Lviv, Ukraine’s tourist gem unearths its tragic past

Celebrated as one of Ukraine’s most elegant cities, Lviv is still uncovering its recent history of totalitarian crimes.

Ukraine - Please do not use
Lviv's architecture, as well as its multitude of cafes and laid-back atmosphere, help make it Ukraine's window on Europe [Dan Peleschuk/ Al Jazeera]

Lviv, Ukraine – Far from the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, this charming city some 750 miles to the west is known for its cafes and cobblestone streets.

Besides being a top tourist destination, Lviv is also touted as a model for transparency and good local governance.

But under its architectural beauty and progressive streak lies a dark past – a fact Svyatoslav Sheremeta confronted last August, when his team of archaeologists dug up the remains of a dozen people they believe were murdered by the Soviet secret police during World War II.

Buried in the courtyard of a former prison, just a short walk from the city’s picturesque Old Town, the remains were found among discarded alcohol bottles from the era.

“It’s difficult to register in one’s head,” Sheremeta says of the chilling discovery.

Celebrated as one of Ukraine’s most elegant cities and its window on Europe, Lviv is still unearthing its recent history of totalitarianism, war and ethnic conflict.

In commemorating the many victims of 20th-century violence, it is also engaging a complicated past that stirs debate over historical memory, a challenge that is part of Ukraine’s broader quest for a new national identity.

“This city itself has the ability, which it is using, to figure out what it is,” says Tarik Cyril Amar, an assistant professor of history at Columbia University. “And to figure out what it is, it needs to figure out where it has been.”

Researchers uncovered more than a dozen human remains in the courtyard of the Lontsky Prison, which is now a museum to local victims of repression  [Dan Peleschuk/ Al Jazeera]
Researchers uncovered more than a dozen human remains in the courtyard of the Lontsky Prison, which is now a museum to local victims of repression  [Dan Peleschuk/ Al Jazeera]

History cut short

Founded in the 13th century, Lviv enjoys an imperial charm rooted in centuries of rule by major European powers, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Its ornate buildings and bustling street cafes are reminiscent of Vienna or Prague.

According to Amar, the city holds a unique position as both the birthplace of Ukrainian national identity and as a multicultural melting pot.

Until the early 20th century, a variety of ethnic groups including Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Germans lived side-by-side with relative ease. Jewish life flourished alongside Ukrainian culture and literature.

“The tragedy, of course, is that this history was cut short,” says Amar, the author of a recent book about 20th century Lviv.

The end of World War I and the resulting collapse of Austria-Hungary, of which Lviv had become a major hub, set off a dizzying string of events that culminated in the horrors of World War II.

Beginning in the the late 1920s, a militant strain of Ukrainian nationalism rose partly in response to harsh Polish rule, sparking inter-ethnic violence. When the Soviet Union annexed  this region in 1939, it deported hundreds of  thousands of Jews and Poles east as part of its state-sponsored terror, which also targeted the local Ukrainian intelligentsia.

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union two years later virtually eradicated the Jewish community of at least 100,000 people, or a third of the local population.

Sensing an opportunity to secure long-awaited statehood, Ukrainian nationalists collaborated in varying degrees with the Nazi occupiers. Some elements staged mass pogroms against the Jewish and Polish communities, while their struggle later shifted against both Nazi and Soviet rule.

The war changed the city’s ethnic composition dramatically – it became overwhelmingly Ukrainian – but also left widespread “legacies of suffering,” according to Amar.

INTERACTIVE FEATURE: The last Jews of Zakarpattia

Commemorating the fallen

Officials and local activists are now finding ways to uncover that tragic history and commemorate its many victims.

One such project is the newly built memorial around the remains of the Golden Rose synagogue , a 16th-century structure that anchored Jewish life here before it was destroyed by the Nazis during their occupation of Lviv.

The smartly designed memorial is built around the original foundation and a remaining wall of the synagogue, which languished for years in disrepair before planners restored them. After the Nazi defeat, decades of Soviet rule did little to burnish the memory of the local Jewish population, leaving many other sacred sites in the area to deteriorate even further.

Featuring an open square and quotations from local Jewish leaders, the memorial provokes visitors to reflect on the human element of what’s missing, according to Sofia Dyak, head of the Centre for Urban History of East Central Europe, which helped organise the effort.

“It was a way to figure out how to tell the story of people, and not only the story of buildings,” she says.

Dyak adds that Lviv’s Jewish heritage remains an understudied topic here, a fact she believes makes the memorial all the more significant.

The project is just the first phase of what planners say is a broader effort to commemorate the once-vibrant Jewish community here. It will also include a memorial to another important synagogue destroyed during the war, as well as the restoration of a local Jewish cemetery.

Meanwhile, Sheremeta’s organisation Dolya – which means “destiny” in Ukrainian – is involved in exhuming and reburying the remains of those killed by the destructive wars and repressive regimes of the 20th century. They travel around western Ukraine and beyond in search of bones they later identify through clothing, personal accessories, or DNA.

At the Lontsky Street prison, which was controlled at various times by Polish, Soviet and Nazi forces during the last century before being turned into a museum in 2009 , researchers found the human remains scattered clumsily.

That led them to the preliminary conclusion that they were either from 1939-41, or after 1944 – that is, when the city was under Soviet control. “The NKVD [Soviet secret police] and the Nazis had their own styles of burial,” says Sheremeta, adding that the fascists dealt with their local victims’ remains in a more orderly fashion.

Though primarily focused on finding Ukrainian bodies, Sheremeta says the group’s “humanitarian” bent pushes them to provide each soul with its proper resting place.

“There’s a feeling that we’re doing something good, and a sense of relief,” he says.

Activists and local officials hope the Golden Rose memorial space will prompt visitors to reflect on what's missing [ Dan Peleschuk/ Al Jazeera]
Activists and local officials hope the Golden Rose memorial space will prompt visitors to reflect on what’s missing [ Dan Peleschuk/ Al Jazeera]

Searching for heroes

Despite these efforts to confront the tragic past, there is still no broad agreement on how to interpret it.

While searching for a new national identity after gaining independence in 1991, and again after the 2014 Maidan street revolution, Ukraine has sought to glorify the freedom fighters of its past, including the very nationalists implicated in ethnic violence.

That effort has also meant ditching the country’s Soviet legacy. Last year, parliament passed controversial legislation that outlawed propaganda of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, but also stipulated the renaming of countless Soviet-era streets and settlements. It also officially recognized wartime nationalist militias as “fighters for independence.”

But some historians say such moves divide the Ukrainian public instead of uniting it. That’s because millions of Ukrainians in the central and eastern parts of the country have relatives who fought for the Soviet Red Army, a piece of the past they believe is being presented as unwanted.

“We don’t have the right to take their history away,” says Vasyl Rasevych, a Lviv-based senior researcher at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.

Rasevych and others also believe Ukrainian nationalist groups linked to Nazi collaboration and ethnic pogroms are being sanitised in a way that absolves them of guilt and recasts them solely as victims of Soviet and Nazi tyranny.

Here in Lviv, the controversy has centered on the former Lontsky Street prison. It’s now a state-owned museum to the local victims of totalitarian oppression, but critics point to its almost exclusive focus on Ukrainians as a “manipulation” of history.

The museum’s director, Ruslan Zabily, rejects such claims. He says that while his museum does mention other nationalities that suffered from repression, it is also obligated as a state institution to prioritise Ukrainians.

As for criticism of Ukrainian nationalists during the war – such as widely supported research that finds the Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred tens of thousands of Poles in Nazi-occupied western Ukraine – Zabily believes many critical scholars judge too hastily.

“In my opinion, you cannot speak so categorically about such things,” he says. “These are oversimplified approaches that don’t explain what really happened.”

Moving forward

Still, many here are hoping to commemorate the wartime tragedies in a way that skirts politics and simply honours the victims’ memories.

Most important, according to deputy mayor Andriy Moskalenko, is to remain an open-minded city where debate is tolerated and the tragedies of the past are fully confronted.

While walking Lviv’s charming streets – dotted with art-nouveau buildings, baroque cathedrals and other impressive structures – many visitors, he says, are presented with elements of a diverse history. Some of it is rich, while some of it deeply tragic.

“But either way, this is history and it’s important to know it,” Moskalenko says, “because this is the strength of the city, and it reflects the extent to which we will move forward.”

Source: Al Jazeera