By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
From Kiev to Lviv: First impressions
The sun sets slowly in April, the trees have still not got their leaves back, and Kiev’s Borispol airport doesn’t seem to have anything in it. Yes the new looking terminal has all the elements of an airport, such as tarmacs and buses to ferry people back and forth to waiting planes, and long corridors. But there is no food it seems. No Starbucks. And this is Ukraine International Airlines hubs, right?
We are traveling to Ukraine with a group of Israeli journalists and tour guide operators for a tour of the tourism possibilities of the region and trying to rehabilitate the image of Ukraine, scarred by the recent war with Russian separatists in the East of the country. But Ukraine is a huge country, so the conflict is not here in the West.
The Kavalier hotel is located in an industrial district about 10 minutes from the center. The area alternates between forested hills and old homes. There is a mix of decayed urban environment and some new development. Similarly the cars alternate between old Ladas and new Mercedes.
Friday morning is gloomy with the sun trying to peak through the overcast sky. Some of the bushes are in bloom.
The soil looks distressed, like it could wash away in a flood and is barely anchored by the slight trees that grow unnatural from it. One wants to think this is the land the Nazis traversed on their way to Moscow, or that Napoleon may have camped on.
The architecture has a sort of central European feel, correct for Galicia which is a sort of nether-region of empires. influenced by the Polish, Lithuanians and others. Large, powerful, stone-anchored Catholic churches dominate parts of the landscape. Its clear Soviet times never erased this local culture, and the city Lviv itself feels natural, not like this fake Soviet cities. This owes to the fact, say the locals, that it was not harmed in the war, unlike Kiev which was destroyed.
Day 1 Lviv city center
We drive downtown, over the hills and find ourselves in the city center. Like the country around it is a mix. Old trams from the Soviet times rumble down the street mixing with modern trams. People sell magazines and trinkets, there is a memorial to fallen soldiers in the recent war. But there is also a banner for the new Lviv, the one that wants to be a destination for tourism. The architecture shows the rich heritage here, but all of it could use a restoration. The details are there, of buildings dating back hundreds of years.
At the city hall we have a coffee at a restaurant located in the stately ground floor. The walls are adorned with paintings of the former mayors, resplendent in European pomp. Austro-Hungarian Emperor young Franz Yosef adorns the wall. Before WWI that decrepit empire was the power here. It is a reminder Lviv was the capital of this region and a center of culture for hundreds of years.
The mayor Andriy Sadovyy arrives. He was on the flight with us yesterday from Kiev. He speaks some English and Russian.
“Thank you for coming, we are passing through a tough security situation, it is important you are here and understand our situation here. We understand what Israel faces because we are trying to get through a situation. We have a Jazz festival of all of Eastern Europe. They want to also make people feel comfortable to come to Ukraine and we want to learn from Israel about technology and security. We have wonderful Galician cuisine, which is very tasty.”
As much as they talk about Galician food, the breakfast is famishing. Here is a bit of meat, a biscuit, some cakes. Decent coffee, after all there should be the influence of Vienna out here if the empire once sat upon this area. “We want to make this city a world heritage city, like Prague,” says the mayor. Tourist infrastructure exists. There is a colorful tourist mini-train. Signs are in latin characters and cyrillic. Signs point the way to major landmarks. “We have much to offer, we have pretty houses and architecture, like Prague, Bucharest, Belgrade or Bratislava. This can be a weekend destination.” The mayor discusses the Jewish history here and the Holocaust. He is proud that there is an honorary Israeli consul in the city. He sees a lot of tourist potential for Israelis who want to visit the region.
Reviving Lvov’s (Lviv) Jewish Quarter
Lviv once sat at the intersection of empire and civilization. Jews were the second largest group in the city, after the Polish residents. People spoke German, Yiddish and Polish on the eve of the First World War. Today the Jewish quarter and most of the memory of the 150,000 Jewish residents lies in ruins. The once thriving Jewish quarter is a ramble of streets, with a few sleepy cafes.
The quarter once had a great synagogue and city planners, Jewish community members and foreign experts are attempting to revive the quarter. The latest plan involves trying to highlight where the Great Synagogue once stood. Today what we see is just plans. Corrugated metal sourounds a small park where there is a retaining wall of the synagogue that was destroyed in 1943. A cafe lines a small plaza where the Bima once stood. The remains of the city wall and Arsenal line the square.
“We want to make a more interactive display and we are trying to figure out what best to highlight,” explains a local historian named Sofia Dyak, (director of The Center for Urban History of East Central Europe), involved in the project.
A tour of the city takes us along the wide avenues and pedestrian walking areas of the center. There are passageways with grafitti, and buildings are marked with the date of their foundation. Some date as far back as the 16th century. There is a coffeeshop from 1715, from the height of Viennese coffee-culture. At the Rius hotel an elevator whisks one to the seventh floor and a rooftop view. Other venues seem to have discovered that developing the rooftops of Lviv will be nice for tourists. But some of these venues are still under construction. One can see an old hospital and the spires of the cathedrals, the tower of city hall, the old opera house. The city guide explans, “Lviv is not an open air museum, museums are dull, it is a living city where one can see the blending of old and new through the different cultures.” She points in the distance. “There is the oldest hospital in this region, the oldest beer brewery in Eastern Europe, the oldest hotel called the George is here and you can stay at it.”
We pass the Tommy Hilfiger store where we realize that despite inflation due to the war, prices are steep, almost $100 for a shirt. Along the avenues people sell flowers (dafadils). It is a bustling city center, where some 100,000 students come to study. But there are few signs of foreign tourists.
At the Baczewski restaurant we hear about a Jewish owned alcohol factory that was one of the oldest and grandest in the region. It is handsomely decorated with old world furnishings and posters from the time that it sold alcohol. An eclectic gift shop still sells yarmulkes and also infused Vodka.
But the cuisine is lacking. Matza and gefilte fish are on the table, as are beet based things. Courses that come make the apetite even more depressed. Tasteless chicken soup,a boring salad, some sort of stuffed chicken. A local woman says the cuisine in general here is not special. Influences may be diverse from Austria and Poland, but Austrian and Polish food is not something to boast of.
A representative from the honorary consulate of Israel in Lviv speaks about how there will soon be direct flights to Tel Aviv. She talks about the klezmer festival and the numerous jewish and cultural organizations involved in promoting culture in the city. She estimates around 1,000-5,000 Jews still live here. Another historian gives a discussion about the history of the area. He highlights the founder of liberal economic theory Mizes who was also Jewish. “Many prominent people came here, we have this Jewish and Austrian heritage, thats important for the next generation, and it should be of interest to tourists.” She notes that in the 1990s Lviv neglected its diverse history. “People were trying to survive” and there was more nationalism. A reminder of that can we seen on Prospet avenue where Svaboda has set up a booth and an old woman hands out anti-semitic literature.
Jewish history seems to seep from everywhere. We drive past a university, and it once had 50% Jewish academics. We pass a 3,500 person seating church on Plaza S. Yavorskoho. During Soviet times it was converted to a book repository. Then it is an ample across Prospect Svaboda with the statue of the poet Shevchenao. A national poet.
We embark on a tour of hotels. Leopolis, once called LeoGrad, is a nice multi-floored hotel with a spacious spa. Rooms are from 80-400 Euros. Rooms are well appointed. Then it is back to Rius. We have a Yiddish musical performance. Across the way was a Jewish neighborhood after 1848 when the Haskala and liberal values allowed them to leave their quarter. A theatre here even hosted Shalom Aleichem.
Casamer the Great and his Jewish lover Esther invited Jews from Poland who had more rights to migrate. When did Jews first come here the guide asks? It turns out there is no clear answer.
Now we see a monument to the victims of the Communist regime. A prison for political prisoners from Polish to Soviet times.
We come to the Greek-Catholic church near the oldest park in Ukraine on Svyatogo Ula street; the legacy of Catholicism is strong here due to the Austrian-Hungarian influence and Polish influence; and the Greek-Catholic is a blend. During the Holocaust Andrei Sheptitski, helped hide Jews here.
Now the traffic begins. It is around 4pm on Friday. Near Copernicus hill. Here the buildings remind us of the 19th century buildings one finds in more cities in Europe, imposing, strong stone. We pass the Asoleum, once of the Asolinsky Polish family; but now a scientific library based on that Polish family’s collection.
Like many European cities we don’t see a lot of strollers or children.
Here is the Potosky family palace, based on French style. From the 19th century this family was omnipotent. Now the place is a national institution.
A Hotel Tour
We go to the Leopolis, five stars and decent, then the Rius, and after that the Atlas Delux and now the Nobilis. The Nobilis is the nicest of them so far, but with prices fluctuating it is hard to pin down how much it costs. It is very European and has ample staff; with classic greek columns at the entrance and plush bedrooms.
We discuss the Jewish cemetery and how it was closed in the 1850s, a new one built and then it was destroyed in the war. Surviving graves were put under a market and nothing exists.
Near the Nobilis hotel is a new McCafe, one of the few major western restaurants. It is a reminder there is no Starbucks here. The prevalence of new hotels begs the question where are the old hotels? Apparently there were not so many and those that did exist were “Soviet-style”, boxes of prison-like sparse rooms.
Why not stay in a castle
In 1848 with revolution breaking out across Europe, the Austra-Hungarians decided to fortify their hold on Lemberg (now Lviv). On top of a hill near the center they built a chain of 14 round identical forts. Over the years these fell into disrepair, some were even harmed in the Second World War.
A few years ago someone decided to built a hotel here called appropriately The Citadel. Round shaped on the inside, with 20 rooms and old cannons outside this is something to behold. To get to it one must navigate the dystopian world around the grounds though. The old haunted castles, the rumored 40 km of underground passageways. Once inside there is no Wi-Fi, in the lobby. Oddly. But it works perfectly outside the hotel and on the third floor. There is what seems to be a haunted secret, brick-lined passage on the first floor that seems to go down underground to unknown catacombs.. Music plays in the background.
The parapets on the third floor offer a beautiful panorama of Lviv. There is original art on the walls, but here on the third floor they become period maps from the 19th century showing the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is here you realize how Lemberg, now Lviv, was the anchor of the empire in the East on the border with the Russian Empire. It was a massive center of the region. How did this massive empire control this far off city, and also Dalmatia and the border with Italy? It shows how Lviv had a Western orientation.
At the dining room of the Citadel, there are brilliant concepts. Canons adorn the room and cannonballs as chandeliers. But the hotel seems unoccupied. It is a shame, such beauty going to waste perhaps. According to a local guide the place is often low on guests, except during holidays, the summer or for weddings and conferences. “Most people prefer to stay closer to the center,” she says. And she is right, this isn’t walking distance, and you’d have to navigate the creepy abandoned buildings and badly lit streets that adjoin the hotel grounds. For 120-200 Euros then you can stay in an exquisite one-of-a-kind accomidation, but your only company will be the geity depicted in the photos from the 19th century of soldiers boozing it up at the barracks nearby.
Holocaust and history
A drive through central Lviv takes one once again face to face with the machinery of death from the 1940s. The area of the Jewish ghetto the Nazis created has been erased. On the eve of the war it is estimated as many as 44% of the city was Jewish. By 1945 there were just 800 left. Some fled, some hid, some were saved; but many were confined to a ghetto and shipped away to death. A monument designed by a woman named Stern…___ now stands near a monumental Soviet era building. It shows a huge figure raising a fist to the sky. A plaque at its base has flowers, but it looks in slight disrepair. It was constructed in 1992 after a contest in the 1980s to design it. It demands that we not forget.
Lviv is also building a memorial the victims of communism across the street from the Holocaust memorial. To some this will raise questions of trying to equivocate between the two. For now we don’t know how that new monument will look.
Back at the city center the sun’s raise are getting long. Night will come around 8:30pm. Masses of young people are in the streets. At city hall a woman twirls fire. There are other street performers and some beggars. Just Lviv It, which is one of the city’s promotional tourism campaigns, distributes maps for a walking tour of area restaurants and attractions. First on the list is a cafe devoted to Masochism, whose eponymous founder was from here. A bronze statue to him has hands awkwardly placed on its body. Inside stools look like imprints of sexual organs and a woman with a whip welcomes the customers with a stinging beating. Red mood lighting and a menu with a chain complete the theme. It’s fascinating, but time to move on. The relaxed attitude to sex reminds one that many of the tourist brochures or hotel lobbies have advertisements for local strip clubs. But in the streets themselves there is little evidence of a lot of prurient interest. Couples don’t even seem to be holding hands.
A few doors down is a four story chocolate factory. On the second floor one can buy chocolate in the shape of lions, guns, or whatever one fancies. It is a reminder of the Austrian chocolate heritage. And as if that isn’t enough Viennese heritage, another cafe has a “coffee mine.” Apparently built atop a real mine, the shafts have been turned into little hidden places to seat. Patrons, in the dark almost, sip beers and conspire at tables. An open air concert is also being held. The night is coming to life. There is a real pleasant air about this city at night. Although some buildings are dilapitated or show signs of ware, there is a lot of inventiveness to the venues here. Another bar has a bronze dragon slithering out of the third floor windows.
Next to the ruins of the Golden Rose synagogue, the area the city wants to rehabilitate in the old Jewish quarter, is a Jewish themed restaurant called ‘at the Golden Rose’. It is full of nice old Jewish themes, paintings on the wall and some Hebrew here and there. The menu includes things like shakshuka and middle eastern cuisine as well as Ashkenazi favorites like gefilte fish. For some reason the price is “negotiable.” The food is a disappointment. It is as if to be Jewish food, it has to be bland and remind one of the peasant life. But from what the memory of the Jews of Lviv tells us, the Jews lived well here. Many were wealthy intellectuals. They built the first large shopping centers and some grand buildings. They dominated culture and the academy. They were not eating salads of liver and gefilte fish for a main course. For some it will be interesting to see a Jewish themed restaurant, but in a city with such a vibrant nightlife, there are better choices for a full meal.
I go out on the veranda for a beer. A cheerful woman who works for Ukrainian International Airlines, is already planted in the cold night air quaffing a beer and smoking Winstons. She’s attached to our little tour group and is involved with the airlines interest in promoting tourism to Lviv from Israel. “Direct flights will begin on 16 May, and may extend to winter season; once a week. currently flights are three times a day from Tel Aviv to Kiev,” the Ukrainian International Airlines representative says they think one weekly flight to Lviv will be worth it.
As I slip into a comfortable bathrobe back at the Kavalier hotel, the image of the barracks-like tent on Svaboda Prospect comes to mind. “They are recruiting soldiers for the front,” explained one onlooker. And people were collecting donations for the ambulance corp at the chocolate shop. This is still a country at war. It’s quiet here, but the air of nationalism is about. Blue and yellow flags flutter from a lot of balconies. Newspapers discuss the situation, and the latest news of “war crimes” carried out by separatist forces are blazoned at the top of the english language KyivPost.
Leaving the city
Once again we are struck by the soil, which looks like something from a Steinbeck novel. The forest is thin with little undergrowth. We drive past the largest park in the city and the military academy, which is the best in Ukraine. Mobile rocket launchers, missiles and other hardware is on display. Nearby is a massive memorial to the Second World War. Soldiers walk on the street. Accompanying us are two helpful coordinators from the Department of International Cooperation and tourism of the Lviv Region State Administration.
The old arsenal of the city was located next to the Jewish quarter. “The Jews were scared the powder stored there would be ignited by a lightening strike, but the community was lucky throughout the years.” Lucky for that, but not for the final destruction in 1941. It turns out that when Poland was invaded in 1939 that many refugees crowded the city, raising the Jewish community from 104,000 to 150,000. Some of the rich families were exiled by Stalin to Kazakhstan when Soviet forces overran what was then Eastern Poland. In retrospect the ruin of their family finances saved them from the Germans.
Driving out of the city the Soviet influence is felt. The dilapidated armies of 10 story apartment buildings. the wide avenues that leave the city have no side-streets except me small, sometimes dirt, roads that lead to side communities. This is the result of the collectivization of the Soviets that sought to concentrate people into apartments and remove people from the land and from organic living. But there are new things as well. Splendid churches with golden domes. A new stadium in a modernist design by an Austrian. A shopping mall boasts Zara.
The flat plains of Ukraine, which Khrushchev boasted of, are full of little villages, streets lined with houses on small plots of land which each resident seems to be farming. The people are planting in April, tilling the soil using horses and carts that look more appropriate to the last century. Along the roads the bus stops are decorated with Ukrainian themes and colors. “Ukraine slava” shouts one. Churches have been raised in these villages since the fall of Communism, with golden domes; crosses with Jesus adorn some yards, signs of the deep roots of religion here. The giant chickens are plump and full of feathers. Few other animals seem to exist, in fact there is little wildlife it seems in this region.
An ancient city, in the 19th century Drogobych was a salt capital of Europe, it an hour and a half drive from Lviv.. “If there was no salt from here, there was no salt in all of Europe,” claims a local historian. “They were drinking more champagne here than inVienna.” We are joined by a small delegation, including the mayor, a religious historian with a flowing beard and a soldier. This town was once immensely wealthy and its villas sparkled. When oil was found here it made it one of three major oil centers in he world at the time, after Texas and Baku.
but all those times are behind it. The town of 77,000 is struggling with its past. It has several important sites, such as a nice Saturday market, a synagogue and a wooden Church that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Besides that it is mostly run down and depressing. The UNESCO church of St. George is a wooden masterpiece. The bearded expert, who looks like he might be a heritage site unto himself, explains about the iconic etchings and paintings inside. One depicts a saint from Egypt named Mary who atoned for her sins. Others show men fighting serpents that represent the devil. A steep narrow stairway leads up to a walkway and the second floor. The church itself was originally constructed in the Carpathian mountains and then purchased by townspeople and reconstructed at the current cite.
A short drive to the center of town reminds one of this place’s history. Graffiti lines some shops. People seem depressed. Workmen repair a street. Dogs seem to inhabit every yard, and bark at visitors. The big name here is Bruno Schultz, a teacher, author and artist who was killed in the Holocaust. He wrote in Polish, unsurprisingly because he was at his fame during the Polish period between the wars.
A small museum in the ‘Palace of Art’ consists of one room but is well designed with English explanations of his life during the Soviet occupation. There is more information on Bruno Schulz here. The museum focuses on the period when Schulz found himself living under Soviet occupation in 1939 until the Nazi invasion of 1941. It is often forgotten but Stalin invaded Poland in alliance with Hitler in 1939. “Publication of all newspapers and journals was immediately stopped, centers of all political, civi, cultural and artistic organizations were closed, nationalization and confiscation of banks, enterprises and cooperatives, churches and property began,” explains one panel. It is a reminder of the brutality of the Soviet occupation. Jews, who had made up almost half the town, lost their property. Some were deported to Siberia. Poles fled. By the end of the war, with the Jews exterminated, and in 1945-1946 Polish residents were “repatriated” to Poland by the Soviets. Ukrainians, who had only been 27 percent of the town, became the vast majority by 1946, as some from Poland were resettled in the town. This Ukrainization happened across the region, in places like Lvov and as far as Odessa as well. Between Stalin and Hitler the minorities were virtually destroyed. The languages that were once spoken here, Yiddish and Polish, disappeared. The Latin alphabet was replaced by the Cyrrilic.
Across from a bustling bus stop, an adidas store and an eclectic market advertising products that make women beautiful, is the stately and grand “new synagogue.” Built in 1865, it was one of seventeen synagogues in a town that was once half Jewish. However, a story too familiar in this area of Galicia (where once lived the greatest concentration of Jews in the world), the 20,000 Jews fled or were killed in the war. Today only 150-200 remain. But the community is trying to renovate this massive building. This is the synagogue from the famous painting by Morris Gotlieb, ‘Yom Kippur’. A new coat of soft green paint has been applied and the outside looks new. Inside however is an empty hulk. Burned timbers make a half arch as one enters the huge arched complex, rising 50 meters. After the war the Communists turned this into a storage and then it was a furniture shop. The renovation has just begun and the walls, peeling to reveal the brick it was constructed from, also have Hebrew writing on them. Will they preserve this? Leonid Golberg, the director of the project says yes.
The playground of prime ministers and presidents
Down the road from Drohobych, nestled just beneath the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, is the spa town of Truskavets, founded in 1827. In the late 19th and early 20th century this was developed as a major regional tourist attraction. Locals used a unique wooden style construction, with multi-floored houses with intricate detail like gingerbread houses. Unlike some areas that were ruined during the war, the spa town was occupied by a rest are for a Luftwaffe unit and it was ringed by Nazi artillery units. For some reason this saved it from being destroyed, even though one would assume it would have been a target of the Soviet Red Army.
A large welcome sign has a map that shows the historic houses and the downtown area consists of a giant pedestrian park and avenue. The hosts claim that more than 220,000 visitors come to the town everyear. Security is present everywhere, which is inexplicable. At the end of the tree lined avenue, the air filled with sounds of a jazz musician playing for the public, is a long low-lying white building. This is where the public can sample the mineral “healing” waters from the springs. Extensive explanations in English and Russian indicate that the waters help with gastrointestinal issues and to “moderate the bowels.” The water itself has a sort of sulfur harsh taste, almost disgusting, given the fact that the throat expects to be drinking water. The large hallway where the public can take the water looks like what it is, something from the 1920s. One can imagine when it was in its prime, and lords and ladies and movie stars came here to “take the waters.” Nowadays it is a blend of kitsch and modernity and 1920s styles.
A short drive away stands the Apart-Hotel Chale Graal. the U-shaped main building is modern. But to get to it one must navigate the Soviet monstrosities constructed in the previous era. Hulking structures that look more fit to a post-apocalyptic movie-set than a “vacation” loom over the road; each almost identical with its concrete slab construction, leaking windows, and weeping appearance. The steps look like they were dislodged by giants. The one-time fountains are empty. I am informed people still come to these places or live in them. “People here on a pension are poor.” It is a reminder that Ukraine has had an economic crises in the last few years due to the inflation that saw the doll triple against the local currency, the Hryvnia (22 to the dollar at the moment).
The waters here are called Naftusia and supposedly cure everything from diabetes, to renovating liver sales; it is an anti-inflammatory and also deals with kidney stones, and “normalizes fat,” according to one presentation. One almost expects to be told that it not only inflames but also stops inflammation, makes the fat skinny and skinny fat.
At the Hotel Apart we are treated to a pleasant meal. Local customers who pay from 50 Euros to 150 for the rooms (including full board and pool), eat at a less-than-generous buffet bar. The rooms have terrible art depicting nature scenes, but the beds and balconies are scrumptious. The spa, located on the ground floor, is a tunnel-like structure, with rooms for various medical “diagnosis” as well as massage ($20 for an hour), and other therapies. There is a room that has salt walls and salt on the floor that looks like the Dead Sea; and where one is supposed to sit and inhale the salt particles. Another hallway leads to a roman bath, sauna, steam room and other rooms full of heat and sweat. Walls are lined with small tiles and heavy perfume wafts through the air. An exit from this heat and smell area brings one to a pretty small L-shaped pool with roof windows.
The road to Transcarpathia
The road from Truskavets crosses train tracks and makes a beeline out of town. The roads here are too strait. The towns crowd along them and the roads in the towns are potholed or dirt. Passing through these towns one can see spacious houses with large windows and powerful farms. Crossing the Styrr river the terrain changes. The houses take on a slightly different style with gabled roofs. There are pyramids of dried hay. This is the area of Skole, a ski area today but once the home of thriving communities of German immigrants who came here under Catherine the Great. Industrious Germans carved out communities along the river that cuts into the low lying hills.
The road follows the river and one can see tourist areas, some hotels, cafes. There are walking trails that are marked. The forest is still grey in April, but buds are coming on the trees. It is a mixed forest, some furs, a few birch, but mostly bare branches. On the heights of the hills there is still some snow.
The bus we are traveling in contains the rather honorable title of the “Israel delegation to the Lviv region.” Our colleagues are a comical mix of tour guides and a few journalists from Israel. Some of them came to Israel decades ago and grew up only with Israelis and their Hebrew is impeccable. But others, such as the young girl from Kharkov, are recent immigrants. T
The group is joined by a small army of guides. They speak off and on English. The current one has a German accent. She regals us about the hunting and how even relatives of Churchill came here. Winston came himself apparently.
Now a portly fat man is waiting for the bus at the side of a road. He is introduced as “Head of the village Soviet, representative of the President,” explains the guide. He wears a traditional shirt. Another woman translates for him that the road, which has become muddy and rutted, “we are working on this problem, due to all the traffic to the ski resort, we are trying to repair it.” The rutted road follows the valley, the houses are pretty, here and there a cross, one to some prince Vladimir, another to war memorials. A village comes and goes. Few people seem to be present. Men chop wood in a yard. But the houses are not small; they are all two tries tall, some are wood, others some kind of stucco.
“The population of the Skole region is 45,000, the lowest density in Ukraine and 70% of the area is covered by forests,” says the regional representative. He says prices for land have fallen by a factor of five in the last years. The road is getting worse. People are singing, girls are giggling. How would tourists access this region if they wanted? The local representative, with his red embroidered Ukrainian-folk-lore shirt, seems to resemble Khrushchev almost. This is the kind of long journey that ends with a broken down tourbus or a drinking session. Or both. These forests would do well in Maine but the trees are not so thick or tall.
Now the road improves, the the railway leaves the road for a bit and we enter Slav; a “well known ski resort”, but the river is back beside us. It’s flowing vast. “Trout swim here,” claims the representative.
The river Oper, that we’ve been traveling on floods from time to time, in 2008 some villages were cut off as it rose several meters. Here and there a train trestle bridge bisects it.
A fairyland in the woods
The Vezha Vedmezha hotel is something out of a dream. Perched alongside a river, it pokes out of an otherwise desolate rural wilderness like a fairytale. A castle-themed resort, this place is excellent for children and adults alike. Located in the Skole region at Volosjanka village; it is difficult to access. But it is well worth it. Waitstaff greet us with wine. Inside the walls are adorned with swords and there are helmets and period costume to try on. Rooms are carpeted and have heated bathroom floors. There is a ropes course down along the cold stream; paint balling, outdoor areas to cook and practice with a bow. A playroom caters to children and a bar to adults.
Dinner is served to our group at a long L-shaped table. The local mayor is with us and soon the dancing begins with a live band. Cognac and wine flow. The men begin a slow shuffle but soon everyone is in the mood. It reminds one of the scenes from ‘The Court of the Red Tsar’, but that’s just a stereotype to be sure. The food consists of numerous salads, mushrooms, pickled onions, nice blintzes, tasty potatoes. Everything is tasty. This place truly is a fairytale after a long day on the road. But beware the road getting here is bumpy and potholed and probably difficult to find without a local guide or know-how. The region is full of ski resorts and other hotels, that are more dingy. There are also hiking trails. This would be a good place to spend a week, but we only have a night of festivities.
The Polish plains
There is something intriguing and depressing about Ukraine. Many of the villages, especially under the gloomy low-haling ceiling of grey clouds, appear grey like the sky. The forests are wet. There seem to be few cars on the streets. The relics of Communism are everywhere in the giant old brutalist architecture; the grey hulking strucutres, rusted and awful. The expressions on the people’s faces are grim. There are not very many children. The pensioners here earn only $50 a year. With inflation, many people earn only $200 a month. One sees the old Soviet Ladas in some areas.
But there is a lot of creativity also. Bus stops are painted. Houses sometimes have artistic decorations and geometric type shapes; a cross in the yard or a nie circular painting to welcome people.
The three hour drive from the Carpathians takes us to Zhovkva. It was here that Stanislaw Zoliewsky founded a town in the 17th century. A heroic military commander, at the age of 77 he went out to his last battle. It was his 44th battle. Outnumbered his Polish troops begged him to leave the field to the Turkish hoard, but he refused. The Turks cut his head off and shipped it to Istanbul and hung it on the city gate. His wife ransomed it back.
Like so many towns, this Polish town had many Jews, some 4,000 in 1939, around half of the population. There is a beautiful town square, that reminds one of the Rennaisance town. Indeed here is Catholic influence and a Dominican cathedral nearby. There are many churches. The town square also has ruins of Jewish homes and one of the grand houses has numerous niches for mezuzahs. Down a side street is the stately and grand synagogue. Dilapidated and in ruins, it still carries scars, but its parapets that look almost Turkish, remain. The Polish military commander seems to have had lots of Jewish connections. A Jewish doctor named Simha Manechem attended him and encouraged him to let Jews build a synagogue in stone, rather than wood. There is some story that Jews could not bury their dead in the local cemetery and he reversed this order.
Inside it is a hulk, with bricks exposed. But the local tourism authorities have high hopes, they even have little magnets of how they would like it to look when renovated. For now it remains, along with the town, in depressing shape. The town is easily accessed from Lviv, some 25 minutes, so it is worth a day tour. A drive there takes one past the Baczewski Vodka factory founded by a Jew from Austria and through Klykiv which was a major center of Jewish shoemakers before the Holocaust. In theory visitors can get keys to the synagogue from the local tourism information center. Up until 2005 there was only one old Soviet style hotel “with bathrooms outside” in the town; now there are three. We dined at a new one in the industrial area. The place was immaculate but full; although the lunch of Polish-style Borsch and fried chicken was filling.
The plains around Lviv were the site of great suffering in the First World War. In fact the local people remember this war for the destruction visited on towns, not the second world war. The Russian imperial army burned many of the villages during the conflict to leave scorched earth when they faced setbacks against the Austro-Hungarians.
The drive to Belz takes one through marshy forests. On the outskirts of Zhovkva one can see the forest where many of the Jews were murdered by the Nazis. The others were deported to Balzac death camp. Belz’s Jews were more fortunate they fled with the Red Army. In Zhovkva, Lviv and other areas the German invasion of Russia, codenamed Barbaroosa, fell with such a thunderclap that the Red Army was no where to be found.
Belz is an ancient town, some 900 years old and the Jews here had many holy graves and stories about healing and other remedies in the place. It gave birth to the eponymous Hasidic movement. The road to Belz is potholed and ruinous. chickens graze by it, and some lonely houses are seen here and there. This is the rural part of Ukraine abandoned by the Soviet authorities and never rehabilitated. Locals explain that under the Soviet policy of course few people had nice private homes. But one can see today that even without money, new homes “sprout like mushrooms,” according to a guide. There are new houses and despite the poverty people’s private homes are spacious and respectable.
We are welcomed in Belz by the mayor, Vladmir, and his assistant. All these towns seem to have the same partnership, a male mayor and a female assistant. Coming into the town on the potholed road, it is extraordinary in what a state it is in. It is as if it never recovered from the Second World War. There is a feeling in other towns like that; like the great culture of Galicia, the amazing diversity and wealthy times, never returned after the shock of World War One, then the Soviet invasion and Holocaust. How did the Soviets and their “building socialism” utopia invest so little? Why was the Jewish history paved over by the Soviets, the synagogues allowed to collapse, the little that remained of the great Jewish community allowed to disappear; the cemeteries often destroyed.
There are ghosts present. The “center” of Belz is a huge old stately building. One can see how it might have been nice in the old days. The market square opposite was “completely damaged in the First World War fire.” Extraordinary to think that in 100 years, it was not repaired. There is an old brick chapel and several other churched. Many of the roofs are disintegrating corrugated metal. Old tires have been used to plant pathetic little flowers near the city hall, which is painted a light olive color. “Everything we can see here are stone houses from the early 20th century. The wooden portions were burnt in the First World War,” explains the mayor. Before the Holocaust there were 6,000 people in the town, and 4,000 of them were Jewish.
A large school building built in 1954 marks where a synaoguge, mikvah and Jewish school once stood. The Jews had been exterminated or fled first; the complex was damaged in the war, but some of it remained. So nice of the Soviets to pave over it. A soccer field with fake grass adjoins the school, perhaps it marks the site of another Jewish holy site. According to the mayor the stones from the Mikveh, rabbi’s palace and synagogue were used to build homes and the school. That is how the Soviets erased the Jewish history. The Germans took away the people, the Communists took away the history. A perfect European cleansing, more than a thousand years gone because of the worst ideas of the 20th century. This is what Europe produced, one must be honest.
It is Sunday in Belz. As we drive past the cemetery it is crowded with people. More than a hundred, in black jackets and some with flowers. This is a Ukrainian tradition, to visit the graves on Sunday.
At the old cemetery two Hasidic men in their traditional all black are emerging from the graveyard. The dozen or so graves are beautifully carved stone. A small concrete path leads to the center. Some graves are broken or sinking into the soggy ground. A sign indicates the keys to the cemetery can be found at a local house. The two men are part of a group of four who are traveling Ukraine. They are from New York. Later Weiss, skinny with reddish paillot, and a golfer’s cap is cheerful and excited to speak about his travels. “On Shabbat there were 60 people at this local community center.” He says that they didn’t experience any anti-semitism, people were friendly. They brought some kosher food and were able to obtain meals at Lezhensk where there is a Jewish community center. Weiss agrees that it is extraordinary how the Communists succeeded in destroying the heritage that the Nazis had left. Back in the US he works in security, but he has had an exciting time here. In the community center some prayer books are on a shelf. There is a room for eating that shows where the synagogue once stood and the graveyard. Upstairs is a place to pray. A poster shows the annual expenses at $55,000. People can stay at the place for a nominal fee, around $25. There doesn’t seem to be wi-fi, but a man is using a computer.
On the other side of town are several churches, including the massive brick walls and empty ruin that was a dominican church. Nearby is a cream colored building, deteriorating like the rest in town. Some men shelter from the rain under the eves of a building across the way. The cream-colored two story building has an odd-shaped rusted metal tower on it with an onion-shaped dome crowning it. This was the center of the old Jewish community according to the guide.
The ride back to Lviv is gloomy. The rains have come. The plains, where Hitlers legions, where the Austro-Hungarians once slogged; are muddy. At our hotel Sputnik in Lviv we are treated to finally stay at a classic Soviet era hotel. A dome at the entrance shows kitcsh of the solar system. Concrete is everywhere; the rooms have plaster on the walls and art-deco over the bed frame; and from the window are Stalinist style apartment blocks. I’ve brought along a sausage from Drohobych; so its fitting. Cherry-flavored Vodka from Bacweski also. So it’s a fully Soviet afternoon. The TV channels are all in Ukrainian as well. A fitting end to a fascinating trip to Galicia and through Ukrainian history.
It is unfortunate the country has had some economic setbacks and tourists are afraid to come due to the war. It has much to offer; rich history, beautiful scenery and towns. The Carpathian mountains, which stretch some 1,000 miles into Europe and are a bridge of civilizations, are mysterious and inviting. Lviv is a great city. The ghosts of the past may haunt the plains, but the future awaits.