Wine, Olive Oil, and Wisteria: A Sensual Tour of the “City of Lions”

By Jacob MikanowskiMay 27, 2017

Wine, Olive Oil, and Wisteria: A Sensual Tour of the “City of Lions”

City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands

AND WHAT SHOULD I tell you about the City of Lions? Should I tell you what its towers looked like in Duke Daniel’s day, when the yellow banners of the Golden Horde fluttered beneath its walls? Should I tell you about the rabbi who arrived from the West to spread enlightenment, had arsenic poured in his soup for all his trouble, and died along with one of his daughters? Or should I tell you about the cruel chief of police and his literary son? The father was an Austrian. He had one eye. He spent his days interrogating spies, flogging vagabonds, and hanging conspiratorial Poles. When he had a free moment, he devoted himself to his natural history collection, drowning beetles in alcohol and sticking pins through flies.

The police chief son’s nurse was a Ruthenian. From her, he absorbed milk, language, and song. Later, he would write about “Little Russians,” and use the pronoun “we,” even as he wrote in German about Galician squires and Hasidic zaddiks. His works are seldom read today. His name was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and he has gained immortality — unexpectedly and against his will — for his eponymous perversity.

High glossy boots and blouses worn with red ties — such was the professional uniform of the women hired by masochists to whip them in prewar Berlin. In Józef Wittlin’s brief, plangent, and utterly delectable reminiscence of Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv, My Lwów (heroically translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), we learn that masochism was less apt to be practiced (at least in public) in the city of its birth. But what the city lacked in open sexual perversity it made up for in friendship — true friendship, the kind that can only blossom “against the background of sometimes glaring differences and antagonisms.” In Lwów, writes Wittlin, fellowship reached beyond the bounds of party or tribe. There, the intellectual could lie down with the dog catcher; “members of the Endecja made love with Jews, socialists with conservatives, and Rusynphiles, Moscowphiles and the like with Ukrainian nationalists.”

What lovely, generous thoughts, especially given that they were written in exile, after war, revolution, and the passage of decades. For Lemberg was not the city of Wittlin’s birth, or the city of his death. It was the city of his heart. Lwów, Lvov, Lviv: even the name sounds like love (putting aside, for the moment, Lemberg and Leopolis). Its place on the cultural map of Europe is a study in spatial paradox. To the Viennese of Emperor Franz Joseph’s day, it was the edge of Asia. To Ukrainians, it was the door to Europe. To Poles, it seemed the start of Austria.

Few cities could compete with prewar Lwów/Lviv for sheer human diversity. Wittlin compares it to a dazzling “oriental carpet”: “That’s Lwow for you […] Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Saracens, and Germans are all Lvovians, alongside the Polish, Ruthenian and Jewish natives, and they are Lvovian ‘through and through.’” The deeper you peer into its history, the more kaleidoscopic this diversity appears. The closeness of Romania shaped the local dialect. Wallachian princes built some of Lwów’s most lavish chapels. Lwów’s Armenians didn’t speak Armenian. They preferred to use the Kipchak Turkish of the Golden Horde, but they wrote it in the alphabet of St. Mesrop. Andrey Sheptytsky, the head of the traditionally Ruthenian Greek Catholic Church in the 1930s, was a Ukrainian priest whose grandfather was Poland’s answer to Molière. During the war he did much to save the city’s Jews. And so on.

These days, Lviv leads a peculiar double life, with one foot in the present and one perpetually stuck in the past. In one life, it is a very real city of 2.5 million souls and the capital of its own Ukrainian oblast. In the other, it is that golem-like thing — a pure creature of memory.

In this second life, Lviv bears a heavy double burden on its stout shoulders. It’s a symbol for everything that has disappeared in this part of Europe: the comity of different nations and confessions; the operetta sweetness of the old Empire; the real sweetness of Austrian confections. It is also a symbol of the forces responsible for that disappearance: the clarion calls of nationalism, Stalinism, fascism, and the armies, massacres, and genocides they rallied and fueled.

Of course, Lviv shares some of this burden with Galicia, the vanished province of which it was once the capital. And what is Galicia — that bureaucratic phantom changed by the passage of time into a nostalgic fantasy — but a paradox? Here is how Kazimierz Bartoszewicz defined it in his 1905 Dictionary of Truth and Common Sense:

Galicia — a part of the Earth discovered 130 years ago, inhabited chiefly by exiles from Jerusalem and the wild tribes of Stańczyks, Democrats, and Stojałowczyks. In professional terms, the population of Galicia falls into aficionados of art (5,000), insurance agents (7,500), cyclists (25,000), doctors (around 50,000), presidents and directors (around 100,000), governors, counselors, and superintendents (1,106,315), illiterates (2,000,000), and hungry mouths (3,000,000).

You won’t find many illiterates or hungry mouths in Wittlin’s Lwów. But you will find stranger creatures, such as the kołtun and batiar. Batiar is a Hungarian word for a highwayman. In Lwów, it meant something more: someone who was part prankster, part criminal. A batiar could belong to any social class, be born in a “patrician mansion or a nobleman’s estate,” just so long as he belonged to the streets as well. The batiars had their own genre of song, commemorating their bandit deeds, and as Wittlin replays them in his mind, he comes to see them as emblems of the city as a whole. To him:

The Batiar city is unpredictable […] you never know when it will jump from pathos to the grotesque, from heroism to playing the goat, from a funeral with three pairs of Kurkowski’s horses dyed black, to the mythical “veterans’ ball” that ended at midnight with the appearance of two civilians who didn’t say a word to anyone, but just put out the lights and smashed everyone in the kisser.

Now, if you were to go the veteran’s ball and smash everyone in the kisser, chances are you would be arrested, most likely by one of the Royal Imperial Polish Police, known as the Schwarzgelbern (after their yellow and black helms). Perhaps it would be done by Captain Tauer, with his black curly moustache, or by one of his agents, such as the womanizing Inspector Grinzberg, who had his head blown off by a Ukrainian grenade in 1918. Then you would be sent to Brygidki, the city’s main prison. But this would hardly be a bad thing, for prison is an excellent place from which to survey the character of any city, and especially an eastern one. In prison you might be lucky enough to meet some of the stars of Lwów’s criminal firmament, such as the whisker-faced Baziul, or Białoń the Bandit. But even better, you would be in contact with the city’s very essence. This, in Wittlin’s words, “is an extraordinary mixture of nobility and roguery, wisdom and imbecility, poetry and vulgarity,” which reminds one in its tartness not so much of the sweet cherry, and not so much of the sour cherry, but of the wild cherry, that unusual fruit that ripens only in the Klepary suburb.

Having made our acquaintance with both law and disorder, it is now time to explore the urbs in toto. Wittlin makes for a wonderfully eccentric guide. He briefly considers the major sites — parks, cathedrals, and the like — before dismissing them as unrepresentative of the true Lvovian. Instead, he takes us to a cottage, one of whose gutters drains into the Vistula and the Baltic, and the other into the Dniester and Black Sea. There is a pharmacy famous for having the most beautiful shop window in all of Galicia and Lodomeria, thick glass, etched with water lilies and garlands and the crown of St. Stephen. These are the sights that loom large once seen in hindsight.

Along the way, Wittlin teaches us the traditional Lvovian salutations, such as “I kiss your little hands,” which dates back to the days of King John Casimir and sounds just as ridiculous in Polish as it does in English. And he unseals the whole lost sensorium of his youth. In taverns and bolt holes he treats us to Syrmian slivovitz, hot krupnik, honey liqueur, and Lwów’s famous rose-flavored vodka, rozolis. At the Renaissance Café, a lawyer’s clerk tempts us with champagne and cold meats served in the “Jewish and Aryan style,” proffered as a bribe.

Smells drag Wittlin ever further into the past. In front of the old Venetian consulate, Wittlin detects the smell “of stagnant water, honeymoons, fish, cuttlefish, wine, olive oil and wisteria,” so sharp in their combination that “we can hear the strokes of oars against gentle waves growing louder and louder.” Other odors follow Wittlin into exile: “I’ve also been pursued the world over by the aromas of Lwów’s patisseries, fruit sellers, colonial stores, and Edmund Riedl and Juliusz Meinl’s tea and coffee shops. Pursue is not the right word, because being pursued is unpleasant, but these aromas are delicious, though they prompt tears.” And we haven’t even begun to speak about poets and their many deaths.

What a pleasure this voyage is. How little it matters that it avoids grand pronouncements or pointed theses. Wittlin’s book is so sensuous, so pungent, so delightful that the main question it prompts is: Why don’t we have a whole library of such guides?

Of course we do have the makings of such a library, even if it’s been scattered to the four winds. Let’s pick up the pieces and travel to the Czernovitz of von Rezzori and Celan; Gjirokastër of Kadare and the poet-masters of the Sufi tekkes. Let’s go to soggy Subotica with Dezső Kosztolányi and his insane morphine-addicted cousin Géza Csáth, and to Vilnius with Czesław Miłosz and Tomas Venclova. Whole bookshelves already exist for Budapest and Prague. Let’s leave them aside for now, taking only Chico Buarque for company, so we can look at exile with an exile’s eyes.

Comrade publishers, you can help us! Perhaps one of you has the boldness to commission a translation of Jean Bart’s (a.k.a. Eugeniu Botez) Europolis, with which we could voyage to Sulina, that home to heretics, castaways, strivers, seamen — quintessence of vanished prewar cosmopolitanism lost in the marshes of the lower Danube. Certainly you could acquire Artur Klinau’s book on Minsk. Does an equivalent exist for Bratislava, or Prešov? (Slovak! You are my brother — I am sorry I know so little about you.) And what about Chișinău, or Riga?

But perhaps our designs are insufficiently ambitious. Let’s return to Lviv for a moment, and climb the clock tower next to the Jesuit church (once the tallest in Galicia). Look to the south — there, in the distance, the blue crests of the Bieszczady, the local segment of the Carpathians. Isn’t an insult against hills and mountains, against the very idea of elevation itself, that no literary guide exists to Europe’s hunchbacked spine? And if we make room for mountains, shouldn’t we also pay attention to the plains? The Magyar puszta, for instance. (Well, there is Gyula Illyes, but even I can’t find a copy of his People of the Puszta in English.) And what of the Tisza River that runs through it?

But now we are drifting on other currents, and we’ve lost sight of our point of departure. There’s actually a second half to City of Lions that I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s a short travelogue by Philippe Sands, a Franco-British law professor and writer, who has recently published a book about two lawyers — Raphael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht — who helped create the legal categories of genocide and “crimes against humanity.” Both men were from Galicia, both spent some of their youth in Lviv, and Sands follows mostly in their footsteps. But he also reads Wittlin, and picks up his trail as well. He goes to the old law faculty, sees the prison, goes to cafes, meets some local Nazis, and shoots a documentary with the sons of some real Nazis.

Sands acquits himself well. The Nazis acquit themselves less well. It’s a well-written account, and almost up to date. Could the editors have asked a Ukrainian writer — say, Yuri Andrukhovych, from Ivano-Frankivsk — for another perspective? Perhaps. The truth is, though, that any rival account would pale next to Wittlin’s gem. Remember that it was written in 1946, in New York. Wittlin left Poland in 1939. That year, Lwów was annexed by the Soviet Union. Two years later, it was conquered by the Reich. Most of the city’s intellectuals were deported. Most of the university’s professors were shot. Nearly all of its Jews were sent to the concentration camp at Bełżec, from which only a handful of people emerged alive. As sweet as My Lwów is, when Wittlin wrote it his cup was overflowing with gall.

Near the end of his book he pauses to remember some of the literary giants of his youth. There was the poet Jan Kasprowicz, who reminded Wittlin of a walking mountain, “one of the lesser Tatra peaks.” There was also Ostap Ortwin, a critic so regal he seemed like a count. Was, was — he admits that his memory has become like a cemetery.

Wherever it takes you there are graves. The graves of those who died a “natural” death, ceremonially buried and loudly lamented. And now, like a terrible hump that has sprung up on the back of the memory, heaven knows who dug them or where, are the mass graves of victims of the most recent slaughter. Nobody wept over them. In 1939 the poet Stanisław Rogowski perished in Lwów. Later on the following poets and writers suffered a martyr’s death: Halina Górska, Aleksander Dan, Tadeusz Holender, Józef Kretz-Mirski, Włodzimierz Jampolski and my pupil from gymnasium, Karol Dresdner. Refusing to go into the ghetto, Henryk Balk took his own life. May the soil of Lwów lie gently on them.

City of blessed memory.


Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.

LARB Contributor

Jacob Mikanowski is a writer based in Berkeley, California. More of his work can be found here.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!