As It Happens

Toronto lawyer fights for memorial park to be built at Holocaust mass gravesite in Ukraine

Torontonian Mark Freiman has been fighting tirelessly to get local authorities to help turn the site of​ a Holocaust-era mass grave into a memorial park, in the western Ukrainian town of Sambir.

More than 1,200 Jews were shot and buried at a cemetery in the Ukrainian town of Sambir in 1943

One of the large 9-metre Christian crosses that was erected on the mass grave in Sambir, Ukraine. (Alex Shprintsen/CBC)
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A Jewish lawyer from Toronto has been fighting tirelessly to get Ukrainian authorities to properly memorialize a​ Holocaust-era mass grave in the town of Sambir.

On the first day of Passover in 1943, Nazis shot and buried more than 1,200 Jews in the town's old Jewish cemetery — turning it into a site of mass murder.

Efforts were made to memorialize the slain in 2000 — but they were thwarted when three 9-metre-tall wooden Christian crosses were erected around the site in retaliation.

Mark Freiman, whose parents were from Sambir, was in Ukraine this week to observe a ceremony that was supposed to acknowledge the massacre's 75th anniversary, and move the crosses to a nearby Christian cemetery.

But the ceremony didn't happen.

"To put it in the simplest terms, we were unable to find local priests who were willing to officiate at the relocation of the crosses," he told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Toronto lawyer Mark Freiman has family ties to the Jewish cemetery in Sambir, Ukraine, which was turned into a mass gravesite by Nazis during the Holocaust. (CBC)

According to the CBC's Alex Shprintsen, the ceremony had the support of the patriarchs of two leading Christian denominations in Ukraine, but local priests have refused to carry out the directives of their leaders.

Before the Second World War, Sambir was home to about 10,000 Jews — who constituted 35 per cent of the town's population.

"By the end of the war, it was reduced to 100, including my parents," he said. "My family, all the entire extended family save for my mother, my father were killed." 

Video: Watch the CBC documentary, The Secrets of Sambir.

Secrets of Sambir 45:17

Thousands of Jews were taken to the concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen while others were killed in separate events, including the mass shooting in 1943.

In 2000, Canadian-Ukrainian philanthropist Jack Gardner tried to rehabilitate the cemetery and erect a large Star of David monument as a tribute to the Jews buried at the site.

"This infuriated some of the local populace," said Freiman. "They came into the cemetery, destroyed everything that the gentleman had done, and then they erected these giant crosses around the perimeter of the mass grave."

Over the decades, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. Gravestones inscribed with Hebrew litter the site, overgrown with grass and soil. Walls surrounding the area are still pockmarked with bullet holes, as a reminder of the exact place where the town's Jewish residents were shot.

Bullet holes can be seen in one of the walls near the mass burial site. (Alex Shprintsen/CBC)

"It was chilling," said Freiman, recalling the first time he walked through the area. 

"The cemetery was entirely overgrown and neglected. It was waist-high in weeds and the only thing that you saw was these three giant crosses — and I hate to say this, goats and chickens grazing in the cemetery."

Freiman has been working with a group of Jewish and Christian volunteers in Canada and Ukraine to convert the gravesite to a memorial park free of any iconography that could spark further outrage.

"There would be no religious symbols. We would simply honour the memory of victims of Nazism. We would have plaques and explanatory posters that would tell the story," he explained.

One of the 9-metre Christian crosses that were erected on the mass grave site in Sambir, Ukraine. (Alex Shprintsen/CBC)

Freiman blamed local politics on the fact that the Thursday ceremony did not go through as planned.

"There is a struggle going on for power, municipally: who is going to be the mayor? And there are forces that are willing to play on the worst impulses of human nature for the petty prize of a mayoral chair," he said.

He's not giving up, however. Freiman reiterates he has the support of the patriarchs, and several local bishops. He hopes that will be enough to urge local priests in the Sambir area to take action.

"I don't accept that the plan is scuttled. I accept that there are people of bad will who are willing to play on dark forces and prejudice and ignorance in furtherance of whatever goals they have. But I don't accept that we're finished," he said.

One of several tombstones at the mass grave site, inscribed with Hebrew writing. Many have been covered in grass and soil as the site hasn't been maintained in years. (Alex Shprintsen/CBC)

Written by Jonathan Ore with files from Alex Shprintsen. Segment produced by Ashley Mak.