Yellow car in street of Lvov, Grigory Kravchenko, 2007. Used under Creative Commons license
Since late last year, and particularly in the last few weeks, Ukraine has moved briefly into the world's fickle spotlight. No one knows exactly what will happen to its government or to its people, but the events of recent years have taught many nations to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
The focus at this moment has moved away from the bloodshed in Kiev's Euromaidan to the largely pro-Russian Crimean peninsula, but a city in western Ukraine called Lviv, or Lvov, has also received attention. Lviv was part of Poland until 1939, when it came alternately under Russian and German control. Since the end of the war, it has been part of Ukraine, and most of its Polish residents were deported. It was also once a major Jewish centre - most of its Jewish population died between 1941 and 1943.
Lviv is one of the cities which in recent days has allied itself with the protestors in Kiev, threatening a decisive movement away from Russia and towards Europe, even independence. It made me think of one of the most famous and beloved poems by Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, 'To Go to Lvov'.
TO GO TO LVOV (Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski)
Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov in 1945, and he and his family were among those who were expelled in the same year, to central Poland. Amidst all the news about Ukraine, I was thinking about how it must shape a human being to live in places where borders shift, and cities change names and countries. 'To Go to Lvov' is partly about this: Lvov has become a sort of mythical place, a Borgesian city where "snails converse about eternity" and the stones murmur. The speaker isn't even sure if it is real or not. This happens when you know a place only through family stories, or when you lose it in childhood. But there's more to it: more that I can't really understand, coming from a stable country and a stable background - more so than what most people in this world experience.
I appreciate poetry's accuracy; it can give its readers a greater capacity for empathy. I wasn't born at the end of a war, we weren't refugees, we didn't live in countries where the borders kept shifting or where genocide had recently occurred. I've lived in three different countries, but those choices were entirely my own, more for pleasure than out of necessity. But poetry at its best breaks the boundaries of language to achieve such emotional accuracy that, through a poem such as this, a reader such as myself can glimpse the inner landscape of the people shaped by such events.
'To Go to Lvov' is a classic Adam Zagajewski poem. It remains in a delicate balance between darkness and optimism. As the poem goes on, the shadows draw in more and more thickly, like the clouds covering the sun.
[...] and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye
without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry
mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death
awaits you, why must every city
become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,
and now in a hurry just
pack, always, each day,
and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all
it exists, quiet and pure as
a peach. It is everywhere.
What is most terrible and wonderful about this conclusion is when the speaker says "why must every city/become Jerusalem and every man a Jew,/and now in a hurry just/pack..." We all know why so many Jews, and others, had to pack in a hurry; generally they were going to exile, often death. But then the sun emerges from the clouds: "go breathless, go to Lvov, after all/it exists, quiet and pure as/a peach. It is everywhere." Zagajewski turns around all the loss and grief and death implied. Instead of being nowhere, Lvov is everywhere. There is hope for everything that we have loved.