Reading (past) the Surfaces

The predicate of my problem––I should start with as clear a statement of it as I can––is twofold.    First, in speaking of history at all we change its status, displace it from a simple condition of removedness from ourselves.  In speaking of history, we transform something distant into something near, or at least draw the past’s distance away from sheer distantness.  We render the past as a proximity, endow it with an actualness as against some other condition of history, characterized by dormancy or passivity or (a more radical thought) potentiality.  Exactly how this ontological change happens is mysterious to me:  I am unwilling to render the past a mere effect of the present––consecrated in and as the act of speaking––as I am unwilling to render the present a mere effect of the past.  

Secondly, in speaking of history we implicitly fix and unfix categories of just what is past about the past in the first place.  Perhaps the point is best framed by way of philosophical grammar, a dwelling on the complications of how to distinguish “past” from “passed.”   How to discern whether the past has passed––passed by, passed away, passed on?  And how to discern whether that which has passed is past, whether (on the contrary) it is not really past, but part of a continuing present?  This is not an ontological problem but an epistemic one, a problem of being able to claim even basic knowledge of what I mean by “the past” even when I use the term commonsensically.

I feel the need at least to mention these issues first, before anything else, but I am wrong to do so.  These questions for me are not merely theoretical, rather experiential.  They mean something to me because I am in a discrete place in the world––here, in Lviv, once again in Lviv, walking the city, looking into it, talking to people, photographing.  It is through encounters with this city that the predicating questions come to life, which is to say encounter in its messiness, its unscriptedness, its accidentalness, its never-completedness.  Here, in Lviv, history is not merely what stands to be known, but what stands to be met.  And in meeting, history is what stands to be unsettled as a category of knowledge.

(And when it comes to the Jewish past, there is a further problem:  to look for the Jewish is one thing, and to look Jewishly is something else.  Between them, the former is easier, inasmuch as looking for the Jewish means scrutinizing what exists for Jewish or formerly Jewish content.  Looking Jewishly is harder, inasmuch as it means looking dialectically––looking concurrently, simultaneously (or more radically, non-dually) at the Jewish that exists and the Jewish that does not exist, seeing in that which is present a form of incipient absence, and seeing in that which is absent a form of incipient presence.  Or to put it differently, looking Jewishly means looking at, looking into, looking through, all of these all at once.  History, when it appears Jewishly, and Jewish history specifically when it appears Jewishly, moves over and through the surfaces at the same time.)

There, now, enough of the philosophizing.  I am picking up my camera, and I am setting out to make two sets of pictures from the current landscape of historical memory in Lviv.  I will ply them together into a sequence, twist them together as if they were a rope, quite aware that they are given to untwist themselves and hang loose, unspun and unjoining.  Here, now, two sets of pictures from two sites in Lviv currently, alternating one and then the other:

On Staroievreiska Street:

In the yard at the former Lontskoho Prison:

On Staroievreiska Street:

In the yard at the former Lontskoho Prison:

On Staroievreiska Street:

In the yard at the former Lontskoho Prison:

On Staroievreiska Street:

In the yard at the former Lontskoho Prison:

On Staroievreiska Street:

In the yard at the former Lontskoho Prison:

On Staroievreiska Street:

In the yard at the former Lontskoho Prison:

On Staroievreiska (“Old Jewish”) Street in the heart of the old city, the city of Lviv on September 4th will celebrate the opening of the new memorial complex called “Spaces of Synagogues.”  The project is the most significant Jewish commemorative undertaking in Lviv since the Holocaust, for several reasons.  First is its scale and location, comprising a three hectare area in the very center of the historic city center, itself a UNESCO world heritage site.  Second is its dual emphasis on the physical traces of prewar Jewish patrimony and the erasure of those traces, both of these as encountered together, as part of a single memorial reality.  Third is its conceptualization of memorial space as a catalytic space within the city’s flow rather than an inert space pitched against daily life, which is to say the creation of a memorial space under the sign of immanence rather than transcendence (the latter typical of Soviet memorial culture)––a space not to be gazed upon or looked up at, but entered, dwelled-in.  Finally, the memorial complex does not speak at its visitors, again in contrast to the Soviet model, but to them, addressing the public emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically and ethically all at once.

The need for an ambitious commemorative project was painfully obvious for years.  Lviv’s Jewish community existed for seven hundred years before the Holocaust, participated in every aspect of the city’s life, and formed a third of the city’s population on the eve of the Second World War.  Dozens of synagogues and other community properties existed in all parts of the city, but emblematic of Jewish spiritual life was the thicket of religious buildings on Staroievreiska Street, most importantly the Great City Synagogue, the Beis Medrash beside it, and the pearl of it all, the Golden Rose Synagogue.  Designed by the master Italian architect Paolo Italus and completed in 1582, the Golden Rose was acknowledged across Europe as a masterpiece of Renaissance religious architecture.  The Germans destroyed all but two of the city’s prewar synagogues, including the religious buildings on Staroievreiska Street, leaving a hole that was psychic no less than it was physical, and persisted through the Soviet and post-Soviet periods alike.  The purpose of the current project is not to fill that hole––it cannot be filled––but to restore and honor the memory of the city’s deep Jewish past, a key step in the city’s long path to healing from the wounds of the twentieth century.  

Behind the Space of Synagogues project is a broad coalition that itself marks a key turn in the memorial culture of the city.  That coalition includes the Executive Committee of the Lviv City Council, the city’s Office of Historical Environment Preservation, the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, the German GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), plus Lviv’s Chesed Arieh, the US-based Gesher Galicia, and the Israel-based Association of Commemoration of Lwów Jewish Heritage and Sites.  

The upshot is that the current commemorative project proposes a different conception of history, one directed toward the entirety of the public, under the auspices of the city government, whose authority is invoked––but not for the purpose of certifying a new official history from above.  Until now, Jewish commemorative works in the city existed only because of the initiative of the local Jewish community itself.  These older works consisted mostly of brief informational tablets at the site of destroyed synagogues, and at key Holocaust sites such as the Janowska Street camp and the Kleparivka railway station, plus a large sculpture to the Lviv Ghetto, which is distinctly in the grandiloquent Soviet style.  The implied message was that such commemoration was not the broader public’s business, and represented a decidedly marginal point of interest underneath the dominating structure of national history (whether Soviet or Ukrainian).  

The small tablet that was placed in the 1980s beside the site of the Golden Rose acknowledged the site as a ruin, but explained nothing––nothing about the Jewish community, or the larger city in which it was embedded, or the genocide.  It also evoked nothing––nothing of the voices that comprised that community over time, nothing of the differences between those voices, nothing of the difficulty of encountering the past by way of rupture and collective trauma.  A ruin is, after all, not self-explanatory, much less a ruinless void.  

It is likewise important to emphasize that this project has depended entirely on non-Jews, most of all Sofia Dyak, the Ukrainian director of the Center for Urban History, Iris Gleichmann, the German director of GIZ, and Vasil Kosiv, the Ukrainian former vice-mayor of Lviv.  All of them have stewarded the project with great skill, often working below the public radar.  The intellectual vision, material integrity and political openness of the new memorial owe most of all to their professionalism, their brilliance and their effectiveness.

Local and international Jews have played key roles in the process.  Sergei Kravtsov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem led a guided site walk in 2008 (at a conference organized by Sofia Dyak), which prompted the discussions that led to the 2010 international competition from which the German landscape architect Franz Reschke’s winning design was chosen.  Jewish scholars from around the world contributed texts for consideration as part of the historical inscriptions on the site, and Ada Dianova and Rabbi Siva Finerman of Lviv’s Chesed Arieh organized the long and often emotional town-hall discussions within the Jewish community that decided by vote which texts to include.  But the city’s Jewish community is without official leadership, which partly accounts for the main problems the project encountered in the form of the fanatical opposition of one Lviv Jew, Meylakh Sheykhet.  What Sheykhet has lacked in coherence he has made up for in vitriol:  when he is not shouting and throwing stones at construction workers, he is filing lawsuit after lawsuit, and telling anyone who will listen, especially foreign journalists, how he sees the project as part of an anti-Ukrainian, anti-Semitic, neo-fascist plot to continue to desecrate sites of Jewish history, which rightly belong only to Orthodox Jews in Lviv, or in a word, to him.  It is ironic and sad––but more sad than ironic––that the main impediment to commemoration of the great Jewish sites in the historical inner city of Lviv, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been Jewish.

So on Staroievreiska Street:  it is truly remarkable to consider the changes––the conservation of the ruins of the Golden Rose, the re-creation of the footprint of the Beis Medrash, and the installation of the historical inscriptions between them.  Without disavowing the pain and entropy that still cling to the site, the deep neglect of the past seventy-plus years is giving way to the “possibility to know” which is, in the words of Sofia Dyak, the way forward.

But Staroievreiska Street marks only one pole of a bi-polar memorial landscape in Lviv.  The other pole is found not far away at the corner of Kopernika and Bandera Streets, in the yard of the former Lontskoho Prison.  At the very same time that work crews were finishing the Space of Synagogues project, a dig at the former prison uncovered the remains of at least a dozen human corpses, together with animal carcasses and garbage.  I spent hours watching the dig in progress, and talked my way into the pit, making photographs by the side of the workers.  

The imposing Lontskoho prison was originally constructed in the late 19th century for the Austrian gendarmerie.  For most of the twentieth century, it served as a place of repression, torture and murder, starting with the (reestablished) Polish state of the interwar period, followed by the Soviets from 1939-1941, then the Germans from 1941-1944, then the Soviets again from 1944-1991, and by independent Ukraine from 1991 until the prison was closed in 1996.  In 2009, the former prison opened as the National Memorial Museum Prison on Lontskoho Street.  

To call it a museum, however, is to beg important questions about its purpose.  More accurately, it is a political shrine to Ukrainian nationalists and dissidents imprisoned and tortured by the Soviets (the NKVD and later the KGB), which is to say a highly tendentious institution devoted to selective historical memory through the drama––the reality-effect––of the building’s own hideousness as “enhanced” by martyological displays.  From the first time I visited some years ago, I found the museum insipid.  

In particular, the museum trades on a compromise of silence over the Holocaust.  Ukrainian nationalists––the very people revered in the Lontskoho museum displays––were key participants in the large pogrom that swept the city just after the German occupation in June 1941.  In Lviv as in many other towns in eastern Galicia, the Germans relied heavily on Ukrainian nationalist militias specially formed under the direction of the Stepan Bandera faction of Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which cooperated with the Germans hoping to convince them to support Ukrainian independence.  While Ukrainian and Polish mobs robbed, raped, beat and tortured Jews in a carnival-like atmosphere, Ukrainian nationalist militias forced Jews to exhume the bodies of some 4,000 Soviet political prisoners (Ukrainians, Poles and Jews) murdered at the city’s hastily evacuated prisons, including Lontskoho.  

For the current museum, these Soviet murders represent the “bloodiest page in the history of the prison.”   That the 1941 Ukrainian nationalist-led Lviv pogrom in turn killed approximately 4,000-7,000 Jews is an inconvenient truth for the museum.  Or to put it bluntly:  at the very site where the pogrom happened, it is as if there were no pogrom in Lviv in 1941.  Instead, in a strange and rather astonishing effort to link a Jewish-free strain of Ukrainian nationalist mythology to the example set by Holocaust memorials across Europe, without acknowledging them as such––the museum’s guide states as follows:

"[T]he construction of the Memorial Museum in Lviv was the first step toward honoring the victims of the occupying regimes throughout Ukraine and it was followed by the creation of other similar memorials to those who died during these terrible years.  Memorials at Auschwitz, Majdanek, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Vilnius, Tallinn, Riga, Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and others serve as examples of this brutal time.  The construction of the Memorial Museum in Lviv will not only encourage patriotism in the citizens of Ukraine, but––by highlighting the struggle of victims in the names of independence and freedom against torture, occupation, enslavement, and death––it will also declare the triumph of good over evil."

To say the least, it is miserable to see Lontskoho converted into a site that “belongs” to or privileges one group of victims.  And the disingenuous, self-serving instrumentalizing of victims is precisely what was happening at the dig.  The simple fact is that the identities of these victims is currently unknown.  Presuming that they were killed after 1939, as competing armies besieged the city, they could be Ukranians, Poles, or Jews, or Russians, or Soviet POWs from anywhere in the former USSR.  And yet for Ruslan Zabily, Director of the National Memorial Museum, there is only the opposite, only certainty:  “We can definitely assert,” he told the press on August 16, 2016, on the second day of the digging, “that these persons were victims of Soviet repression in the 1940s-50s.”  Zabily continued:

“This is the second year we’ve been conducting archaeological digs in the prison courtyard. Two burial pits have been uncovered... Today, we uncovered two bodies, and we continued our digs in the second pit, where we found ten human remains, but the whole excavation area has not been opened yet. There’s a lot of supporting excavated objects that will help us do research on these graves, and establish the exact dates and total number of people killed.”

In fact it was obvious to me that this was not a proper archaeological dig, rather an excavation, and so it was a search for bones and not for truth.  The rapidity with which the crew worked was remarkable.  On the first day I saw it, the second day of the dig itself, two large holes had been created with bulldozers; the next day, one hole had already been filled in and the second expanded; a week later all holes had been filled in and the earth packed down.  As the work crews progressed, no systematic measurements were taken, and no systematic geo-location system was in use.  As the human remains were uncovered, they were photographed before being quickly disassembled and thrown into unmarked canvas bags.  Piles of other objects found in the pits were created beside the prison walls.  And here I use the word “objects” deliberately:  I had no sense that for these workers, these bones were parts of once-living individuals, first and foremost deserving of respect.  

The method of the dig was not a matter of efficiency:  by retrieving these remains and then rapidly filling in the holes, the museum preempted and foreclosed the possibility of rigorous archaeological study.  The method of the dig was itself an attack on the spirit of methodical, meticulous historical inquiry.  

Indeed, the dig was not done by professional archaeologists, rather a private company called KP Dolia (“Destiny”), which specializes in opening mass graves of what it calls “soldiers” and collecting the bones for reburial.  Their statement of purpose reads:  "Our aim is searching and exhuming participants of the national liberation struggles and victims of wars, deportations and political repressions.”  While not limited to the Soviet period, the focus of the company's work is Ukrainian nationalists killed by the Soviets.  And so it was no accident that these workers went about their business dressed in military fatigues for TV cameras:  pulling bones out of the prison yard and asserting them to be victims of the KGB fits nicely into the needs of Ukrainian state propaganda in the current conflict with Russia over the 2014 loss of Crimea and the ongoing separatist conflict in Donbass.  And I cannot say that the timing of the dig was accidental either, inasmuch as August 24 marks the 25th year of Ukrainian independence.  It all fits well with contemporary Ukrainian patriotism in western Ukraine, specifically a political culture that fashions the Ukrainian nationalist heritage as anti-Soviet and anti-Nazi in equal parts, eliding that movement’s anti-Semitic and anti-Polish commitments and its brutal history of ethnic cleansing.
 

Standing there in the Lontskoho death pit, my questions returned to me, the predicates of my problems, but not in the form of sentences or of pictures.  The effort to hold the contradiction of the bi-polar landscape of memory of contemporary Lviv was too much.  The problem registered in my own body:  standing there, my back was suddenly seized with spasms that were so strong I could hardly walk out.  These spasms lingered for days.  I stood there weeping at the site of human beings killed and dumped in pits like garbage.  The words of Sofia Dyak came back to me:  the state's categorical license to kill, this is the one consistent thing tying all these decades and regimes together––the state's prerogative to create and reinforce categories of enemies, and kill them, whether they are Jews or Russians or Ukrainians or the rich or communists or nationalists. 

As much as I celebrate the city speaking about Jews as Jews on Staroievreiska Street, at Lontskoho it is the anonymity of the murdered that is essential, inasmuch as anonymity allows the victims to speak something universal, maybe just a scream.  Between the progressive memorializing on one side of Lviv and the regressive memorializing on the other, these are the changing surfaces of Lviv as I saw them and thought them and felt them this summer.



August 24, 2016



[Portions of this essay appeared in a modified form in my essay “A New Day for the Golden Rose in L’viv,” published at Jewish Heritage Europe on August 23, 2016.]