An Hour & A World Apart – Return To Lviv (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe Tour Part Six)

The Golden Horseshoe Tour was all but over except for the drive back to Lviv. I was looking forward to a smooth and relaxing ride back to the city. What was I thinking? My expectations of Ukrainian highways had improved after we took the E40 from Lviv to Olesko, a recently resurfaced road in excellent condition. The same could not be said for the highway we returned on, the H02, the main route between Lviv and Ternopil. Our bus driver did his best to navigate the small craters pockmarking the highway. The shock absorbers on the bus were of little use as the vehicle bounced and slammed around the entire way back. There were a few brief and baffling respites, where the pavement was suddenly smooth for a kilometer. I noticed that such areas looked to have been totally repaved. It was as though the embezzlers of transport funds had decided to steal only 90% of the road improvement money. Maybe they had a bit of shame, then again it was probably the best way not to get caught stealing. The few smooth stretches of blacktop were evidence of a barely concealed cover up. Of course I was making assumptions, but no honest politician could inflict such a road on their constituents. And this was in Lviv Oblast, which was one of the best run provinces in Ukraine. I shuddered to think what the roads must be like in the rural eastern areas of Ukraine.

On The Road - The Lion Awaits in Lviv

On The Road – The Lion Awaits in Lviv

Beyond The Most Dangerous Place In The World –  Back To Normal
Several times I noticed that quaint symbol of rural backwardness, the horse drawn wagon cart, plying side roads. There was one memorable and terrifying scene that involved a cart crossing the main highway we were traveling along. Traffic was moving along at well over 100 kph, despite the severe road induced jolts. On the edge of a small village, a wagon cart was stopped while waiting to cross a road that bisected the highway. As soon as there was a small opening in traffic, the wagon driver lashed his whip furiously, urging the horses forward. They frantically went into action, making a furious dash across the road, while the driver continued cracking his whip. The wagon made it across in time, but if anything had gone wrong, the resulting accident would have been deadly.  It was an unforgettable scene of crazed courage.  Fortunately our bus driver navigated all the unexpected road hazards with skill. I marveled at his ability to stay calm despite the nerve wracking obstacles he was forced to deal with.

A feeling of sadness swept over me at the tail end of the Golden Horseshoe Tour. Everything I had looked forward to with this tour had come to an end. I would likely never pass this way again. This was a part of the world relatively difficult for me to access, due to time and travel constraints. What I had seen and learned on this tour today was already becoming part of the past. Soon this experience would be little more than a memory. What would I remember? What would I take away? While the castles were fascinating, my most memorable experience was going on a tour where I was unable to verbally communicate with anyone. This had allowed me to take notice of the countryside, villages and highways, the state of this land at a unique moment in time. My awareness of the surrounding area was heightened. For many years I had been fascinated by western Ukraine, an area that I had studied as part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. It had been known for misery and starvation, but it was now almost a century since the empire’s collapse and the catastrophe of two World Wars. An argument could be made that during the first half of the 20th century, this land had been the most dangerous place in the world. Today, the countryside looked surprisingly normal. The past was just that, past. Life and death moved on.

Back to normal - in Lviv and western Ukraine

Back to normal – in Lviv and western Ukraine (Credit: Jan Melich)

The Land Of Getting By – On The Downside
I knew there was poverty all around here, but it was rural poverty which is deceptively benign. Even the poorest usually live in houses. They still have their gardens out back and chickens running wild in the yard. Poverty out here can lead to alcoholism, but also to self-sufficiency. This was the land of getting by, of headscarves and kerchiefs, horse drawn wagon carts and stray dogs. Rural western Ukraine looked much the same as rural Romania and more prosperous than the countryside of Bulgaria. It may not have been rich, it may not have been part of the European Union, but it was Eastern European for sure. Time moved forward here, but at a very slow and deliberate pace. The endemic corruption in Ukraine that I had read so much about, it was only noticeable here by the quality of the roads. People went about their business like anywhere else in Europe.

As for my fellow tour participants, the young man beside me had warmed up significantly, at one point offering up his window seat so I could get a better vantage point on the countryside. By the end of the ride back I was getting a few nods and half smiles out of him. We had the shared experience of being pariahs or at least feeling that way. The tour guide performed a minor miracle by not talking much on the way back even though she did not look a bit fatigued. Every hair was in place, the deep black eyes still burning holes in whatever was in her line of sight. Her facial expression belied an incredible intensity. Despite being unable to understand a word she said, I knew she took her work seriously. She looked ready and willing to do the tour all over again that very day if the situation had demanded it. The same could not be said for the passengers, a melancholic silence had descended upon the bus. This was different from the reverential silence everyone had displayed at the beginning of the tour. The journey was nearing its end. Now it was back to Lviv, back to home or work and in my case back to a few more days of vacation. Everyone was on the downside, with their thoughts fixed on the future. Our day together was now as much a part of history as what we had seen and learned about on the tour.

The Road Is Always Open - Lviv

The Road Is Always Open – Lviv (Credit: Lidiya Vezdenko)

Looking Forward, Looking Backward – The Difference Between Us
As soon as we got into Lviv, a restless stirring began in anticipation of the final stop. People collected their belongings, kids squirmed in their seats and the bus inched its way through the late afternoon traffic. Lviv looked vaguely familiar, but felt very different. The bus halted at the curb just outside the old City Arsenal, the doors flew open. As I made my way to the exit, I turned around one last time to look at everyone and thought to myself, I will never see these people again. Then suddenly I was standing on the corner of a busy street. Lviv was the same city as before, but my perspective had changed. The Golden Horseshoe Tour, with its castles and sleepy countryside had little in common with Lviv. I had never noticed just how much energy was in the city, until I had experienced the surrounding rural hinterland. The contrast between the two was stark. The city at rush hour was moving with energy and dynamism, people were everywhere. The countryside had been stagnant and backward looking. Both places were in the same nation, the same region, the same oblast. They were only an hour and a world apart.

Some Like It Not – Billy Wilder: Fame, Fortune & Fate (From Galicia To Hollywood To The Holocaust)

“To know me, you must think of me in terms of what Austria was like in 1906, when I was born. Austria in those days was a huge monarchy of 56 million people – the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The monarchy seemed indestructible.”– Billy Wilder

One of Hollywood’s greatest movie directors, Billy Wilder, came from a land far away from the sun baked streets and glittering fame of southern California. He was born Samuel Wilder in 1902, the second son of Max and Eugenia Wilder in the town of Sucha, located in the northern reaches of the Carpathian Mountains. The area was then part of the Austro-Hungarian crown land known as the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria. The Wilders were Jewish and like many of their ethnic kin in the area made a living in trade. Their son Billy (his mother is said to have nicknamed him Billy after the famous Wild West showman Buffalo Bill Cody) would follow in the footsteps of so many Galician Jews by eventually immigrating abroad, first within Europe and later to the United States. In Hollywood, Wilder would enjoy an amazing run of success with hit films such as Double Indemnity, Sunset Strip and Some Like It Hot. When it came to Galicia though, Billy Wilder was part of a human wave of Galician immigrants that might best be summed up as “Some Like It Not” concerning their homeland. Over a million Galicians fled abroad in search of opportunity and success, the kind which Wilder found in Hollywood. Yet those early years in Galicia had a long lasting effect upon the way he saw people and drama. It provided fertile ground for Wilder’s later creative instincts. For it was in the wilds of Galicia that he had his first encounters with the dark, duplicitous side of human affairs.

Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder (Credit: Norman Seeff)

Human Natures – Childhood In Galicia
The village of Sucha, Austria-Hungary (present day Sucha Beskidza, Poland) was transformed by the coming of the railroad during the latter part of the 19th century. The state-owned Galician Transversal Railway arrived in 1884, placing a railway station at the village. The line ran just north of the Carpathians, connecting the villages and towns it ran through with the wider world. The railway turned out to be a double boon for Sucha. While the main line ran east-west, at Sucha a branch line was also constructed heading north to the city of Krakow. The village thus became a vital railway junction. Travelers changing trains spent hours at the station. They could also now travel in comfort and with ease to enjoy the natural beauty of the Carpathians.

The Wilders were able to take advantage of Sucha’s new found prominence, as proprietors of a café and cake shop at the village’s station. Eugenia Wilder’s family (the Baldingers) also owned a resort hotel in the area. It was here that Wilder first learned about the less desirable traits of humanity. In an interview given later in life, he remarked on his childhood experiences in the hotel, “I learned many things about human nature – none of them favorable.” What he must have witnessed and sensed as an impressionable young boy at the resort can only be imagined, but it also provides an explanation for the moral ambiguity and satirical wit that was characteristic of his films. Wilder learned to view people with a lens filtered through cynicism and mistrust.

Sucha, Austria-Hungary - railway yard and station

Sucha, Austria-Hungary – postcard showing railway yard and station from World War I

“I Can’t Remember Anything About It”
The best thing that ever happened to Billy Wilder in Galicia was the day he left it. This was both the saving and making of his life. He had no idea of his future or that of Galicia at the time his parents moved the family to the fading imperial capital. He would complete his schooling in Vienna and take up a career in tabloid journalism. Soon he moved on to Berlin where he wrote film scripts until the Nazis took power. A short stint in Paris brought him his first work as a director before he left for the United States in 1934. A fortuitous move that ended up leading to a memorable filmmaking career. He would go on to win numerous Academy Awards as both screenwriter and director, while producing a bevy of box office hits.

Unfortunately some members of Wilder’s family, including his mother Eugenia stayed behind in Europe, ending up back in the lands that had once been part of the now vanished Galicia. During the interwar period Galicia had become part of Poland. When the Germans invaded at the start of World War II the eastern Polish lands were subjected to some of the worst excesses of the Holocaust. Later in life, Wilder would refer to what had happened in his homeland when he said, “The town where I was born is still there, but the country is gone. I can’t remember anything about it, but I guess my mother pushed my baby carriage on a street that is called Billy Wilder Avenue or something like that. If I had stayed there, I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.” His mother was murdered in the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp and his grandmother died in the ghetto at Nowy Targ, both were less than 60 kilometers away from Sucha.

Train station in Sucha Beskidzka

Final Call – The present day train station in Sucha Beskidzka (Credit: Nils Öberg)

Lost Worlds
After World War II ended Billy Wilder had another personal encounter with the Holocaust. As reported in his New York Times obituary in 2002 “In postwar Germany, Mr. Wilder was a colonel in the United States Army who oversaw a program that prevented former Nazis from working on films or in the theater. When asked by the director of the traditional Passion play in the town of Oberammergau if a former Nazi, Anton Lang, could play Jesus, Mr. Wilder responded, ”Permission granted, but the nails have to be real.” This scathing comment was spot-on, but offered little solace for a man who had seen the destruction of several members of his family along with his entire country. Billy Wilder was one of a kind, so was the Galicia he had known and that had vanished forever.