Today I was in Belz. The usual bumpy roads and courageous marshrutka (mini bus) drivers. That alone does not make a story. But Belz turnes out to be unusually beautiful and interesting. Although the town is so small that one can walk through it in no time, it offers many traces of the rich heritage of Galicia. Ukrainian, Polish and Jewish traces.
Belz can be recognized from afar by its many towers. An imposing town hall from the Austrian era, there are the remains of a Polish noble castle, a large Baroque monastery, which is being renovated. Next to it is a strange building under renovation, I don’t understand its original purpose – obviously it is from the Soviet era. A surprising high number of beautiful 19th century buildings have been preserved, some in good condition, others need help.
After the hustle and bustle of Lviv, Belz looks very rural. Chickens running across the street, I see several stork nests. Cars rarely come by, you can stroll down the street, not on the sidewalk.
I walk out of town in western direction. Along the road are a couple of beautiful wooden houses with lush gardens. I pass the Christian cemetery. There is a beautiful Ukrainian wooden church and some good examples of Galician stone carving. Finally I reach the Jewish cemetery – or rather what’s left of it.
Belz was one of the centers of Hasidism with a famous rabbi dynasty, that enjoyed recognition far beyond the town of Belz. The graves of the Belzer Rabbis have been preserved next to the entrance of the cemetery. I see many pieces of paper with prayers and wishes in a box next to the graves. On a park bench is an Israeli daily newspaper. Apparently frequently pilgrims come here. Opposite the cemetery there is even a pilgrim hotel with a prayer room. I walk through the extensive grounds – only a very small part of the grave stones have survived, most of it were destroyed. The few stones touch me by their loneliness in the vastness of the Galician countryside.
And then an impressive natural spectacle takes place. I hear rattling and rustling of wings in the air. Storks gather over the grounds of the cemetery. First there are six or seven, then they must be more than 20 or 30. This assembly takes only a few minutes, the birds turn a few laps and disappear into nothingness.
The picture does not get out of my head when I walk back to town. On the way back there is another discovery. By chance, I notice a sign on a wall, which points to a cultural monument: a second Jewish cemetery. Grave stones have not been preserved, but a high embankment. I climb up, but I find nothing except a grazing goat.