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The mysterious house where a sukkah was part of the ceiling

What Jewish secrets are concealed by the luxurious Kiev mansion of 19th century magnate Simkha Liberman?

Bankovaya Street in Kiev is regularly mentioned in the news. The President’s Secretariat is located there, the ambassadors of various countries go there, and it was this street, right in the center of the capital, that became the epicenter of meetings and one of the places where barricades were put up in the days of revolution. The unremarkable house where Bankovaya starts became the silent witness of many fateful events, political changes and visits by diplomats. Local residents have long been accustomed to calling it the House of Writers. But the Jewish population knows that this is a truly Jewish house, the mansion of Simkha Liberman, a magnate of the 19th century.

People who do not know the history of this old house walk past and don’t even think about looking at it more attentively. In Kiev there are plenty of houses that look like this mansion. And only people who go inside will fall in love with this mansion forever. From the street is seems to be a completely unremarkable building, but inside it’s a real palace. Just imagine that over a hundred years there were dozens of owners, but the luxurious interior has remained in its original state. Despite the Ukrainian tradition of taking “all the best things to the dacha”, none of the employees of the dozens of organizations that were located here at various times took away the rare fireplace or removed the plaster to make a modern vaulted ceiling, and even the door handles remain in their original form. Every detail is important here, for the entire house is a single organism, planned down to the millimeter, and where every room has its own features...

Guests of the capital have been taken on guided tours here for years, but not all the rooms in the house are open to visitors – entry to some areas is strictly forbidden! Of special interest to Jewish historians is the secret room with the moveable ceiling, specially made by order of the head of the family, Simkha Liberman. He was a religious Jew, and designed one room of the house so that it could be converted into a real sukkah. Jewish historians have been trying to get into this room for years, in order to study the unique heritage of the Kiev Jew.

The Liberman family home has been amazing people for over 130 years with its magnificence, and excites the imagination with the mysterious and intricate stories of its distinguished owners. But first things first…

The first owner of the house was not Simkha, but he was the one who made it unique

In 1878, Fyodor Trepov, a retired Petersburg city official, was forced to flee to Kiev. He was given land for building on right in the city center. Trepov did not economize on the design of the future house and invited the most famous architect at the time, Vladimir Nikolaev (his works are familiar to us: the building of the National Philharmonia in Kiev, the statue of Bogdan Khmelnitsky, the Okhmatdet hospital that is renowned to this day), designed his future mansion. The house had living quarters in the basement. Several years later Fyodor Trepov died. The mansion was inherited by one of his four sons, the father’s favorite, colonel Fyodor Fyodorovich Trepov. Settling with his family in the basement quarters, he rented out the upper floor. And this was not surprising – as soon as he moved into his father’s house, for some reason Trepov Junior took out a loan of over 27 years with the property on Bankovaya as a deposit. For the entire mansion he was given 42,500 rubles. According to the documents that have survived, the initial plan of the building can be seen, in the form of the upside down letter ‘L”, and all of the rooms are also described. The house was less than half the size than it is now, and much simpler.

The second life of the house on Bankovaya

After he was promoted to higher position of governor-general, Fyodor Trepov sold the mansion in 1898 to Simkha Liberman. At that time the new owner was already one of the ten richest people in Kiev. His father, Itska Liberman, gave his only son a good start, leaving him an inheritance of around 100,000 rubles in silver. After earning the honorary title of merchant of the 1st guild, Simkha Itskovich Liberman, the owner of several sugar factories, decided to redesign the house according to the requirements of his family and his status. He invited the first architect of the house, Vladimir Nikolaev, and asked him to rebuild the mansion. And the architect turned the ordinary house into a real palace with luxurious décor, in accordance with all the religious requirements. Every corner was thought out down to the smallest detail. With Jewish economy, Simkha Itskovich moved the accounting department of his three sugar factories and managers’ offices to the first floor of the mansion. Incidentally, in future his sons became the managers. After the side left-wing was built, and the entrance was residence, the house acquired its final form of the “family jewel” – now the building took the form of the letter “W”.

Jews built many buildings in Kiev and financed the city

It should be noted that at that time in Kiev there was a boom in both industry and construction. The Ukrainian capital was an important trade and industry center, and in the early 20th century around 130 sugar companies were concentrated here. Just imagine, at that time, without any funds from the state budget, Kiev was built on the taxes from the sugar business. In this way, the hospitals that stand to this today were built, along with educational institutions, hospices and roads. From donations from the sugar kings, churches, theaters and markets were built. For example, the well-known Bessarabian bazaar was built on the money of the sugar factory owner Lazar Brodsky.

In the late 19th-early 20th century, the neo-Renaissance style was very popular in the design of buildings and residential houses, it was a sign of good taste… In Kiev, over 20 mansions of rich sugar factory owners have been preserved who were connoisseurs of this style. At that time in Europe this grandiosity was no longer popular.

The house that was called a “gingerbread” house (delicious and sweet)

Receiving a good income from his three sugar factories, Simkha Liberman could allow himself to design his properties in royal style. The old mansion on Bankovaya took on a new lease of life after reconstruction. For his large family, with three children – Aria-Gersh, Israel and his daughter Perla (who was married and had her own children), Liberman spared nothing. In the design of each room, the requirements of all the people in the home were taken into account, as well as practically. Central heating no longer surprises anyone nowadays, but there was steam heating in the home at that time, and it was installed in the walls! This was one of the special orders of Simkha – to make the house warm, unique stoves were created for it. The pipes mounted in the walls warmed the mansion with its high ceilings, and maintained a pleasant micro-climate even in severe frosts. At the same time, when many people could only bathe in hot water on holidays, the Libermans could have baths whenever they wanted. The colored structural tiles on the Dutch ovens were made individually, with large thematic pictures, and also with a depiction of the Liberman family tree in some places.

Among the materials used for creating this fairytale interior, gilt, bright metal and precious stones were used… It is no less surprising that the authentic furniture has partially been preserved, which was also made to order, as part of the unified composition of each of the rooms of this house.

The greatest mystery of Simkha’s house, only understandable to Jews

Simkha was religious, so all sorts of Jewish symbols and signs on the plasterwork of the walls, ceilings and ovens became an integral part of the interior of his home. For example, in many rooms on the ceiling there is an eye, which signifies the “All-seeing eye”, protection from the evil eye.

The most mysterious thing to this day is the unique moveable ceiling on the second floor of the mansion. According to the current occupants of the house, the Writers’ Union, the ceiling was discovered quite accidentally, when it collapsed during a meeting. Previously the members of the Union had wondered why it was always cold in this room. They attributed it to the old heating, but could not find any malfunction. After the ceiling collapsed, they realized that only boards served as a roof, or rather bamboo. This surprised them, because the house was built solidly and thoroughly. These unknowing people could not guess that it had been planned in this way from the beginning. The religious Jew Simkha loved his house so much that even on the holiday of Sukkot he did not want to leave it. Every autumn, the ceiling was dismantled, the bamboo was moved and the room was turned into a real sukkah. As is appropriate for Jews, for a whole week the entire family ate and slept under the stars and the view of the Creator. The autumn ritual was hidden from curious eyes, but at the same time the family members carried it out strictly according to the canons.

Prosperity, but with tzniut

The life of the Jewish family was quiet and very modest. Despite the inner luxury of the mansion, no one held balls here, so only a chosen few could see the magnificent interior. Historians say that the family practically led a reclusive life for those times: they didn’t visit people often, and only invited a few close friends to visit. But why did the Libermans need this? To use the modern terminology, the office was in the house, the beloved family was there too, and even a separate room for prayer was located right in the house. So people only visited Simkha on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.

But let’s return to the house. The interior décor of each room was also distinguished by particular luxury. The first thing that even the uninitiated notice was that none of the compositions in the decoration of the walls and ceiling were alike. The abundance of gold, but also the white, green and blue colors made it easier to appreciate the plasterwork of the luxurious halls. The richness of the decor amazes us with its magnificence and unusualness to this day. Liberman only gathered works of the finest artisans in his palace – he reflected an entire era of this style of design.

Different houses

Time went by. As they grew up, the children began to make their own plans for life. Simkha’s beloved daughter married a famous Jew, the Kiev merchant of the 1st guild Abram Geldblyum. The father gave the young family an entire floor in his house. The two sons Ariya-Gersh and Israel moved away from their father’s house, but not very far – they moved in opposite, to Institutskaya Street. This mansion is also famous for its history and amazing architecture. In the 1870s, the house was purchased by Grishko Simkhovich, who worked as a manager at one of his father’s three factories. The building has two floors, in the eclectic style, with elements of neo-Renaissance and neo-Baroque. The first floor, which contained 12 residential rooms, rooms for servants, corridors and a kitchen, was rented out by the enterprising young Libermans to the General’s wife Benois for 6,000 rubles a year. The décor of the house was no less impressive than the décor of Liberman Senior’s mansion. It had the same plasterwork on the ceilings, rusticate walls, a parade staircase, cornices and magnificent door handles. Surprisingly enough, both mansions of this family are still standing today, untouched by time and people.

The history of the tragic death of the Liberman family members

After the tragic death of the head of the family Simkha Liberman on 17 September 1917, a dark time began for all of his relatives. Simkha was killed in his home, and according to official sources it was a banal robbery with murder, but it is unlikely that anyone will ever find out the real reasons for the tragedy today. The Kiev district court divided the rights to the mansion between Simkha’s three children. But in that year, the mansion was occupied by the counter-intelligence service of the Kiev military district headquarters. Appreciating the beauty of the palace, the Kiev military district commissar moved in.

Two years after the first tragedy, on 6 October 1919, not far from the house Simkha’s eldest son was also killed. The times were troubled ones – according to witnesses, he was killed for his… fashionable shoes. The only mention of this is a brief note in a newspaper. Jewish mystics interpret the reason for the murder differently, with many explanations involving the alterations and the “gingerbread house” itself, but we won’t discuss them. Only one thing is certain: the traditional Jewish mourning ritual for Simkha’s elder son was held in the home synagogue.

Nothing more is known about the family, and further events unfolded without the real owners.

A house without a master

After the death of the religious Jews in the house, the occupants constantly changed. For the next half century, no one could stay there for long. In 1922, the headquarters of the military censorship of state political department of the Kiev Military District moved in. Some of the furniture from that time – the heavy tables and chairs – are preserved in the studies of the mansion, as a reminder of that troubled and difficult time. Later, in 1929-30, the commanders were replaced by the children’s hospital Okhmatdet, and the N.K Krupskaya kindergarten for the children of the unemployed. Photos have been preserved from that time which were taken by the husband of the renowned Ukrainian poetess Lesya Ukrainka. After the capital of Ukraine moved from Kharkov to Kiev, in 1934, the mansion was occupied by the Council of People’s Commissioners of the Ukrainian Republic. Until recently, the Soviet coat-of-arms adorned the entrance to the building. It is noteworthy that at the same time, in the house itself the monogram of Simkha remained untouched all this time. The initials of the true owner can still be seen – for example, on the staircase inside the house.

Before the Second World War, this Jewish building seemed to attract many Soviet officials, who would subsequently be responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. For example, the Stalin Commissariat of propaganda and agitation was housed here. But it didn’t stay for long… After the war the committee for issues of art under the Ukrainian SSR council of ministers moved into the mansion. And from the mid-1950s to this day, the Ukrainian Writers’ Union has been “registered” here.

Writers did not make alterations to the house either. When did beauty and luxury ever hinder anyone from creating? In the 60 years of their occupancy at the Liberman mansion, writers have not only left a mark in Ukrainian literature, but on the walls of the building. The rooms of the house are decorated with the portraits of national classics. Maxim Rylsky and Pavel Zagrebelny worked here, and Ivan Drach, Lin Kostenko and others started their creative careers here. In the basement of the building the “Enei” Art Café was located for over 30 years, where writers would gather in the evenings.

Simkha’s prayers protect the house

As the building has been the official dwelling of writers for long decades, Simkha Liberman’s house is popularly known as the House of Writers.

Time has spared this pearl of architecture and left the incredible history of a Jewish religious family for future generations. The historical mansion draws our admiration and awe with its majesty, just as it did over a century ago. Every corner in the building reminds us of the time when there was a real master in this house.

Liberman successfully combined luxury and harmony. The prayer house where the large Jewish family once lived, loved, and prayed became part of the Jewish heritage of Kiev, which has yet to be studied in full. We do not have a single Siddur left from Simkha, but his house, which survived in spite of it all and in defiance of everything is more evidence of the power of prayer.
We would like to thank the Kiev History Museum for providing materials.

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