L’viv and the Anti-Semitism Question: An Eyewitness Report

Recently, the western Ukrainian city of L’viv has been getting some pretty bad press.  Last year, the Jewish Daily Forward noted the town had hosted a march in remembrance of a World War II-era SS unit, complete with Nazi salutes no less.  The march, which drew a thousand people, honored the SS Galizien or Galician Division, a Ukrainian unit in Hitler’s Waffen-SS.  The event was attended by representatives of the right-wing Azov Battalion, Aidar Battalion, the OUN Battalion and Carpathian Sich, all of which are fixtures of Ukraine’s current political scene.  Reportedly, the event capped a weeklong celebration of the military unit promoted by the local city council.  Jarringly, the festivities even encouraged teenagers to send in their own fan artwork touting the SS.

Are such disturbing celebrations a mere blip on the radar screen, or a reflection of a much deeper problem?  Late last year, I traveled to the city and had the opportunity to address these controversies with local experts and members of the Jewish community.  Alyona Andronatiy, the former director of L’viv’s Hillel, currently works as a freelance educator in the Jewish community.  Every week, she conducts meetings with teenagers in which they discuss Jewish traditions and history in L’viv and the surrounding Galicia region which was ruled either by Poland or Austria-Hungary for more than five hundred years.

Sitting at a local café, I asked Andronatiy how L’viv could reconcile the seeming contradiction between its westernized, modern and tolerant image on the one hand, and commemorations of the Galicia Division, on the other.  “It’s a thorny issue,” she remarked, adding that post-Maidan Ukraine, which has been engaged in a life or death struggle against Russia in the Donbas, has been casting about for role models while honing in on the likes of controversial historical personalities and forces like Galicia Division not to mention nationalists such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukeyvich, a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (or UPA) during World War II, even though “these figures weren’t heroes for the Jews or for Poles.”

SS Galicia Division’s Brutal Past

Perhaps that’s putting it mildly.  Originally created in April 1943 by Heinrich Himmler, the SS Galicia Division consisted mainly of Ukrainian volunteers hailing from the province of Galicia.  Eager to avenge themselves against Poland  — which had incorporated Galicia after World War I, not to mention the Soviet Union, which later annexed eastern Galicia at the outset of World War II — a whopping 70,000 Ukrainians volunteered for the division with only 13,000 eventually making the cut.

“Freedom fighters” or murderous assassins?  “On a certain level I understand the Ukrainian desire to cultivate heroes, and even why people would honor the Galicia Division,” Andronatiy told me.  The Jewish expert added, however, that “Ukraine needs new heroes.”  Bending over backwards, perhaps one could try to explain it all away by remembering that the Galicia Division saw itself as a liberation force which fought the Soviet army.  To this day, defenders claim the unit only served the Reich because recruits viewed Germans as liberators from the Soviets and sought to promote an independent Ukraine.

Such views, however, are somewhat questionable in light of Galicia Division’s atrocities.  Indeed, fighters murdered Jews and Communist partisans, assisted in the deportation of Polish Jews to Auschwitz, and targeted other Poles for providing shelter to Jews or aiding local Communists.  No less brutal than their German counterparts, Galicia Division killed children in front of their parents and herded others into barns where they were burned alive.  Reportedly, Ukrainian SS were even deployed to put down the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  In May, 1944 Himmler addressed Ukrainian SS units, remarking “your homeland has become more beautiful since you have lost – on our initiative, I must say – the residents who were so often a dirty blemish on Galicia’s good name – namely the Jews.  I know that if I ordered you to liquidate the Poles, I would be giving you permission to do what you are eager to do anyway.”  Reportedly, the speech was greeted with cheers from Ukrainian recruits.

Unflattering Religious History

To their credit, certain figures within the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church assisted Jews in L’viv, for example Metropolitan Archbishop Andrei Count Sheptytsky.  At great risk to himself, Sheptytsky personally offered shelter to Jews at his own residence within the local cathedral.  What’s more, the church official was able to save the lives of more than 150 children in total during the Holocaust.

One must distinguish, however, between the likes of Sheptytsky on the one hand and the Ukrainian Catholic and Orthodox churches, on the other, which helped rally Galicia Division and supplied the unit with military chaplains.  Furthermore, when German troops entered L’viv, they were welcomed by the Orthodox Church which thanked the Nazis for liberating the city and called on local residents to collaborate with Berlin.  And even before Nazi killing squads known as Einsatzgruppen conducted atrocities against the Jews, the church hierarchy in L’viv failed to speak out when local Ukrainians conducted pogroms against Jews.  For good measure, the Church’s pro-German proclamations and blessings of the liberation against Bolshevism were interpreted as a blank check to murder Jews, since large swathes of the population linked Jews with unpopular Bolshevik rule.

During the Nuremburg tribunal, Galicia Division was declared a criminal organization, and despite efforts to rehabilitate the outfit, the U.S. Congress denounced Kyiv last year for seeking to commemorate “Nazi collaborators.”  In a letter, both Republicans and Democrats expressed concern about ongoing ceremonies which glorify the Galicia Division.  Such outcries, however, haven’t stopped local residents from buoying their so-called freedom fighters.  L’viv, in fact, has been holding Galicia Division marches for years: at one event in 2013, men and women participants wore traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, though Neo-Nazis were also visible wearing SS caps or uniforms apparently inspired by the Nazi Wehrmacht, while others gave the Nazi salute.  In another, separate march last year, right wingers carried a banner displaying the image of Roman Shukhevych accompanied by a message, “The city of L’viv: No to Polish Masters.”

Local Historical Expert

For more on these matters, I caught up with Vasyl Rasevyich, a researcher at L’viv’s Center for Urban History of East Central Europe and an expert on Ukraine’s thorny politics of historical memory.  Speaking to me at his office located a scant couple of blocks away from my hotel, Rasevych remarked that the state-run Ukrainian Institute of National Memory is more interested in promoting “ideological clichés” and even propaganda as opposed to pursuing rigorous scholarly research.  By whitewashing the likes of Bandera, the OUN and UPA, officials at the institute have only served to embolden nationalists in L’viv.  Unfortunately, as long as history becomes politicized, empathy towards other ethnic groups or minorities will forever be in short supply.

Rasevyich was particularly taken aback by regional authorities’ support for commemorative celebrations of the SS Galicia Division.  “I was very surprised that guns were displayed at an exhibit,” he remarked, “and they even brought in children to admire it all.”  To top everything off, “it was suggested that L’viv schools conduct lessons touting the heroism of the SS Galicia Division, which I would say was an actively pro-Nazi move.”  As if this were not enough, Rasevych notes that regional officials took part in reburial ceremonies for SS Galicia soldiers.  “Look,” the expert declared, “I agree that all combatants who took part in World War II should be buried in a proper cemetery so their bones don’t lie scattered out in the fields somewhere, but the actual ceremony was idiotic.”  In a historical reenactment, locals dressed up in SS uniforms and stood guard during the proceedings while priests conducted a service.

Voyage to L’viv

Despite these disturbing reports, I did not feel menaced or pick up on any overt anti-Semitism during my trip to L’viv.  Indeed, the city seems like nothing more than a quaint, touristy and somewhat gentrified place with streets displaying agreeable coffee and chocolate shops as well as the occasional elegant art nouveau building.  To me, expressions of cultural nationalism seemed more folkloric than anything else, and I came across many stores selling embroidered dresses.  An ethnographic museum in the city center, meanwhile, showcased traditional arts and crafts.  On the other hand, I was somewhat taken aback by a local bar exalting Ukrainian nationalists.  Even here though, the overall experience seemed more kitschy than truly threatening.

To get a clearer sense of L’viv’s local politics, I headed up the hill to conservative Ukrainian Catholic University.  During World War II, the Catholic and Orthodox churches displayed a questionable record in the region, and so I was eager to learn whether such rightwing tendencies still prevailed (reports that the Galicia Division march assembled initially at Lviv’s St. George’s Archdiocese for a memorial service certainly gives one pause).  Dmytro Sherengovsky, Director of International Academic Relations on campus, remarked that the church had a substantial influence on politics though youth culture tended to be more centrist or center-right politically rather than far right.  My contact denied that anti-Semitism was a real problem in L’viv, adding that his university has a department of Jewish Studies which places a particular emphasis on the experience of Galician Jews.

Coming to Terms with History

Hopefully, L’viv will overcome its dark legacy and come to terms with its historical demons through such academic awareness.  Though some current residents may be unaware, the city’s population was once quite different.  Prior to World War I, L’viv went by its German name, Lemberg, and the city formed part of the Eastern Galicia region of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  After the war, the town was renamed Lwow and incorporated into Poland.  During this period, the city represented the third largest Jewish community in the country after Warsaw and Lodz.

In 1939, the city fell to the Soviets, but just a scant two years later L’viv was occupied by the Nazis.  At the time, the city was one of the most diverse of its kind in Europe, with a population divided among 55% Polish, a little over 30% Jewish and about 12% Ukrainian, not to mention some Tatars and Russians living in the area.  Despite these underlying facts, Andronatiy remarked that the younger generation is historically ignorant and “dug into its positions while only seeing black and white.”  The expert added that “children who go to school here think this was a Ukrainian area from the thirteenth century to the present day and Ukrainians represented the majority.  They don’t grasp that before World War II, people spoke Yiddish, Polish and German in L’viv, Lvov or Lemberg.”

Very soon, however, the ethnic composition of L’viv would be shattered as the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators massacred the Jews.  In the first few days after the German invasion, massive pogroms claimed the lives of four thousand Jews and several thousand more in a municipal stadium.  Eventually, occupiers all but liquidated the Jewish community by committing atrocities at the local ghetto, the Belzec camp and the Janowska forced labor camp.  By the end of the war, only about one percent of the Jewish population survived out of a pre-war population of some 150,000 people.

Today, L’viv is 90 percent Ukrainian, with a very small and aging community of about 5,000 Jews, the majority of whom is secular and doesn’t recognize separate holidays.  Meanwhile, only about one hundred of the Jews are actually religious and just ten speak Yiddish.  “I can read Yiddish,” Andronatiy told me, “but I can’t speak the language because I don’t get any practice.”

Historical Defensiveness

Unfortunately, Rasevych remarked, people in L’viv still buy into nationalist propaganda and myth making while defensively changing the subject when it comes to historical controversy.  “If people are confronted by the Holocaust, they will ask ‘what about the Holodomor [a Soviet-era famine which resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians]’?  Privately, some may claim the Holocaust was revenge for the misdeeds of the Jewish Bolshevik state which was in turn responsible for famine.  Meanwhile, if you mention ethnic cleansing against the Poles, people immediately begin to talk about how Ukrainians were ejected from Poland and pushed into the Soviet Union after World War II, or how Poland initially utilized the Janowska camp to imprison Ukrainians and Ukrainian nationalists.”

Rasevych is particularly vexed by the local state-supported Memorial Museum of Totalitarian Regimes, located within an old prison first overseen by Poland and subsequently by Germany and the Soviet Union.  Exhibits highlight the suffering endured by Ukrainian political prisoners under Nazism and Communism, but my contact believed the museum was essentially pedalling “nonsense” by whitewashing history.  Curators, he went on to say, went out of their way to emphasize supposed OUN and Bandera anti-totalitarian resistance, even though the latter were also totalitarian and terrorized their opponents including Poles.  What’s more, even though the museum has been in operation for ten years, organizers have avoided any controversial discussion of anti-Jewish pogroms in 1941 which occurred right near the prison itself.

Persistence of Stereotypes

So, just how much outward anti-Semitism still exists in L’viv?  Walking near the ruin of the famed Golden Rose synagogue, I came upon a bizarre site: a Jewish restaurant where patrons are requested to “argue” about their bill.  Diners are also given the option of wearing a black hat with sidelocks sewn into it, a practice which the owners claim is all meant in good fun.  Observers claim such stereotypes persist at the basic “kitchen table” level.  “People think that because we are Jewish, we steal a lot of money from Ukraine and harm the country,” Andronatiy told me, adding with a slight laugh, “it’s really stupid.”

Russell Frank, an American scholar who lived in L’viv, remarked that anti-Semitism existed “as more of a low-grade fever that lingers in the culture in the form of symbols, gestures, images or beliefs rather than overt acts of violence or exclusion.”  Writing at The Hill, Frank recalled encountering disturbing “caricatures of hook-nosed, coin-counting Jews for sale in the city’s craft market.”  In such a milieu, Frank adds, “anti-Semitism seems more clueless than malicious.  When people express anti-Semitic attitudes, they’re not talking about anyone they know, but about a character out of Ukrainian folklore.”

Specifically, Frank is referring to Zhyd, a Jewish character in the vertep, a traditional Christmas play.  Typically, the Zhyd wears a hat, sports a fake beard and perhaps sidelocks and a hooked nose while carrying a briefcase or a bag stuffed with gold coins.  Frank recalls watching a vertep performed on a massive stage in Lviv’s central square.  “It occurred to me,” he writes, “that this was the only country in Europe where one could still see such a public, sanctioned display of anti-Semitism.  The square was packed.  I wanted the crowd to hiss and cry ‘shame!’ instead of contentedly nibbling their jelly doughnuts and sipping their hot wine.”

“Seventy years after all but a handful of Lviv’s Jews were killed in the Janowska work camp,” Frank continues, “few residents of the city know or interact with any Jews, so the narrative of Jews as greedy and unscrupulous businessmen — reinforced by news media attention to the presence of Jews among the oligarchs who dominate the Ukrainian economy — goes unchallenged by any experience or counter-narrative of Jews who are not greedy and unscrupulous businessmen.”

Outward Expressions of Anti-Semitism

Mere isolated incidents at the anecdotal level, or part of a wider and disturbing pattern?  Other reports may give one pause.  Last year, for example, Andronatiy was giving a lecture at a local bookstore about anti-Semitism in Germany when, all of a sudden, a teenage boy threw a smoke bomb into the crowd.  As people struggled with their eyes, the youth managed to run away and disappeared.  Alarmed, onlookers called the police which displayed a passive and blasé attitude toward the incident.

After the crowd filed a report, officers responded “this is nothing, wait a week and maybe we’ll catch him.”  However, the authorities failed to follow up or apprehend the suspect.  “And that’s not all,” Andronatiy continued, adding that teenagers routinely splash paint and deface a monument in the Jewish ghetto.  In typical fashion, the police shrug their shoulders, do nothing and remark “it’s just teenagers and they’re kidding around.”

Other recent developments suggest this was hardly an isolated case: in 2017, arsonists attempted to firebomb a synagogue during a three day festival honoring wartime UPA leader Shukhevych, a figure responsible for perpetrating pogroms on July 1, 1941.  Fortunately, the firebomb fell to the floor and simply burned out, resulting in no damage or injuries.  However, in a separate incident the vandals scrawled anti-Semitic slogans on a Jewish community building located on Shalom Aleichem Street.  The graffiti read, “Down with Jewish power” and “Jews, remember July 1,” apparently a reference to the L’viv atrocities of 1941.

Shadowy Forces

Just who is orchestrating these attacks, and toward what end?  Such questions have been raised front and center in light of an anti-Semitic protest staged in June, 2015.  Brandishing anti-Semitic placards outside the local regional administration building, about 100-150 protesters decried president Poroshenko and his political allies.  One of the posters highlighted the assumed “authentic” Jewish names of a dozen Ukrainian political leaders, while other banners accused the “Jewish fraternity of selling off Ukraine’’ with yet others warning of “Jews in power.”

Some reports link the protest to a shadowy group whose financial backing remains opaque.  Rather suspiciously, the protest was filmed by Russian media as the crowd dispersed, raising the possibility that the Kremlin may have interfered in a propaganda campaign designed to tarnish western Ukraine as a bastion of Nazism.  Needless to say, L’viv officials dismissed the protest as a stunt by pro-Moscow groups.

But even if the 2015 protest was fake, that doesn’t mean L’viv is free of its own neo-Nazi groups.  “I don’t think all our violence is linked to Russia,” Andronatiy told me, adding “I think we have our own stupid people and they’re completely capable of doing stupid things without Kremlin influence.”  My contact was particularly concerned about a brutal attack last summer in which attackers stabbed and killed a Roma man in a forest outside L’viv.  Alleged attackers were all under the age of twenty and are said to be linked with an ultra-nationalist group.

Andronatiy believes the attackers may be the same people who are mixed up with anti-Semitic vandalism.  It’s all a kind of step-by-step process, she remarked: “first they throw a smoke bomb, then they deface some monuments, and next thing you know they kill someone.”  Perhaps, my contact added, there is one leader or adult leaders who inculcate hatred amongst youth, and then teenagers go out and commit crimes, which is convenient since minors are immune from prosecution and won’t go to prison.

Visit to the Golden Rose

Despite lackluster police, Andronatiy reported that L’viv’s municipal authorities, including mayor Andriy Sadovyi, have treated the Jewish community with respect and “I am proud of them.”  My contact was particularly impressed with city efforts to mark the seventy fifth commemoration of the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto last year, in which authorities presented recipients with 75 sculpted glass keys modeled on an old metal synagogue key found at a local market.

Honorees included Jewish and non-Jewish activists, representatives of cultural and academic institutions, and individual initiatives which strive to protect Jewish heritage in L’viv as well as neighboring cities and towns of former Galicia.  Commemorations were accompanied by a concert which took place amid the ruins of old synagogues.  “I think this was a very important event for the Jewish community as well as for Ukraine as a whole,” Andronatiy declared, adding that she herself received one of the keys.

In addition, local authorities have published a guide about Jewish L’viv which is available to visitors in the central square, and information plaques have been installed in a ravine behind the old Janowska prison.  But perhaps most importantly, officials have invested in the historic preservation of Synagogue Square, located in the heart of the medieval Jewish quarter where the famous Golden Rose synagogue once stood.  Jews settled in L’viv shortly after the city was founded in the thirteenth century, and the Golden Rose, which was designed by an Italian architect in renaissance style, was historically regarded as one of Europe’s most beautiful synagogues.  After the Nazis invaded in 1941, they burned the synagogue almost entirely to the ground.  Walking by one day, I came upon the remnants of the structure, which was surrounded by a park-like area lined with commemorative plaques.

Soccer and Fascism

Despite these positive steps, mayor Sadovyi has been a decidedly mixed bag as the politician has embraced questionable positions.  Take, for example, an imbroglio over the Euro soccer tournament: when L’viv hosted the games in 2012, this in turn prompted unfavorable media coverage about local soccer team Karpaty L’viv.  Brazenly, supporters of the team have been known to brandish Nazi flags no less during matches.  FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, has said L’viv soccer fans have been “offensive” and violated the FIFA disciplinary code.

It seems the fans were associated with rightist political party Svoboda, which has its share of supporters in L’viv.  Historically, Svoboda traces its origins to the UPA, which at one point cooperated with the Nazis during World War II.  Svoboda claims that history has misjudged the UPA’s record and therefore Ukraine should honor partisan fighters’ memory in sports stadiums and elsewhere.  And in an echo of related controversies swirling around SS Galicia Division, Svoboda members honor veterans of the Waffen SS’s local Halychyna brigade, a unit which was constituted in 1943 to counteract the Soviets.  According to the Guardian, Svoboda’s core constituency consists of hard-core or “ultra” Karpaty L’viv soccer fans and “elderly supporters of the SS group.”

During soccer matches, Svoboda members have reportedly brandished the UPA flag which is black and red, colors which are meant to symbolize blood and soil.  In addition, fans have raised the flag of SS Halychyna brigade, which sports a lion amidst Ukraine’s national blue and yellow colors.  Perversely, the Football Federation of Ukraine defends such symbolism by pointing out that “L’viv is considered the city of lions.”  Apologists claim there’s nothing wrong with lion iconography, since L’viv’s founder named the city in honor of his son Lev, or lion.  Today, two lion statues stand guard outside L’viv’s city hall, and the town’s coat of arms displays a lion image.

Questionable Mayor

There’s no room for such silliness, yet mayor Sadovyi has waffled when it comes to denouncing far right revisionism.  In the midst of unfavorable press coverage of Karpaty L’viv, Sadovyi bristled and brushed off reports.  When the Simon Wiesenthal called for soccer fans to boycott anti-Semitic venues in L’viv, including a restaurant seeking to recreate a Stepan Badera-era hideout and lair, as well as the stereotypical restaurant near Golden Rose synagogue, Sadovyi retorted “sorry, sorry, sorry: these restaurants are an attraction but there was never any anti-Semitism and there won’t be.”

Hardly amused, the Simon Wiesenthal Center rebuked the mayor, remarking that Sadovyi’s utterances constituted “a hopeless attempt to cover up very strong manifestations of anti-Semitism.”  Seeking to turn the tables, Sadovyi retorted that some of the unfavorable reports about Ukraine had been issued by British media outlets, which in his view was ironic since London was prone to racist tensions.  Perhaps one could try to “spin” Savovyi’s comments as some kind of momentary lapse, yet the mayor has performed other attempts at deflection.  Two years after the soccer tournament, he claimed “there is a lot of talk of ant-Semitism in Ukraine.  But the truth is, anti-Semitism is much more prevalent in places like France and Germany.”

The phenomenon of anti-Semitism in L’viv, Rasevych told me, is a very “complex” issue.  Though the municipal authorities generally fight anti-Semitism, sometimes wider politics can intrude and play a role.  Sadovyi’s Samopomich (Self-Reliance) has faltered as of late, but the party was politically successful following the EuroMaidan revolution of 2013-14 and currently the L’viv mayor is a candidate in next month’s presidential election.  Unlike Svoboda, Samopomich has steered clear of far-right nationalism, preferring instead to embrace a moderately conservative, Christian, pro-business and pro-European platform.  Sadovyi himself has a reputation as an effective manager, and the politician likes to stage television appearances flanked by his city’s quaint and historic Habsburg buildings.

Despite this moderate image, however, Samopomich is competing with the likes of president Poroshenko, a politician who also started out in the political center but who has pivoted to the nationalist right as of late.  L’viv’s mayor, Raseyvich told me, has engaged in a regrettable competition with the right “in order to prove that he’s not a corrupt liberal who sold out to Jews, Americans or Poles.”

Overcoming L’viv’s Dark Past

With politicians seeking to cater to the right and base impulses, can L’viv overcome its dark history?  Though Raseyvich doesn’t see his city through rose-tinted glasses, the expert has noticed some modest improvement in recent years.  In addition to his research work at the L’viv Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, he also serves as an editor at Zaxid.net, a news and media web site based in his own home town.

For twelve years, the researcher and his colleagues have been publishing critical articles on controversial topics like Ukrainian historical memory.  At first, he said, the public reacted angrily, with people remarking “how could he write such an article?  He is the enemy!”  To be sure, Raseyvich adds, there’s still a constituency which buys into conspiracy theory but gradually the mood has shifted and people are starting to think more critically.

Andronatiy, meanwhile, says Ukraine must try to engage in more meaningful dialogue about its historical past as well as its problematic historic role models.  “In the course of having this valuable dialogue,” she told me, “maybe some Ukrainians will come to understand why some Jews or Poles don’t necessarily identify with these heroes.  Ukraine isn’t ready for this now, but maybe in five or ten years.”

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