This beautifully made small book is an excellent companion read to Philippe Sands’ award winning East West Street: on the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity (see my review here). It comprises two essays on what is now known as the city of Lviv, in Ukraine. Exile Józef Wittlin, writing in 1946, recalls the city when he knew it before the Second World War. Human rights lawyer Philippe Sands, whose mother’s family were from Lviv and whose story is told in East West Street, gives his account of the city in 2016.
The book’s striking cover shows the many names the city has had over the last 100 years – Lviv, Lwów, Lvov, Lemberg. Europe’s sometimes brutal twentieth century history has overrun this place over and over again. Evocative black and white photographs and maps add a ghostly and sometimes melancholy note throughout. Small publisher Pushkin Press can be proud of this book – read it, then read their republished The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig from 1942.
Both Wittlin and Sands’ accounts show their great attachment to the city, while dealing with the terrible things that happened there. They speak to each other, providing a vivid addition to the literature on exile and belonging. Wittlin writes: “Balabans, Korniakts, Mohylas, Boims, Kampians – what sort of a motley crew is this? That’s Lwów 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 Lvovians ‘through and through’” (p. 49). Visiting the local museum 70 years later, and thinking about Wittlin’s quote, Sands asks: “… where were the spaces devoted to the former residents of the city, the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans?… What of the legacy of the Polish and Jewish inhabitants whose presence had been eclipsed?” (p. 130).
These memories of and reflections on the City of Lions, where many of Wittlin’s streets and buildings remain though their names and occupants have changed, help us to process and acknowledge the past. In our troubled present, inhumanity and change continue. But there is also hope, as Sands concludes: “We too can play at games, as the world erupts once more. We too can close our eyes, and imagine that beyond the dark clouds that settled over this unhappy city, a ray of light broke through, and that it still offers hope today” (p. 130).