Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Lviv and Lwow

with 3 comments

by David

Lviv Opera House

Today was a day of contrasts in a city with many names. Today, it is Lviv, a Ukrainian city. Before World War II, it was Lwow, a Polish city. Before WWI, though still Polish, it was officially  Lemberg, a city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And all the while, until the Second World War, it had a large Jewish minority, many of whom called it Lemberik in Yiddish. These name changes, though, only scratch the surface of the city’s fascinating and tragic history.

The city long had a Ukrainian presence, and the oldest church building, St. Nicholas, is Orthodox, dating to the 1200s. But for most of the past few centuries, Poles dominated numerically and culturally. In the late 18th century, when Poland was partitioned 3 ways, the city fell into the hands of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Through World War I, it remained mostly Polish, with a small Ukrainian minority, and a much larger Jewish minority. After the war, Poland became a nation, and though the Ukrainian population increased, they still remained the city’s third ethnic group, and the least important culturally. Then the Nazis came and murdered all the Jews, and then Stalin came and expelled all the Poles. Today, the city is almost entirely Ukrainian (with a small Russian minority), its ties to its past severed.

We hired a guide for the day, a superbly knowledgeable and friendly Ukrainian named Alex. The goal was to see mostly Jewish Lwow, but not to neglect the rest of the city. I thought of my recent discovery that my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, had attended Kazimierz University in Lwow from 1922 to 1926. My grandmother, Irene Weinfeld (nee Altstock) had been born and raised in the city. He was 12 years older than her, and they only met in 1944, after Poland had been liberated by the Soviets. But I imagine that they might have talked about beautiful Lwow in their courtship period. My wife, Julie, reminded me that our courtship was similar: we both graduated Harvard in 2005, but only met in New York a couple of years later. But we already had much to talk about, friends and places and memories in common, and that made the romancing all the smoother.

Me at the Remains of Lwow's Rose Synagogue

Thus, despite my unease at being in Ukraine, I felt excited to see the city that may have helped bring my grandparents together. Hiring a guide was the right decision, as seeing Jewish Lwow is more difficult that it sounds. We walked through the cobblestone streets, and stopped at parks  and outdoor markets and decaying remnants of buildings where synagogues once stood. We saw a Jewish hospital, now simply a hospital with Stars of David adorning it. We saw doors that had once been entrances to Jewish shops, with the mezuzahs long stripped away. We saw the apartment where the famous Yiddish poet Sholem Aleichem lived, for a year in the early 20th century, en route to New York. Some of the places were marked with plaques. Others were not. Some of the plaques’ English text contained numerous spelling mistakes. Occasionally, the words “synagogue” or “Jewish community” in the Ukrainian text were scratched out.

Historian Omer Bartov wrote a book called Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present Day Ukraine. I haven’t read it, but the title says it all. Unlike in Poland, Ukraine has not made any effort to come to terms with, or even really acknowledge its Jewish past. According to Alex, the typical Ukrainian resident of Lviv probably has no idea that his or her city had once been a third Jewish.

Poland has not entirely exorcised its antisemitism, past or present. But they are trying. The rejuvenation of the Jewish neighbourhood in Cracow, the construction of the Jewish museum in Warsaw, the clear, beautiful monuments to the Jewish past throughout the country, the inclusion of Jews in Polish museums such as that commemorating Polish events such as the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, all point to this change in the right direction, a change towards objectivity in looking at the past, a change toward healing. In the essay that concluded his magisterial Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that acknowledging and coming to terms with your antisemitic past, or at least beginning to do so, was the entry ticket into the European Union. Poland has done it. I believe Lithuania has done it. Ukraine has not.

Nonetheless, the city charmed me. We went from site to site, of the vanished Jewish past, but I imagined that my grandparents may have attended those synagogues, shopped at those shops, walked on those streets. We visited the university, now called the Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, teeming with young Ukrainian students, and I imagined my grandfather in those same buildings. We went to several spectacular churches, pointing to the remaining religious diversity still present in Ukraine: from ornate Catholic churches to the dark, mysterious and beautiful houses of worship of the Ukrainian Orthodox, to the Greek Catholic cathedrals, somewhere in between. I came to enjoy the city that had made me uneasy just a day before.

After finishing with the main city center, however, our day changed course. We went to the joint Israeli-Ukrainian monument to the Lwow ghetto, a beautiful statue marred by the spelling mistakes on the English plaque. And then we went deeper into the tragedy. My father and I hadn’t planned on visiting any concentration camps when we scheduled our trip to Poland and Ukraine, but like the old saying goes: “When in Rome…”

Alex took us to Janowska concentration camp, one I had never heard of, but where between 80 and 200,000 Jews died. None of the camp buildings remained, though fittingly the site now holds a Ukrainian prison. Outside the prison walls is an empty field. At first, Janowska had been a death camp, but this was in 1941 and early 1942, before the gas chambers. So the Germans machine-gunned their victims in that field, and then had other Jewish prisoners bury their brethren. Jews were sent to the camp from the Lwow ghetto by cable car, on the same tracks that exist today. The camp sat just on the outskirts of town, so there is no question that the nearby residents could hear the gunfire. In 1942, the Nazi leadership discovered that gas chambers were more efficient, and thus used Janowska as a proper concentration camp, sending Jews on train to nearby Belzec death camp, equipped with the newest killing equipment.

My grandmother Irene, who died before my parents got married, claimed to have lost 48 relatives in the Holocaust. It occurred to me that some of those relatives must have died at Janowska or Belzec. My great-grandparents may very well have been gunned down in that same field where I stood today, as the elderly were among the first to be eliminated, while the able-bodied were kept alive to work. After seeing the camp, we went to the train station, which still operates as normal, where Jews had once been rounded up before being sent off to the gas chambers at Belzec. Perhaps my relatives had been sent there as well.

And yet this was not the most powerful moment of the trip. I had been to Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka 12 years ago. I had had enough of death. I preferred the life I saw in Cracow. And that’s why I was glad that the last stop on our trip today was the one synagogue still functioning in Lviv. Formerly a “progressive” or Reform synagogue built in 1931, it was now Orthodox, and run by a Karliner rabbi. Though they had installed a veil to hide the female worshipers according to traditional Jewish practice, the shul’s leaders could not hide its liberal past. Its walls and ceilings remain decorated with exquisite paintings, reminiscent of a Catholic church. Only 3000 Jews remain in Lwow, but they have a beautiful place to go if they need to pray.

And then tonight, we went from spiritual grandeur to kitsch. We ate at the Golden Rose restaurant, sitting next to the battered remains of the Rose Synagogue. Here was the Jewish colonial Williamsburg. The waiters and waitresses greeted all the customers with “shalom.” Jewish music played in the background. Instead of bread, they had matza on the table. Jewish photos and artwork lined the wall. They served kosher wine, and some other “traditional” Jewish dishes like “Jewish style soup” and veal stew with coucous and a hummus spread. Next to those on the menu appeared pork and dairy dishes. The tables were lit with mini-menorahs, with only five candles, but proper menorahs hung on the walls. A television screen played black and white footage of Jewish Lvov in the interwar period.

We nearly went into shock when we saw a waitress present a young female patron with a bin and pitcher with water for netilat yadayim, the traditional washing of the hands before the meal. Was this attractive young shiksa a convert to Judaism? No, as it turned out. They did this for every customer, including us (almost all the customers we saw appeared to be non-Jewish Ukrainians, except for a group of Germans).

Last, and most amazingly, there were no prices on the menu. Instead, patrons bargained with their servers. I am not kidding. We actually bargained, and managed to shave about $20 off the price they suggested.

Perhaps some might find this offensive. Nothing offends me, so I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t really mind the kitsch. Because this restaurant was Lwow’s version of Kazimierz, the Jewish neighbourhood of Cracow that reminded one Jewish historian of Disneyland. Yes, it’s kitsch. But it is still an acknowledgment of the Jewish past. And that, I think, is a step in the right direction.

Nonetheless, Lviv has a long way to go before it achieves the grandeur of Cracow, now a major tourist city. And that problem goes beyond the two cities’ Jewish histories. Cracow remains in Poland. Its residents can be honestly proud of their Polish heritage. Lviv, however, is in Ukraine. Its proudest legacy is Polish and Jewish. For Lviv to emerge on the international scene, its Ukrainian residents must acknowledge, and even celebrate, a past that does not reflect their ethnic background. And I’m not sure that will ever happen.


Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 15:56

3 Responses

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  1. Great post. I’m really enjoying these travel pieces.


    September 14, 2011 at 16:38

    • I love these posts, David.


      September 15, 2011 at 06:55

  2. […] through Eastern Europe, which has led to some pretty good blogging, including posts on the history of towns and the history of […]

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