To Go to Lviv
two cities: one lost and one sacred, one in exile and one in history, one of dreams and one of faces.
two cities and their names mutating over time––lviv, lwów, lvov, lemberg, leopolis––each name a placeholder for the facts of ordinary lives, and for undisclosed poems of consequence, each fact and each poem in its own way asking again the simple and elusive questions: how does one depart for such a city? is it better to intend it as a destination or as a movement through destinations? and how to know that arrival has happened?
almost a month ago, a train from kraków set me down in lviv, my first time back in the city since 2010. every day i have been walking it––miles every day, walking and walking. i have been following an admittedly idiosyncratic map of my own making, marked with sites from the city's jewish history, and sites where traces of that history happen still to be evident. or to put it more plainly, my map is an orphan's trail, a path between orphaned sites for an orphan-minded consciousness of place and time. one spot on my map is, for example, the grocery store on the corner of shpitalna and panteleimona kulisha streets, whose customers are of course almost entirely ukrainian but which is still speaking to its yiddish and polish-speaking clientele. for me this store is a landmark––no less important than the city's great cathedrals or its astonishing old town.
and there are similar such remnant voicings if you know where to look for them. you will see them across from no. 25 panteleimona kulisha street and at no. 13 nalyvaika street, at no. 8 kotliarska street and on the corner of tyktora and lesya kurbasa streets, and also at no. 5 vesela street. i walk between these sites, and several others too. there is the intersection of staroevreiska and arsenalska streets in the old town, the heart of the city's ancient jewish quarter and before the war a dense location of communal jewish buildings, including the famous golden rose synagogue, a beit midrash, the great city synagogue, a mikvah, a kosher slaughterer, and a cheder. and my map includes a cluster of streets in the krakivsky district, to the north of the main square. in particular there is syanska street (whose former polish name was ul. bożnicza, in english "synagogue" street) from the staryi rynok to lazneva street, and along vesela and vuhilna streets to saint theodora square. on the staryi rynok itself once stood the imposing progressive synagogue, and around the corner, on the lot that was once no. 3 kniaznia leva street, stood the or hayushor synagogue. at no. 16 syanska stood the formidable przedmiejska synagogue, built in 1632. across the street from no. 6 syanska stood the beit lechem or chassidus synagogue, and next to no. 6 stood a chassidic beit midrash. at the corner of vuhilna street and st. theodora square still stands the jacob glazner shul, one of two remaining synagogues, and the oldest in the city, dating to 1844. a few blocks away, in the empty lot which was once no. 3 medova street, stood the or shemesh synagogue, and nearby, in the courtyard behind no. 8 mayera balabana street, was the meleches henoch shul.
there are further locations on my map also. on rapoport street stands the august former jewish hospital, and behind it the krakivsky market, built atop the city's vast jewish cemetery, whose graves date to the mid-thirteenth century. not far from the hospital, on the corner of shpitalna and kotliarska streets, is a plaque to sholem aleichem, on the house that was his residence in 1906.
there is still more on my map, though in truth it contains very little to describe a vibrant jewish community that on the eve of the holocaust numbered over 160,000, 40% of the prewar population. just after the railway bridge on vyacheslava chornovola avenue stands a large memorial to the prison-ghetto that the nazis built in 1941. the memorial is situated beside what was once the ghetto's main gate. a long walk down nearby shevchenka street, at the klepariv station, is the site of the german umschlagplatz, from which the nazis deported jews to the death camp at bełżec. of the several former soviet and nazi prisons in the city, where thousands of jews, poles and ukrainians were tortured and murdered, three are on my personal map: no. 7 zamarstynivska street, the brigidky at no. 20 horodotska street, and the lontskogo prison at no. 1 stepan bandera street.
i have been circulating between these locations, returning to them, looking at them and into them and, perhaps, into other things by means of them. with my 4x5 camera i have been making studies of them, cataloguing their existence on particular days and in particular light and weather––but these pictures alone leave me unsatisfied. it seems to me that fundamental to the task of receiving the past is a willingness to receive the present that is its heir, and a core interest in the lives of the people in whose city it remains. so i have been making other pictures, too––probing and sympathetic pictures of strangers during my walks between these sites, pictures of people going about their business in the midst of these sites, pictures that track the way ordinary life goes on around them. some of these people, i suppose, would consider themselves the inheritors of the city's past, others simply the inhabitants of its leavings, still others its remakers, and a few its refusers.
i have it in mind to make a sequence of these pictures, to braid together the images of these marooned sites and these focused-in-upon strangers. i am asking myself: are the paths of daily life also paths into an encounter with memory and non-memory? do my acts of sustained looking serve in any way to disturb––productively––the surface of the present? what irruptive potential does the act of looking shelter within itself?
in the city which is two cities and many names, i have been walking and making pictures, trying to mark my departure and trying to arrive. i am lingering on streetcorners, seeking something i precisely cannot define in advance, and around and through me the city is moving. somewhere adam zagajewski is reading––zagajewski the great contemporary polish poet of lvovian ancestry, one of the city's inheritors, but not a citizen or denizen:
to go to lwów… to leave
in haste for lwów, night or day, in september
or in march. but only if lwów exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport...
i am making a sequence, putting pictures into overtly searching relations, a photograph of a stranger followed by a photograph from one of the locations on my map, in a pattern, an experimental exchange:
to go to lviv and to embark on a picture sequence: it is not that i have something to prove, as scholars generally do, and as political artists sometimes do too, as in alfredo jaar's refrain, "i strongly believe in the power of a single idea." with me it is closer to the reverse––in an exchange of pictures i find the possibility of disconclusiveness, of debilitating single or at least singular ideas, of scratching past the surfaces. in many ways, this is an old story––in my case, born of a years-long effort to take seriously the distinction not only between what pictures tell and what they show, but between what they show and what they reveal. in other ways it is a new story, inasmuch as it remains controversial to study history through the practice of art, and also to practice conceptual art through the discipline of observational photography (which is far from a conceptualist practice most of the time). i confess that i am intrigued at what it means to push scholarship into the realm of visual practice, and to pull conceptual art away from the conceits of the avant-garde, but this is not to say that my purposes are didactic or polemical. they are not.
i could keep photographing. the sequence could go on, and perhaps it should. is there a better way to assess the success or failure of an experiment than to continue the experiment? street pictures of this kind are, to me, genre-bending by definition, and this is what has interested me to make them for decades now, all over the world. they are unscripted artifices, makings that are also findings, actualities in propositional form. it is not that each such photograph is an illusion situated somewhere on continuum between capture and invention, rather that each exists across the whole spectrum, encompassing it all.
and in the case of those photographs above made at the sites of jewish history––half of the sequence––i should confess that something else is at play. taking a cue from the compounding practice of my ongoing project alive and destroyed, these pictures are not single frames, rather (seamless) splicings-together of two or three frames, made with the camera on a tripod. they are experiments within the experiment, interesting (at least to me) for the ways they do and do not "pass" as single-frame observations. to elaborate: they describe events that occured in the same place but not at the same time, in order to concentrate and compound the sense of "happening" in these spaces. it seems that the simultaneities present are not quite believable and also not quite unbelievable, so that the questionable ontologic status of these images comes to the fore. does invention trump observation in them, so that they become categorically different from the images with which they are braided above? or to the contrary, do they reveal the fictive premise of the non-fictive illusion known as so-called straight photography? these questions are not so easy to answer.
* * * * * *
two cities: one marked and one unmarked, one in the books and one in the stones, one of debilitation and one of renewal.
two cities, and a visitor––a restless photographer, a jew from faraway california and an antinomian jew at that, me myself––pronouncing the city's names too unsystematically, making new names in the form of new pictures before the old ones are even learned. i should go slowly. i should step back, and recount certain things that should have come first.
this city, lviv, was founded in the mid-thirteenth century, and jews were among its first residents, valued for the capital and crucial international trade links they provided. within a century jews were granted equal rights in the city, and came to occupy a quarter just adjacent to the central square –-essentially the area bounded by ruska, galitska, brativ rohatyntsiv, and pidvalna streets, perhaps a third of the area within the old city walls. by the fifteenth century another jewish quarter outside the walled city had established itself, not far from the kraków gate––around what became called the krakowski rynek, today officially the staryi rynok ("old square"), though the former name persists among older people i've met.
in subsequent centuries, the jews of the city withstood the series of natural disasters and repeated foreign invasions that befell everyone else, and persevered. the community's population was approximately 20,000 by 1800, 60,000 by 1900, and––as i mentioned before––about 160,000 by the late 1930s. to put these numbers into context, this growth mirrors the growth of the jewish community as a whole in the historical province of galicia under austrian administration. the jewish community of galicia nearly doubled itself in the sixty years from 1800 to 1857, growing from 250,000 to 450,000. by 1931, there were 639,000 jews in eastern galicia alone, almost 10% of the total population, but generally a third to half of the population of the towns in which they lived, though a quarter or so lived in villages in which they formed a distinct minority. contrariwise, in the mid-1920s, 10% of ukrainians lived in cities or towns, and in the mid-1930s, ukrainians formed about 10% of lviv's population, as against 50% poles and 40% jews.
in short, lviv was a major center of jewish life eastern europe. with the outbreak of war in 1939, the city was occupied by the soviets, and become a destination for the well over 100,000 jewish refugees from german-occupied poland. tens of thousands poured into the city, swelling its jewish population to over 200,000. the germans occupied lviv in the early summer of 1941, staging devastating pogroms and destroying many of the city’s synagogues. by november 1941, approximately 120,000 jews were forced into a sealed ghetto in a poor northern neighborhood of the city known as zamarstynów. regular deportations began, first to work camps and then to the bełżec death camp, lasting through the summer of 1942. by the spring of 1943, some 13,000 Jews remained in the lviv ghetto, and in may-june 1943, the ghetto’s last month of existence, 4,500 were murdered in german rampages in the ghetto’s streets. several hundred others were shipped to their deaths at auschwitz, and 7,000 were sent to the nearby janowska street labor camp, where they were immediately murdered.
with the word "murdered" i am compelled not just to go slowly, but to stop. none of this is getting to the heart of the matter. let me pull back even further.
picture me as i am now, alone in a room on bohomolstia street in lviv, with piles of books around me. it's noon, and i'm sifting through numbers, pushing pages back and forth. the sun has gone from dim to bright winter blue. shadows are raking down the walls outside my window. hours are going by. the neighbors are opening and closing their windows, sending flashes of deflected sunbeams flinging across the interior courtyard. i am inside a room, reading and seeking by one means. outside in the streets, somewhere, zagajewski is singing:
...if lances of trees
—of poplar and ash—are still breathing aloud
like indians, and if streams are mumbling
their dark esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the russian language are disappearing
into thickets... to pack and set off, to leave
without a trace, at noon, to vanish
like fainting maidens.
the pages of his poems are with me. he sings and then stops and then sings again. he sings:
there was always too much of lwów, no one could
comprehend its boroughs, hear
the murmur of each stone scorched
by the sun...
would it be lviv if he weren't singing? he sings:
frozen forsythia yellowed by the window.
the bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets
of nuns sailed like schooners near
the theater: there was so much of the world that
it had to do encores over and over,
and the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want
to leave the house. my aunts couldn’t have known
that i’d resurrect them...
and i am asking myself: where does he do his singing? the truth is that my zagajewski is lurking everywhere just behind the doors of the places on my idiosyncratic map. he is just behind the window at no. 13 nalyvaika street:
and just behind the fence that blocks the site of the golden rose:
he is buying bread at the kiosk by the steps that once led up to the progressive synagogue:
and walking slowly, a few steps behind me probably, lingering at the sites of the erstwhile przedmiejska synagogue, and the chassidus synagogue, and the or shemesh synagogue, and or hayushor shul:
he has been hanging around the back gate of the krakivsky market, and behind the rapoport street hospital:
probably he has seen the pile of stones deposited there––recently, as i've heard from several accounts. these are uncommon stones migrating over time through the city, i.e. they are fragments of jewish tombstones. a farmer not far outside of town discovered them as he was making some improvements on his property. he didn't know what they were, thought the jewish letters made them interesting keepsakes, and put some on his mantle––until, the story goes, he started having bad luck, and attributed it to the stones. to his credit, he contacted the city museum authority, which organized for them to be dumped in a heap on the grounds of hospital, next to the former cemetery:
as for zagajewski, he is elsewhere already. he goes on:
one of my
uncles kept writing a poem entitled "why,"
dedicated to the almighty, and there was too much
of lwów, it brimmed the container,
it burst glasses, overflowed
each pond, lake, smoked through every
chimney, turned into fire, storm,
laughed with lightning, grew meek,
somewhere he is pacing the footsteps of the condemned. he is standing beside the brigidky torture-prison, and the torture-prisons on lontskogo and zamarstynivska streets:
he is tracing the paths to the former kleparów station, standing on what was once the loading platform for jews condemned to the gas at bełżec, through which 500,000 jews from east galicia also passed on their way to asphyxiation and ovens and smoke-graves not far to the west:
and he trudges the outskirts of the city––you will find him in the ravines of the janowska camp, walking them in winter. he walks them slowly. in the frozen soil beneath his feet are the bones and ashes of 200,000 people:
sometimes you will find him prowling the perimeter of the erstwhile camp itself, part of which was converted into a soviet prison and which remains a prison today. he is contemplating its walls and its barbed wire and the crooked rail line that once ran through the middle of it. he is careful to keep out of eyesight of the guard towers that still stand over it:
and you will find him standing with the residents, those raising their grandchildren beside the horrid prison walls, and he is singing:
there was too much of lwów, and now
there isn’t any, it grew relentlessly
and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners
as always in may, without mercy,
without love––but wait till warm june
comes with soft ferns, boundless
fields of summer, i.e., the reality.
but scissors cut it, along the line and through
the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors
cut the body and the wreaths...
in the next blink you will find him once again haunting the rusty playground where the former or shemesh synagogue once stood, seeking the children and the elderly who for their own reasons find their way there:
and he is all at once standing again with the shoppers of shpytanla street, lingering somewhere just outside the frame of a picture (the one below like the two immediately above) that is not a composite:
as for me, i am in a room, reading from my pile of histories and testimonies, searching for understanding and understanding little, reading zagajewski, and when i stop reading and prepare to go out photographing, zagajewski goes on singing:
squares and houses, and trees
fell soundlessly, as in a jungle,
and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, i won’t see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become jerusalem and every man a jew...
* * * * * *
two cities: one certain and one tentative, one of ill-seen images and one of well-placed words, one of redemption and one in spite of redemption.
two cities, and the unpronounceable names of the past and the future. some will treat the names as angels hovering, and some will call them bundles left by the wayside. i would put it this way: the city's truths are not a melancholic poem, but they are in melancholic poems, and they are not solvable in pictures, but also not soluble from them.
it must be clear already that i do not know how to speak of lviv. i want my own voice to inhabit other voices and my pictures to inhabit places and places to inhabit time. i want to speak contingently, with the pesky insight of extemporaneous seeing, and to speak sedulously, with the weight of memory i feel. my words are the broken shells of other words i do not know how to pronounce.
i am returning to my notes, the notes i made while walking, some in my notebook, others in my camera, still others in my mind alone. i am returning to a preoccupation about markings, those that exist and those that might exist, those that i myself am making and those i am not making. to mark: the word in english owes to the ancient saxon word "mearc," meaning boundary, or more specifically, the boundary signed as such. the meaning is close to what is preserved in the english word "demarcation," while the word "mark" itself evolved in english to mean a sign in general, an impression, a visible trace acting as a sign. from its earliest conception in english, then, the mark begs a question: should we understand a mark as confirming a boundary that has already been recognized but not signed as such, or as creating a boundary from which recognition begins? or to put it differently: should we understand the physical mark to instantiate an already-existing conceptual act, or to catalyze a not-already-existing imagination?
of the jewish historical locations with which i've been spending time in lviv, several are publicly marked: the janowska street camp by a large memorial stone plus a sign in ukrainian an english, the kleparów station by a small stone in english, ukrainian and yiddish, the ghetto by a large memorial sculpture, the zamarstynivska prison by a large memorial in ukrainian and english, the brigidky prison by a small stone in ukrainian, the lontskogo prison by a museum recently opened within it, the historic jewish cemetery by a stone monument in ukrainian and hebrew containing the names of several prominent rabbis buried nearby, the progrogressive synagogue by a curt stone inscription in ukrainian and english, the przedmiejska by a plaque in ukrainian, english and yiddish––albeit mounted in the wrong place––the golden rose by a stone inscription, the glazner shul by a boilerplate historical building marker with a number and the word "synagogue" in ukrainian, the great city synagogue by a laminated sign hanging on a corrogated fence.
the simple fact, however, is that there is a dearth of public information about the city’s jewish past, even where there are in fact markings. the five demolished synagogues that are marked, for example, are among the more than fifty that existed in prewar lwów. the city's two standing synagogue structures, the former glazner shul and the tsori gilod synagogue on brativ mikhnovskykh street (the only functioning synagogue in the city) are signed but barely so. conspicuously, the rapoport hospital is altogether unmarked. though jews strongly dominated commerce in the city, this is also not is publicly described, other than through a few unexplained acts of anonymous preservation, as i've been showing. or to put it simply, the overtly designated evidence of jewish life in the city does not even begin to tell the story of the city's jews or their fate in any coherent way. that story is nowhere to be found publicly.
a critique of the markings that do exist is another matter. omer bartov has rightly written that a ukrainian nationalist narrative lurks not far beneath the surface, as for example at the zamarstynivska prison, where the english stone inscription reads as such:
THE WALL OF MEMORY AND GRIEF
From September 1939 to June 1941
49,867 people were murdered in the prisons of western Ukraine
1,738,256 werexiled [sic] to Siberia
In 1941, in the course of 6 days, 7,348 prisoners were executed here,
Ukrainians, Poles, Jews
Remember and pray for the innocent victims.
The colonial regimes of Austria, Poland, Germany and Russia
used this buildings [sic] as a torture chamber of the Ukrainian people.
The Ukrainian Calvary Museum will be opened on this site.
though the inscription does correctly name jews as victims, and elsewhere carries the three national symbols (the ukrainian trident, the polish eagle and the jewish star of david), it elides the fact that ukrainian collaborators were important participants in these murders, and specifically so in the case of the large and severe pogroms in lviv in july 1941, which killed 4,000-7,000 jews. to stage the pogroms, the germans relied heavily on a ukrainian nationalist militia specially formed under the direction of the stepan bandera faction of organization of ukrainian nationalists, which hoped to convince the germans to support ukrainian independence. the pogroms involved the ukrainian militia rounding up jews to be executed and to exhume the bodies of murdered soviet political prisoners (ukrainians, poles and jews) at the hastily evacuated prisons, as ukrainian and polish mobs robbed, raped, beat and tortured jews in a carnival-like atmosphere. to say the least, it is troubling to see the zamarstynivska prison converted into a site that "belongs" to or privileges one group of victims.
the elision of wartime jewish history is even more stark at the lontskogo prison, which was closed down only at the fall of the soviet union, and partially opened as a state-run museum in the last two years, ostensibly very much in the same condition as it was left in 1991. all posted texts are in ukrainian, and i was offered a nine-page single spaced booklet in english. while highlighting the june 1941 soviet murders of some 4,000 political prisoners in lviv, including at the lontskogo site, as the "bloodiest page in the history of the prison," the booklet makes no mention whatsoever of the pogroms that the germans and their ukrainian nationalist collaborators staged in response to the soviet crimes. the booklet does mention in passing that jews were forced to carry out the exhumations of murdered political prisoners at lontskogo, but visitors do not learn that these exhumations were a part of the pogromist activity, and that these jews were then murdered at this very site. in a newsreel loop playing continuously in one of the cells (cleaned and painted), showing the disposal of soviet murder victims and public reaction, there is likewise no mention that this newsreel was made by the germans, and that it shows jews being forced to carry and sort the corpses––that in fact what we are seeing is one aspect of the pogrom, in a propadanda film made to justify it. it is as if there were no pogroms in lviv.
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 ackowledging them as such––the booklet 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."
the lontskogo prison sits at the beginning of a street renamed for stepan bandera, at the other end of which, a fifteen minute walk from the former prison, is a large, imposing monument to him. i must say that the triumph of good over evil is certainly not what i have felt to see the fascist terrorist and nazi collaborator simplistically rebranded as a great freedom fighter:
at the janowska street camp, something similar is happening, if not as acutely intellectually disingenuous. there the large sign reads as follows:
BOW YOUR HEAD!
In front you see a spot of the former
Janowska death camp
The ground is moaning.
Here the innocent victims
were tortured and tormented;
here they were executed
and sent to gas chambers!
MAY THE MEMORY OF THE INNOCENTLY
MURDERED LIVE FOREVER!
ETERNAL MALEDICTION BE UPON
Established by the International Holocaust Center
named after Dr. Alexander Schwartz on November 19, 2003
in honor of the 60-th anniversary
of the Janowska concentration camp liquidation.
Renewed: June 17, 2013
this inscription is notable for the fact that it fails to name jews as such as the camp's principal victims––notwithstanding that a holocaust foundation sponsored it. by use of the passive voice, it also fails to name the perpetrators. there is no mention of nazis, much less mention of the ukrainians who also worked the camp. there is no placard containing even the most basic information about the camp's history, or its geography. beside this sign is a boulder with a star of david––currently obscured by massive wreaths of fake flowers––but it seems to me quite possible that many ukrainian visitors to the memorial could well understand the camp's victims to be ukrainians.
and to take a last example, there is no jewish museum as such in the city. jewish life does, however, make brief appearances in civic museums. in the museum of the history of religion, "judaism" consists of a small collection of judaica occupying a few cases in a hallway, next to cases of objects denoting "primitive religion," on the way to large rooms of religious objects of roman catholicism, greek uniate catholicism, and eastern orthodoxy, i.e. the christian-supremacist narrative is hard to miss. the judaica is, with exceptions, not from lviv or even ukraine, but all over europe and the united states. some of it is attractive, some of it crappy, some historical, some not. its uses are not at all described, or even its provenance, though i did discover that the museum's website has recently been updated, with some of the collection properly researched. the website is far better than the museum itself. a further positive development is the museum's recent acquisition of a building on staroevreiska street in the heart of the ancient jewish quarter, and the possibility that it will use three small ground floor rooms to present jewish materials––as i learned from the museum's young and ambitious judaica curator, maksim martin.
as it stands, the combination of marked and unmarked jewish sites in the city seems to ask and precisely not to answer the question, "whose history is jewish lviv, anyway?" or, alternately, it continuously makes a statement that it precisely does not examine: jewish history is someone else's history––the jews, those jews, maybe for some "our jews," who anyway are mostly dead.
but there is another way of reading the evidence, and the lack of evidence.
first, to contextualize the lack: what is true about lviv's jewish history is even more true about its polish history. lwów was, after all, for centuries a majority polish city, indeed is still considered by many poles to be one of the four great polish cities (along with warszawa, kraków, and wilno). polish history is essentially publicly unmarked, with the conspicuous exception of the adam mickiewicz memorial. the city's once polish street names and neighborhoods have been ukrainianized or changed altogether. the same is true for its german history. even ukrainian history is incompletely represented. there is, for example, no monument or memorial in the city to the holomodor, the terror-famine of 1932-1933 in which approximately four million ukrainian peasants starved to death from deliberately murderous soviet agricultural policy.
second, to contextualize the project of memorialization: the conditions under which both communities and individuals become motivated to undertake memorial projects are ineluctably specific, against which the lack of such action seems to indicate general indifference. i would question that conclusion. in soviet lvov, in the aftermath of the second world war, when the jewish community had been decimated and remnant jewish communal life was subject to overt repression, it would have taken a collective act of astonishing bravery and idealism to salvage the jewish past in any sort of planned way. in contemporary lviv, it seems to me predictable enough that for most people (and quite apart from my own opinions on this subject, which are decidedly to the left), ukrainian nationhood in whatever sense will take precedence over commemorating a lost multiculturalism. for many on the right, that nationhood looks like bandera's vision of ethnic triumphalism, while for those in the center and on the left, it looks like democracy and western european prosperity. the extent to which centrist, non-chauvanistic ukrainian nationalism tacitly trades on the bigotry of the right remains a matter of debate, as is the perceived foreignness (read: jewishness) of drawing attention to western ukraine's multicultural history at this moment. the key factor now is that ukrainians had no independent state until 1991 (bracketing off the competing ukrainian states that briefly emerged following the first world war), and are building one essentially for the first time.
indeed, as i write this essay, ukraine's and the world's attention is on the euromaidan standoff in kyiv, the latest in the series of political crises that have defined independent ukraine's internal struggle to decide between a russian-oriented and european-oriented future. during the week of february 18, 2014, more than 80 people were killed and hundreds injured in the streets of kyiv, the worst violence in the country since the collapse of the soviet union. the clash led to the ouster of the russian-backed, criminally corrupt regime president viktor yanukovych. notwithstanding sensational media reports that have highlighted the provocative actions of the (neo-fascist) extremists in lviv as the most "newsworthy," the crisis has not in lviv been one of violence. on the contrary, lviv's response has been taken the form of organized and very public non-violent resistance, supported by the conspicuous non-intervention of the police.
to move briefly into the role of topical reporter, this is what the situation has looked like on the ground on prosp. svobody in central lviv, as thousands have gathered to watch the live news feed from kyiv, to listen to speeches, to sing, to pray, to keep vigil, to go through the uncertainty together. without suggesting that it is possible to re-instatiate the actualness of the past on its own terms, the tensions on the streets of lviv are revealing of the indeterminacy that defines a crisis situation on the ground, as it is lived––as against what it looks like later, with the clarity of hindsight.
after days of walking and looking––to return to my central point––i am not convinced that there is a categorical distinction to be made in lviv between remembering and forgetting, both at marked and unmarked historical sites. if remembrance is incomplete, as i have been arguing, so is forgetting. it seems reasonable, in other words, to understand a sustained condition of non-development or shabby development as itself an expression of a site's alterity, an implicit recognition of its cursed past. such is the case for each of the locations i have been considering where synagogues once stood. each is an open space that has not been rebuilt, or has been built-upon in a marginal and reversible way, or has been fought over in obvious ways.
at each site, locals with whom i've spoken have been aware that the site once contained a synagogue. sometimes this acknowledgement has come in surprising ways. while photographing with my 4x5 camera inside the stalls of the low-end covered market now on the site of the przedmiejska synagogue, a shopkeeper approached me gruffly to ask what i was doing. i explained that i was photographing at sites of lviv's jewish history, and asked her whether she knew the history of the place. she softened visibly and said, "yes, it was a synagogue... i understand, please don't let me interrupt you." after fifteen minutes or so she came back to me and said, "i just wanted to tell you something––that my grandmother was jewish." she looked into my eyes for a long moment and put her finger over her lips. as she turned away, an older man, walking quickly, was making his way into the store. she followed him in, and as she shut the door, said to him sternly, pointing at me, "he's taking pictures about jewish places!"––word had apparently gotten around the market. some kind of serious argument ensued between them, muffled and indistinct behind the shut glass door. perhaps it had to do with what my presence catalyzed, and perhaps not. i left as she was weeping and hollering.
the ancient jewish district along staroevreiska street visibly displays the several senses in which non-action expresses a form of remembrance. immediately adjacent to each other, you find the following: a plaza at the site of the former great city synagogue, beside an open field at the site of the former beit midrash, beside the ruins of the gold rose. each of these sites has remained unbuilt since the nazis destroyed the buildings, which is to say the city has kept these sites as holes. that inaction should not be taken as meaningless. there is, currently, a stalled plan for proper preservation and commemoration––an international competition described on laminated placards mounted to a corrugated metal fence, which happen also to provide the most complete public historical account of jewish life in the city. in the latest phase of meaning-laden inaction, the plan has gotten mired in civic and jewish communal politics, and may or may not go forward. the ruins of the golden rose currently look like this, in a stitched panorama i made from the window of a nearby building:
around the corner, on either side of fedorova street, an even larger hole exists, which is not linked to the sites of former religious buildings. here are two views from opposite sides of the site, in the form of a stitched vertical panorama and a single frame:
when i was in lviv in 2010, fedorova street was the site of a large archaeological dig into the history of jewish life in the city. since then, a developer obtained (read: bought) permission laid the foundations for a large hotel––the first new construction on the site in many, many decades. however, permission was revoked, and now the site is again indeterminate. the chronic indeterminacy of what to do with these sites of jewish history––not all of them, not even close to all, but many––seems to me also to be a way of performing memory.
as is well known, the literature of memory studies has for decades maintained an active pilpul around the language to describe these places, from pierre nora's "places of memory" (lieux de mémoire) to claude lanzmann's "non-places of memory" (non-lieux de la mémoire), to georges didi-huberman's "places in spite of all" or "places in the face of it all" (lieux malgré tout). it would be possible, i suppose, schematically to survey lviv and consider the senses in which a place of memory is distinct from its logical opposite, a non-place of non-memory, and likewise the nuances of the distinction between a non-place of memory and a place of non-memory. and it would be possible to collect stories from lviv's residents and collate them according to the ways that individual and collective memories converge and the ways they diverge, the patterns of collective ignorance as against individual knowledge and vice-versa, and so forth.
but all of that is the work of another person––one more patient and more capacious than i am. as a photographer, the distinction that best helps me find my way is to be found in the etymology of the english words "site" and "place." site derives from the latin situs, derived from the verb sinere, meaning "to set aside, to leave be, to permit," while place derives from the greek plateîa, meaning "broad street" or "open city space." this is to say that a site, in the original conception of the english language, is a position designated in the action of leaving it or for the sake of being able to leave it, presumably so that it can be found again, which is to say encoding as part of its very designation the possibility of putting it out of mind, leaving it to inactivity, and perhaps to neglect. place, on the other hand, presumes an experiencing subject there to constitute it as such––an experiencing subject seeing expansively into a location, which becomes a locus of attachment and activity. "place," in other words, designates the fullness-in-experience of a "site" when it is actually inhabited.
the usefulness of returning to these root senses of words is simply that the points on my idiosyncratic map of lviv's jewish past are, as a result of the shoah, simultaneously both sites and places––places whose fullness-in-experience is precisely constituted by being sites left aside ambiguously, open to both remembering and forgetting, shot through with neglect that is far from dutiful remembrance but also not heedless indifference.
* * * * * *
there are, as i have been saying, two cities: one envisioned and one left to visions, one of eradication and one shaped through discovery of and against eradication, one at odds with itself and one that sits on a deeper structure of purposes accumulated and still accumulating through time. there are two cities, and names for them in many languages. occasionally, there is an uncommon poet––simultaneously foreign and native––singing time in his city, and urging:
now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to lwów, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. it is everywhere.
and there are the altogether-foreigners, the ones like me, who begin their days as seekers and end them still as seekers, lingering on streetcorners and very likely standing out as the uncomprehending outsiders they are, the ones asking themselves under their breath, as i do––but can i be in this place other than as i have become elsewhere? and if not to be myself here, then who? and if to be merely myself, as i am elsewhere, then what?
two cities: one of memory and one of the imagination. the one closest to the future is––by definition––in the present, as near as walking, and looking into the faces of the people.
lviv, march 1st, 2014
"To Go to Lvov," by adam jagajewski, translated from the polish by renata gorczynski, adapted by jason francisco for this essay.