By Barbara Lewis | JN The Jewish News
A monument now marks a mass grave of Ukrainian Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
Photo by Andrey Marushchak: Alex Goldis stands beside a monument he and his family commissioned to honor the lives of thousands of Jews, including his grandparents, murdered in mass graves in his hometown of Zhitomir, Ukraine.
Alex Goldis remembers going on field trips as a student in Zhitomir, Ukraine, where he was born. He didn’t realize then that his grandparents, along with thousands of other Jews killed during the Holocaust, were buried just across the road.
In December, Goldis, 69, of Bloomfield Hills traveled to Zhitomir for a religious ceremony to unveil a memorial to those murdered Jews — a memorial he and his family designed and funded. The unveiling was attended by four rabbis from Jerusalem, the chief rabbi of Europe, Zhitomir’s chief rabbi and Jewish community members. An official public opening of the memorial will take place May 19.
Zhitomir was a distinguished Jewish community in western Ukraine. More than 10,000 of the city’s 40,000 Jews were exterminated by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators between 1941 and 1943. More Jews left starting in the late 1970s, when the Soviet Union allowed Jews to emigrate. By 1992, only about 500 were left, Goldis said. Now, under the leadership of Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm and his wife, Esther, the community has regrown to about 5,000.
For decades, there was no official recognition that the mass graves at the site contained Jewish bodies. In 1978, Goldis unsuccessfully petitioned the Soviet government to install a marker. He left Zhitomir soon afterward and resettled in the Detroit area. He met and married his wife, Cheryl, here.
With Cheryl, Goldis established a successful manufacturers’ representative firm, Alexander Associates Inc., serving the automotive industry. His son Jason and daughter-in-law Arica will assume ownership of the Bloomfield Hills company in 2021. Alex and Cheryl also have two daughters, Jaclyn of Tel Aviv and Susan Goren of Mexico City.
Goldis never forgot about those mass graves. In 2013, he and his family decided to fund and build a memorial. To design it, he hired the Southfield architectural firm Neumann/Smith, which designed Michigan’s Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. He also worked with a Zhitomir architect, Valery Golovatenko, who secured the necessary local government permits and approvals.
The word “challenging” doesn’t begin to describe the six-year process of supervising a project on the other side of the world, Goldis said.
“Six years, three Skype conference calls every week, and a multitude of government bureaucracy and construction hurdles had to be overcome on the path to completion of the Zhitomir Holocaust Memorial,” he said.
The memorial, which covers about 4,000 square feet and includes a 12-foot-high marker, was dedicated in memory of Goldis’ mother, Khana bat Israel, who came to Detroit in 1979, but died just nine months later. Her parents, Azriel and Itta Shpiegel, were among those buried at the site.
The marker has a verse from the biblical prophet Jeremiah in Hebrew, Ukrainian and English: “O that my head would stream with water and my eyes a fountain of tears. They would cry day and night for the slain of my people.”
Goldis said, “Now, 78 years after the Nazis marched thousands of Zhitomir Jews into the forest to be murdered, I am proud that the memorial stone honors their memories and ensures that their final resting site remains a lesson on the perils of evil and anti-Semitism.
“The Zhitomir Jewish community is now beginning to flourish,” Goldis said. “Nonetheless, due to the war on Ukraine’s eastern border, many Jewish refugees are seeking shelter in Zhitomir, causing a huge strain on the community. Orphans, Jewish day schools and the aging population demand resources, which are very scarce.”
While Goldis and his family covered the cost of the memorial, they are raising funds to help the financially distressed Jewish community of Zhitomir.
Donations can be made online at fjc-fsu.org/centers/ukraine/zhitomyir or by check mailed to the Federation of Jewish Communities of the CIS, 445 Park Ave., 9th Floor, New York, NY 10022. Specify that the donation is for Zhitomir.