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."
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
Ukraine crisis: A timeline of the conflict
1/22 30 November 2013
Public support grows for the “Euromaidan” anti-government protesters in Kiev demonstrating against Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement as images of them injured by police crackdown spread.
2/22 20 February 2014
Kiev sees its worst day of violence for almost 70 years as at least 88 people are killed in 48 hours, with uniformed snipers shooting at protesters from rooftops.
3/22 22 February 2014
Yanukovych flees the country after protest leaders and politicians agree to form a new government and hold elections. The imprisoned former Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is freed from prison and protesters take control of Presidential administration buildings, including Mr Yanukovych's residence.
Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Imageses
4/22 27 February 2014
Pro-Russian militias seize government buildings in Crimea and the new Ukrainian government vows to prevent the country breaking up as the Crimean Parliament sets a referendum on secession from Ukraine in May.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
5/22 16 March 2014
Crimea votes overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and join Russia in a ballot condemned by the US and Europe as illegal. Russian troops had moved into the peninsula weeks before after pro-Russian separatists occupied buildings.
6/22 6 April 2014
Pro-Russian rebels seize government buildings in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence and claiming independent republic. Ukraine authorities regain control of Kharkiv buildings on 8 April after launching an “anti-terror operation” but the rest remain out of their control.
7/22 7 June 2014
Petro Poroshenko is sworn in as Ukraine's president, calling on separatists to lay down their arms and end the fighting and later orders the creation of humanitarian corridors, since violated, to allow civilians to flee war zones.
8/22 27 June 2014
The EU signs an association agreement with Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, eight months after protests over the abandonment of the deal sparked the crisis.
LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images
9/22 17 July 2014
Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 is shot down over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Ukrainian intelligence officials claim it was hit by rebels using a Buk surface-to-air launcher in an apparent accident.
10/22 22 August 2014
A Russian aid convoy of more than 100 lorries enters eastern Ukraine and makes drop in rebel-controlled Luhansk without Government permission, sparking allegations of a “direct violation of international law”.
11/22 29 August 2014
Nato releases satellite images appearing to show Russian soldiers, artillery and armoured vehicles engaged in military operations in eastern Ukraine.
12/22 8 September 2014
Russia warns that it could block flights through its airspace if the EU goes ahead with new sanctions over the ongoing crisis and conflict
13/22 17 September 2014
Despite the cease-fire and a law passed by the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday granting greater autonomy to rebel-held parts of the east, civilian casualties continued to rise, adding to the estimated 3,000 people killed
14/22 16 November 2014
The fragile ceasefire gives way to an increased wave of military activity as artillery fire continues to rock the eastern Ukraine's pro-Russian rebel bastion of Donetsk
15/22 26 December 2014
A new round of ceasefire talks, scheduled on neutral ground in the Belariusian capital Minsk, are called off
16/22 12 January 2015
Soldiers in Debaltseve were forced to prepare heavy defences around the city; despite a brief respite to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, hostilities in Donetsk resumed at a level not seen since September 2014
17/22 21 January 2015
13 people are killed during shelling of bus in the rebel-held city of Donetsk
18/22 24 January 2015
Ten people were killed after pro-Russian separatists bombarded the east Ukrainian port city of Mariupol
19/22 2 February 2015
There was a dangerous shift in tempo as rebels bolstered troop numbers against government forces
20/22 11 February 2015
European leaders meet in Minsk and agree on a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine beginning on February 14. From left to right: Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, France's President Francois Hollande and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY | AFP | Getty Images
21/22 13 February 2015
Pro-Russian rebels in the city of Gorlivka, in the Donetsk region, fire missiles at Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve. Fighting continued in Debaltseve for a number of days after the Minsk ceasefire began.
ANDREY BORODULIN | AFP | Getty Images
22/22 18 February 2015
Ukrainian soldiers repair the bullet-shattered windshield of their truck as their withdraw from the strategic town of Debaltseve. Following intense shelling from pro-Russian rebels, Ukrainian forces began to leave the town in the early hours of February 18.
Brendan Hoffman | Getty Images
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.
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.
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.Reuse content