Silence in the Rabbi’s Residence

In 2006 I was for the first time in Sadagora (Sadhora in Ukrainian). Since then I have returned almost every year. The formerly independent community is now a suburb of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) and was up to the Romanian and German occupation, the home of a Hasidic rabbinical dynasty and its followers. What remained is a cemetery, the synagogue of the rabbi of Sadagora and his residence. Do these spots of commemoration have a future?

To Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer and nobleman from Lviv (Lemberg, Lwow), whose uncle was a doctor in Czernowitz, we owe a vivid description of Sadagora’s rabbinical court in 1857:

We climbed up the stairs, passed through a hall and found ourselves in a large room in which the ladies of the house were gathered. They were the wife and the daughter of the Tzadik, his daughter-in-law and his niece. I thought I was in the harem of the Sultan of Constantinople. All these women were beautiful, or at least pretty. All looked half surprised, half smiling, with their big, black velvet eyes at us. All were dressed in silk pajamas and long caftans of silk or velvet, which were filled and decorated with precious furs. You could see all the colors and types of fur, yellow and pink silk, green, red and blue velvet, squirrel, ermine, marten and sable. The women wore headbands with precious stones, the girls plaited loafs, interspersed with pearls.

The splendor of the court of the rabbi was a counterpoint to the poverty in the streets of Sadagora and also to middle-class Jewish world of Czernowitz. For Sacher-Masoch, who wrote with great respect about Rabbi Israel Friedman, this world was exotic – as it was probably a few decades later for many assimilated Jews of Czernowitz. The descendants of the Friedman dynasty emigrated to Palestine before the Romanian and German occupation. Until today the title of the rabbi of Sadagora continues to exist in Bnei Brak, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Death of a titleholder and designation of a new rabbi, this is in Israeli newspapers still worth a headline.

The Swiss historian Simon Geissbühler has researched what was happening in the vacuum between the retreating Red Army and the invading German and Romanian units in early July 1941. Local criminals attacked their Jewish neighbors, murdered them, and took over their property. The beginning of the end of the Jewish community in Sadagora.

Anyone who visites Sadagora today, still finds the traces of the past: the Jewish cemetery, the former cheder, the synagogue of rabbi Friedman and the residence of his family.

The cemetery is in relatively good condition. It is fenced, an old man holds the key and unlocks when visitors come. A ohel protects the tombs of the Friedman family.

Synagogue and residence offer a sad scene. Both buildings were integrated in a factory during the Soviet era, the synagogue as a workshop, the residence as an office. Parts of the residence had been demolished. Anyone who compares the current building with old photographs or steel engravings, has difficulties in recognizing it. The factory, to which both buildings belonged went bankrupt after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On my first visit in 2006, the site is still well secured. We face a locked gate. An old lady has observed us and comes over with the key. The condition of the synagogue is staggering. The temporary roof to protect the building would not last long.

In 2008 I return. The temporary roof has collapsed. What remained from the magnificent wall paintings, is damaged by moisture and vandalism. In 2009 the situation is even worse. The door is open, who wants to enter the ground, can do. In the synagogue I find graffiti and broken spirit bottles. 2010, the situation has completely changed. The gate is locked, at the entrance is a container with a security guard. Restoration began. Hasidim have collected money and make use of it. In the next year, parts of the facade are already cleaned and steel frames for the roof are waiting.

In 2012, a sudden turn. The works are at a standstill. It is said that there were disputes between the Hasidim and the local authorities on tax payments for the construction works. This year I enter for the first time the residence of the Sadagora rabbi next to the synagogue.

The interior of the building must have been completely changed. Time has done the rest. Floors and ceilings have partially collapsed. The walls are decorated with wallpaper from the Soviet era. Waste is on the floor. In a wall is a counter, that for sure was not part of the original design. I try to put together what I see with Sacher-Masoch’s description. Impossible. I walk from room to room. Suddenly I realize that the only sounds are from my steps on the rotten floor.  I stop. It’s very quiet. No black velvet eyes are looking at me. The walls do not answer my questions. I leave.

Recent news say the construction works will be continued. We will see.

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