An Unfinished Memory:  Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia

Commissioned by the Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, for permanent exhibition

Photographed, written, and curated by Jason Francisco


To speak of the Jewish in Galicia––and in eastern Galicia specifically, the subject of the new permanent exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, its accompanying catalogue, and the online exhibition presented here––is to speak of both a legacy and an enigma.  It is to speak of a past that is not past, a thousand year old civilization whose recognizeability largely belongs to them, the ancestors, and whose unrecognizeability largely belongs to us, the inheritors.  It is to speak of an annihilated world that is not pulseless, an actuality of devastation that can be traced but not quite followed, whose relics can be found but not recuperated.  To speak of the Jewish in eastern Galicia is to make a path into the paradoxical condition of an unfinished memory.  It is to speak of remembrance and brokenness both endowed with a quality of inertia, and to speak of a special kind of imagination apart from imaginariness.  The things of the imagination are, after all, precisely what is most real in matters of love and grief.

Part report and part essay, i.e. both a factual accounting for and a contemplative encounter with the Jewish past as it exists today––An Unfinished Memory is an effort to mix historical imagination into the perception of the everyday world.  The project's task, as I have given it to myself, is not just to gaze upon but to read the social geography of contemporary western Ukraine for the sake of its Jewish actualities––the continued existence of Jewish heritage, the destruction of Jewish life and civilization in the Holocaust, and the challenges of remembrance and preservation now and in the future. 

Jason Francisco


An Unfinished Memory: Jewish Heritage and the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia

On the occasion of its tenth anniversary in 2014, the Galicia Jewish Museum is pleased to present a new permanent exhibition, dealing with the Jewish cultural heritage of eastern (Ukrainian) Galicia. Our existing permanent exhibition, Traces of Memory, has focused exclusively on western (Polish) Galicia---namely, that part of the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia which is today in Poland---whereas Galicia historically extended considerably further to the east, deep into territory which is today in Ukraine. Chris Schwarz, who founded the Galicia Jewish Museum and undertook all the photography of Polish Galicia for Traces of Memory on the basis of my own field research over many years, had always intended to extend his coverage into Ukrainian Galicia, but ill-health unfortunately prevented him from doing so. Very sadly, he died in 2007, never to see the Galicia project fully completed. In honour of his original vision, and as part of our celebration of the tenth anniversary of the museum he founded, we are finally able to rectify that.

Jason Francisco, a distinguished American scholar at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has on our behalf made extended visits to Ukraine in order to research, photograph, and curate this new exhibition, which he has entitled An Unfinished Memory. We are enormously grateful to him for his work. The research element has been considerable: the Jewish sites represented in his photos are not at all well known---neither in Ukraine nor outside Ukraine---and it took ingenuity and perseverance to locate them. These photos, like those from Polish Galicia before them, derive from the desire to expose to the public the discovery of the present-day realities---hence the deliberate decision to represent them in colour, not in black-and-white. In all these ways they are an excellent and very appropriate supplement to our main exhibition, even if not a direct parallel. Visitors will notice immediately that this exhibition does not attempt to mirror the five-part structure of Traces of Memory. But it could not have been otherwise. The Jewish cultural heritage of Ukrainian eastern Galicia does not today possess the complex character of its counterpart in western Galicia. Here in Poland one sees not only the ruins of the past but also, thanks to the many elements that have survived or been restored, there are powerful and stirring glimpses of the elaborate Jewish culture which once existed here as well as numerous examples of active memory-making. In contrast, Ukrainian Galicia in Jewish perspective exudes an almost monothematic sense of melancholy. Dr Francisco focuses here on ruin, devastation, absence, and the ongoing echo of the Holocaust---for in eastern Galicia, there is not much else to say about the Jewish material heritage. It is a terrifying picture he presents, but because of the mission of our museum and the original research objective that underlay Chris Schwarz’s photography, we are compelled to display what he has found.

In calling this exhibition ‘An Unfinished Memory’, however, we want to hint at the idea that the situation in eastern Galicia can have a different outcome---that the appalling scenes of cultural erasure and destruction may in time be replaced by a more positive approach. We hope that by bringing the little that does remain to the surface and documenting it, we will encourage Ukrainians and others to remember and memorialise the Jewish past in the towns and villages---just as Traces of Memory has contributed to an awareness of the extraordinarily rich Jewish past of Polish Galicia. We hope that Ukrainians will similarly come to acknowledge that the Jewish past is their Jewish past, a definite part of the pluralist history of their country. There are in fact some encouraging signs that this is beginning to happen, and some examples of it can be found in An Unfinished Memory. Just as post-communist Poland has been developing a civil society with a historical consciousness that is showing itself capable of dealing with its multicultural legacy, it is to be hoped that Ukraine will indeed build up new contours of memory, an openness to dialogue, and a sense of its participation in European civilization. Galicia existed on both sides of today’s border separating Poland from Ukraine. Our mission at the Galicia Jewish Museum is to provide our visitors with a present-day glimpse of that past and the challenges of understanding and coming to terms with that, for the sake of both the present and the future.


Jonathan Webber, Professor at the Jagiellonian University, Kraków

Co-author of the Traces of Memory exhibition at the Galicia Jewish Museum


The Possibility of a Bridge

My grandparents, like many other residents of Lviv, came to the city only after the war.  Jewish heritage was not something they or anyone much talked about.  At school we were told nothing about Lviv’s Jewish community and its tragic fate.  General and impersonal statements about Lviv as the city of multiple cultures were considered sufficient.  When I first heard about the mysterious Golden Rose as a child, it seemed like a fairy tale, and when my mother showed me the actual place––a forgotten and neglected synagogue in ruins, surrounded by an ugly fence––I was deeply confused.  

My own confusion might be considered one aspect of what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory,” the situation in which places become anchors of memory not only for those who knew and left them, but for later generations with no direct experience themselves.  The predicaments of postmemory are palpable in regions like eastern Galicia today.  When the descendants of Jews from eastern Galicia travel to the lands of their ancestors, they find only traces of the stories of their parents––dilapidated synagogues, cemeteries or just empty spaces.  On the other side, Ukrainians who are contemporary inhabitants of formerly Jewish landscapes often lack knowledge of this heritage, and interest in it.  It is hard to say whether the lack of knowledge is responsible for the lack of interest, or vice-versa.  Jews and Ukrainians are both inheritors of Ukraine’s history, but is hard to escape the impression that apart from local guides or genealogists, there is little intersection between them.  So what can bridge them?

Jason Francisco’s “An Unfinished Memory” is precisely a work of culture-bridging.  The project sets forth an honest––if not always easy––dialogue about places of Jewish heritage in eastern Galicia today, and the people who live in and with them.  It is a work of empathy and anthropological depth, and a work of repair for Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles. For unexpected reasons, the work also speaks to the future of Ukraine itself.  By coincidence, Francisco made the project in the winter and spring of 2014, the most dramatic period of country’s post-Soviet history.  Some in Ukraine might say that now––a time of military aggression, territorial losses and deep inner conflict––the moment is not right to discuss the situation of Jewish heritage.  However, it is precisely these turning points that determine what Ukraine will become.  With many refugees fleeing dangerous regions of our country, and an unwinding spiral of conflict that may slowly habituate people to violence and dehumanization of opponents, I cannot escape the bitter impression that something similar happened here less than a century ago, albeit on a larger and more tragic scale.  In this sense, “An Unfinished Memory” is not just about the past.  For me as a Ukrainian, it is a plea for open and honest discussion about our past and its darkest pages, and a plea that we think about the consequences of our actions now.  It is a work that speaks urgently about the value of peace and reconciliation.

Anna Susak

Lviv Center for Urban History


The Holocaust in eastern Galicia

The events of the Second World War, both during the Soviet occupation of eastern Galicia (1939-1941) and especially during the Nazi German occupation (1941-1944), were catastrophic for Jewish life.  Without exception, every Jewish community was wrecked.  The Germans and their collaborators killed Jews in myriad ways:  some died by gas and some by bullets, some in deportations and some in roundups, some by disease and some by hunger, some by exhaustion and some by fighting.  Jews accounted for over 70% of total non-combat related deaths in eastern Galicia during the war (and almost 95% of eastern Galician non-combat deaths when factoring out the city of Lviv itself), though Jews represented under 15% of eastern Galicia’s total population in the interwar period.  Altogether, of the 656,000 Jews living in eastern Galicia in 1939, over 85% were murdered during the Holocaust.  In the years following the war, most of the Jews who survived emigrated, so that the Jewish population in eastern Galicia in 1959 was just over 4% of what it was twenty years earlier.  Today, the Jewish population in eastern Galicia is estimated at fewer than 10,000 of a total population of approximately 5 million, or .2%.   

The majority of the killing occurred in the 18 months following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.  The Jews of eastern Galicia were subjected to two distinct types of genocidal actions.  First, they fell victim to the massacres of the specially designed mobile killing squads, principally comprised of German SS and Order Police units––known collectively as Einsatzgruppen––working in collaboration with local civilians and Ukrainian police.  These squads fanned out behind the German advance and murdered Jews in their own communities.  Second, the Jews of eastern Galicia were subjected to the system of ghettoization and deportation to industrially-designed extermination camps.  The Germans established thirty-three such ghettos in the eastern Galicia, plus at least 55 forced labor camps, including the infamous Janowska Street camp in Lviv.  From these ghettos and camps, approximately 345,000 eastern Galician Jews were shipped to the Bełżec death camp in Western Galicia.  Of the half-million Jews murdered at Bełżec during its brief but lethal existence from March-December 1942, eastern Galician Jews accounted for 70-80%.  Altogether, while the Nazis failed in their plans for global domination, nowhere more than in eastern Galicia did they realize the most consistently articulated element of their ideology and policy, namely the physical elimination of the Jewish people.   

Against this history, the pervasive non-recognition of the Holocaust in contemporary western Ukraine is a delicate subject.  Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, western Ukrainian historical memory has focused strongly on the guerrilla organizations that waged an unsuccessful armed struggle for an independent Ukraine during the Second World War.  Stepan Bandera and other leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) are widely celebrated.  For many Ukrainians, however, and also for many Jews and Poles, these organizations and their leaders remain highly controversial, if not altogether deplorable.  It is no secret that OUN/UPA actively collaborated with the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust in what is today western Ukraine, and waged a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against tens of thousands of Poles.  

But here one must be careful, as it would be wrong to suggest that the popularity of OUN/UPA today signals a broad fascist resurgence in western Ukraine, or anti-Semitism as a staple of mainstream Ukrainian politics.  Neither is the case.  On the contrary, western Ukrainians today overwhelmingly favor a pluralistic society, democratic reform, and European integration.  For most western Ukrainians, Bandera serves as a figurehead not for the chauvinistic ethnic nationalism that he himself championed, rather for a moderate patriotism much like that found in every European country.  In effect, the political culture in contemporary western Ukraine has created a “useable history” from the ultra-nationalist legacy by trading on a compromise of silence about the genocidal war crimes of its re-minted heroes.  One can only hope that in the future, Ukrainian political culture will find alternative sources of patriotic pride.

Jason Francisco