My wife and I woke up very early our first morning in Lviv in western Ukraine, as our Northern California body clocks had not yet adjusted to the time zone. Standing under the awning of the historic George Hotel at 6 a.m., we looked out upon the silent, picturesque city in utter amazement, struck by the beauty and elegance of our surroundings.
Largely unscathed from total devastation after two world wars, Lviv’s architecture is a visual lesson in European history, reflecting the diverse cultural mix of the city’s residents throughout the ages. We were reminded of Paris, Krakow and Vienna all in one gaze.
After 10 minutes, we noticed the weather had turned to rain. Jet-lagged and now wet, we decided to search for a place to get coffee.
This raised three concerns: First, the chances of us finding something open at that hour appeared slim to none. Second, should we be so lucky to find a place, we had not yet exchanged our U.S. currency for hryvna. And, lastly, we had not yet learned how to express “coffee to go, please” in Ukrainian.
My wife quickly reached for the Ukrainian-English dictionary and I was studying the map when, suddenly, a middle-aged man approached us and asked in perfect U.S. English, “Excuse me. I couldn’t help but overhear you two talking. I just have to ask: What brings you here to Lviv?”
As odd as it was to hear spoken English in this foreign city where we could neither speak the language nor understand the Cyrillic alphabet, odder yet, this total stranger, Arthur, happened to be a dear friend of my wife’s sister.
I explained that my father’s hometown, Rohatyn, was located about an hour’s drive due east of Lviv where he, against all odds, had survived the German occupation and mass killings of so many European Jews 70 years ago.
We further explained that we, along with several friends whose ancestors also had resided in Rohatyn, were on a journey to better understand and document our family histories, much of which had been destroyed during the occupation of Rohatyn.
Between 1941 and 1943, 3,600 Jews living in Rohatyn were executed before a mass grave on the outskirts of the town. Although my father’s large family and relatives did not survive, I had always been intrigued by his early childhood memories of life in a beautiful and flourishing town.
Additionally, one of our goals was to return both intact and fragmented Jewish headstones, once used as curb and road paving material under German authority, to the now desolate Jewish cemetery.
We said goodbye to Arthur and set out on foot to explore Lviv. We walked to what used to be the old city market, Rynok Square, which now appears to be undergoing a revival, and to our eyes, could certainly become a destination for tourists.
Next we climbed the steep cobblestone streets through the former Jewish neighborhood to a park situated at the highest point in Lviv. Here, we discovered High Castle, which was originally built in 1295 as the main defensive fort in the city. As we descended toward the city center we stopped at the Armenian Cathedral built in the 14th century. The colorfully painted frescoes inside the church were well worth the visit.
That evening, we enjoyed an authentic Ukrainian meal at Kupol including borsht, vareniki, pickled herring and Ukrainian vodka. The service was exceptional and the atmosphere reminded us of sitting in grandma’s dining room.
On the morning of our excursion to Rohatyn, we traveled along one of the two major highways in Ukraine and were relieved that our driver (and translator) was experienced in navigating the large and numerous potholes.
We were intrigued by each small village that we passed as well as elderly couples in their horse driven wooden carts sharing the road with us. At the Rohatyn town line, we stopped at one of the two mass grave memorial sites where my grandmother had perished. This particular site is directly behind a cement factory, hidden and neglected. We all pitched in to collect the trash scattered amongst the weeds surrounding the monument that had been placed here in loving memory of those who lost their lives at this site.
Our friends had arranged to meet with the town’s librarian, Ihor, and school history teacher Mr. Vorbetts who, during the past year, had been instrumental in providing both access to information regarding Jewish families who had lived in Rohatyn and connections to the handful of Ukrainian’s who witnessed the events that took place between 1941 and 1943.
Mr. Vorbetts arranged for us to be interviewed and filmed by a local news station to describe the reason for our visit and to request local support for information regarding the location of Jewish headstones. After an emotionally and physically difficult day, I felt a deep understanding of my father’s vivid childhood memories and a stronger connection to this amazing survivor.
Our journey continued when we boarded an early morning train to Kiev, the capital and largest city in Ukraine. Along our seven-hour ride we observed remnants of the former Soviet land distribution system by which each home included equally divided parcels of farmland. We were greeted at Kiev’s main railway station by our prearranged taxi driver who took us to our quaint and comfortable hotel.
Kiev was strikingly different from Lviv’s quaint charm with its wide avenues and modern architecture. Standing in the middle of Independence Square, the site of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution protesting fraud in the 2004 presidential election, we were reminded of this city’s turbulent past.
After seven days in Ukraine we were not only able to revisit my father’s past but also able to observe a country in an exciting transition.