Only A Name Remains – Staroievreiska: A Hole In The Heart Of Lviv (Lviv: The History of One City Part 50)

Sometimes just a name is enough to stimulate curiosity. A name that sparkles and shines as it rolls off the tongue, a name that makes a spectacle out of sound. All of this and much more comes to mind when that magically evocative word, Staroievreiska is spoken. This street, only one removed from the southern side of Rynok Square in Lviv, has it owns hidden charms and lost tragedies. It is such a pity that visitors pass by or through it with little more than a glance as they rush forth to the more popular attractions of the Old Town. Staroievreiska demands greater recognition than the indifference done to it by thousands each day. But it is less the name that is special, symbolic and tragic, more so the place. What it has been and what it has become explains Staroievreiska’s deceptive allure.

Staroievreiska in Lviv - one of many names that has been given to the street

Staroievreiska in Lviv – one of many names that has been given to the street

Disappearing Acts – Hints Of A Different Past
While the name may evoke beauty, mystery and tragedy, the street that is now called Staroievreiska had a less than eventful beginning. Its earliest history is a bit downtrodden if not disappointing. The first records documenting the streets existence state that it was home to a cattle market, thus it went by the name of Bydleca Street (Bydleca is the Polish word for cattle). This was the first of many names that would change along with the street’s limits throughout the centuries. Today Staroievreiska runs from Mitskevycha Square to Arsenalna Street, making it one of the longest streets in the center of Lviv. This current length is a relatively recent development. Until the latter part of the 19th century it consisted of three separate streets, that all went by different names. Even after it was turned into a single street the names continued to change.  In 1990 Staroievreiska became the ninth and for now, final name of the street.

While evocative, the name also has darker connotations. Literally translated it means “Old Jewish Street.” The street was a thread that wove its way through Lviv’s Jewish life for hundreds of years, until that community was destroyed in the Holocaust. The literal translation of “Old” in the name can be interpreted one of two ways, either as nostalgia or recognition that the Jewish presence is a thing of the past in the area. And Jews were not the only people who once called this street their own and then vanished. The lower end of Staroievreiska (below Halytska street) was once intimately connected with Lviv’s Polish community. Evidence of the Polish presence still abounds at the beginning of Staroievreiska. It is there that a three-story building adorned with busts of famous Polish kings and leaders can be discovered on the side facing Teatralna street. A few steps further up the street stands 3 Staroievreiska, displaying a bas-relief medallion of Poland’s most famous scientific figure Nicolas Copernicus. During the 18th century the buildings from 1 Staroievreiska to 24 Staroievreiska were under the ownership of the Roman Catholic Church, the institution most representative of the Polish state. This presence was, like almost everything else in Lviv’s history, fleeting.

A typical tenement house on Staroievrska street in Lviv

A typical tenement house on Staroievrska street in Lviv (Credit: Сергій Криниця)

The Past Is About The Present – Degrees of Indifference
By the end of the 19th century a newly liberated group of entrepreneurs and businessmen had taken possession of these buildings. Surnames such as Laufer, Reischer, Weinbaum,  Mehrer and Krebs were typical among these new owners. The street was a thread that connected the old and new of Lviv’s Jewish community, the upwardly mobile enterprising individuals with the traditionally religious. There were areas of commerce, places to call home and sacred houses of worship.  The three, four and five story tenement houses that still stand today along the street, once held hundreds of the 80,000 Jewish households to be found in the city prior to the Second World War. The houses would remain, but the inhabitants vanished, into the ghetto, into the camps and into mass graves. The tenements were mere scaffolding that had momentarily held their lives.

The walls that bore witness to this massive human tragedy were solid, silent and indifferent. Today the housing and walls are much the same, though it is doubtful that their current inhabitants have the time or inclination to take notice. There is a great truth to be discovered in this indifference. For the living the past is rarely about the past, it is almost always about the present, about what or what does not remain. Little more than a beautiful and evocative name recalls Jews on this street, there is little else to remember them by. This is certainly the case with the missing memory of Jewish Staroievriska’s architectural and human history. The Nazis did not just aim to destroy the Jewish people. They aimed to destroy anything that might be part of their legacy, to erase them from memory, and render them invisible to history.

The Great Synagogue site in Lviv as it looks today

The Great Synagogue site in Lviv as it looks today (Credit: Дмитрий Ванькевич)

When The Magic Of Memory Is Gone – Who Will Remember Them?
Evidence of this erasure can be found further up the street. The part of Staroievriska bounded by Serbska and Arsenala streets is home to places and spaces that deserve imaginative contemplation. This is only possible with knowledge of what has been lost. The interpretation of emptiness begins at the overgrown lot at Staroievreiska 41. For a century and a half this was the site of a Jewish House of Prayer, known as the Beth Midrash, where intense study of the Talmud took place. Through arched windows light flowed into the interior of the modest Baroque-era building, illuminating a contemplative environment where great minds delved into the inner spirits that inform the soul. The trees, weeds and bushes that mark the space today are the opposite of mystical. They are an affront to wisdom and memory, an unkempt marker of destruction. This natural residue is a reminder that hatred leads to obliteration. It is also a reminder that memory and knowledge can lead to re-creation, if for only a moment.

At 54 Staroievreiska the stardust sprinkled by the street’s name finally disintegrates. The magic is all but gone and only a name remains. This is where the Great City Synagogue was located until it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. This was the nerve center for the city’s Jewish religious life in the 19th and 20th century. Today nothing remains of the building. Sometimes the site is covered in tables and chairs for dinnertime revelers, other times it acts as a de facto car park. The open space can be seen as a powerful metaphor of what has been lost, both physically on the site and in human terms along Staroievreiska, namely a vibrant Jewish community. It seems appropriate that the site of the Great City Synagogue comes at the end of the street. This is tragically symbolic for the end of a magnificent culture that influenced life in Lviv for so many centuries. The site, much like the street, demands an interpretation of emptiness and a translation of sorrow, sadly this is lacking. Perhaps that is for the best, some tragedies defy comprehension. Life goes on, people still live and die on Staroievreiska, who will remember them.

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