Ghostly Parades in Lost Cities: Babel’s Odessa and Wittlin’s L’viv

By Uilleam BlackerJune 18, 2017

Ghostly Parades in Lost Cities: Babel’s Odessa and Wittlin’s L’viv

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel
City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

JÓZEF WITTLIN WAS NOT a native of L’viv (or Lwów, as he knew it), today western Ukraine’s biggest city, but in his day the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia and later interwar Poland’s third city. Yet a short, elegiac essay he wrote in 1946, after the area was incorporated into the Soviet Union, is for many Poles the definitive evocation of one of their great lost cities. Recently, Pushkin Press has made Wittlin’s essay the centerpiece of a slim, beautifully produced volume, City of Lions, which also includes a companion essay by British law professor Philippe Sands. Coincidentally, Pushkin Press has also released a new translation of another important text about a Ukrainian city: early 20th-century Odessa, as described in Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories. Though different in many ways, the texts by these three authors provide intriguing guides around some of Europe’s less-known urban landscapes.

Wittlin lived in Lwów as a child and young man before and after World War I. His experience of the war, during which he studied in Vienna and served in the Austro-Hungarian army (though he never saw combat due to ill health), and also the Polish-Ukrainian conflict he found when he returned to Lwów in 1918, inspired his pacifist and expressionist early poetry and his most famous novel, Salt of the Earth (1936). This novel, admired by Thomas Mann, is one of the great Central European war stories, on a par with the works of Jaroslav Hašek. The essay “My Lwów,” which features in the Pushkin Press edition, finds the writer in a reflective mood, tracing the topographies and sensations of his childhood, in a loving, sensuous, but also gently ironic reconstruction of a lost city.

A certain ironic nostalgia can also be felt in Isaac Babel’s terse, punchy evocations of the city of his own youth. Unlike Wittlin’s Lwów, Babel’s Odessa will be known to many readers, though these celebrated stories have never been rendered with the cutting flair Boris Dralyuk’s new English translations impart to them. Babel, like Wittlin, is known for depicting the turbulent events of early 20th-century Eastern and Central Europe, at ground level and in visceral detail, particularly in his book about the Polish-Soviet war, Red Cavalry (first published in the early 1920s and also recently translated by Dralyuk). The Odessa stories, written in the 1920s but largely set at the turn of the century, are, like “My Lwów,” elegiac, but not in the usual sense: Babel’s is an ebullient elegy, filled with violence, sex, and life.

Both Wittlin’s and Babel’s texts are hymns to cities. Wittlin lovingly sketches Lwów’s streets and churches, its parks and cafes, and the spectacular window displays of its pharmacies (the city was famous for them and, curiously, still has a great many). He takes the reader on precisely described routes through the town, tells us exactly how things smelled, felt, and looked, down to the words carved into benches in a beloved park or the meals served in favorite cafes. He brings alive its carnivalesque historical array of monks and bandits, writers and soldiers, professors and alchemists, at one point strikingly animating them all in an imagined ghostly parade through the city. The level of topographical and historical detail is at times overwhelming, but Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s inventive translations and skilled use of footnotes keep it all manageable for the Anglophone reader.

Wittlin is always wary of memory, especially of nostalgia (those “crippled” or “phantom” memories), reminding us that the attempt to recapture what has been lost forever is a vain enterprise. This is a tough thing to realize, too tough for many of the Poles who were uprooted and sent westward after the war, and who never really let go of the lost east. Wittlin sees no other solution than to laugh, warmly scolding his unruly reminiscences: “Get in line, you wayward memories! Stop breaking ranks….” When “playing at idylls,” it is important not to get carried away. This is a valuable lesson when dealing with the apocalyptic sense of loss so characteristic of dissected, devastated postwar Europe.

At the same time, Wittlin admits that he does not want to confront all the ghosts of the city’s past. The battles between Poles and Ukrainians, for example, are only hinted at. Wittlin confronts this omission directly, asking with disarming honesty for indulgence. Our idyll requires it. He prefers to focus on colorful coexistence rather than fratricide, speaking glowingly of the city’s multicultural past:

That’s Lwów for you. Diversified, variegated, as dazzling as an oriental carpet. Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian [i.e., Ukrainian] and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovian “through and through.”

Odessa, like L’viv, makes much of its multicultural past, and this cosmopolitan mix is at the heart of Babel’s myth of the city. Lemberg-Lwów was a great Jewish city, but it pales next to Odessa, whose scattered children have defined Jewish culture and politics (and not only Jewish) wherever they have ended up, from Kyiv and Moscow to Brighton Beach and Israel. The humor, swagger, chaos, and camaraderie of turn-of-the-century Jewish Odessa are represented in Babel with a mixture of mockery, horror, incredulity, and love. But, like Wittlin, Babel never allows himself to wallow: in one sketch, for instance, he states categorically that “Odessa is a nasty place.”

Yes, but gloriously so. This is a juicy nastiness, soaked in southern sunshine (it was from here, in Babel’s view, that the sun would enter the gloomy world of Russian literature). We feel the pain of the loss of this nasty city. Its Jewish gangsters — like the renowned “King” Benya Krik or one-eyed Froim “The Rook” (Grach), “the true boss of Odessa’s forty thousand thieves” — would put their counterparts in Scorsese’s movies to shame with their mean flamboyance, brilliantly conveyed by Dralyuk in an expert blend of New York tough-guy lingo and Brighton Beach patois. Tarantino at his most extreme cannot equal their stylish and bathetic deployments of cruelty. And when they are mowed down by the NKVD, you feel for them, and for the city that died with them. Odessa’s chaos, its rogues and characters, would have no place in the new Bolshevik order.

The NKVD brought plain old nastiness — though it had existed before, in the pogroms, as described in Babel’s “A Story of My Dovecote.” The startling and bloody fate of the Jewish boy’s pigeons in this tale is surely one of the most shocking scenes in literary history. This kind of cruelty occurred in early 20th-century Europe wherever there was a combustible ethnic mix, which in prewar East-Central Europe was almost everywhere. L’viv was no exception. In 1918, after the Poles had defeated the Ukrainians in the fight for the city, there was a horrific pogrom, carried out largely by Polish soldiers in a sort of grotesque victory celebration. In 1941, when the Soviets, who had occupied the city for two years, retreated before the advancing Germans, hundreds of dead bodies, executed in Soviet prisons, were dragged into the streets. The Jews were blamed for this, and another, much larger-scale pogrom ensued, this time carried out largely by local Ukrainians. As Wittlin notes with bitter irony, drawing a comparison with the pogroms inspired by the Ukrainian Cossack leader Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the 17th century: “the cause of all wars and every kind of evil in the world did not change from Khmelnytsky to Hitler.”

Knowledge of the fate of the Jewish inhabitants of these great cities casts a shadow over our readings of both books. Wittlin doesn’t dwell on the matter, but neither does he shun it — it is always there, throbbing, like a hidden wound, underneath the superficial lightness of the text. Babel was murdered by the NKVD in 1940 and thus spared any experience of the Holocaust. But in his account of the pogrom in “A Story of My Dovecote,” you can feel the terrible precariousness of European Jewry, summed up in the senseless murder of two birds and a grandfather. It is difficult to enjoy Babel’s Jewish Odessa, to root for his gangsters as they gleefully outwit the local police, without also mulling the fate of the city under the brutal Romanian occupation during World War II. It is hard to chuckle at Wittlin’s Jewish veterans of the anti-Russian Polish uprisings, parading through the streets as Polish heroes (much to the indignation of the nationalists), without also thinking about the ghetto and the death camp that would soon appear in the city.

For a contemporary meditation on these issues, we can turn to Philippe Sands. Sands, an expert on international human rights law, was surprised to discover in his research that the originators of two of the most important concepts in his field — Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide, and Hersch Lauterpacht, who created the concept of crimes against humanity — both studied in L’viv, a city with which, by further coincidence, Sands himself had unexplored connections, having lost many members of his extended family to the Nazi occupation of the area. Sands wrote an award-winning book on Lemkin and Lauterpacht’s ideas, East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes against Humanity” (2016), and made a remarkable documentary film, My Nazi Legacy (2015), in which he accompanies the sons of two high-ranking Nazis who had been stationed in Ukraine during the war back to the scenes of their fathers’ crimes.

While Wittlin and Babel are immersed in the cities they describe, Sands’s perspective is closer to that of the contemporary reader, who struggles with the juxtaposition between beauty, faded grandeur, and whimsical visions of a cosmopolitan past on the one hand, and savage mass murder on the other. Sands’s essay is about contemporary L’viv — what it remembers and what it does not. In both cases, the answer is: Much. Sands’s account of the city is certainly more down to earth than Wittlin’s, though even he becomes infected with his Polish counterpart’s sense of urban poetry, closing with a beautiful echo of Wittlin’s ghostly parade. Sands’s pageant includes Lauterpacht and Lemkin, who quarrel good-naturedly over the respective merits of their competing theories: should the rights of the individual take precedence, or is it rather groups we should seek to protect?

Lemkin and Lauterpacht are not particularly well remembered in L’viv today. The city, like Odessa, became a majority Ukrainian city only in the latter part of the 20th century. Ukrainians today often feel the need to reclaim their cities, to inscribe their own story, so often marginalized in the past — whether in Polish Lwów, where they were second-class citizens, or in Russian imperial or Soviet Odessa, where linguistic and cultural Russification was a powerful factor. Urban literature was generally seen as the preserve of dominant cultures, with Ukrainian literature relegated to the village. The positive side of this reinscription is the rediscovery of neglected Ukrainian modernist urban poets, like L’viv’s own Baudelaire, Bohdan Ihor Antonych (recently published in English translation by Glagoslav Publications). The negative side is the tendency to neglect these cities’ lost others by focusing on the glorification of nationalist heroes. Russia is actively exploiting historical myths as part of its ideological warfare in the region, claiming former imperial peripheries like Crimea as “eternally” Russian, with Odessa also potentially on the list. Against this background, is there room for all those non-Ukrainians who made Ukraine’s cities what they are, such as the ordinary Russians, Jews, and Greeks of Odessa, or the Poles, Jews, and Armenians of L’viv?

The situation is precarious. But good things are happening, such as the Space of Synagogues monument in L’viv that Sands so warmly describes, a refreshingly modern and thoughtful memorial to the city’s Jews built on the site of a famous synagogue that was razed by the Nazis. Empty for so long, the site now features an elegant, accessible memorial complete with multilingual citations from former Jewish inhabitants, including, on Sands’s suggestion, an account of the Nazi occupation written by Lauterpacht’s niece, Inka Katz. Festivals across the country today celebrate Polish and Jewish writers, from Stanisław Lem in L’viv to Bruno Schulz in Drohobych to Paul Celan in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz). Since 2011, Babel has had a monument in Odessa.

And yet Babel doesn’t exist in Ukrainian, and his books have not been republished in Russian in Ukraine — though in this bilingual country, where the market is flooded with Russian books, this in no way means he is inaccessible. Wittlin is harder to find: though many L’vivians can get by in Polish, only a handful will know the author, and there are no widely available translations. Which is a shame, as the author’s cosmopolitan willingness to share his city, his insistence that memory is never to be trusted, and his belief that loss, however painful, sometimes needs to be accepted, are, sadly, useful lessons for Ukraine today.

Wittlin daydreams in “My Lwów” that he may one day have a street named after him in his beloved city: “Not a major thoroughfare … God forbid!,” but a modest side street would do. “Why shouldn’t my contemporaries’ grandchildren — young people whom I do not expect to read my work — be familiar with my name, if only from the name of a side street where they will enjoy the pleasures of their day…?” He doesn’t have one yet, though Babel has had a street in Odessa since 1989, so there may be hope. It probably helps, however, that Babel is read in Odessa, probably even by young people. Perhaps, if Wittlin ever gets as lovely a Ukrainian edition as this gorgeous English-language one, an eponymous side street might be in the offing, someday.


Uilleam Blacker is a lecturer in Comparative Russian and East European Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

LARB Contributor

Uilleam Blacker is a lecturer in Comparative Russian and East European Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is co-author of Remembering Katyn (2012) and co-editor of Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe (2013)He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Open Democracy Russia, and Words Without Borders. He has published fiction in The Edinburgh Review and Stand, and has translated the work of several contemporary Ukrainian authors.


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