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The Past Remains

Piotr Florczyk

City of Lions, by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands, Pushkin Press, 176 pp, £12, ISBN: 978-1782271178

Several years ago, my friend and I headed east from Kraków. It was June. Daisies dotted the meadows. Gusts of wind shook the fawn wheat. The farther east we travelled, by one bus and then another, the hillier and more undeveloped the countryside became. Crossing the Polish-Ukrainian border, the frontier between the EU and what remains of the so-called Other Europe, three hours later via a pedestrian walkway allowed us a degree of immersion denied to tourists who fly or take the train. The local Ukrainians we passed support themselves by cross-border trade. Because there are limits on how much vodka and cigarettes they can bring into Poland per visit, the women – most of the “ants”, as they are called, are women – make multiple crossings every day.

I have often since thought about this border spectacle, the way Ukrainians make the journey to earn a living while Poles and other tourists – on our trip we met young Americans who studied in Kraków – think of it as an adventure. Propelled by imagination and curiosity and nostalgia, they head for Lviv, formerly known as Lwów (Polish) or Lemberg (Habsburgian), the city that continues to figure prominently in the iconography of the Polish borderlands. Vilnius may have been lost for good, they nod, but in Lviv traces of the old Poland can be seen everywhere.

City of Lions, which presents for the first time in English a classic essay by Józef Wittlin (1896-1976) alongside an essay by Philippe Sands, allows us to make both types of crossings simultaneously. It is a walk down memory lane, a meditation on time, politics and remembrance, as well as highbrow touristy bric-a-brac. Eva Hoffman, in her preface, mentions the steady rise in popularity of Prague, Budapest, and Kraków as tourist destinations, suggesting that Lviv should be included on the same itinerary. Shaped and ultimately undone by its multicultural and multilingual populace, not to mention its various rulers and colonial powers over hundreds of years, the city appeals to visitors longing to immerse themselves in a place where historical and political landmarks appear out of nowhere at the end of many a cobbled street or alley.

Of course it isn’t just tourists who dwell in memories and sensibilities of the past. Wittlin, who had spent a total of eighteen years in the city – his boyhood and early adulthood – wrote his essay in 1949 as an exile living in New York City, thus asserting, as Hoffman points out, “his right to remember, in the fresh aftermath of destruction, the textures, atmosphere and human variety of a world he had loved and lost”. As anyone who has tried to write down impressions of the past realises, to do so can provoke mixed emotions. For Wittlin, likewise, “bathing in warm waters of remembrance” wasn’t all an idyll. No matter how hard we try, some facts – say places and dates – reveal themselves as half-truths; our memory allows us to maintain a semblance of our old selves while tempting us into fabrication. Arguably, we don’t yearn for the city we have lost but for ourselves in it, as Wittlin observes wryly early on. Strolling among ancient ruins with no human beings on the horizon can be imaginatively stimulating, but I don’t think anyone actually dreams of visiting a deserted Paris or Berlin. The scintillating energy of great cities emanates from the confluence of their structures with bodies and voices.

What emerges from Wittlin’s pen then, in Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation, is “an amorphous, though picturesque mass”. These houses, landmarks, smells, tastes, or voices he records testify to human memory’s uncanny way of sorting itself behind our backs. After all, why we remember certain images but not others is a mystery. Moreover, as Wittlin writes, “[w]e are plainly refugees throughout our lives: from cradle to grave we are always running away from something”, but what was he running from while writing down his reminiscences? “Get in line, you wayward memories!” he shouts a few pages later. Conjuring up personalities – mayors, poets, cobblers, clerks, and accountants – he recreates the old world with the purpose, it seems, of illuminating his exilic condition. Thinking about who lived where allows him to see traces of his old friends in his New York neighbours. The same purpose of excavation drives him to remember cafés he frequented – “of the Viennese kind, where three glasses of cold water were served along with a small cup of coffee” – while it also becomes a lament for the rascals of the street and the enlightened professors, many of whom were later gassed in Auschwitz or shot by the Soviets. Unlike in similar major cities, no river runs through this city; if it did, Lwów “would be a second Florence”. When Wittlin closes his eyes, he can hear the bells of the city ringing, and “each one rings differently”.

This ringing of the bells – and indeed Wittlin’s text, figuratively speaking – sounds an alarm  too, for it reminds us that it doesn’t take much for one culture or people to supersede another. It’s impossible to think of the old Lwów and not bring up Stanisław Lem, Zbigniew Herbert or Adam Zagajewski, for example. The Ukrainians have their own heroes and bards of course, and that’s where Philippe Sands, a well-known human rights lawyer, picks up Wittlin’s story and further colours it in. Having made numerous journeys to what was once a major Polish city and is now a bastion of Ukrainian culture, business, politics and nationalism, Sands searches for traces of family members who perished in the Holocaust and reflects on war, victimhood, and forms of remembering. The fact that two Lvovians – Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht – first formulated the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity as we think of them today, endows Sands’s journey and struggle against historical erasure with an extra layer of urgency. By going back to the city that saw its fortunes manhandled by history and its changing rulers, Sands aims to bridge the divide between now and then. No wonder his melancholy seems as thick as the fog that nestles among the city’s hills at various times of the year. “The end of history seems to be nowhere in sight” indeed.

Sands immediately contrasts his impression of the city with Wittlin’s; if the latter knew the multicultural city of years past, the former, who first arrived there in 2010, notes wryly: “The buildings remained, occupied by others.” Situating oneself among structures and topographical features is key to our understanding of who we are and where we come from: we map out our surroundings in order to lend shape to ourselves. Sands outlines his purpose early on: “Observing with care was part of the reason for being there, seeking out what was left, traces of what came before.” In that sense, while he’s making his way through the city, he both unzips it and pieces it back together. His Jewish grandfather was born there, in 1904, which is why, he suggests, “from the moment I set foot in the place it felt familiar, a part of me, a place I had missed and where I felt comfortable”. Expelled, the grandfather survived the war and later become a Frenchman. His Lemberg was never to be talked about.

That’s partly why Sands is talking and writing about it now. Searching for his grandfather’s house, he reflects on the city “on the edge of many places, a space of constant insecurity”. The way the street names have changed over the years hints at the kinds of meaning the city has held for its different rulers and, though not always, its inhabitants. No wonder that Sands’s story is also about how he came across Wittlin’s book, in Polish, which he doesn’t understand, then in Spanish, and so on. One book opening the door, literally, for another soul to make its peace with the darkness within it, which Sands confesses being drawn to “like a mosquito to blood”. Talking to students and academics in Lviv, Sands would meet people whose family background – Polish or Jewish – was similar to his. They had no trouble relating to one another, perhaps because it was a taboo, during Soviet times and later, to bring those markers of the past out into the light. Alas it remains so today to some degree, although some other taboos which should have remained in force seem no longer to operate among local nationalists. He recalls for instance seeing the city roll out the welcome mat to Horst Wächter, son of Otto, a Nazi war criminal and founder of the Waffen SS Galizien division. Wittlin had hoped that one day a street in Lwów would be named for him – “a small side street without any sewers and with just ten houses” – and this wistful notion symbolised for Sands the kind of hopeful outlook he himself needed to acquire in order to feel at home in today’s Lviv.

It is no surprise perhaps that Sands excerpts an epigraph for his essay from Adam Zagajewski’s seminal poem “To Go To Lwów”. For the Polish poet, whose family was expelled in September 1945, a few months after he was born, Lwów is at once a myth and a palimpsest of national and familial lore. Moreover, the “everywhere” alluded to in the final lines of the poem – “go breathless, go to Lwów, after all / it exists, quiet and pure as / a peach. It is everywhere” – is not just physical or topographical, or even imagined, but rather embodied in an ideal and law, which jurists refer to time and again in defence of human rights the world over. Cultures and peoples and languages being overwritten by others, often forcefully and violently, only to reappear, sometimes years later, stand as evidence to the fact that complete erasure is never possible. Just like Sands, my friend and I came across multiple instances of Polish pre-war advertisements showing through where the plaster had peeled off walls. They were like the black-and-white photographs by Diana Mater that we encounter every so often in this fabulous book. Testifying to what Hoffman calls “the sense of pastness in the present”, they are bound up with what once was while speaking to us about the future that lies just around the corner.

1/2/2017

Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. His most recent books are East & West, a volume of poems from Lost Horse Press, and two volumes of translations published by Tavern Books.

www.piotrflorczyk.com   


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