About Jewish Lviv and the Deliberate Erasure of Historical Memory: Andrii Pavlyshyn

Andrii Pavlyshyn. Copyright: Photo provided by Andriy Pavlyshyn.

Our guest in the “Encounters” studio is Andrii Pavlyshyn, a Lviv-based historian, translator, and lecturer at the UCU [Ukrainian Catholic University]. In 2015 he became the first Ukrainian translator in the last sixty-five years to be awarded a prestigious prize by the Polish PEN Club for his translations of Polish literature. Our conversation with Mr. Pavlyshyn begins with a local topic: the Old Market neighborhood and St. Theodore’s Square, where this program for Hromadske Radio is being recorded in the hospitable premises of Lviv’s Mediateka.

Iryna Slavinska:  We’ll begin with the observation that we are at St. Theodore’s Square, in the Lviv Mediateka. Before the recording we began talking about the significance of this place. From this special topos a very special Lviv emerges—interurban, intercultural, and even somewhat criminal. Let’s talk about this.

Andrii Pavlyshyn:  I would prefer it if we didn’t talk too much about this, even though there is an immense amount of material here. Yet it forms no part of the Ukrainian cultural discourse.

St. Theodore’s Square is a legendary square in Lviv, where the international mafia was born. In the mid-nineteenth century this was one of the hubs of Lviv’s Jewish quarter. This was a place where a Hasidic synagogue was built nearby. A little later the Tempel Synagogue was built at the top, and between all those assorted synagogues, at the heart of the Jewish quarter, operated enterprising boys who invented a specific language—a slang so that outsiders would not understand them, many words of which we use to this day without knowing that they were born in Lviv…

Iryna Slavinska:  Specifically on the basis of Yiddish?

Andrii Pavlyshyn:  Mostly on the basis of Yiddish, and the Polish language, as well as various onomatopoeia. A lot has been said about this, for example, in the well-known dictionary of Ukrainian slang vocabulary.

This place is very tragic because pogroms and various kinds of massacres took place here during the twentieth century, and after the Second World War the remnants of Lviv Jewry gathered here on St. Theodore’s Square, those eight hundred Jews—out of 103,000 Lviv Jews—who survived the war. They lived mostly in the vicinity of this square, until they emigrated, not having the strength to continue living in a city that was a complete cemetery of their closest relatives and friends. Lviv Jews today are mostly those Jews who came here from other areas, from other cities, who are continuing this Judaic tradition in the religious sense and, through Yiddish or Hebrew, in the linguistic and cultural sense. But most often these people are no longer connected biographically with this city.

On one of the spurs of St. Theodore’s Square is the small Vuhilna Street, where one of the few preserved synagogues in Lviv [Jakub Glanzer’s Synagogue] stands, and the Sholom Aleichem Society is located in it. This synagogue was built in the 1840s. It is one of a few in Lviv that remain intact, because the Nazis consistently destroyed them, blowing them up with explosives, and burning [them down]. Like the Tempel, which is a bit higher from here, where they brought in flamethrowers and fire trucks to the Old Market Square. They poured water on the surrounding buildings, but they poured flames from flamethrowers onto the synagogue, the gigantic synagogue that occupied nearly the entire square. On this site today there is a small mound covered with grass, a monument, and a square.

This happens often in Lviv. When you see some bare area in the central part [of the city] whose surface is higher than the normal level, then this is a place where a synagogue destroyed by the Nazis once stood, and nothing is usually built on this spot. Or markets crop up. There is a bazaar nearby that is built on a hill, on the ruins of the Great Suburb Synagogue, a beautiful Renaissance monument built by Paul the Roman [Paolo Dominici Romanus] in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The Great Suburb Synagogue in Lviv. Copyright: “Wielka Synagoga Przedmiejska.” A collection of glass negatives held at the National Museum of Lviv. Public Domain license, Wikipedia Commons.

Iryna Slavinska:  While we're on this subject, this brings us to a very interesting topic of conversation. This year I have been frequently reminded of quotations from Martin Pollack’s Poisoned Landscapes, which talks about the phenomenon that you just described. There is a place where something once existed or where some terrible event occurred, like the mass shootings during the Holocaust, which later remains empty and in fact invisible, that is, it is absent from public memory. There is supposedly nothing there, and nothing supposedly took place, and one can supposedly not remember this. If we are talking about Lviv as a city that experienced many tragic events and, in particular, as you said, the destruction of architectural monuments—synagogues, for example—to what extent are these “empty places” involved in urban memory? How much do contemporary Lvivites—ordinary, average residents of the city as well as researchers—remember this? To what extent is this aspect included in the discourse on Lviv?

Andrii Pavlyshyn:  Memory does not emerge in and of itself. It is formed consciously, and in the given case we are dealing with the completely deliberate erasure of this historical memory. Lviv is inhabited mostly by non-Lvivites, people who came here after the Second World War, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and are not connected at all with this city, with its real landscapes; who do not have family narratives connected with certain streets, squares, or individual buildings. This historical memory must be formed in them. It is necessary to tell them about this. But very often even historians do not have complete information about concrete sites.

Iryna Slavinska:  They don’t have it or do not want it?

Andrii Pavlyshyn:  These sites were destroyed, and for many decades they lay simply outside the attention of historians. When something lies outside the attention of historians, then documents connected with some event are shelved. They must be found. Sometimes, even when you want to do this very much, it is difficult because you have to know where to look. If you don’t know, you can expect only happenstance or you wrack your brains searching through enormous quantities of documents, which is what we are doing today.

We historians of the middle generation, and to a larger extent our younger colleagues, belong to this group of people who are connected to Lviv as our birth place but who are not connected to it through genetic memory. We do not have historical narratives with it. We do not have grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, or some other relatives whom we can ask about something. We ourselves should pave certain paths.

In places like Lviv, which experienced very many traumatic events, particularly in the twentieth century, there also exists a certain fear of this trauma; a reluctance by people to live in an environment that is disfigured, or “tarnished” by some horrific events. People don’t want to accept this into their consciousness. They push out of their consciousness the fact that people were shot beneath their windows, that some monuments of architecture or religious faith were burned down, that everything that could be persecuted was indeed persecuted. They have an atavistic fear of this, and they are afraid that in some way evil can creep onto them. That is why they do not allow this to penetrate their memory. And I understand them. This has to be overcome gradually.

Another thing is that I very much dislike shameless hucksters who, for the sake of a trifling income, are ready to sell their own mother, and it is pointless to talk about monuments of culture and architecture with them.

For example, there is a Jewish cemetery in Lviv. It functioned for nearly seven hundred years, and in terms of the riches of its interred spiritual potential is second only to the magnificent Prague cemetery. The many meters above Jewish bones now serve as the foundations of the grounds of the Krakivsky Market. This is a well-known story, and no U.S. Congress and no government of Ukraine was able to do anything with the directorship of this market, which was offered another location numerous times. Some ideas were proposed in order to alter and restore this place which is sacred to Jews, inasmuch as reburial is not practiced in the Jewish religion. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to do this.

Alongside the maternity hospital on Rappaport Street, the former Jewish public hospital and shelter for seniors, there is a tiny museum displaying the fragments of matzevahs collected in the area. These are remnants of Jewish gravestones of course, which were flung by the sea of history onto the shores of contemporaneity, the writing on which can no longer be deciphered.

I would not like to paint an acute situation. Well, perhaps I have a Winnie-the-Pooh type of character, a person who tries to solve a problem not through conflict but through explanation, enlightenment, culture, and dialogue, realizing that much time will be needed for this. And it is not out of the question that this will be dealt with by our children, grandchildren, and the next generations. The city of Lviv is a palimpsest. A city with a layer of inhabitants has been erased from the face of the earth. And that new cultural stratum that emerged in it after the Second World War is very gradually fusing with its foundation, with the root, with the past.

The Ukrainian community predominates in Lviv. There is a temptation to focus exclusively on its cultural and spiritual heritage. Until the Second World War three ghettoes existed: Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish. Like three autistic children, they did not communicate with anyone, but were closed inside themselves. After the Second World War the Jews were exterminated, the Poles were expelled from here. Only the Ukrainians remained, and among contemporary Ukrainians, who have not completely put down roots in this historic, centuries-old soil of Lviv, there is a temptation—perhaps even a fear or a phobia—to re-establish the interwar situation and rebuild this autistic version of a closed Ukrainian culture that is cut off from external influences. Naturally, this is a false path. It’s the same thing as swaddling a small child and not hardening it, not giving it a chance to develop organically in fights and in friendship with its peers. Such a child will grow up to be sickly, nonviable, uncompetitive, and poorly socialized.

It’s the same thing with Ukrainian culture. If it does not absorb those components that developed on this soil over the centuries—Polish, Jewish, Armenian, Austro-German, Hungarian, and perhaps some others smaller in size but important in terms of impact—it will not be organic. It will not be viable. It will simply not be prudent in handling what it inherited.

Ukrainian culture here in Lviv is a multilingual, multireligious, and multi-genre culture. It is a culture that is open to many different spheres and environments, and this gives it strength. It does not weaken it, as our opponents believe. In fact, they would like to transform Ukrainianness into a kind of monoculture, to plant all possible fields with corn.

The old Jewish cemetary in Lviv was located within the bounds of today’s Rappaport, Kleparivska, Brovarna, and Bazarna streets on the site of the contemporary Krakivsky Market. Copyright: Center for Urban History of East Central Europe.

Iryna Slavinska:  But this must be recognized. I mean if we talk about the interpretation of Ukrainian cultures as multiplistic, where many languages are heard, where there are various religions, nations, and cultures. Including not only ethnocentric or religiocentric ones. This does not happen all by itself. This can be a movement for constructing a new understanding of culture. If we use as a point of departure the example of the Krakivsky Market described by you, which is located on the site of the former cemetery, and whose management is not engaging in dialogue and does not take action to revive this historic site, this gives me grounds for adopting a pessimistic attitude. Do those people who could reckon with this diversity, are they prepared to consider it? In your opinion, is there an inclination toward taking this into account, and who could help [them] understand this? The government, public intellectuals, artists, residents? But then who is supposed to organize them?

Andrii Pavlyshyn:  Let’s begin by saying that in our activities we should always reckon with the possibility that we may fail. We are not little children, who seek to win at any cost and see the sense of the game in this. We should recognize that we may fail, but we can also win. But this will not be a total victory. We never play a zero-sum game because this is a very bad game. It is not necessary to have illusions. There will always be people who, no matter how you rail at them, will still be xenophobes, who will fear outsiders, who will have complexes, who will be deaf to the buzzing of a different word or a different idea, or something else that does not fit into the established framework of their view of the world. There are such people even in highly developed civilizations—American, French, German—and there’s nothing you can do about this.

It is not necessary to aim at convincing people one hundred percent. One must set oneself the task of convincing those whom we can persuade and to do this with the help of translations into the Ukrainian language of the religious, historical, philosophical, and literary texts of those people who lived in the very same space in which we live, in order to demonstrate that we are the heirs of the tradition that they created; to try and incorporate this tradition into the contemporary cultural process.

Knowledge and light—this is the first step toward vanquishing the darkness that is the foundation, the basis, of many fears. Once we begin to understand the Other, once we get to know him quite well, once he is no longer to us a foreigner behind some kind of dark wall, then dialogue, interaction, communication, and conversation are possible with him. In my opinion, these are vital things that, nonetheless, many do not perceive. For this, a lot of hard work is required. Resources are needed for this. Various institutions would have to become involved.

I have placed and continue to place the greatest hopes on civic society. I believe that the state can simply create a normal, institutional framework for such processes, monitor compliance with the rights and freedoms of citizens, maintain order [and] compliance with the law, ensure effective judicial procedure [and] police order; that is, to create a general framework. But we, as a civic society, are called to converse with the most diverse milieus, to present our views, to create a cultural infrastructure, to publish texts, to create radio programs, television programs, films, and theater productions. And in the process, to reveal Otherness, which ceases to be frightening. Only once we learn, to an adequate degree, about the terrain on which we reside, will it be possible to take the next steps.

Some things however require urgent implementation, like, let’s say, the territory of the Janowska concentration camp, practically a death camp, the grounds of which, one of a handful in Europe, are disgracefully neglected. And this is a task for the state. Considerable state funding is needed here, and it should not be spared, inasmuch as this reflects the image of the state, inasmuch as this is its image in the outside world. In today’s Europe those who do not understand the role of the Holocaust in the formation of contemporary rights awareness, in the sense of human rights and freedoms, in the striving to ensure that mass killings are not repeated—such states do not have authority. They do not have prospects, and they will never be taken seriously at the great European or international table of civilized nations.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we continue this topic about Ukraine’s look and image, then it is obvious that to this day, as a result of such disgraceful things like the neglected grounds of the Janowska ghetto, Ukraine may often appear to various people as a country where there are problems with antisemitic moods. We have already begun talking about this, especially about the fact that there will always be people who are xenophobes.

Andrii Pavlyshyn:  It would be worthwhile creating an image by appealing to the past, to cultural traditions, to the multiethnic nature of certain territories. This path is most likely a productive one. The memorialization of victims, the memorialization of culture, of cultural and creative achievements, are essential. But understanding that this is not a panacea is also needed. No matter how much money is allocated into such things, whether in America, France, or Germany, a considerable segment of people with antisemitic convictions, xenophobes, will remain. This is what we will have to live with.

Iryna Slavinska:  Continuing this subject, I have to ask you to clarify such things as, for example, the existence in Lviv of a so-called Jewish tavern, where the menu is based on frequently not very pleasant jokes about Jewish-Lviv contexts. This is what Andrii Pavlyshyn told me.

Andrii Pavlyshyn:  This restaurant invokes the mighty artifact that is Jewish humor, which is not always just white but also black. It is one that ridicules the rules of the Jews themselves: their own shortcomings, their own sides, etc. And I think that the whole scandal that exists around this restaurant is in fact a scandal surrounding what is quite a lucrative area in the tourist center of Lviv, which generates big earnings, on the one hand.

On the other hand this is an artificially engineered scandal that must stimulate, just like the Kryivka Restaurant, which has already had eight million visitors. And other projects.  Commercial enterprises. What is important in Lviv is not that such phenomena as this restaurant exist, but that alternatives exist, that the possibility of choice exists. And that’s how it must be. We should not reduce everything to a monoculture, we should not force everyone to think and act the same way.

For me it is significantly more important that the Lviv authorities have finally undertaken to improve the area of the synogogues, including the Great City Synagogue, of which only mere traces remain, the Turei Zahav Synagogue opposite, which is traditionally called the Golden Rose or Nachmanowicz Synagogue, three walls of which remain. This site is recorded to a considerably larger extent. It was overgrown with some sort of thickets, covered with garbage, and enclosed by a fence. Right now some kind of landscaping is finally being done. One may discuss whether it is worth restoring the synagogue there or turning it into a museum.



All the paths are in fact good because, as I repeat, we are not playing a zero-sum game. We are trying to develop human capital, and for the development of human capital these suggested paths, except for the most destructive, are good.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated by Marta Olynyk.
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger.