Lemberg’s empty places


This post has been originally written on the request of the Hungarian Jewish cultural review Szombat.
A city’s history is usually reconstructed on the basis of its still existing, visible monuments. In Lemberg/Lwów the case is the reverse. Here, the memory of the former Jewish inhabitants has been written into the city’s fabric in the form of the places left empty in the wake of the ravages of World War II. Their history must be reconstructed on the basis of the empty places and of the memories connected with them.

The starting point of the story can be dated precisely: 1367. It was then that Casimir III, King of Poland gave permission to the first Jews to settle down in the city – re-founded just eleven years earlier after the great flood on its new, present place – and to specialize in long-distance trade.


The first Jewish quarter was the southern street – the present Old Jewish Street – parallel to the magnificent central market place of the city, rebuilt in the form of a regular square. The northern street parallel to the main square, the present Armenian Street, became the quarter of the Armenians also invited by Casimir. The complex cooperation between the two streets was an important component of the significance and wealth of the city. The wares arriving along the Armenians’ trade routes from Persia through Eastern Anatolia and the Crimea changed hands on the market place and the stores of the city, and continued their way through Jewish mediation to Europe, first of all to Poland and the German-Roman Empire. When Louis the Great, King of Poland and Hungary for a short time attached Lemberg to Hungary, he also provided the local Jews with the right of unrestricted trade between the two countries, and they also maintained it when under his daughter, Queen Hedwig/Jadwiga the city again became part of Poland.


The Old Jewish Street is today the whole southern street parallel to the main square. In the Middle Ages, however, only its eastern part was the Jewish quarter, from the city arsenal to the gate rising at halfway of the street, which separated the Jewish neighborhood from the Christian town, and which was closed for the night. The gate and wall cutting the street in two parts does not exist any more, but its empty place is still remembered by the city coat of arms with the charmingly deformed lion on the medieval house standing at the corner. That is, it would be remembered if the house were not covered by scaffolding and canvas since years, thus doubling the lack of the earliest memory of the Jews in Lemberg.


There is another kind of absence that vividly reminds of the former inhabitants of the neighborhood. Walking through the street, on many doorposts we find a little oblique hole, the trace of the one-time mezuzahs (for a detailed map of their localization see this post). Such hole can be clearly seen on seven doorposts, while on a couple of other places one can only guess it under the plaster, or assume that on the predecessor of a recently replaced gatepost it was still there.


However, the greatest hiatus is found at the eastern end of the street, on the last, empty lot in front of the old arsenal built together with the ancient city wall. By pulling away the metal planks covering the entrance of the lot, and making your way through the area covered by debris, weeds and cat carcasses, in the depth of the lot you will see the remains of Gothic arches towering up, attached to the brandwall of the neighboring house. This was the Golden Rose Synagogue, once Lemberg’s largest synagogue and one of the oldest synagogues in the whole Poland, which served as a model to several other prayer houses in the country, including the High Synagogue in Krakow. Its builder between 1580 and 1595 was Yitzhak ben Nachman, the local Jewish counselor of Stephen Báthory, Prince of Transylvania and King of Poland, and its master the Italian Paulus Fortunatus, who raised a large number of Renaissance buildings all over Poland. In 1606, during a land dispute the Jesuits confiscated the synagogue from the Jewish community, and gave it back only three years later for a ransom of 20 thousand golds. The Sir Ge’ula, that is, the Song of Liberation composed on this occasion by Rabbi Yichak ben Shemuel HaLevi became a regular part of the Purim prayers in Lemberg. In 1941 the synagogue was closed down and in 1943, at the liquidation of the ghetto blown up by the German invaders. Its ruins have lain untouched for seventy years. After the downtown of Lemberg was declared World Heritage (1998), the city authorities gave permission to a private investor to build a hotel on the property, which would have meant the final destruction of the remains. On an international protest, however, the permission was withdrawn. The site has since been waiting for a positive turn of its destiny behind a metal construction plank.


The eastern street running parallel to the main square bears the name of another merchant nation, just like the southern and northern ones: Serbian Street. Nevertheless, also here we can find the traces of mezuzahs on some stone gateposts. The western street parallel to the main square is the only one which does not remind of a nation but of a place: Krakow. However, this name does not refer to the city of Krakow, but to the Krakow neighborhood beginning at the northeastern walls of the city, which was the second Jewish quarter of Lemberg. This quarter was populated at the same time as the Old Jewish Street, with Jews coming from Germany and Karaites coming from the Crimea. But as the privilege of King Casimir addressed only the merchants of the Old Jewish Street, the inhabitants of the Krakow did local and regional commerce as well as small scale industry. Over the centuries the quarter became more and more extensive and populated. Its last description can be read in the monumental Lemberg monography by Witold Szolginia, Tamten Lwów (“That” Lwów, 1996) whose translation we have already published.


Szolginia’s description sets before us a densely built and populated quarter. It is therefore surprising that in the northern part of the Krakow, right behind the opera house, we find today two large squares. The first one has even no name: it is just a large gap between the food market and Syanska Street, today used as a playground. Only a barely noticeable plaque at the corner of the playground recalls that until 1943 on this lot stood the Great Suburban Synagogue, built in 1633. The site has remained vacant ever since.


A little higher up, over the former Fish Market, at the corner of the Stary Rynok there stood the Reform Synagogue, built between 1843 and 1846 on the model of the Reform Synagogue of Vienna. The synagogue, which was a forerunner of the haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment, as well as of German culture, was erected with a powerful support of the Austrian authorities in midst of the suspicion and hostility of the local Orthodox and Hasidic communities, and it divided for decades the Jews of Lemberg. It was blown up together with the other two synagogues in 1943. Its former place is also remembered by an empty lot.


The common cemetery of the two Jewish quarters was in the southern part of the Krakow neighborhood, along Spitalna Street The large cemetery – or kirkut in its local Yiddish and later Ukrainian name, related to German Kirchhof – was in use since the 1400s; its first known graveposts are from the 1500s. They also include the magnificently carved Renaissance tombstone of Yitzhak ben Nachman, the founder of the Golden Rose Synagogue. This cemetery was also destroyed by the Germans and the local Ukrainian militia collaborating with them between 1941 and 1943. Unlike the other Jewish monuments, its former existence is not even indicated by an empty place. After 1941 the Soviet authorities, just like in many other Jewish shtetls, leveled the place of the cemetery. Above the old tombstones now an urban market is working.

Yitzhak ben Nachman’s tombstone in the Jewish cemetery of Lemberg. Photo before 1941

The entrance of the (much larger) urban market established above the Jewish cemetery, with the former Art Nouveau Jewish hospital in the background

The places mentioned in the post, on the map of Lwów from 1930, when they were marked for the last time

5 comentarios:

Language dijo...

I love these Lemberg/Lwow/Lviv posts!

Nitpicks: "Its ruins have lied untouched" should have "lain," and "actual" should read "present" (or "modern") throughout. Also, there's something wrong at the end of this sentence: "This quarter was populated by Jews coming from Germany and Karaites coming from the Crimea at the same time when the Old Jewish Street." At the same time when the Old Jewish Street... what? was being established?

MOCKBA dijo...

And I think tűzfal / brandmauer corresponds to "firewall" rather than "wall of fire". Although there may be additional ways to call a windowless wall of a multi-story building in English?

Great series. I commented on LH about the name Starozakonna ~ Old-Testament, for the Jewish street in Polish

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks to both of you for the corrections, as always and as in the future. Language, I have changed the word order in the phrase mentioned, I think it is now unambiguous, how do you think it? MOCKBA, in which LH post did you comment on the name Starozakonna?

Language dijo...

Ah, I see the problem now: "at the same time when the Old Jewish Street" should be "at the same time as the Old Jewish Street." ("When" requires a following clause.)

in which LH post did you comment on the name Starozakonna>

It was this one.

Studiolum dijo...

Oh yes. We have already run across this as/when dichotomy, a typical problem for a Hungarian, who uses the same term for both. Thanks a lot, as well as for the LH reference.