Saturday, July 8, 2023

Life and memory in Lviv

The tragic death of Victoria Amelina in Kramatorsk, Ukraine on June 27 in a Russian missile attack against civilian targets makes me think of her writings about Ukraine. Here is a good example -- "Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened" (link), published in Arrowsmith. Amelina refers to Timothy Snyder's use of the phrase "bloodlands" to refer to both the geography and the history of atrocity, genocide, and murder that unfolded over two decades across Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and the USSR, and that has now resumed in Ukraine. Here is a moving obituary in the Guardian (link).

Here are several sentences from "Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened" about Lviv:

My hometown is located right in the middle of the “bloodlands” — in western Ukraine. Lviv was founded in 1256 by Danylo, King of Ruthenia. However, the German-speaking world might remember it as Lemberg in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The Poles recall the same city as Lwów. During the too-long life of the Soviet Union, Lviv grew Russified: many of its new citizens called it L’vov.

My grandparents moved there in the 50s and 70s, leaving behind their own family stories about the deadly 30s and 40s in central and eastern Ukraine, which had been the epicenter of the genocidal famine. By the time they settled in Lviv, almost none of the city’s prewar inhabitants remained. Only a handful of natives might have offered a first-person account of what the city had been like before the war. In 1939, Lviv was home to about 110,000 Jews, comprising fully a third of its population. By 1945, fewer than a thousand survivors remained.

The Soviet system never commemorated the Holocaust. One reason for this is that once you define and identify one genocide, you can recognize other genocidal crimes. The Soviet empire didn’t want us to learn our history. Decades of Soviet education and censorship ensured that even after the USSR collapsed, many in Lviv failed to realize the striking proximity of the Holocaust.

It is piercingly sad to read these lines by such a talented young woman about her hometown in Lviv, and to know that she died in Kramatorsk, some 1,200 kilometers to the east, under atrocious missile attack by the Russian state. The tragedies of Ukraine seem never to end.

The city of Lviv exemplifies the turmoil of life in Poland and Ukraine over the course of the past century. Lviv, Lemberg, Lwów, L’vov -- each iteration represented a cultural and political shift of identities, and often a movement of families and peoples as well. And with the Holocaust, the killing of the vast majority of the Jews of Lviv changed the city from an important center of Jewish life into an emptiness. (Here is a historical overview of Jewish Lviv; link.)

Timothy Snyder's 2003 book, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 is important reading today. Here is a vignette of the many transformations of a single town in Galicia, Kolomya (Ukraine) -- roughly 200 kilometers from Lviv:

When the statue of Lenin in the Galician town of Kolomya was dismantled, its pedestal was seen to be constructed from Jewish tombstones. Kolomya, today, is a town in southwestern Ukraine. In 1939-41 and 1945-91 it was a town in southwestern Soviet Ukraine, between 1941 and 1944 a town in the Nazi Generalgouvernement, before the Second World War a town in Poland's Stanislawow slawow province, before the First World War a town in Austrian Galicia, before 1772 a town in the Polish Kingdom's Ruthenian province. Until the Final Solution of 1941-42, Kolomya was, whatever its rulers, a Jewish town. The absence of Jews, in Kolomya as throughout Eastern Europe, coincided for forty years with the presence of communist rule. (Kindle Locations 115-119)

The passage is significant for several reasons. The historical fact of the use by the Soviet regime of Jewish tombstones to provide the foundation for a statue of Lenin is entirely revealing about the persistent anti-semitism of the Soviet regime throughout its history. The demographic and cultural transformation of Kolomya following from the physical destruction of Kolomya's Jewish population was a permanent change in its history -- like the same circumstances in countless towns and cities in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus. Kiev, Lviv, Berdichev, Miropol -- all fundamentally transformed by the murder of Ukraine's Jews. This is the fundamental tragedy captured in Vasily Grossman's 1943 essay "Ukraine without Jews" (link):

There is a long list of Ukrainian towns and villages where I found myself while working as a special correspondent for the paper Red Star. I was in Satrobel’sk, Svatov, Muntsisk, Tsapuika, Voroshilovgrad, Krasnodon, Ostro, Iasotin, Borispol, Baturin... I was in hundreds of villages, farms, settlements, and fishing outposts on the shores of the Desna and Dnieper, in steppe farms encircled by pastures, in solitary little tar houses existing in a constant shadow of huge pine forests, and in beautiful hamlets whose thatched roofs are hidden beneath canopies of fruit trees.

If one was to gather into a single place all of the stories and images that I witnessed during those days and months in Ukraine, it would amount to a horrifying book about colossal injustice: forced labour and secret beatings, children deported to Germany, burnt houses and looted warehouses, evictions onto squares and streets, pits where those suspected of having sympathy for or connections with partisans were shot, humiliations and mockery, vulgar cursing and bribes, drunken and erratic behaviour, and the bestial depravity of reckless, criminal people in whose hands rested the fate, life, integrity and property of many millions of Ukrainian people for two long years. There is no home in a single Ukrainian town or village where you will not hear bitter and evil words about the Germans, no home where tears have not flowed during these past two years; no home where people do not curse German fascism; no home without an orphan or widow. These tears and curses flow like streams to an immense river of collective grief and fury; day and night, its troubles and pain roar beneath a Ukrainian sky that has been darkened by the smoke of raging fires.


And it occurred to me that just as Kozary is silent, so too are the Jews in Ukraine silent. In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere—not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin. You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls.

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered. ("Ukraine without Jews")

Victoria Amelina sought to document the tragedy and atrocity that have once again engulfed Ukraine. The atrocious and lawless war of aggression initiated by the Russian Federation and its tyrant, Vladimir Putin rivals the crimes of Stalin and Hitler against the people of Ukraine. Once again innocent Ukrainian men, women, and children are being murdered, their cities and lives destroyed, and a new chapters of crimes against humanity are being written.

Victoria Amelina, your life ended too soon, and your courage is inspiring.

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