On a recent week long visit to Lviv in western Ukraine I was able to rent an apartment in the old city center. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this elegant historic area acts as the cultural and touristic heart of the city. The interior of the apartment had been renovated and modernized. It contained all the creature comforts a person might need: a flat screen television (which I never turned on), a clothes washer, coffee maker, large living/bedroom. It was ultra-modern, with new paint, sparkling floors and a veneer of refinement. The apartment was located in what for centuries had been the Jewish section of the old town. I was reminded of this when I flung open the windows overlooking Bratan Rohatynsiv Street. My attention was drawn to a vacant lot, where along an opposite wall were the outlines of what had once been the famed Golden Rose Synagogue. Built by an Italian architect during the Renaissance, the synagogue had provided spiritual sustenance for Lviv’s Jews over a 350 year period. Tragically its storied existence mattered little to the Nazis who in 1941 stole its reliquaries and then during the summer of 1943 blew it up.
Subliminal Reactions – The Jews of Lviv
At the moment of destruction, the Golden Rose started a new existence, as an open wound and a place of memory. The area surrounding it still stands and is constantly being tidied up, restored, reconstructed and transformed, but the Golden Rose site still lies empty with a scant, few remnants of its former glory. Every day I opened the window and looked out at the void, a disturbing reminder of all that had been lost. Then I turned around and looked at the polished, shiny surfaces of my accommodation. This was reality, a sublimely disconcerting one. The Irish philosopher Edmund Burke defined the sublime as a feeling of astonishment ‘‘in which all [the soul’s] motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.’’ That pretty much summed up my emotions. Feelings such as these, when it comes to the fate of Lviv’s Jewish population during the war, are virtually impossible to come to terms with.
Jews played an outsized role in the history of Lviv. They were merchants and traders in the city ever since it was founded in the mid-13th century. Their commercial activities were vital to the city’s economy. They were also heavily involved in the cultural and religious life of the city. During the 19th century their numbers began to grow exponentially. By 1930 the city’s Jewish population had swelled to one hundred thousand, accounting for nearly a third of the city’s population. Following the outbreak of World War II with the German invasion of Poland, tens of thousands of Polish Jews escaped the Nazis by fleeing eastward to Lwow (the Polish name for Lviv). The city had also been occupied by the Soviet Union. By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, it is estimated that the number of Lwow’s Jewish inhabitants had doubled to 220,000. Just eight days after Operation Barbarossa began, in the late afternoon of June 30, 1941, German troops arrived in the city. Their occupation of the city would last until July 26, 1944. For Lwow’s Jewish community, this occupation was nothing short of an apocalypse.
Remnants of an Apocalypse – The Existence of Non-Existence
During the three years of German occupation, the Jewish population of the city plummeted from 220,000 to just over 800. Put another way Lviv lost 99.6% of its Jewish population. The overriding majority of Lviv’s Jews were either murdered in pogroms, concentration camps or worked to death as slave labor. The scale of the crimes committed is a direct reflection of the Holocaust in the borderlands of the Soviet Union, where more than a million Jews were murdered, mostly by machine gun. This has been termed the “Holocaust by Bullets.” The human destruction was mirrored by physical destruction of Jewish cultural landmarks, namely synagogues. The Nazis destroyed no less than 42 synagogues in the city, including the Golden Rose. Centuries of Jewish life in the city was obliterated during the three years of German occupation. What survived often ended up being paved or plowed over by Soviet development during the post-war years. Markets now sit atop historic Jewish cemeteries and new residents live in neighborhoods that were once all Jewish.
And yet there are still remnants both living and vanished of Jewish life in Lviv. There are a couple of active synagogues providing support to the 1,100 Jews that today call the city home. The most enduring presence of Jewish culture in Lviv are the shockingly poignant ruins and open spaces on the sites of once famous Jewish landmarks that have yet to disappear beneath development. The most famous of these is the site of the Golden Rose synagogue. In a city once filled with synagogues this was the most famous, prominent and venerable. Despite the Nazis efforts, its destruction was never quite complete. Today some of the north wall remains, along with Hebrew inscriptions and other faint traces. The emptiness of the vacant lot at the site is an arresting reminder of what once was and in a sense always will be the epicenter of both Jewish existence and non-existence in Lviv.
Voices From Beyond The Grave – In The Words of Vasily Grossman
My visit to the site of the Golden Rose left me with a feeling of tragic ambivalence. It was hard to know what to make of the near totality of the destruction of Lviv’s Jewish heritage. I am at a loss for words to explain the feelings and thoughts I had on a Thursday afternoon, with fog and chill enveloping much of the city. I wandered across the site, took photos and pondered both what was left and what was not. Because words fail me I am leaving it to my photos and the words of Vasily Grossman, the famed Jewish author from Soviet Ukraine who wrote what is perhaps the greatest novel of World War II, Life and Fate, to provide interpretation of the feeling evoked by the site of the Golden Rose. Grossman’s writing often deals with the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, the nature of totalitarianism and the individual’s search for hope and meaning when confronted by evil. I find Grossman’s words (though they are not specifically referring to Lviv’s Jewish community) to encapsulate the experience of a visit to the Golden Rose and its remnants.
Click here to see Traces Of The Golden Rose Synagogue– Beyond the End of a History in Lviv (Part Two – Photos) with pictures taken by the author at the site of the Golden Rose accompanied by quotes from Vasily Grossman’s novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows.