To see what Ukraine's future may be, just look at Lviv's shameful past

A seemingly cosmopolitan city is a nationalist stronghold and monument to ethnic cleansing, as its barbaric wartime treatment of Jews illustrated

Share

I used to visit Lviv, the beautiful, cosmopolitan-looking city in western Ukraine with its attractive mix of Italian, Austrian and Slavic architecture. It is in a much fought-over part of Europe and battles swirled around it in both world wars, but its ancient churches and cobbled streets somehow escaped destruction.

Appearances are deceptive because, though the buildings in Lviv have survived, the same cannot be said for most of its inhabitants. In 1939, the majority of the people in Lviv were Poles and Jews, with Ukrainians making up less than one fifth of the population. But the Jews were murdered and the Poles forced by Stalin to resettle in eastern parts of Germany ceded to Poland. Only the Ukrainians remained.

I thought about Lviv again last week when I saw a sentence in a newspaper referring to it as "a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism".

I wondered just how much the writer knew about Ukrainian nationalists in Lviv and the strong evidence that, in 1941, they had played a leading role in one of the horror stories of the Second World War.

This was the Lviv pogrom of 1 July 1941, when thousands of Jews were dragged from their homes, beaten and executed by either German troops or their Ukrainian helpers. Ukrainian politicians and historians have denied complicity, but surviving Jewish victims, other witnesses and contemporary photographs prove that Ukrainian militiamen and mobs of supporters carried out the pogrom, though the Germans oversaw it and committed many of the murders.

Of course, it does not follow that the present generation of Ukrainian nationalists are ideological descendants of pro-Nazi Ukrainians. But the Lviv pogrom and Ukraine's grim history of sectarian and ethnic slaughter does explain why many in Ukraine fear an ultra-nationalist resurgence. A rabbi in Kiev, Moshe Reuven Azman, last month called on Jews to leave the city and possibly even the country. "I don't want to tempt fate," he told the Israeli daily Maariv, "but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions."

What really happened in Lviv in July 1941 has been meticulously researched – drawing on a wealth of eyewitness information – by Professor John-Paul Himka, a Canadian-Ukrainian historian at the University of Alberta. In a study entitled The Lviv Pogrom of 1941: The Germans, Ukrainian Nationalists and the Carnival Crowd he concludes that the murderous assault on the Jewish community in Lviv – swelled by Jews fleeing the advance of fascism and anti-Semitism in other parts of central Europe – was primarily carried out by the militia of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) acting under German auspices. It happened quickly after the German occupation because the OUN wanted to show "the Germans that it shared their anti-Jewish perspectives and that it was worthy to be entrusted with the formation of a Ukrainian state".

Lviv lies dangerously close to the ethnic, religious and military fault lines of Europe. And, as with other cosmopolitan cities, past and present, such as Beirut, Smyrna, Alexandria and Damascus, it was an excitingly diverse but potentially risky place to live. At different times it has been ruled by Poland, Austria (under the Habsburgs), the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and, finally, an independent Ukraine. It had been known at different times, depending on which country it belonged to, as Lwow, Lemberg, Lvov and Lviv.

Between 1918 and 1939, it was part of Poland until invaded by the Soviet Union under the Nazi-Soviet Pact. At this time, it had a population of 312,231, of whom 157,490 were Poles, 99,595 were Jews, and 49,747 were Ukrainians. The Jews were well represented among the professions providing most of the doctors, lawyers and businessmen as well as dominating such trades as tailoring and barber shops. In the territory around Lviv, Ukrainians made up at least two-thirds of the population.

A crowd surrounds a young woman during the1941 progrom A crowd surrounds a young woman during the1941 progrom The German army captured Lviv on 30 June 1941, the Soviet NKVD secret police massacred several thousand political prisoners in the jails when they realised that the Germans could not be stopped. The next day, the pogrom started with Jews being compelled to dig up the rotting bodies of the dead prisoners. Others were ritually humiliated by being forced to clean the streets with tooth brushes or remove horse manure by putting it in their hats. "Judging by the photographs, gentiles in Lviv found the cleaners amusing," writes Professor Himka. "To some extent, the pogrom was a carnival." Women were stripped naked and beaten and hundreds of Jews were forced to crawl for miles to the prisons.

Kurt Lewin, a survivor, left a detailed account of what happened to him in one prison and he described "savage beatings by both Germans and Ukrainians", said Simka. "One Ukrainian particularly carved himself into Lewin's memory. Elegantly dressed in a beautifully embroidered shirt, he beat the Jews with an ironclad cane. Strips of skin flew with every blow, sometimes an ear or an eye." When his cane broke the man chose a heavier piece of wood with which to beat a man to death.

A recent Jewish theatre festival A recent Jewish theatre festival Edward Spicer, 22 at the time, recalled being caught by a group of Ukrainians near his home and taken to a nearby railway station: "First they were beating us all the way, then they pushed us down the staircase, until we were piled up one on top of another five-six high." Later, the Jews were made to lie on the ground and anybody who moved was killed with a rifle butt. Many were later taken away in trucks by the Germans to be shot. Professor Himka says the Ukrainians co-operating with the Germans and spearheading the pogrom were members of a militia formed the previous day who often had no uniform and were identifiable only by blue and yellow armbands, worn on the left arm. The Jews were later forced into a ghetto and by the time the Red Army recaptured Lviv in 1944 only 200 to 300 of those Jews were still alive.

The OUN militia did not confine itself to killing Jews. Later in the war, it murdered tens of thousands of Poles in western Ukraine. I was in Lviv in 2001 when Poland's National Remembrance Institute was investigating the massacre of 35,000 Polish villagers in 1943.

I visited the Polish Consulate where an official named Wicenty Debicki did not directly answer my question about the investigation, but he gave a bit of personal biography. "I was born in Lviv," he said. "I remember as a small boy having to hide from Ukrainian nationalist groups with my father, in 1944, because we were Poles."

A Ukrainian woman translating Mr Debicki's Polish interjected to ask in surprise: "But surely you were frightened of the Germans and Soviets as well?" After a long pause, he replied diplomatically that there was good reason to fear both.

Lviv presents itself as a beautiful city reflecting a culturally diverse past. In reality, it is a monument to ethnic cleansing and the appalling willingness of long-time neighbours to murder each other, as I saw earlier this year in Homs and Damascus – something those who want to heat up the conflict over Ukraine and Crimea's future should keep in mind.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness