North of Lviv

A long day trip through Galicia – north of Lviv (Lemberg, Lwow) – to the towns of Sokal, Velyki Mosty and Zhovkva. Bright sunshine, the winter is coming to an end. We pass a down going industrial landscape, traces of the past and the dawn of a new, still undetermined Ukraine.

At 9 in the morning Kostya picks my friend Jürgen and me up from the hotel. For years Kostya works as a local historian, knows Galicia incredibly well and is also a very nice and gentle person. We like to go to Sokal, Velyki Mosty and Zhovkva – all former shtetl north of Lviv.

The marshrutka – the local minibus – rocks us through Galicia. Until Velyki Mosty the road is good – after that there is pothole after pothole. There is coal mining in the region. From time to time we see smoking chimneys of power plants and mining towers. The former proletarian paradise looks slightly chipped.

We reach Sokal and look for the former Jewish quarter. Today it is a park. After the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, the houses of the former residents were released by the Germans for demolition and for gaining building materials. Only a few buildings have been preserved – including the ruins of a wonderful Galician fortress synagogue from the 17th Century.

While we take pictures to two young men want to communicate with us. It’s just noon, but they are already drunk. We are the only entertainment within easy reach. Both are friendly to us, happy to know that foreign visitors managed to go to Sokal. But we feel something of the hopelessness of the province and of local living conditions.

Also in Sokal several public buildings are occupied by protesters. Masked men guard one of it. In an environment where everyone knows everyone, this has something of a sinister carnival. What a difference to the young men we met yesterday, guarding the barricades in Lviv! A group of older ladies has gathered there as well – they look more sympathetic to me. They laugh and behave like young girls when they realize that they are photographed, posing in front of the camera. The revolution has two faces in Sokal.

Kostya leads us to grave stones from the former Jewish cemetery, which are stocked at the Christian cemetery. In the background we see the remains of a former brick factory, were countless Jews have been killed in mass shootings. The scene is bleak.

We drive back to Lviv, and have a stop in a Velyki Mosty. There are the ruins of a synagogue dating from the early 19th Century – an impressive brick building. Above the entrance is on metal plates a long list of names attached – the murdered Jews of Velyki Mosty. On the roof of the synagogue grow trees and bushes. Their roots slowly destroy the arches. Partly it has already collapsed.

We go back on the road – soon it will dawn and we want to see Zhovkva in daylight. In Zhovkva I have been in the fall of 2012 before. Nevertheless, the beauty of the city surprises me again – the big square with the castle of the Polish royal family, the amazing Ukrainian wooden church, the town hall and the beautiful arcades.

The Synagogue of Zhovkva is among the most beautiful synagogues in Galicia. It is relatively well preserved, but again, help is needed. The drains for the rain water are destroyed. The damages to the facade are obvious.

Kostya directs us to the site of the former Jewish cemetery – now a market. Over the tombs of local rabbis a new Ohel has been errected. Fragments of grave stones are embedded in the outer wall of the site. At the outer end of the former cemetery we find the remains of graves from the 30s. Not a pretty sight. Time to return to Lviv.

I want to thank Kostya for that day. He has shared with us his knowledge, guided us with patience and overwhelmed us with hospitality. Thank you, Kostya!

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2 thoughts on “North of Lviv

  1. This is fantastic! My grandfather was born in Sokal and circumcised in that very synagogue! I also had a great uncle who was born in Mosty Wielke. So exciting to read of your travels here.

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