City of Lions by Jozef Wittlin/Philippe Sands

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Lvov (or Lwow or Lviv or Lemberg – it’s had many names), a city currently part of the Ukraine, is one of those places that’s suffered over its history from the ever-changing borders of Europe. At times part of Poland and the USSR, occasionally independent, and with a population made up of numerous races with numerous languages, it had a particularly difficult time in the twentieth century during the various conflict that punctuated that era. Jozef Wittlin, a Polish author new to me and best known for his novel “Salt of the Earth”, spent some time living in Lvov, and his essay “My Lwow” opens this intriguing volume just published by Pushkin Press. Knowing their record of rediscovering lost authors and works I was very keen to read this book, and the publishers were kind enough to provide a review copy.

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Wittlin, a friend of Joseph Roth, had an unsettled life, moving through countries like Austria, Poland and France. His piece (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones) is an evocative, emotional memoir of the Lvov he knew and loved and lived in, a place where races and creeds existed side by side and despite the ever-changing political landscape managed to make a life. As he describes it:

Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of motley crew is this? That’s Lwow for you. Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet. Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovian “through and through”.

However, all that was changed by the coming of Nazism, and the Jews are either murdered or expelled from the city. Wittlin himself was in Paris when WW2 broke out and eventually escaped to New York where he spent the rest of his life, and where he wrote this memoir in 1946. It reads as a cry from the heart, as Wittlin recalls the places, sounds and smells of the city he loved and to which he could never return.

The book is by necessity fragmented, reaching back to Wittlin’s youth and bringing back to life the characters from the past. It’s also marked by a deep sadness, and a lively recollection of a distinctive Lvovian will suddenly be undermined by the revelation that he did not survive the Holocaust. The slightly erratic nature of the narrative, where Wittlin pieces together his impressions, means that these parts of his tale have even more impact.

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His essay is followed by a piece by Philippe Sands; a notable lawyer and defender of human rights, Sands himself has a Jewish heritage and his journey to modern Lvov is in search of traces of his grandfather Leon. He relates how he’s become almost obsessed with visiting the city, dragging along any friends and family who’ll visit with him, and he finds echoes of not only Wittlin’s Lvov, but that of his grandfather Leon and many other notable Jewish Lvovians who are now forgotten. His writings cover a time when he was making a notable documentary “My Nazi Legacy”, and he reveals how much of the horrors of the Holocaust are ignored and unacknowledged in Lvov; Sands has to go out of the city to find any remembrance of the brutality of the Nazis. Shockingly, he relates how he comes across modern-day Nazis; and his encounters with two sons of Nazis (for the documentary he’s making) are equally chilling, as one is stricken with guilt, disowning his father; the other thinks that his conduct is excusable and understandable…

The essays are a fascinating pairing, with Wittlin’s elegiac tone and nostalgia for his city perhaps blurring the reality a little. Sands refers to his predecessor’s tendency to ‘create idylls’ and certainly the modern writer is very clear-eyed about how difficult it could be for Jews to survive in Lvov before the rise of Nazism. As Sands points out, control of the city changed eight times in the three decades between 1914 and 1944, and finding any sort of stability during that period must have been difficult.

The combined effect of the two pieces collected here is to paint a wonderfully evocative picture of Lvov now and then. Much of the old city has gone, and the older photographs capture a lost world; the modern photos by Diana Matar bring to life a city still struggling with its past. I finished reading the book with a sense of sadness for the thriving European cultural world that was destroyed by Nazism, and also great frustration that we should live in a world where there are still apologists for that regime. Lvov is of course once more in the middle of a conflict, with the East and the West pulling it in both directions, and “City of Lions” is a timely and excellent release by Pushkin Press. Highly recommended!

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