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Lviv and Lwow

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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.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 14, 2011 at 15:56