Daniel Mendelsohn uncovers a memory-shrouded but still-vibrant city" name="description">
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Find Your Roots with Geneology Tours

When I was growing up, my grandfather would tell me about the mighty oak tree that stood outside of his small town, known as the Kaisereiche—the Emperor's Oak. It was so called because there, the legend had it, Franz Josef had shot a large buck. Or bear. Or boar—take your pick. I think of this story whenever I'm in L'viv, because not far outside of town is a park still occasionally known by its German name, the Kaiserwald, the Emperor's Wood. This fabulous, evergreen-filled expanse, 20 minutes' drive out of the center of town, has been filled, over the years, with a collection of the local vernacular architecture of the Ukrainians—elaborately decorated houses, schools, and churches carved entirely out of wood. (An onion-domed church is still in use, its interior hung with the prettily embroidered cloths with which Ukrainians like to adorn their icons and religious paintings, the air savoring of incense—a fragrant, if not entirely safe, aesthetic enhancement in an all-wooden structure, you can't help thinking.) It's one of the typical ironies of this city, with its seemingly endless layers of history and cultures, that the park whose name recalls a distant era of imperial pleasures is now dedicated to preserving the memory of local peasant life. And indeed, these buildings are among the few attractions that L'viv has to offer that bespeak the indigenous culture of the Ukrainians themselves, since under their long domination first by Poles, then by Austrians, then again by Poles, the Ukrainians had always been a rural peasantry, their cultural contributions necessarily limited. Today, it is the Ukrainians who dominate now that everyone else is gone—expelled, vanished, killed off.

Killed off: In the end, I found what I'd come looking for, a spot near a tree in my family's town to which an old woman pointed and said, "It happened there." I suppose it was because my visit had to do with final resting places that I made it a point, before returning home, to see the famed Lychakivsky Cemetery—the "Père Lachaise of the East." It's typical of this city that, when you drive to this magnificent necropolis, which slopes up a vast hill not far from the city's center, the first thing you see are giant tour buses filled with Poles from across the border (whether to visit family graves—although the borders have changed, the dead have not moved—or simply to pay their respects to a site of Polish culture, is impossible to say). Perhaps because the dead constitute the only population that hasn't been relocated, over time and through the course of so many regimes, this cemetery may be the best place, in the end, to appreciate the rich and layered history of the city.

For there they all lie together—the Polish princes in their stately Gothic and Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts mausoleums; some Soviet-era Jews, their Modernistic stones protected (from whom?) by wire cages; Ukrainian patriots and heroes of the 1940's and 1990's, honored with patriotic inscriptions; Russian soldiers; a stone Cardinal Stefanowicz lying atop his own tomb, his miter carefully straightened; the slumped figure of a middle-aged schoolteacher dozing atop another stone; the photographs of members of another family peering out of their oval niches, their bonnets and top hats all just so—a gathering that speaks perhaps even better than the façades of this beautiful and tragic city's buildings can ever do (for as we know, they can always be painted over) of a rich diversity that, although no more, continues to be felt in everything you see here, everywhere you go.

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