Family history drew him to L'viv, Ukraine's onetime "Florence of the East," where Daniel Mendelsohn uncovers a memory-shrouded but still-vibrant city


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, pre–World 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.

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.

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.

These operators, which focus on Eastern Europe, offer guided tours and can help by researching and even contacting family members prior to your arrival.

Alexander Dunai
L'viv's resident expert on sites of Jewish interest in the area does archival research and arranges personalized tours. 380-322/331-162.

European Focus, Inc.
Personalized tours of ancestral towns in Germany, Switzerland, Ireland, Scotland, and Alsace led by a former Navy photojournalist. 800/401-7802;

P.A.T.H. Finders International
Family reunions in ancestral towns and villages in the Czech Republic (but also tours to Poland, western Ukraine, Slovakia, and Hungary). 360/450-5959;; $299 per 10-hour round-trip with guide (up to 155 miles from Prague).

—Gaetano Pollice