Before WW2, Lviv was the eastern capitol of the Polish region of Galicia, and at that time Galicia had the second largest Jewish population in the world. Yet, of course, those Jews are gone now. After the war, the Polish border shifted westward (Germany lost land, including Katowice and Wroclaw, as a reparation), and Lviv was left on the outskirts. Ukraine swept up the eastern Galician region and Lviv has been Ukrainian ever since.
We assumed that since Lviv was such a center for Jewish learning and culture before the war, there would be some remnants or even recreations of this in places throughout the city. Krakow has restored its Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, with numerous museums, bookstores, synagogues, cemeteries, concerts, restaurants, gift shops, and tours. And it’s bustling. But Lviv had nothing of the sort. I mean nothing. We were shocked.
We walked by one of the two synagogues in the city the first day we arrived. It was tucked away in a neighborhood close to the train station and guarded by an 8’ tall metal fence. The façade was freshly painted yellow, but dotted with bright blue paint splotches, clearly vandalized. We reached the gate and gave it a push. It was locked, so we turned to keep on back to the city. I glanced across the street, and a small elderly lady was peeking out from behind her lace curtain gesturing “Back! Back!” Confused, we looked back towards the synagogue to see an old man opening the metal gate. He peered at us and said something in Ukrainian and we rushed back towards him. “Can we see inside?” we asked in broken Polish. He smiled and responded that the synagogue was being remodeled so it was closed. After thanking him and wishing him a happy holiday, as well as mouthing thanks to the lady behind the curtain, we walked on.
A couple of days later, we found the second synagogue. We knew where it was on our map, but we couldn’t seem to find it in reality. The neighborhood was very neglected (pictured), the buildings and pavement crumbly, but it didn’t feel unsafe. Bhad plucked up the courage to ask a passer-by where the synagogue was, and he pointed us left on the next block. No wonder we missed it! The building was slung in the same disheveled tone as its neighbors, windows foggy with dust, and no clear indication that it was an important site. We approached the door and rung the doorbell (pictured along with metal plate over the place were the mezuzah used to be). No answer. So we knocked and we rang again. Of course, still no answer. A small woman with a blue hat was making her way down the sloped street towards us, calling out something in Ukrainian. She helped us understand her with gestures to her eyes and indications at the door. We exclaimed “Tak!” as she searched under her layers for the keys hanging on a long string.
She let us in, laughing and muttering things in her language, as if two tourists wanting to see her synagogue were of the oddest things that could’ve happened on a Friday morning. Waving her hands towards the main sanctuary entrance, she motioned for us to go on in while she settled her things on the table in the hall. The sanctuary was large and filled with movie-theater-style chairs, posters and pictures hung to the walls, and the ceiling seemed to climb higher as we stood there. One wall was dedicated to the Holocaust victims, and showed enlarged photos of crying children and old men with circular glasses being tormented by Nazi officers. There was also text to accompany. Our friend joined us in the sanctuary and pointed to that wall, saying “Niemcy…,” briefly commenting that it concerned Germany. We couldn’t read the Cyrillic, but we clearly understood what it meant. Another wall was covered in pictures of school kids performing plays during holidays, Hebrew classes, and other members of the community. There were old posters dedicated to the Shoah (the Holocaust), theater performances, and one that read: Mazel Tov, painted with a dancing couple (all pictured). The back wall was empty except for a few marble plaques dedicating the remodeling of the synagogue to certain members of the community and officially naming it Shalom Alechem. It was all written in Ukrainian, English, and Hebrew.
After talking, or more aptly trying to pick out keywords in Polish, with our friend, we thanked her and left. We were so lucky to have arrived at that door seconds before she appeared coming down the hill, and so appreciative to have such a caring and intimate tour.