On a certain wall of a certain old building on a certain old street in L'viv, there is an interesting and perhaps tragic bit of writing. The wall belongs to an upscale boutique called GODASSE; behind the plate-glass window, a few chic handbags are carefully displayed. Except for this particular bit of wall, the Neoclassical building that houses GODASSE has been painted a cheery peach—a color quite typical of the civic and domestic architecture in this city, which, like many former Hapsburg capitals, prefers the giddy pastel hues of ice cream flavors to the somber grays, tans, and ochers that comparably grand buildings in London or Paris or Rome are likely to wear.
But gray is the color of that one arresting patch: a vertical strip that goes from just above the top of the window to nearly the level of the sidewalk. From the top of that strip to the bottom, rescued from beneath the new coat of paint whose optimistic color reflects the slowly renewing energies of this former Soviet republic, there emerges a series of ghostly painted letters in two alphabets. First, the Polish word for "glass"; beneath it, an advertisement for dry goods, bottles, handkerchiefs. "Proprietor: I. Halpern." And then, beneath that, some Yiddish advertisements, too: a tailor, a haberdasher. The Hebrew letters curl upwards like smoke signals.
The inscription seems, indeed, like a message from the past. The rich, cosmopolitan, preWorld War II past, in fact, of a city that has been known by many names over the years, each corresponding to one of the nationalities that has inhabited (or occupied) it, a past in which a heady mixture of Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Austrians, Germans, and many other ethnicities once created a vibrant culture.
It was partly to retrieve a very small piece of that tortured past that I went recently to L'viv. My grandfather was born in a town not far from there; during the war, his brother, sister-in-law, and four nieces had disappeared, and I was determined, 60 years later, to find out what happened to them. Each night during my research trip to their town (too small to boast a hotel of its own), I'd return to my hotel in L'viv, pensive. And no wonder. On the day I was shown that bit of wall, a Friday afternoon in July last year, the way in which the dark old paint, with its fraught and complicated signals, had risen once again to the surface, competing with the bright modern decoration all around it, reminded me of a word that I love: palimpsest. Strictly speaking, the word refers to a piece of papyrus or parchment that's been written on, erased, then written on again—with, however, the earlier writing remaining legible. The latter detail is what gives the word its more general and melancholy meaning—as my dictionary puts it, "an object, place, or area that reflects its history."
It's as a palimpsest that you can "read" this remarkable city today—a city whose old nickname, "the Florence of the East," itself rather wistfully summons to mind an era in which the map of the world could accommodate comparisons between cities from cultures that, today, we think of as split off from one another. For despite the bustle of renovation that you see everywhere on the streets of L'viv today, its buildings filigreed with scaffolding and its air rent by the noises of machinery, wherever you look, the past rises up to greet you.
First, there is the name itself, which is shadowed by other names that call to mind other centuries, other regimes. L'viv is derived, ultimately, from the name Lev, a 13th-century prince whose name means "lion"; the lion is therefore the city's symbol and appears everywhere you look: on gateways, doors, arches and carved into stone and metal.
Until relatively recently, L'viv was known as Lvov, the name that Russians still call it. (Their tenure here, which began in 1945—Stalin was famously avid to add this great Polish jewel to his crown—ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a free Ukraine in 1989.) Before that—between World War I and World War II—L'viv was Lwów (pronounced L'voof), the name by which Poles continue to call it. And why not, since they once owned the city?Certain grand palaces, still standing if not always still grand, even today bear the names of the great Polish families that owned them a hundred years ago: Potocki, Lubomirski, and many others. "Who do you think I am, Count Potocki?" my grandfather would teasingly say whenever I'd ask him for a quarter for an ice cream when I was a child—a joke he must have first heard from his own father and one that I didn't get until I stood, last summer, in front of the magnificent Neo-Renaissance Potocki Palace on Kopernika Street, its creamy walls and blue mansard roof newly restored, which the fabulously wealthy count built himself in the 1890's.