Running Into Problems – The First Morning In Lviv:  Dawning Of A Darkness (Travels In Eastern Europe #48)

On my first morning in Lviv I woke up with one thought on my mind, I was late, late for my morning run. This was understandable since my train from Krakow had not arrived until almost 11:00 p.m. the previous evening. I did not arrive at the hostel until just before the clock struck midnight and did not fall asleep until a couple of hours later. When I awoke it was mid-morning, hours past my usual dawn run time. It took me a good ten minutes just to figure out where I was at, the disorienting sensation of coming into a new country late at night had yet to wear off. It took me minutes just to put on trainers and sweats for the run. As I walked down the stone staircase which exited the hostel I was overcome by fear. An unsettling question suddenly came to mind, what awaited me outside on the streets of Lviv. A ridiculous notion perhaps, but this was my first visit to Ukraine, a land best known for revolutions, endemic corruption and bad governance. What would I find on the other side of the large, wooden door that stood in the way of entry or exit from this building? I had no idea.

Obstacle course - people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Obstacle course – people and traffic dodging in Lviv

Entering A New World – Uncharted Course
When I had arrived the night before, the city was shrouded in a supernatural fog. The taxi I took from the train station to the hostel was consumed by mist, giving me the sensation that I was being led through a mystical tunnel into another world. Now the morning sun was beaming through the windows and I could hear Lviv just beyond the door. Fear and attraction gripped me. I had no planned running route, knew next to nothing about the street patterns or city layout. My goal was to run for an hour. Where this would occur was a mystery to me. I wondered if this might be my final run, if fate would finally catch up to me in Ukraine. Paradoxically, this thought propelled me out the door. Fatalism offers an alternative path to destiny. It was time to enter a new world, one unlike any I had ever known.

The first thing I did was run the wrong way and it would not be the last time. Within 30 seconds I was running in place at a crosswalk on Prospekt Svobody, the pulsing heart of Lviv, surrounded by groups of pedestrians all looking to cross the street. Judging by their dress, the majority of these Lvivians were either on their way to work or school. Most of them managed to ignore the strange looking American in their midst, bouncing up and down to the internal rhythm of exercise. I have scarcely felt so vulnerable, a byproduct of what those around me likely defined as strange or foolish behavior. Prospekt Svobody was a congested mass of people and traffic. There was little hope of trying to make an illicit crossing. I did not trust Ukrainian drivers to slow or stop for me. When the light changed I picked my way through the crowd to the other side. Only to find that I would have to endure several more crossings.

Following An Obsession –  Crossing Over
I could have decided to stay in the center of Prospekt Svobody, running circles around park benches and old men on their morning strolls, but I wanted to find somewhere that provided a bit of privacy. What I needed was a park, what I needed even more was a plan. That should have been the logical first step when I awoke that morning. Unfortunately, logic is often the first casualty of obsession. I made a snap decision to weave my way through the foot traffic and head into the area known as the Halytskyi District. Approaching crosswalks, I used extra caution. The traffic was chaotic and the sidewalks slender. I was the only person mad enough to go jogging in the city during morning rush hour. It took intense concentration to keep from running into pedestrians or getting run over by reckless drivers. I never considered that I was the one being reckless. The entire time I was distracted by the Cyrillic lettering written on signs, buildings and advertisements. Even though I had previously been in Bulgaria and Serbia where Cyrillic was the alphabet of choice, nearly everything I saw that morning in Lviv was written in Cyrillic script. This made Lviv seem more foreign and exotic.

Eventually I began to make the slow climb up Mykoly Kopernyka street. At the time, I was not aware that Lviv’s city center is situated atop a stretch of the Poltva river. Located in a valley which is imperceptible due to the surrounding urban environment. But the further one gets from the center, the more likely they are to encounter hills. I soon spied some greenery which made my pulse race faster, unlike my running pace, which was suffering from travel lag. There was a steeply forested hillside which I hoped would prove to be a park, saving me from eternal sidestepping along Lviv’s slender sidewalks. Unfortunately, the hoped-for park proved elusive as the greenery turned out to be a clump of woods, but I managed to find a rough path. Scrambling up a steep hillside, I nearly plowed over a man attempting to walk his dog on the twenty-five percent incline.

Running into problems - remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running into problems – remnants of The Citadel in Lviv

Running In Circles – Discovering The Citadel: Present & Past
Reaching the summit, I found my way to a clearing occupied by a large brick, circular structure. This was about as good as I was going to get on this run. There was enough of a path that I could run circles around the structure. So that is what I did for the next half an hour. I wondered if this old, worn roundhouse was some sort of obsolete water storage tower. Later I would discover the horrifying truth. The structure was once part of an old Austro-Hungarian imperial fortress known as the Citadel. After the Nazis occupied Lviv (known by its Polish name of Lwow at the time) in the summer of 1941 they used it and other existing buildings within the old fortress to house Soviet prisoners of war who they systematically starved to death. Thousands upon thousands died within the walls that I ran circles around that morning. This was just one of many instances in the deep-rooted darkness of the city’s past. Lviv would turn out to be symptomatic of Ukraine, a place where you can never run away from problems.

The Attraction of Fear – The Path To Warsaw: A Self-Perpetuating Delusion (Travels In Eastern Europe #43)

The seeds of my second trip to Eastern Europe were planted on the first one. While talking with Tim, a travel companion I first met at a hostel in Bulgaria, he mentioned his future European travel plans. He could hardly wait to visit Krakow, as it would be at the same time as the beatification of Pope John Paul II. From there he would travel onward to Ukraine. That caught my attention. Ukraine had been part of the Soviet Union, a place I had never been, but was interested in visiting. “Ukraine? Where are you going in Ukraine?” He said to the city of Lviv, not far from the Polish border. It would be an opportunity for him to see a bit of Ukraine and visit one of the most historic cities in the country. Plus, American citizens did not require a visa to visit Ukraine. At that point, I began to formulate my own plans for a trip to both Krakow and Lviv.  Flights to either city from the United States required multiple stops, in addition to a couple thousand dollars. My best bet was to fly into Warsaw, then travel south and east from there.

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Polish point of arrival -Warsaw Chopin Airport

Voices Carry –  A Transcontinental Nightmare
My excitement about this trip was tempered by the thought of starting in Warsaw. A Polish acquaintance from Poznan, in western Poland, had told me how much they hated Warsaw. They said it was a confusing mess that was not worth the bother. According to them, Krakow was the place to go. Others I talked to were of the same opinion. Warsaw might be the official capital of Poland, but Krakow was the real capital. I was also told to visit Gdansk, Torun, Wroclaw, but never Warsaw. My foreknowledge of the city was that it had been almost totally destroyed during World War II. The rebuilding had taken place under a communist government. The outskirts of Belgrade and Bucharest began to loom in my imagination, horizons covered with concrete apartment blocks. I was not looking forward to visiting Warsaw, but nonetheless I scheduled an entire day believing that it would still be worth seeing.

The trip required three flights and twenty hours of travel time for me to travel from the western United States to Warsaw. My final flight would leave from Amsterdam. This one would be the most grueling. I cannot sleep while sitting up, unless at the point of collapse. Nodding off is about the best I can do. Even when I am able to catch five or ten minutes of sleep, I awake drenched in sweat. I was at this point somewhere over Central Europe that a booming, thunderous voice in Polish came from a couple of rows back. A middle aged man in a business suit began to converse in the loudest manner possible. His verbal bellicosity was jarring. For minutes at a time he would pontificate at near ear splitting levels. Several times I turned all the way around in my seat just to glower at him. This did no good.

I began to wonder if I was really awake or if this was some sort of strange transcontinental nightmare. Almost as unbelievable as the volume level of the man’s voice, was the fact that not a single person around him seemed to take notice. The man he talked with sat rapt with attention. Everyone else slept, read or listened to music. Warsaw could not come soon enough. As the plane landed, the man stopped talking. I was shaking from a combination of anger and exhaustion. Like many of the people in life who have driven me close to the point of madness, my two-hour torturer turned out to be inconsequential. He deplaned in good spirits, while I was totally relieved just to arrive. Now that I was half out of my mind, it was time for me to collect my belongings and travel to the Oki-Doki Hostel in the city center. This was not going to be easy, since I decided to take the bus from the airport. That would put me right where I always want to be when entering a foreign country, on edge.

The attraction of fear - airport bus to Warsaw city center

The attraction of fear – airport bus to Warsaw city center

Moment of Clarity – Extra Baggage
My tension and fear were induced by the following sentence from the Wikitravel Warsaw webpage: “ (Bus) Number 175, which runs from the airport to city center, is reportedly infamous for pickpockets and sometimes snatch-and-run thefts.” Of course, I chose to take this bus. I could just as easily have booked a taxi in advance, but I was too cheap. My ulterior motive was more self-serving, some might even say self-flagellating. I was magnetically attracted by potential danger. In the weeks prior to departure I had spent countless hours reading and rereading that sentence, doing ridiculous researches about bus crime in Warsaw. Obsessing over the possibility of becoming a robbery victim made my arrival in Warsaw more interesting.

A logical person would have just taken a cab, but obsessions are never logical. They are grinding, gnawing and all consuming. Warsaw was a city I had little interest in visiting, but I did have an intense interest in seeing whether I could ride bus #175 from Warsaw airport to the city center without getting robbed. Of course, I was exaggerating the threat, but that was precisely the point. The tension I felt when boarding the bus was real. I was in survival mode due to a self-perpetuated delusion. My fear and paranoia were real.

The imagined threat, turned out to be just that. Bus #175 was half empty. The passengers were either tourists like me or locals getting an affordable lift to the city center. Everyone and everything looked to be totally normal. No one was eyeing my bags or sizing me up, for that matter no one was sitting closer than a couple of rows from me. Still I kept clutching my luggage as though any moment a life or death struggle would ensue. I knew better, but obsessing over a crime that would never happen satisfied a deep seated fear. That fear did not repel me, it actually attracted me. This was my moment of clarity. Fear was what brought me to Warsaw and I would carry it with me to the frontiers of Eastern Europe.

Animal Instincts – The Lions of Lviv (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #2)

During my week long stay in Lviv I was stalked by lions. Lions were on every corner in the old town, they could be found at High Castle, protruding from the facades of business and glowering at the entrances to residential buildings. Some of these lions were sleeping while others looked fierce and determined, supersized stone statuary demanding attention. These lions are lasting remnants that recall the very earliest days of Lviv. Scarcely any structural remains of 13th century Lviv still exist, but symbolically lions are everywhere, a symbol of the city that goes back over 750 years.

Lion sculptures on facade of Lviv residential building

Residential instincts – lions can be found on many facades in Lviv

Leo and the Lions – The Name Of A City & Its Eternal Symbol
It has been at least 5,000 years since lions roamed the land that is today Ukraine. Fossils found near the Black Sea regions of the nation have been identified as belonging to lions with manes. These wild, magnificent and deadly creatures likely roamed all across Ukraine, including Galicia in the western part of the country, during the final (and also current) geological epoch, the Holocene (12,000 years ago to the present). Human settlement and population growth eventually brought the era of wild lions in Ukraine to an end. Nonetheless, lions are an ever present part of Lviv. They can be found laying and lounging, guarding or greeting at buildings and parks across the city. These lions are not alive in a biological sense. Instead they act as the living embodiment of the city’s majestic history. These static sculptures may not be able to roar, but their presence can still be felt today as a lasting symbol of the city’s most ancient history.

Lviv has been associated with lions since its founding in 1256. This is because the city was named after Lev Danylovych, or as he was otherwise known, Leo I of Galicia. Leo I was the King of Galicia-Volhynia (King of Rus’) and Grand Prince of Kiev during the latter part of the 13th century. Leo in the Latin language means lion. Latin was a much preferred language of royalty, while lions were often used as an enduring symbol of royalty. They symbolized courage, dignity and grandeur. These were traits Leo I would certainly want to be known for. They are also symbolic of attributes a city might want to reflect both its past and present. A person or a city symbolically aligned with lions evokes a certain powerful image. Leo I lived up to his name in many ways. He was certainly brave when it came to martial affairs. He was on the warpath for much of his reign. He attacked westward in attempts to take control of parts of Poland, Lithuania and Hungary. During a 14 year period beginning in 1375, he led no less than six military campaigns against his kingdom’s foes. By the end of his reign he had expanded the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia to its greatest territorial extent.

Lion on a gate in Lviv

Lions in Lviv guard many a gate

What’s In a Name? – Legacies Of Ambition, Legacies of Failure
The power and territory he acquired would seem to cast his name and the city that bore his name in a radiant glow. Leo I had moved his capital to Lviv in 1274. The capital city continued to grow and bask in glory, after his death, but Leo’s legacy soon faded. It was never that solid to begin with. His costly military campaigns brought as much failure as success. The territorial gains achieved were relatively small compared to Leo’s ambitions. A half century after Leo’s death, the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, including Lviv, was subsumed under Polish rule.  The truly lasting legacy of Leo I came to center around the meaning of his name and what it came to symbolize for his namesake city. Lions and Lviv became inseparable, a powerful image of a city’s grandeur and status.

Every empire and every conqueror of Lviv incorporated the lion into disparate city seals and coats of arms. For instance, during the late 16th century the papal coat of arms was added to Lviv’s. The lion on these was no longer passive, but now rampant. During the Soviet era – an empire that was virulently anti-aristocratic and anti-royal – the coat of arms was redesigned to add the hammer and sickle. The traditional trio of towers above a city gate was colored red, while a lion rampant stood in the entrance. This could be seen another way. The lion, like the people of Galicia and their traditions were caught against their will by the red menace of Soviet Communism, but they were trying to fight their way out.

Lviv lion on a manhole cover

Lviv’s lions lurk everywhere – even on manhole covers

Symbolic Recognition – The Lion Lives On
When the Soviet Union disintegrated and Ukraine declared independence, the coat of arms and city seals reverted back to their original form from the late Middle Ages. The towered gate was still there, but now covered in yellow, as was the lion. All of this was done on a blue background, colors symbolic of the Ukrainian flag. This reversion to the earliest design hearkened back to the Kingdom of Galicia-Volhynia, one of the very few times in the city’s history that east Slavic peoples were in control of the city and surrounding region. The lion had managed to survive all the iterations of empires that had now vanished. The same was true of Lviv’s Ukrainian citizenry. The lion, that quintessential symbol of Lviv, has now become an inseparable representation of the city as well as its people.

Found In Translation – Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 5)

Any traveler to a country where they are unable to speak the language and have little knowledge of the culture is largely at the mercy of a guidebook. Whether that guidebook is from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Wikitravel or any of the other innumerable offerings available in either print or digital form these guidebooks pretty much tell a tourist where they are going to go and what they are going to do. This was been doubly true for me the first time I visited Ukraine. I cannot speak the language and have only a rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. The first time I set foot in Ukraine was four years ago when I rolled into Lviv, a stunning city in the far western reaches of the country.  My lone touristic resource when I first arrived was the Lviv chapter of a Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine. I had ordered and download this online. The chapter was rather helpful in the discovery of the many must-sees found in the Lviv Ensemble of the Historic Center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but going any further afield or gaining a more in-depth understanding of the city was beyond the scope of that chapter.

Baltia-Druk's Touring Lviv Guidebook - A Rare & Lucky Find

Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook – A Rare & Lucky Find

An Indispensable Travel Companion
Getting to really know Lviv was going to take a guidebook dedicated solely to the city. Of course, I could have hired an English language guide, but I am a literal learner and wanted something to read as I ventured into a world I knew little about. I found a bookstore just off the Prospekt Svobody (the heart of the city) where I managed to communicate my needs to a sales lady who spoke some broken English. She led me to a small shelf laden with touristic literature. There she pulled a guidebook that came in multiple languages, Polish (the majority of foreign visitors to Lviv), German and most impressively English. This guidebook was called quite simply Touring Lviv Guidebook by a publishing firm known as Baltia-Druk. Within minutes of the purchase, this guidebook became my number one resource not only for the rest of that first trip, but also two ensuing visits back to the city. It was not just informative, but also a good read. I have even found myself back home, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, being warmed by the guidebooks engaging narrative style on many a cold winter night. I find myself referring to it again and again.

Why is this? Mainly because it dispenses with in just twenty pages the usual reams of information on hotels, restaurants, transport and all other essential, but seemingly endless details that clutter up almost all travel guides and travelers itineraries. This information is located where it should be in every travel guide, at the very end of the book. The publishers get right to the meat of the matter in the guidebooks first section “History In Facts And Figures”. The section title was something of a misnomer – and thank goodness for that!  There were of course facts, less figures (statistical figures), but an astonishing narrative, filled with stories, personages and legends that covered the high and low points during seven hundred memorable years of multicultural and multifaceted history in Lviv, Leopolis, Lwow, Lemberik, Lemberg and Lvov – the multiple personalities symbolized by the many names it acquired through the ages.

Statuary on a grave at Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is filled with sites of sublime beauty such as Lychakiv Cemetery

Fantastical & Non-Fictional – A Spectacular Past
The publishers of the guidebook understand what it takes to make history come alive, by using a story to transform a detail from merely interesting to highly fascinating. Take for instance how they introduce the fact that the Poltva River runs beneath the center of Lviv. “Much water has flowed under the bridges since the city’s foundation. And it is the water that poses the most fascinating of the town’s mysteries. Partly, it is attributed to the fact that the only river in Lviv, the Poltva, like the mythical Styx, flows in the darkness of underground crypts under the city’s main street. People say that when it rains, one can find a mysterious house somewhere by the railway station. The water that drips from the right side of its roof runs into the Baltic Sea, and from the left side – into the Black Sea. The legend could be explained by the fact that the city is situated right in the middle of the main watershed in Europe. The city’s very geographical position destined it to be the meeting place for the East and West, North and South.” Not only is that a well told tale, it also sets a scene, with “the darkness of underground crypts” and a “mysterious house”. At the same time it manages to convey crucial facts concerning the intrigue and importance of location in the history of Lviv.

Connections made in the text between factual information and seemingly unrelated subject matter showcase the stylistic powers of the authors. For instance, in a paragraph on St. John’s Church, whose genesis dates back to the 13th century, the reader learns of much more recent history pertinent to the religion and tourism in Lviv during the Soviet era (1944 – 1991). “In the soviet days, if a rare foreign tourist happened to come to the “closed” city of Lviv (under the Soviet rule some cities were closed for tourists for safety purposes; one could visit them only if he had permission issued by military authorities), it was commended he saw, among few other sacral edifices in town, the church of St. John.
The text also makes apt and telling comparisons that link past with present, such as when we learn that “Salt-mine ownership could be compared to owning an oil well nowadays” This statement is made in a sub-section expressing the wealth and power of the gentry during the 14th century. In another paragraph we are introduced to “Northern Rome” the “Eastern Gate” and “the Golden Book.” These terms evoke thoughts of fairy tales and the fantastical, yet they are actually historical. All part of the city’s spectacular past.

Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

A good book can be the best guide – Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

Everything & Everyone – Voices Heard On The Street
And there is more, so much more. The historical multiculturalism of the city is succinctly expressed in just a couple of sentences as, “A Lviv saying goes that when a Greek merchant was trading, two Jewish vendors were crying, but when an Armenian merchant came to the market Greeks would burst into tears. It was the fierce competition and national diversity that formed Lviv’s unique character.” Later we learn how the Ukrainians, who today make up approximately 90% of Lviv’s population, but were treated as second class citizens or worse in the city for centuries on end, made themselves heard in a unique way during the 16th century. “The Ukrainians made their presence in town known by means of the “Cyril” bell, placed on an elegant Renaissance belfry that had been erected by the Greek architect Cyril Korniakt. It was the loudest bell in town and the monks of the Dominican order often complained to the City Rada that the chime impeded them while conducting their services.

The class system was a notable and noticeable trait that affected everyone and everything in Lviv throughout its often fraught history. The following tale, from the time of Austrian rule, illustrates this. “Anyone fluent in German was sure to make a brilliant career and make a handsome fortune even in the poorest province of the Empire. Legend goes that it was then when the following funny story occurred. A local noble lady, accompanied by her friend, an Austrian official was approached by two beggars. One was local, the other – German. The first tramp got a copper, the latter – a silver coin. As she it explained it to her astonished friend, “tomorrow the German beggar might become a high official” and she wanted to make sure he remembered her.” Such stories say more than any number of demographic statistics or heavily footnoted monographs ever could.

As seen in Lviv - this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does to visitors

As seen in Lviv – this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does for visitors

Born Again – Lviv Into Life
Each time I arrive at the final paragraph of the “History In Facts And Figures” section entitled “Modern Lviv” I feel as though I have been taken on a rousing and illuminating ride, a tragic and triumphant introduction to the city. All done in just twenty short pages, interspersed with color photographs and a timeline adding substance, style and context. I am now primed to walk the cobbled alleyways, wide boulevards and photosynthetic parks, to experience for myself the intermingling of past and present, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. Yes this is Europe, make no mistake about it. As the authors remind us in the section’s final paragraph, “The rash statements made by some Ukrainian politicians, that Europe is a distant land evoke nothing but ironic smirks from Lviv inhabitants. Lviv has always been part of Europe, regardless of all the borders. It is only in Lviv a beggar will address you in several languages.” The high and the low, the possible and the improbable, all of it was, is and – let us hope – always will be a part of Lviv. Baltia-Druk’s splendid Touring Lviv Guidebook brings the city to life, both past and ever present.

Traces Of The Golden Rose Synagogue– Beyond the End of a History in Lviv (Part One – Text)

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.

The Golden Rose synagogue in 1916

The Golden Rose synagogue in 1916

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.

Golden Rose Synagogue in 1941

The last known photograph of the intact Golden Rose Synagogue taken in 1941

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.

Victory Indistinguishable From Defeat – The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive (Part Two)

On May 2nd, the opening bombardment for the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive started at the light of dawn. Over the next four hours, the Germans let loose a torrent of 700,000 shells. This was followed by a new tactical twist, as German storm troopers moved forward. The storm troopers were able to wreak havoc and chaos as they got behind enemy lines. When the Russians turned to face them, they were confronted with another wave of attackers on what a few hours earlier had been their front. Resistance was feeble. The German General Hermann Von Francois wrote of the hellish scene that unfolded as the battle began in earnest, “North of Gorlice a thick column of fire sprang up, as high as the houses, black masses of smoke swept up into the clouds. It was a gripping unforgettable spectacle. The tanks of an oil refinery had been ignited, either by our fire or perhaps deliberately by the Russians.”  Scenes such as this were common all along the 30 mile front of the attack. The Russian Third Army collapsed. In two days no less than six divisions were totally ruined. One Russian corps, the 24th, lost nearly all of its 40,000 men. A week after the offensive had begun, Russian losses ran upwards of 210,000, with one-third killed or wounded, while the other two-thirds had been captured.

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice - the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German postcard showing war damage in Gorlice – the town was destroyed and had to be rebuilt

German Steamroller/Russian Collapse – The Front Moves Further East
This was just the beginning. The German 11th Army poured into the gaping hole they had opened through the Russian lines. For their part, the Russians futilely attempted a retreat. The chaos led to tens of thousands more Russian soldiers surrendering. On June 3rd, just a month after the offensive’s start, the fortress of Przemysl, which the Russians had taken in March only after a six month siege, was surrendered by them with scarcely a fight. On June 22nd, Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine today), the fourth largest city in Austria-Hungary was recovered. The pre-war borders were now reestablished. An offensive that had begun in order to relieve the beleaguered Austro-Hungarian forces in the Carpathian Mountains and keep the Russians from breaking into the Great Hungarian Plain had succeeded beyond the wildest dreams. The Russians were forced to not only pull back from the Carpathians, but they continued to retreat eastward. The German steamroller had advanced an average of ten miles a day during the offensive. It now looked like the war on the Eastern Front might be headed to a decisive and dramatic conclusion.

A big problem loomed for the Germans though. The vast spaces of the front made it increasingly difficult for the Germans to resupply their troops so far beyond their initial starting point. They soon put out peace feelers to the Russians, as they hoped to knock Russia out of the war and refocus their efforts on France. Russian Tsar Nicholas II stubbornly maintained his loyalty to the allies and refused to negotiate. This was one of two colossally bad decisions he would make during the summer of 1915. The Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive was over, but a full scale attack on the Russian Eastern Front sector was about to begin. The German high command now took the opportunity to use the success of the offensive to make a general attack against the Polish salient, a bulge in the Russian lines that had been created in 1914. The south side of the salient had been undermined by the offensive. Starting on July 13th new attacks took place on the north, west and southeastern sides of the salient. A total Russian collapse seemed eminent.

Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice

The Little That Was Left – A Russian World War I Military Cemetery in Kobylanka east of Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

Temporary Victors/Ultimate Losers – Putting Gorlice-Tarnow In Context
On August 4th Warsaw, the capital of Russian Poland, surrendered without a fight. Fortresses at Kovno and Brest-Litovsk, among several others capitulated. By September 18th when the fortress at Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) surrender to German forces the rout was complete. The German and Austro-Hungarian forces had pushed the Eastern Front 500 kilometers (310 miles) back. This unprecedented outcome became known as the Great Retreat to the Russians. They had suffered 500,000 casualties and nearly a million had been captured. The loss of men was matched by the loss of material. Whole swathes of the countryside were burned and bridges destroyed by retreating Russian troops. Polish Jews became scapegoats as thousands were murdered, raped or robbed. This was the unknown Holocaust twenty-five years before a more infamous one would take place. The Germans inherited a wasteland. The Russian Army’s disaster became known as the Great Retreat. Yet the Russians refused to settle for a negotiated peace. Paradoxically, the retreat in many ways strengthened their overall strategic position. There was no salient to defend, as their lines were now straight. The front line had also been shortened from 1,600 (960) to under a thousand kilometers (600 miles). The German supply lines were beyond their limits. Russia had men, material and space to spare, for now.

The worst outcome for the Russian Empire could not be foreseen at the time.  In the midst of the retreat Tsar Nicholas II dismissed Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as Chief of Staff of the Army. He now assumed supreme command of all Russian forces. This was a fatal decision. He would now bear the brunt of blame for anything that went wrong with the Russian war effort. This was a crucial decision that eventually helped lead to revolution and eventually cost the Romanov Dynasty its very existence. Gorlice-Tarnow and the general offensive which followed was not the death knell of the Russian war effort, but it was an unmitigated disaster. For the Germans and Austro-Hungarians it was a pyrrhic victory. It gave them a false sense of confidence that they were winning the war. In actuality they were only winning battles and offensives that led them deeper into an eastern oblivion.

Kriegsfriedhof (German) World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice

German & Austro-Hungarian forces sustained 87,000 casualties during the offensive -Kriegsfriedhof World War I Military Cemetery in Gorlice (Credit: Tadeusz Kozik)

The Ultimate Outcome –A Microcosm Of The Eastern Front
A Google news search for Gorlice-Tarnow around the centenary brought up a lone English language article about a reenactment of the battle in Poland. It was a minor affair. At best it provided some entertainment for the locals and created a bit of awareness of the catastrophe which occurred in their backyard long ago. The reality is that no reenactment can do justice to the destruction wrought upon the area by the offensive. The Germans and Austro-Hungarians counted it as a glorious victory, but lost hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the campaign. They gained nothing, but territory that was filled with people who opposed them only a little less than they did the Russians. Seen this way, Gorlice-Tarnow was much like the ultimate outcome of the Great War on the Eastern Front, a case where victory was scarcely distinguishable from defeat.

 

Flat Screens & Fin de siècle – Lviv’s Hotel George: Between Past & Present

Well if it was good enough for Honore Balzac and Johannes Brahms, Maurice Ravel and two famous Franzs, Liszt and Josef not to mention another famous Josef, Pilsudski that is, then surely it would be good enough for me. I am talking about the Hotel George. This venerable lodging, located in the historic heart of Lviv, Ukraine, is the most famous hotel in one of the most famous cities in Eastern Europe. It is well known, both as an architectural monument and also for the famous personages who once strode its halls. Located in Lviv’s historic core, its stately, classical stature has been known to inspire passers-by to gawk in amazement. All this sounds like something out of a tourist brochure, though I did not steal it from one. Instead those first few sentences are pretty much the image of the Hotel George from the outside looking in, but what is the view from the inside looking out. To find out you have to spend a night or perhaps several within those historic walls of the “George” as it is affectionately known. I had that opportunity so I took the chance.

The Hotel George - one of the most famous historic landmarks in Lviv, Ukraine

The Hotel George – one of the most famous historic landmarks in Lviv, Ukraine

Modernity Or Mystique at “the George”
The first thing one should know in order to properly understand the Hotel George as it stands today, is that half of the rooms have been renovated and half have not. Being budget minded, I procured a room in the un-renovated half. This was as much by accident as by choice. The room came via an internet hotel booking site and was available at an alarmingly low cost, to the tune of fifteen dollars. At many a hotel in Western Europe or the United States, this might pay for breakfast and that would be about it. Incredibly, the rate included not only a room, but also a full breakfast each day. This was a sublimely low cost. There had to be a catch and of course there was. It seemed that my room did not have a toilet or shower. I would have to make my way to those when nature or an urge for cleanliness called.

I must admit that I never saw the renovated rooms at the Hotel George so my opinion is skewed. From what the hotel website shows, the refurbished rooms look both comfortable and fabulous. They are pretty much what one would expect for really nice accommodations in the western world. That is all well and good, but why would any American or west European visit Lviv to experience what they could at home. When people think of a night at the Hotel George, what should come to mind are not flat screen televisions or mints on a pillow, but an old, stately building with a fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian mystique. This is the kind of place that can evoke the end of an era, but never quite the beginning of a new one.

Down a staircase at the Hotel George - into the corridors of time

Down a staircase at the Hotel George – into the corridors of time

Haute Couture at “the George”
If the Hotel George can put their guests in a position to reimagine Honore Balzac smoking and drinking the night away while playing endless games of cards until dawn, so much the better. Now that would really be something, but the Hotel George really was something. After all, Balzac chose to stay and play there not once, not twice, but thrice. During the 19th and early 20th century, it was the place to stay for a couple of reasons. One was that it offered superlative accommodation. It also gained fame because of its hometown. Without the haute couture of Lviv, the Hotel George would have been nothing more than a large inn, in a provincial city, on the forgotten frontier of far eastern Europe’s fringes.

Straus, Liszt, Brahms and Ravel did not come to Lviv to stay at the Hotel George. Instead, they stayed at “the George” because of concerts that were held in what was once a cultural hub of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yes it may have been on the fringes of the Habsburg’s domains, but it was also an intellectual and cultural powerhouse for the region. When I scanned the list of famous guests at the Hotel, it was not the names that impressed me, but the fact that they all had a reason for coming here. This was not an easy place for the glitterati of culture, intellect and politics to travel to. Nonetheless, they came and so many of them stayed at the Hotel George.

Glitter & gleam - a chandelier in the front lobby of the Hotel George

Glitter & gleam – a chandelier in the front lobby of the Hotel George

Spooky Charm – Into the Heart of “the George”
So what was it like? Well for the un-renovated (which I will call myself since that was my experience) it was a bit surreal. The lobby gleamed and sparkles. There was a doorman greeting guests, friendly English speaking staff awaiting arrivals and an air of refinement about the place. Service was very personal and old fashioned in a good way. Wake up calls were not automated, but personalized, with a friendly, heavily accented voice on the other end wishing a cheery good morning. The staff was attentive to an astonishing degree. When I left at 4:30 a.m. to catch the morning express to Budapest, the doorman who had fallen asleep, suddenly awoke at the sound of my footsteps and leapt to attention. I have never seen anyone move so fast, so early in the morning. It was more jarring for me, than it was for him.

As for my room, it was a bit rough around the edges. The plaster was cracked in a few places, but this was really no problem. The lock to the door, looked as though it was installed at the turn of the 20th rather than 21st century. The most memorable aspect of the room was it spaciousness. A ball could have been held in the place. Shiny gold bedspreads offered a bit of gaudy splendor covering the two small beds. The beds looked more like museum pieces than sleep units, as the cavernous surroundings made them stand out. The only drawback was having to get up in the middle of the night to unlock the door and make my way to the bathroom. Stumbling out into a large hallway, covered in a deep red carpet, I made my way down a roomy corridor that felt like the haunt of ghosts rather than guests. There was a spooky charm to the un-renovated section. It was a trip not just down a hotel hallway, but back in time.

A picture of a picture of a picture - the past is ever present at the Hotel George

A picture of a picture of a picture – the past is ever present at the Hotel George

The Un-renovated – Glimpses of the Past
I truly hope that half of the Hotel George stays un-renovated. My reasons are selfish, I want to feel the past, I need to feel the past. This was one of the few places I could actually get in touch with a former world and glimpse, if just for a moment, time turned back a hundred years or more. It was here, as I walked through the empty corridors and floated down the wide staircases, that I felt for once and all time that the Hotel George was a place where the past can truly be recaptured.

After This: I Will Never Fear What Is Coming Next – Chop To Lviv by Rail

(Note to Reader: This was written on a train trip from Budapest to Lviv, specifically the stretch after crossing the Hungary-Ukraine border at Chop, Ukraine until Lviv)

15 Chickens, a Pink Gown and a few bright blue towels hanging from a clothesline, these are the only colorful scenes in the backyard of tumble down, endless squat houses and a landscape the color of drizzle.

The current count: 10 bicycles and 3 cars

A cyclist is riding away with a bundle of stuff from the town dump. Within sight and smell of this dump are nice, two story houses, looking prosperous and indifferent.

A small road and paved at that, but every 50 meters there are piles of fill that have yet to be deposited in an endless succession of potholes. Two men, one younger, the other middle aged, shovel the fill in a hole. Only 25 or so more to go, Sissyphus would be proud.

Border towns always suck, but at least Chop has a memorable name.

A slender young lady walking in the middle of nowhere along tracks three railroad lines away, wearing a bright red winter coat, black tights and talking on a cell phone. Everyone is headed somewhere.

Bicycle swerving all over a pothole covered road. The rider is talking on his cell phone.

I get the stinging suspicion that this place was better off a hundred years ago, but not much. This is what happens to an area when history decides to have its way with it

Train stops for no apparent reason, in no apparent place. Footsteps, voices, there must be a station here. I cannot bother to look.

Eight lines of railway tracks the other side of my window and not a train, not a car, not anything on them.

Entry into another world - Ukraine Passport Stamp

Entry into another world – Ukraine Passport Stamp

Four cars and one bike at a road crossing. Now that is progress!

Every time I see an abandoned concrete blockhouse I imagine something sinister.

Everything that must be built, must be made from concrete. This was communism’s rule of thumb.

The Romans could build temples and tombs, arches and columns, roads and baths from concrete. The communists could only build a disaster.

Anytime I see a no smoking sign on a train in Eastern Europe I prepare for the smell of smoke. The sign should state, No Smoking – Right NOW!

The further from the border, the better things get. There are even green fields in Eastern Europe in the winter.

I can see the Carpathians in the distance. Thank God for hope!

I spot a marvelously kept cemetery on the edge of a village. The dying, grey light in the brown fog of a winter afternoon cannot even snuff out the colorful flowers and wreaths covering the headstones, easily spotted through a blurry train window from 400 meters away. These are people who respect their dead.

I would never consider myself a religious man, but every time I see a church steeple rising above a village I feel comforted.

The first Orthodox onion domes, two wrapped in gold, two in blue. That has to be worth it. The place they rise from looks to be more like a town than a village. On the edge of the town, there is another cemetery. Beside it an abandoned collective farm, the manor houses of communism. Their labor day has come and gone.

I just want this heavy industry to end. Well it did, but it never quite went away. It feels like it never will.

This landscape can swallow you with its nothingness. This is what outer space feels like on earth

Ideas of progress are never to be trusted in this land. Not ever.

On the rails somewhere between Chop and Lviv Ukraine

Reflections – On the rails somewhere between Chop and Lviv Ukraine

Sometimes I look out the window at the encroaching darkness and feel like I could spend the rest of the evening hiding. I have no idea why.

I can feel my hands getting dirty while I am sitting here looking out the window.

Lights, how marvelous, they remind me of home.

More lights, oh no, it’s another damn factory. This is the only one that looks like it is still working. There are lights on full go, a good five stories up. I am suspicious. I think they are left on to appear to have something to do.

Smokestacks – the skyscrapers of sub-carpathia.

Regulation - mandatory but not necessary

Regulation – mandatory but not necessary

The train slows, there must be a station coming. Out the window there is another train hidden by a high, fading white wall and all the lights in the cars are on. No one, not a single person is sitting in any of the ultra-illuminated interiors of these cars. Through their frosted glass the vacant rows of seats look frightening, like a murder is about to happen or already has.

The train whistle blows, the singular voice of hope, sweet, shrill and pure.

Looking out the window, I saw a man standing in a lighted room with his coat still on and back turned. I have never felt so sorry for someone. I have never felt so sorry for myself.

What good would a shopping mall do anyone right here, right now. What good has a shopping mall ever done anyone?

A Trabant at a railroad crossing, its headlights illuminate a cobblestone road, a light from a near past casting a glare on a distant one.

The future is but a shadow amid the darkness.

After this I will never fear what is coming next.

At the border it felt like we would never get started. Now it feels as though we will never stop.

Train finally comes to a halt right beside a supermarket. The store name is written in cursive Crillic. Now I am really done for!

The attendants have it in for me. It all started when we started. It seems that one of the attendants was sleeping in the compartment that I was supposed to inhabit. I did not know she was an attendant. It is not like she was wearing monogrammed pajamas with the words Ukrainian state railways emblazoned on the front of them. She refused me my rightful place, with grunts that slowly grew to high pitched moans. Finally her compatriot came and directed me to an empty compartment. That was fine, but then the request for my passport. I gave it to her. She glanced at it, raised an eyebrow and blurted out, “America.” Next question, where was I going?  “Lvov.” Where was she going? “Lvov.” I tried to tell her I had been to Lvov before. She did not comprehend. All I could think of was Rynok Square in the old city center so that was what I said. She looked at me quizzically. I said it again. Then I tried to stammer out what I believed was the Ukrainian name of this square, Ploscha Rynok. She looked at me confusedly, so I tried saying it louder. She just stared at me. So I said it even louder. Loudness of course is the last refuge of the incomprehensible. Finally she left. Probably did not care to get yelled at, in a polite manner I might add. Later I made an even worse mistake. I went to the bathroom and forgot to lock the door. She walked in, but I had my back turned and she could not have seen a thing. She shrieked. I heard her stomp away and slam the door to her compartment. A couple of minutes later I came out and made my way back down the hall. She came out of her room and as I looked back, she barked several words at me in Ukrainian. She then made a hand gesture showing me how to lock the door. She hurried past and went in to see her colleague. I heard whispers. A scandalous glance was cast my way, followed by loud snickering. Now I am met with silences and icy glares. Thank goodness I brought several large bottles of water. Just asking for such at this point might cause an international incident.

Climate control - Ukrainian Railways style

Climate control – Ukrainian Railways style

It is getting hot! According to a chart posted in the corridor that even I can somewhat comprehend, it seems that if it is 5 degrees Celsius outside than the heat should be set at 40 Celsius in the train. Well 40 Celsius is nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit and it gets worse, like Death Valley worse. 0 Celsius outside gets the heat knocked up to 50 Celsius. For every decline of 5 Degrees Celsius another 10 Celsius is added until finally at -20 C the heat gets ratcheted up to 90 C. Glad there is a warm spell hitting the area at the moment. I wanted a train to Lvov not a 14 hour sauna! I know Ukraine is having some issues with heating during the winter, but if that is there idea of energy conservation they are going to need all of the Middle East’s considerable oil reserves just to get through a winter.

The time to learn the Cyrillic alphabet is not on an insanely long train trip while staring ignorantly at an encyclopedic explanation of regulations no one ever bothers to look at. The only thing mandatory about these kinds of regulations is the posting of them.

No one I know would have taken this train route. It is through a land they know nothing about, to see nothing in particular. It not about either the journey or the destination, it is about the experience.

It is getting hotter.

The Memory That Never Escapes Me – The Prison On Lontskogo In Lviv, Ukraine

It was not to be found on the list of top attractions for Lviv. The Bradt Travel Guide To Ukraine, which is far and away the best English language guide to the country did not even mention it. Fortunately, Lonely Planet did have a short paragraph covering it. I had downloaded and printed out the Lviv section of the guidebook before I left home. I was intrigued, because the place I was going to had seemed to be something of an afterthought, worthy of mention, but not much more. It was shadowy and did not seem to quite fit what was turning out to be one of Eastern Europe’s most beautiful cities. It was a place that was best avoided for decades on end. Even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991 it lay dormant, slowly fading into anonymity, but its history was too important to be forgotten. It was the history of tyranny, terror and totalitarianism all contained in an old, slowly dilapidated building. The place was the Prison on Lontskogo, National Museum and Memorial to the Victims of Occupation.

The nondescript entrance to the Prison at Lontskogo belies the dark history within the building

The nondescript entrance to the Prison at Lontskogo belies the dark history that occurred within these walls

The Darkest Days – Lontskogo Prison 1939-1945
Even though it was only a ten minute walk from the city center, finding it was hardly easy. The popular tourist attractions in Lviv are marked by directional signage in both Ukrainian and English, but not this museum. Perhaps this was an unconscious nod to historical accuracy. I am sure there was never any signage that noted the place as a KGB, NKVD prison (predecessor to the KBG) or Nazi Prison during its period of operation. During its most horrific days, from 1939 – 1945, it was a place no one wanted to even go near. Innocents (anti-communists, Ukrainian and Polish Nationalists among others) only came when forced and the majority of them never made out of the place alive.

It was here during the dark days of late June 1941, with the German Army set to take Lviv (the city was officially known as Lvov at the time) that the fleeing NKVD began to execute prisoners by the hundreds, many of them murdered with dreadful bestiality. Fragmented records show that at least 1,700 were killed, many on June 28, 1941, the night before the German stormed into the city. The lucky ones were murdered with a shot to the back of the head, but many more were stabbed to death with bayonets. Some were even found crucified and castrated. The sheer savagery is hard to imagine and it not only occurred during those darkest of days, it continued in some form or fashion for the rest of the war and even beyond it.

Sign at the entrance for the Prison at Lontskogo, National Museum and Memorial to the Victims of Occupation

Sign at the entrance for the Prison at Lontskogo, National Museum and Memorial to the Victims of Occupation

Deep & Dark Thoughts – On The Way To Prison
Seeking out a place that is not very popular may sound like an adventure, but it also can be eerie. On this occasion I found myself asking, “What kind of a person am I? What kind of person would be fascinated and drawn to such a place? What kind of person visits a place where thousands of innocent people were murdered? Here I was at a place where the majority of the murderers went free, a place where justice was only a word, with no meaning. This was a place where the judgment of history would never right the wrongs that had been committed within these prison walls. Just going here made me question not only myself, but everything I believed about right and wrong. These were the thoughts swirling inside my head as I found my way to the prison.

To be honest I was lucky to even find the Prison on Lontskogo. There was only a single sign, on the wall beside what would turn out to be the entrance door. The sign was rather small, but noticeable, it showed a white candle on a black background. I wondered whether I should even try to open the door, it looked oppressive, like it had been closed for years. The outer façade of the place looked the worse for wear, with its chipped paint and fading plaster. This is what happens to history, when it is left to the main ingredient of history itself – time. The prison had closed in 1991 and not been reopened as a museum until 2009. Being left to the elements, the building now had an added aesthetic of neglect.

One of the prison corridors just beyond the entrance

One of the prison corridors just beyond the entrance

Cell Life – An Ever Deepening Darkness
I was surprised to find that after a slight turn of the handle and soft push, the door to the museum’s entrance easily opened. An older woman was the only staff member present and I was the lone visitor. The woman was wearing a coat even though it was a rather warm early autumn day. It was very cold and damp inside the building, drafty air permeated the corridors. After entering, I soon noticed that the place looked like not so much a museum, but a historic site frozen in time. This was probably a highly accurate representation of what the prison looked like when it was shut down in 1991. Even more surreal, it was a relative approximation of what it was like during the Second World War.

The woman spoke no English, but it hardly mattered. She ushered me further down a corridor where I encountered a series of small cells. The windows were not barred, but instead sealed. No sunlight was allowed inside. There were some exhibits, but they were in Ukrainian. Language was not a problem here. I could easily interpret with my senses, through sight and smell what the place really was about. It was a building of intense suffering. The place looked frightening enough in the broad daylight. I started to imagine what it must have been like in the dark, not just of the night, but also during the dark of the day. The cells were tiny. They could at best house a few people, but at times each had been packed with up to 15 people. If the cells were not bad enough, there were two things that made the terrifying history of this place palpable.

The room where prisoners at Lontskogo were photographed

The room where prisoners at Lontskogo were photographed

Approaching the Unimaginable – For Those Who Died, For Those Lived
The first happened to be the room where prisoners had been photographed. This was the last place where one image after another was made of thousands of prisoners who were soon to be killed or at best sent to the gulag in Siberia. Each person photographed was an individual, someone’s father, brother, mother, son, daughter. A few were nuns or priests, many others patriots. They were all innocent. They were all soon to be victims. To have this be the last place an image of them would ever be made seems the cruelest of fates. The photos would become part of a record, a record made up of lies. The one thing that would not lie would have been the look in their eyes. Photos in one of the exhibits showed some of their faces, they stared blank and fearful into the lens. The question came into my mind: what if that had been me staring into the lens? Would I have had a look of courage, defiance or fear? Perhaps all three mixed with confusion. If that was not enough, one object in that room bothered me the most. It was a little stool that the prisoners sat on while having their photograph taken. It looked uncomfortable, tiny and belittling. Everything in this place was meant to bring the imprisoned to their knees.

The courtyard at the Lontskogo Prison

The courtyard at the Lontskogo Prison

I made my way on through the building and stepped outside into a large, walled courtyard. This was where mass executions took place on the evening of June 28th. Inside the museum I had viewed photos and newsreel footage of the victim’s bodies laid out. These images had also shown family members who came to identify their loved ones. The faces of mothers and wives displayed a look of unspeakable grief. It was almost unimaginable. Standing in the vacant lot, with the sounds of the city muffled, I put myself in this courtyard seventy years before. A feeling came over me, the reality of being terrified. I do not know what would have been worse: to have died here or to have identified a loved one among the corpses. It was a place of no escape, for those who died or those who lived.

A woman is overcome with grief after identifying a victim

A woman is overcome with grief after identifying a victim

The Memory That Never Escapes Me
I did escape the museum within minutes after visiting the courtyard. The woman keeping watch over the museum kindly acknowledged me as I was leaving. Back outside, I made my way down the street, trying to put it all behind me. Soon I lost myself somewhere else in that beautiful city, but I cannot quite remember where or what took me away in the hours that followed. Forgetting about the Prison on Lontskogo was not so easy. Several years later I still remember that visit. It was one of the most authentic places I have ever been. This was “history” but it also was not “history” because the memory of what happened at that prison has stayed alive within me. It lives as a warning to what lurks deep in the heart of radical ideology and human depravity.