Before L'viv, before Lvov, before Lwów, this city went by its German name, Lemberg. For two centuries, up until the end of World War I, the city belonged to Hapsburg Austria, and it's as an Austrian city that I can't help thinking of this place. This is partly because Lemberg is what my grandfather always called it, decades after there was any reason to do so. ("To go to Lemberg, you had to put on your best clothes!") And indeed, the presence you feel the most, as you stroll along the broad avenues and wide squares (where, today, groups of Ukrainians are likely to gather on weekend afternoons to sing national songs and where a seemingly endless supply of brides in white file with their wedding parties to be photographed), is that of the Austrians, who, in their two centuries as the masters of this place, left an unmistakable mark.
Just to walk down any of the larger avenues—Prospekt Svobody, for instance, with its exuberant Beaux-Arts opera house—is to be reminded powerfully that this is a city that once had a direct pipeline to Viennese culture at its height. To stroll down Prospekt Shevchenka, the city's other great boulevard, is to get a walking tour of the history of mitteleuropäische taste during the last century and a half. Here, the generic elegant Neoclassicism so typical of Hapsburg cities, the majestic procession, on apartment façades, of large windows with their crowns of arcs or pediments; there, the excessive decorative exuberance beloved of Central European architects at the turn of the last century, the writhing Atlases supporting balconies, the severe faces of goddesses staring you down from the façades of 1880's apartment buildings. And then, suddenly, the explosion of Art Nouveau and Secession and Art Deco in rapid succession—a delicately painted Jugendstil vine that creeps across the walls of a private house, the stylized nude bas-reliefs that announce the advent of the 1930's on an apartment building. And on those same residential buildings, neither too frequently nor too rarely, another kind of palimpsest: the empty groove that was once filled by a mezuzah, the ritual ornament placed by religious Jews in the doorways of their houses.
That absent mezuzah—past which, on the day I noticed it, an old woman with few teeth was unseeingly leaning on a sunless afternoon—reminds you that this was a city not merely of many peoples but, in particular, many religions. It's certainly possible to visit L'viv just to look at its famous profusion of churches in its famously many denominations—as many as 80 churches of a dozen or so faiths, it's said. There is the 13th-century Armenian church, surviving evidence of a bustling medieval community of Armenian traders; an attractive place to stop and rest on a hot summer's day of sightseeing, with its cool cloister and its courtyard paved with tombstones which, although it's considered lucky in Armenia to have people walk over your grave, my Ukrainian guide avoided treading on because, he said, they reminded him of the Jewish tombstones used to pave roads and build walls during the German occupation. There is the Latin Cathedral, the city's largest Catholic (or, as the locals call it, "Polish") church, not far from the Rynok, the main square, outside of which, on the day I visited it, an ancient Jewish man in his eighties offered to show us his decaying Polish passport from the 1930's.
There is the Cathedral of St. George, once a Roman Catholic church but now the city's main church of the Uniate, or Ukranian Catholic, faith: an exuberant 18th-century yellow-and-white wedding cake of a church, standing opposite the equally frothy yellow-and-white Archbishop's Palace, where the courageous Greek Catholic Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, an elderly man by the time World War II began, hid a group of Jews—perhaps, I like to think, because long ago, according to legend, he'd gone to school with a Jew from my grandfather's town. On the day I stopped by to pay my respects to Sheptytsky's tomb, located in the vaults of the cathedral, a crippled woman was praying intently at the foot of the large slab of stone, seeking a cure from this saintly man's grave.
The city's profusion of churches and denominations was, at any rate, so famous a century ago that (I have heard) when the kaiser himself, Franz Josef, came to visit this easternmost jewel in his empire's glittering crown of great cities, he ended up touring so many churches that he had seen little else by the time the visit was scheduled to end. And as his courtiers began arranging for his return to Vienna, Franz Josef turned to his chamberlain and said, "But what about my Jews?" thereby demonstrating why people like my grandfather continued to revere him unquestioningly 60 years after his death—another survival from the distant past. The emperor's startled entourage arranged for a last-minute tour of the city's grand synagogues, although during my own recent visit to L'viv, I was unable to retrace his steps in this respect, since all but one of the synagogues he visited that day ceased to exist 60 years ago.
Other bits of the past float unexpectedly to the surface, bringing with them—inevitably, it would seem—reminders of the area's fractured history, its shattered demographics.