—behind the first row of secular books. “Plain and simple: Anyone who was religiously observant was considered an enemy of the Soviet state,” says Meylakh.
Still, despite all the obstacles, the fear that lurked in every corner and the shadowy figures that tracked their movements, Meylakh’s parents stubbornly clung to their heritage. In the study, his father—a big talmid chacham—continuously learned with his son; in the kitchen, his mother instructed him in everyday halachos and kashrus. Home doubled as his personal yeshivah—all the venerable ones that had existed before the war had been swept into the amorphous mass known as “the vanished past.”
Meylakh attended public school (the Soviet system took children away from their parents if they weren’t enrolled) followed by the Odessa National High School of Telecommunications and the Lviv Polytechnic National University, where he earned degrees in telecommunication studies. A voracious student, he read extensively on his own and became fluent in seven languages. (Yiddish was spoken at home). His academic post as a telecommunications lecturer at both high schools and colleges specializing in engineering gave him an income while simultaneously granting him the freedom to pursue other interests, which included learning with his father. “My brother and sister eventually left Lviv,” he says, “but I could not bear to forsake my parents. It was not even a consideration.”
In 1982, Meylakh’s world tilted when both his mother and father passed away—months apart from each other. “It very painful for me,” he says. His deep sigh as he utters these simple words makes any elaboration unnecessary. “They were tzaddikim,” he adds.
At this point in Lviv’s checkered Jewish history, Meylakh Sheykhet was the only religious Jew left.
“The Soviet system proved to be a second Holocaust for Jews. It emptied them of their Jewishness; draining away their Jewish sense of life and Jewish impact,” Meylakh says, deep notes of sadness tingeing his words.
“When my parents passed away, I no longer had a compelling reason to stay. Most of the remaining Jews in Lviv (there were about 5,000 then) were alienated from Judaism, and the frum Jews whom my parents originally catered to were long gone. I began to seriously consider aliyah and initiated the process, filing the necessary documents for an exit visa.
“Meanwhile, in 1982, I joined the Jewish underground, which was based in Moscow, attending lectures and events geared towards dissidents. Finally, I had some real friends who understood my passion about Yiddishkeit. I cared deeply about the people I met, and without even thinking about it became proactive on their behalf. It was ingrained in me: Emulating my parents a little, I started to do as much for my fellow Yidden in Moscow and Lviv as much as I could, slipping into the roles my parents had once occupied. My calling in life seemed to be headed in the same direction as theirs—helping my people.”
Meylakh could never have envisioned how far this journey would take him, nor to what extent he would ultimately end up sacrificing his own needs for the klal’s.
He started out on a small scale: “Whenever I would travel to Moscow from Lviv, I would bring along expensive products—like electronics or clothing (that could be resold at a substantial profit)—which I gave to starving dissidents who had lost their jobs when their applications for emigration were made public, or to those fortunate few who had already received their exit visas but lacked the funds with which to buy airline tickets.
“I also launched a project that could be compared to a lending library: I had a substantial collection of books about Jewish history and traditions in my apartment, and I loaned these books to the dissidents I met who were thirsty to read anything about Judaism. But even the simple act of lending books had to be conducted in a secretive manner: If I would have been caught I would have gotten ten years in prison, because anything Jewish or religious was considered anti-Soviet propaganda. I was frightened, but I didn’t stop.”
With the advent of perestroika and glasnost in Russia in the mid-‘80s and the burgeoning of Soviet Jewish emigration, a new openness began to prevail in the Soviet Union, and the Iron Curtain, which had previously proven so impenetrable, came crashing down. Jews streamed out of Russia in great waves (more than a million of them) in what was characterized as “The Exodus of Soviet Jewry,” and foreigners were finally permitted—for the first time in more than half a century—to stream in.
Of course, even during the most oppressive times there had been courageous men—rabbis and laymen alike—who had managed to clandestinely travel to Russia to bring chizzuk, kosher food, money, talleisim, tefillin, siddurim, sefarim and yarmulkes to their oppressed brethren. Some of these men are still immortalized today, but there are several whose names have sadly been almost completely forgotten: People like Rabbi Harry Bronstein, z”l, of the Al Tidom organization (who was arrested in Kiev and questioned by the KGB in Moscow), who trekked to places where few dared to go.
Others whose legacies are more widely known for smuggling in religious literature and artifacts that reconnected the isolated Russian Jews to their heritage and people included Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, z”l, of Elizabeth, New Jersey, who made 22 trips to the Soviet Union, beginning in 1964; Reb Nachman Elbaum, z”l, of Ideal Tours; and Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, who, during an illicit trip to Russia, literally gave away the yarmulke on his head and his own bar mitzvah tefillin to a young boy who was about to turn 13. There were others whose heroic deeds are probably still untold to this day, but for the most part, until the late ‘80s, religious visitors from abroad had been rare.
“We were overwhelmed when prominent rabbanim and pashute Yidden from the West started to pour into Russia,” remembers Meylakh nostalgically. “To see emesdike frum Yidden walking around so freely—clearly identifiable Jews proudly wearing kappels, tzitzis, beards, peyos, chassidishe levush—we couldn’t believe it; we were so moved.
“Many of them came to look for the mekomos hakedoshim—the holy gravesites of famous tzaddikim—as well as the kevarim of their parents and ancestors who were buried in or near the Lviv region. It was understandable that now that travel to Russia had become unrestricted, Yidden would descend en masse upon it in search of their roots. But how to find them?”
With the former fettered gates now flung wide open to tourists, frum Jews eagerly queued up at the Russian embassy or consulate in their respective cities in the West, applying for the requisite visas. “Among the earliest visitors were top rabbanim brought by Reb Nachman Elbaum, who was the first to organize American Jews to daven at the holy tziyunim in Ukraine,” Meylakh says. (Reb Nachman was also among the first to renew travel to Uman, especially for Rosh Hashanah.)
Reichberg Travel also organized an early pilgrimage in 1990—this one specifically designed for askanim who wanted to explore strategies for Jewish revival in Lviv. One of the prominent gedolim who was on that trip still remembers its poignancy. “When I walked in the streets, elderly men mamash ran after me in disbelief or approached me with wonder in their eyes. They didn’t know that Yidden like us still existed somewhere in the world. One night, I was directed to the home of a successful secular Jewish doctor. He wasn’t expecting me. When he opened the door and saw that a chasidish man was standing on his threshold, his shoulders started heaving and he burst out crying.”
Today, there are connecting and even direct flights to Lviv, but in the late ‘80s the only way to get to this region was via Moscow. When foreign travelers contacted Jewish activists in this city, asking if there was someone who could knowledgeably and reliably guide them around Lviv, there was only one name uniformly uttered in response: Meylakh Sheykhet.
Meylakh is fluent in Yiddish, Ukrainian, English, German, Polish and Russian “so it was easy for me to communicate with all kinds of foreigners,” and as it stood, he was one of the last remaining religious Jews in Lviv.
“So I started to help them with their travels and accompanied them to the cemeteries, but even though I had lived in Lviv all my life, my new journeys took me to places I had never visited before: Sassiv, Volodymyr-Volynsk (Ludmir), Tarnapol, Brody, Berdichev, Belz, Sosnivka, Mikulince, Tarakow Miasto, Lutsk, Olesko, Olyka, Turka, Stratin, Yampol, Sambor, and many other villages where Jews used to live and flourish before the Holocaust.
One of the first Americans to journey on his own to Lviv in 1989 was the famed Washington attorney, Nat Lewin, who was accompanied by his wife, mother-in-law and two daughters.
“Meylakh revived Yiddishkeit in Lemberg in 1989,” Mr. Lewin graciously replies to my e-mail query. “He helped us (unfortunately, we were unsuccessful) look for the kever of my great-great-grandfather, the Beis Yitzchak, Rav Yitzchak Shmelkes, zt”l, who was the av beis din of Lemberg until 1905. We also visited the city because it was the place where my grandfather, the Raisher Rav (Rav Aharon Levine, Hy”d) was murdered by the Nazis in 1941. Additionally, we were searching for the manuscript of the final sections of his sefer on Torah (Hadrash v’Ha’iyun) which he had with him in Lemberg. At our request, Meylakh has been trying to find it for the past 30 years.”
“I still vividly remember Mr. Lewin’s visit,” Meylakh says. “He was very generous; he brought along a tremendous amount of kosher food along with quite a large number of books about Judaism. In one of them he wrote this inscription, which touched me very much: ‘For a man who turns dreams into reality and makes the seemingly impossible possible. May this book help you to understand even more, and give you the ability to teach and explain to others the love and beauty that resides in Judaism.’”
For Meylakh, accompanying the Westerners who came in search of their roots and to honor their ancestors was an eye-opening and deeply moving experience, but more than anything else it was also a harrowing trauma.
“In the decades preceding perestroika, we had been forbidden from traveling to the towns of Halychyna (Galicia) and elsewhere, because to show an interest in your roots was the same as showing that you’re a Zionist or anti-Soviet—with commensurate punishment. So even though these places had been geographically close to me all these years, and I had heard about them, I had never actually been to any of them. And it was a terrible experience. I was horrified to see the destruction and degradation these holy sites had endured at the hands of both the Nazis and the Soviets.”
“These heilige cemeteries—legendary batei chayim where some of our greatest gedolim were buried—were vast landscapes of desecration. At their most benign they were overgrown with weeds. Far worse were the ones that had been transformed into garbage dumps or grazing lands for cattle. Headstones, some of which told the stories of their deceased owners’ lives, had been torn out of the ground and used to pave city streets. Lviv’s ancient Jewish cemetery had become the site of a local bazaar—Krakivsky Market—with booths being erected on the ground where some of our holiest rabbanim were buried.
“When I saw all these things,” Meylakh recalls, “I started to cry. Everything looked so sad and desolate. It was very painful. The graves were like orphans without anyone to take care of them. Although there were a few broken headstones still standing in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Lviv, it was impossible to identify most of them because the inscriptions on them were rubbed out. I felt so despondent. I felt I had mostly failed in my mission to help the Yidden (whom I had accompanied to the cemetery) find the graves of their parents or the kivrei tzaddikim where they wished to pray. All traces of these graves were gone. Not only were the majority of the headstones uprooted, even little markers used to designate the graves had been vandalized as well. What the Nazis had started, the communists finished.
“As I gazed at the ruins, I felt a deep ambivalence: On one hand, I felt an intense emotional connection to these kevarim, almost a mystical sense that they were crying out for my protection. On the other hand, I felt that I could no longer live in Lviv anymore where even the dead were so dishonored. Why should I live in such a place? I was determined to speed up the emigration process. It was time for me to leave.”
But while the first influx of rabbanim from abroad clearly empathized with Meylakh’s anguish and his urgency to abandon the country that had demonstrated such callous disregard for Jewish hallowed ground and had made a mockery of all that was sacrosanct, they asked him to reconsider.
“We understand you want to leave,” Meylakh remembers them telling him gently, “but before you leave, please help us.”
Meylakh’s professional training had been in telecommunications. He was a surprising Zwissenmensch who cut an incongruous figure—the quintessential “Renaissance” man garbed in chasidish levush—learned in Torah, educated in secular studies, a resourceful activist and a gifted intellectual. But despite the abundance of attributes that Hashem had bestowed upon him, he didn’t feel qualified to undertake the commission with which the rabbanim wished to charge him: Nothing less than the laborious excavation of Lviv’s holy past and its ultimate restoration (their agenda included the cemeteries laid to waste and the shuls and yeshivos that had been annihilated).
A secondary request was made by Reb Nachman Elbaum, who also asked if Meylakh could help him be mekarev the Yidden of Moscow and St. Petersburg. That was the one proposition Meylakh felt he might be able to fulfill (and ultimately he was matzliach, responsible for transforming hundreds of secular Jews into baalei teshuvah), but the rapid arrival in Russia of Chabad and other kiruv professionals eventually made his participation in this work unnecessary. But as far as the more daunting undertakings the rabbanim wanted to assign him…he was extremely dubious as to whether he could master the intricacies such work required. The rabbanim, however, were convinced that Meylakh was the man made for this mission and that he would succeed.
“I really didn’t feel I was up to the task; I didn’t feel I could do it,” Meylakh says. “But I was deeply humbled by the gadlus of the luminaries who had traveled from so far to honor their ancestors. I viewed them as ‘angels’ and ‘defenders of the faith’: people who were not apathetic or silent but were proactive and wanted to see their ancestors rest properly.
“I thought: ‘If they traveled from so far to ensure the dignity of their ancestors’ remains, how could I not try to help? We cannot be silent about things that should make us cry out; we must not ignore anything that threatens another Yid anywhere in the world. We are one. Everyone must think that he himself has to fill the void. So when the rabbanim asked me to do the work, I thought it would be a big sin if I didn’t step forward.’
When he embarked on this journey, Meylakh was not an archaeologist, archivist, cartographer or lawyer (he ended up studying law because acquiring knowledge of the legal system and how to navigate it would prove to be his most potent weapon). He didn’t possess the skills necessary to reclaim and rehabilitate the Jewish heritage sites—especially the cemeteries—but the rabbanim insisted. His multilingualism was an enormous asset, as was his ability to move easily in different worlds. Quick-witted and capable of soaking up information like a sponge, the rabbanim firmly believed Meylakh could stretch himself and step up to the plate.
Today, Meylakh is the Ukraine Director for the Washington, DC-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (funded by private donors and foundations). He also heads three other advocacy organizations and has worked for the preservation of Jewish holy sites for more than 30 years. A solitary advocate and lonely warrior during the early years, he now has 20 employees and volunteers, an office and an international reputation. But three decades ago, when the rabbanim first asked Meylakh to postpone aliyah and stay “temporarily” (he never did wind up leaving), he floundered. One of his first mandates was to identify the virtually unidentifiable graves, starting with the kevarim of the tzaddikim that had been hurled into oblivion. It was a daunting assignment: How could he possibly learn who was buried where?
“I tried searching for Jewish archives,” Meylakh says, “but there were none. Both the Nazis and the Soviets had deliberately destroyed them. There wasn’t a single document left.”
Then, in a eureka moment, Meylakh remembered that there were maps of Lviv and its environs recently published by the Soviet regime. Perhaps these would yield some vital clues. But when he acquired the maps and breathlessly pored over them, he was shocked to discover that all remnants of the Jewish past had been completed excised by the Soviets. It was as if the Jewish community didn’t exist and had never existed. Jews had lived in Lviv since the fourth century and at times had comprised more than 50% of its populace. But not one shul, not one yeshivah, not one cemetery, not one Jewish landmark appeared on the map. In the spirit of communist revision, which continuously tinkered with the truth, the Jewish community had been obliterated.
“I showed these maps to the rabbanim, and they were outraged,” Meylakh says. “They tried to do something about it, approaching the authorities, who lied and made excuses. But thankfully the old Ukrainian locals—ordinary villagers who had lived side by side with Jews in neighborly harmony—were willing to share what they knew. They remembered the possible locations of various grave sites, escorted us to them and pointed them out. These elderly, simple people became vital to us in our search.
“Meanwhile, I had another aha moment. The idea came to me that I should stop looking for the vanished Jewish archives, and instead start hunting through the secular or national ones. And then a second idea came to me: International archives, too! My instincts proved correct, baruch Hashem. I found many references to Jewish holy sites in the most astonishing of places!
“I also began traveling to cities around the world and met with Jewish people whose families were from Ukraine. (The Ukranian Jewish Encounter of Canada, led by James Temetry, Berel and Alti Rodal, and Mark Freiman, former president of the now-defunct Canadian Jewish Congress, has been particularly active in helping Meylakh). Many of them were either verbally able to tell me the exact location of certain kevarim, or else they happened to own sefarim that contained images or detailed information about specific sites. Some of them even had old photos of their ancestors’ graves and the batei chayim where they were buried. These were invaluable! My overseas trips enabled me to gather concrete evidence about lost Jewish cemeteries that had been plowed, razed or built over with discotheques, flea markets, grazing pastures, gas stations and even, in one case, a fish farm!
“But when I presented physical evidence to the officials, I found myself stonewalled. Privatization had come to Russia and Ukraine, and none of the developers nor the bureaucrats with whom they had colluded had any interest in dismantling the profit-making structures that had already been built over the kevarim.”
Meylakh eventually assembled a team of surveyors, scientists and historians who helped him pinpoint locations and boundaries using technology, aerial photos, topographical maps, slides and geophysical imaging. In his detective work, he also incorporated the personal testimonies of elderly gentile villagers, as well as the information he had gleaned from foreigners around the world, their family documents and old photos. Despite all these things, however, he still could not move the Ukrainian government officials who proved to be hard and intractable.
“And then I had another flash of insight. I realized that the Ukrainian government cares more about what the West thinks than what its own people think! They are more fearful and embarrassed about making a bad impression on foreigners than Ukrainians!
“Once I had this epiphany, I turned my attention to utilizing diplomatic channels. I met with politicians in Washington, DC, as well as emissaries of other governments. Perhaps they would be more successful in placing pressure on the Ukrainians?”
“They were. In an impressive display of solidarity, President George Bush sent a personal emissary to the deputy foreign minister to formally ask the Ukrainian government to protect the Jewish heritage sites, and Senator John McCain was also supportive of our efforts. I found that American and Canadian askanim, lawyers and secular Jewish machers who had roots in Ukraine were particularly moved by photos of the ruined cemeteries and crumbling shuls that we showed them, and they helped us file court cases to protect the holy sites. We have been using legislation for many years now, and the rulings in our favor are sometimes—but not always—implemented.”
There was one other dimension to Meylakh’s work that ultimately made his mission even more successful: Bridge-building with the local Christians. “I cultivated relationships with the Ukrainian locals, reminding them that their parents and grandparents—going all the way back to the 14th century—had always lived very peacefully with their Jewish neighbors and had helped Jewish life flourish here. When we spoke, they understood that Jews were as much a part of their culture and history as any other group.
“There were even those who cried about the Jewish neighbors whom they said they missed so much and would never see again. They had been an important part of their existence, and they said they felt they were orphans without Jews in their midst.” These locals would prove to be exceedingly instrumental in helping Meylakh unearth old vestiges of the Jewish past.
While Meylekh’s “star” and public persona appeared to be soaring during this frenetic period, he felt a void in his private life. The stark reality of his solitary state could not be fully squelched. He loved the intense, whirlwind klal work he was doing, but at what cost?
I’m lonely, he acknowledged to himself. I need a wife. But there are no frum women in Lviv, and I can’t abandon my work here. No one in Lviv can replace me. I’m like a firefighter—there are so many problems that need to be contained. For example, developers were going to build a luxury hotel on the grounds of Yeshivas Eitz Chaim [which dates back to the 17th century], and I was able to stop it, baruch Hashem. What if I hadn’t been here?
I know they watch me like a hawk, waiting for me to embark on my travels so they can take advantage of my absence and pour the foundation. So I can’t leave for long periods, ruling out even the remote possibility of a “commuter marriage.” And is there anyone else in Lviv ready to go to such lengths to preserve Jewish sites? I have acquired the knowledge, the experience and, perhaps most of all, the passion that makes my presence here essential. So I have to stay. But how will I ever find a wife? I’ll have to ask my friends in Europe, Israel and North America to help me with a shidduch. Surely there must be at least one idealistic woman somewhere who would be willing to join me in this holy work.
Alas, there was none. Meylakh asked about shidduchim wherever he traveled. In many cases he didn’t even have to ask: Astute acquaintances or close friends—gleaning the extent of his solitude—volunteered with suggestions of their own. But despite all his myriad gifts, his warm and charismatic personality, the quixotic mission upon which he was embarked and which stirred the admiration of many, few frum women wished to explore the possibility of a shidduch with Meylakh. And who could blame them? Without any other frum Yidden living there, what kind of religious Jewish life did Lviv offer? By contrast, Moscow and St. Petersburg seemed like bastions of Yiddishkeit!
Meylakh was disappointed, but he couldn’t blame these women for their reluctance. He had given up so much for his work; how could he ask anyone to join him in a life of genuine deprivation, living under the pinched circumstances that he did?
Occasionally, there were surprises: The rare frum woman from abroad willing to consider a shidduch with Meylakh, and periodically he would encounter a spark, a kindred spirit, a woman with whom he could envision sharing his life. But after several near-misses, the possibilities that leaped up at him and filled his heart with little flames of hope ultimately flickered out and died. A few women hovered on the threshold of saying “yes” but ultimately withdrew at the last moment, as they stood trembling on the precipice of indecision. At the very end, none of them could envision life in Lviv. No matter how wonderful they found Meylakh to be, they couldn’t (and understandably so) conceive of the privations they would surely endure. The sacrifices they were being asked to consider were far too formidable.
“It was very difficult for me, not to get married, not to have a family. But I never gave up hope,” Meylakh says. “Wherever I went, I hunted for the right shidduch. I never gave up trying. But the day eventually came when I had to confront the hard truth: No frum woman wanted to come live in Lviv, and there certainly weren’t any here.”
Meanwhile, Meylakh forged on with his advocacy activities, making some important inroads (“but not enough!” he despairs) on what he describes as a “long and arduous journey.” His achievements include the restoration of 150 Jewish cemeteries and mass graves in Ukraine and Belarus; the discovery of hundreds of Jewish mass graves via aerial imaging, where he has erected memorials and plaques; and the use of the legal system to officially designate various shuls and yeshivos as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Meylakh has also obtained funding to build impregnable gates around various Jewish cemeteries to safeguard them from grazing livestock, graffiti artists, partying teenagers and outright anti-Semites.
He is not a timid soul. To invade the halls of power… To protest demolitions by solitarily stalking the sites and holding up placards… To challenge corrupt bureaucrats and greedy developers in Ukranian courts… To curry the favor of prominent politicians and high-ranking diplomats in the US and elsewhere… To continuously file court orders that are summarily rejected and then stubbornly file them again and again: All of these activities require great measures of moral courage, determination, passion that borders on zealotry and perhaps most important of all…chutzpah.
“Mr. Sheykhet constantly finds himself at loggerheads with officials, as he files one court order after another,” a journalist for the Kyiv Post observed in a story about Meylakh in the July 14, 2011, edition. “He has plenty of enemies,” a JTA reporter also noted. “But he never gives up.” (The JTA is an international news gathering agency, similar to the Associated Press (AP), but specializing in Jewish news only. Amongst many others, it maintains an index of files labeled “Meylakh Sheykhet.”)
Alternately called the “gatekeeper of Jewish cemeteries” in Ukraine and Belarus and the “guardian of Jewish heritage in the Ukraine,” Meylakh remains unflagging in his decades-old quest to “rebuild, or at the very least, memorialize the ravaged shuls and yeshivos,” the tatters of which still dot both countrysides and cityscapes. “Aren’t the remains of the sacred sites holy too?” he pleads.
Rather than being ground down by the enormous resistance to his work by the bureaucrats, Meylakh is still as feverish and obsessed as ever. (He is very single-minded. When I try to ask him personal questions about his life, he is avoidant and dismissive. All he wants to talk about is “the holy Jewish past.”) He feels pressured by the sense that time is running out, and he lacks the assurance that he will have a protegee or heir to whom he can pass on his legacy and mission.
Since 1989, for example, he has been continuously raising a ruckus with local officials in Sambor, and, gadfly that he is, Meylakh has remained indefatigable despite many setbacks.
“Sambor once played a huge part in Jewish history. When communism collapsed, Ukrainian nationalists put up three crosses on the site of the ancient Jewish cemetery, saying that the nearby Christian cemetery had not been rehabilitated, so they were going to commemorate their graves by placing crosses on the Jewish cemetery, whose grounds had been restored. Nobody stopped them from repairing their own cemetery. Why did they have to put the crosses on ours? I met with Cardinal Huzar, who handed me an official letter stating that the crosses should be taken down. But the crosses are still there.
Meylakh says passionately: “To put up the crosses is to say to the Jews: ‘You don’t have the right to remember.’” According to the Canadian Jewish Post, Jack Gardner, a Ukranian Jew who emigrated to Canada, spent his last years trying to help Meylakh memorialize Sambor’s Jewish history, first by restoring its bullet-pocked execution wall, and then by building a memorial stone near the mass grave.
“It is hard to imagine these sites being treated less respectfully,” Meylakh told Tom Gross of the Guardian. “The Holocaust has not stopped here; the destruction goes on. Over the tombstones of some of history’s greatest rabbis there are now movie theatres, discos and car parks. Two years ago, another site of mass murder in Lviv, the Citadel—where tens of thousands of Jews were tortured to death—was converted into a five-star hotel. I failed to block the Citadel project, but I am still campaigning to stop the destruction of the remains of the Golden Rose Synagogue (also known as the Turei Zahav Synagogue in memory of the Taz, who would daven there).”
The Golden Rose’s once glorious compound has already been violated by a structure inhabiting the complex. An utter travesty, the structure, which was built in 2008 on the Golden Rose’s adjoining grounds, is a restaurant that “crassly perpetuates anti-Semitic stereotypes” and mocks our traditions. At the self-styled (non-kosher) “Jewish” eatery, waiters at the restaurant sport fake peyos and distribute menus that pointedly lack prices. When Cnaan Lipshiz of the JTA, who visited the restaurant, asked why the prices were missing, the waiter replied: “Because it’s a Jewish tradition to haggle and bargain afterwards.” He told Lipshiz to call him Moishe, but his real name, he later confessed, was Vlodymir.
In Kyiv, another “Jewish-themed” restaurant called Cimes (named after the carrot dish) boasts a neon sign featuring a caricature of a hook-nosed Jew, Lipshiz added in his report.
“It never stops,” Meylakh sighs. In addition to his long-term projects, he finds himself constantly doing triage work, dashing from one crisis to another, trying to contain them. It’s as if Meylakh is the little Dutch girl putting her finger in the hole of the dike, valiantly trying to prevent an apocalypse from occurring.
Of course, today there are dozens of other Jewish organizations in the Ukraine working in social, communal and political venues, and Meylakh is not as isolated as he once was. There are his political partners from the US and Canada, friends and supporters from all over the world, the employees in his office, Ukrainian allies who join with him on filing legislation to protect the mekomos hakedoshim, and the elderly villagers whose eagerness to help him ferret out the holy Jewish places remains so sweet. These human connections help fill the void he has known for so many years, and he finds that they buoy his spirits.
And yet. As his beard became grayer and his eyes more sunken, he could not suppress the yearning in his heart. Would he ever find a wife?
Five years ago, a stranger suddenly appeared in one of the two shuls in Lviv. (Rarely do either one of them—40 minutes apart by foot—attract a full minyan, a frequent visitor to Lviv told me). She was a frum giyores who was fervent about Yiddishkeit. She had studied in Kyiv, but now upon returning to her hometown of Lviv (where she was born and bred and would never consider leaving), she was eager to continue her Torah studies with someone who was learned, frum and willing to give her tutorials. “Go ask Meylakh Sheykhet,” someone said.
“I only wanted to do a mitzvah,” Meylakh laughs at the strange turn of events that changed his life. “I tried to assist Yehudis with Torah learning and help further her knowledge of halachah. I was asked to assist a giyores with her Jewish education, and that’s exactly what I hoped to do. Never once did I entertain the possibility of marriage.”
A few weeks ago, a historic chasunah was held in Belz—the first chasidishe chasunah to be celebrated in the Ukraine in 80 years. The chasan was none other than Meylakh Sheykhet. His unterfirers were Rabbi Shlomo Frishvasser of London (whom he met 28 years ago when he first helped him unearth the kever of Rav Moshe Leib Sassover) and Rav Naftali Meir Babad of New York, with whom he has developed a close-knit relationship. (Meylakh also helped him find many of his ancestors’ kevarim, including that of his grandfather, and, most recently, the kever of his great-uncle, the venerated Minchas Chinuch.) Rav Babad brought along with him a veritable entourage, which included his rebbetzin, and his ten sons and sons-in-law. After all, this was a simchah!
Rarely is a chasunah held adjacent to a cemetery, but Meylakh and his illustrious friends deliberately chose to erect the chuppah in a space adjoining the Belz Bais Hachaim, in what was a profoundly poignant act.
“Belz was one of my very first projects,” reminisces Reb Meylakh. “It was extremely difficult to restore—an enormous challenge—and we felt it would be very fitting to hold the chasunah there. To make the first Yiddishe chasunah in Belz since the Holocaust, Rabbi Frishvasser told me, would be ‘gevaldig.’”
In a moving speech during the chuppah, Rav Babad also touched upon the symbolic juxtaposition. “In 1990, when Jews were allowed to emigrate from Russia, everyone fled,” Rav Babad said. “Everyone except for Meylakh. He couldn’t bear to abandon the kevarim of the illustrious gedolim whose remains are buried here. He made a conscious decision to stay when everyone else left in order to honor the dead. I am therefore certain that the neshamos of all these tzaddikim are here with us tonight, celebrating at this momentous chasunah. They owe Meylakh a great debt, as do we. In light of all his zechusim, surely they will bless Meylakh with future doros—which he so richly deserves.”
Up until now, most of Meylakh Sheykhet’s prime years had been dedicated to helping restore Jewish life in Lviv and Ukraine. Now, at the age of 66, he has finally been given the opportunity to build his. L’chaim!
Author’s note: Reb Meylakh, who steers clear of anything that might be associated with gaavah, has never given an interview to a heimishe magazine before, although there are myriad secular publications that have run glowing accounts of his work. However, he granted me this interview because of three different factors: His fervent hope that this story will give chizzuk to older singles; his desire to be makir tov to the various individuals who unstintingly gave him moral, material and legal support all these years; and his concern that people in other countries where Jewish cemeteries lie neglected or forgotten be infused with the resolve that they, too, can and should redress this matzav. During our fifth conversation (two weeks after his chasunah), Reb Meylakh had just returned from Vizhnitz, where he was, baruch Hashem, able to restore the Ohel of the Vizhnitzer Rebbes.