Lviv, Ukraine, is a fascinating, tragic, and hopeful meeting point of empires, faiths, and cultures—particularly Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish. The seventh-biggest city in Ukraine, it has changed hands various times, transitioning from centuries as the capital of the Ruthenian Voivodeship in the Kingdom of Poland to the capital of the Habsburg Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria in the 1770s. This was followed by a brief stint as capital of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918 and an interwar role in the Second Polish Republic. Lviv was then inducted into the USSR after Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and it became part of independent Ukraine in 1991.
Prior to the Second World War, around one third of Lviv was Jewish; afterwards the Jewish population had been almost entirely annihilated. Of the approximately 200,000 pre-war Jews, only 800 survived. Dozens of synagogues and most traces of Jewish life in the city were obliterated by the Third Reich and then afterwards by the Soviets. Before being invaded by the Nazis in 1941, Lviv was occupied by the Soviets for two years. After the Germans seized the city, Jews were steadily segregated, forced into a squalid ghetto in the north. They had their property systematically stolen and were killed in regular bloodbaths organized by the Nazis.
Lviv has been home to some figures very relevant to American culture, history, and conservatism. It is the birthplace of influential libertarian economist Ludwig von Mises and Fiddler on the Roof playwright Solomon Rabinovich (Shalom Aleichem). Von Mises was born in Lviv in 1881—at the time known as Lemberg and part of Austria-Hungary. Von Mises’ student, Friedrich Hayek, would also go on to have an exceptional influence on 20th-century Western economic thought. Aleichem grew up in the former Russian empire and settled in Kiev, but left for Lviv after renewed pogroms razed southern Russia and parts of Ukraine, including Kiev, in 1905. In Lviv, which was home to 27 synagogues at the time and granted Jews many more rights than they’d had under the czar, Aleichem found a center of Jewish life and culture that earned his enthusiasm.
The city of Lviv offers a picture of order,
breadth, and beauty! A sight to feast the eye…
In the heart of the city there unfolds a park
where everyone is allowed to walk,
even goats. The land of freedom!
On Saturdays Jews are strolling
along all the streets, and no one
pays attention. And such people
who live in Lviv! Pure gold!
Lviv included Catholics, Orthodox, and Jews, side-by-side, often living peacefully. Aleichem, in addition to being fluent in Yiddish and a proponent of its spread among the Jewish diaspora, spoke fluent Ukrainian and became friends with iconic Ukrainian poet, writer, and political activist Ivan Franko. Both shared a concern for the oppression of Ukrainians and Jews under the czar. Franko helped translate Aleichem’s work and arranged publication in the local newspaper. Aleichem eventually emigrated to the United States in 1907, and went back and forth between Europe and America until he died in New York City in 1916 at age 57.
Renowned science fiction author Stanislaw Lem, author of such works as Cyberiad, His Master’s Voice, The Man From Mars, the Hospital of Transfiguration, and Solaris (thrice adapted into a film), also hailed from Lviv. Lem was born in 1921 when the city was known as Lwów and was part of interwar Poland.
More Lviv famous names? German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, influential Jewish-Muslim convert and theologian Muhammad Asad, international legal scholar Louis Sohn, Holocaust survivor and author Simon Weisenthal, and comedian Leo Fuchs.
Lviv is a cultural focal point of Ukraine, featuring a prestigious international jazz festival and full of brilliant architecture, delicious food, and beautiful parks and wide avenues. It’s also full of trendy shops, tourists, high-quality universities, bohemian hipsters, businesspeople, and amazing churches—the city could be described as hipsterdom meets history. It has also been the site of attempted bridge-building between eastern and western Ukraine, for example with the East Meets West initiative, where students from Lviv invited students from Kharkov, Donetsk, and other eastern cities to come stay for free, get to know the western part of the country, and link together in friendship in the face of the ongoing conflicts between eastern separatists and Ukrainian forces.
A truly remarkable city, Lviv is well worth visiting—and all the more so due to its position as a crossroads for cultures and peoples.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.