On Christmas Day, 1990, the Ukrainian city of Lvov (today Lviv) was in a fervour of nationalism. The Soviet Union was disintegrating; longed-for Ukrainian independence was in sight. Poets, politicians and former political prisoners packed the Church of the Transfiguration for the first Christmas service in half a century. People wearing festive masks paraded around the cobbled streets dressed as knights, legionaries, witches and devils. One group of belligerent youths appeared in swastika armbands. I noted in my report for The Irish Times describing the scene that the grim reaper was ever present, grinning maniacally.
The grim reaper is certainly no stranger to this western corner of Ukraine, part of the geographic region known as eastern Galicia. It has been fought over at different times by Mongols, Turks, Swedes, Lithuanians, Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, Russians and Germans. Death has come too from recurring famines and plagues.
Sitting right on this geopolitical fault line is a village not far from Lviv that was called Krakowiec. Its population consisted mainly of Poles and Ukrainians who worked the land, and Jews who were typically traders, artisans and tavern owners. Bernard Wasserstein, a British historian, discovered as a nine year old that Krakowiec was the birthplace of his father, who dismissed it as a “little place, you won’t have heard of it”. Desiring to understand better his family’s origins Wasserstein conceived a “crazy, impossible aspiration”, to identify every person who ever lived there. During many years of forensic research, he compiled a who’s who of 17,000 Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Russians and others who at one time lived in Krakowiec, where the population rarely exceeded 2,000. They included serfs, aristocrats, craftsmen, merchants, rabbis and priests, as well as “an 18th-century music master, a 19th-century lady of leisure, and a 20th-century mass murderer revered today as a national hero”.
The result of his endeavours is a masterpiece of historical research, a fascinating biography of a European village that offers the reader a prism through which to observe and understand the forces that affected the lives of mostly humble people.
In peaceful times Krakowiec was a “paradise with minor flaws” in the words of Galician author Joseph Roth. It had a “big house”, where in the age of enlightenment, a Polish lord, Ignaty Cetner, and his daughter Anna, made the village a centre of sophistication and refinement for the gentry. But war was forever on the horizon, and never more so than in the 20th century, when the start of the first World War launched seven years of “unrelieved terror and carnage” in eastern Galicia. Russian, Austrian and Polish forces fought over the territory. Ethnic hatreds were unleashed. Jews suffered pogroms. Churches, synagogues and homes were destroyed. Krakowiec was burned and looted as armies bludgeoned their way through. Jews wandered the countryside in what a witness described as a state of “truly piteous misery, faces drawn with hunger and terror”. The chaos continued until 1923 when the Allied powers ruled that eastern Galicia should be Polish.
Much worse was to follow. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin divided up Poland, and eastern Galicia was occupied with considerable brutality by the Red Army. Two years later, Nazi troops attacked all along the dividing line, killing over 3,000 Russians alone around Krakowiec. Many local Ukrainians welcomed them as liberators from the Red Army and turned on the Jews as collaborators with Soviet rule. In Krakowiec the German police chief amused himself by shooting passers-by in the street for sport, before despatching the few hundred Jews to a ghetto where they perished.
Here the historic and personal stories converge. The author’s grandfather Berl, his wife Czarna and daughter Lotte managed to flee from the village and hide for a year in the hut of a local Ukrainian, until one day he betrayed them. They were taken out and shot by the Germans. Berl’s son (the author’s father), Addi, escaped to Italy and thence to Palestine.
A noted Ukrainian native of Krakowiec emerged as a commander of the Ukrainian Nachtigall Battalion which collaborated with the Germans, and which sought to use the war to organise a declaration of Ukrainian independence. His name was Roman Shukhevych. After the war, East Galicia reverted to Soviet rule and Shukhevych led a partisan resistance until 1950, when he was shot dead. The struggle alongside Nazis against the Russians presumably accounts for the swastikas that appeared in Lvov as communism collapsed.
In 2019, on a visit to Krakowiec, now renamed Krakovets, Wasserstein found that his grandfather’s local school and the main street had been named after Shukhevych and a statue of the nationalist fighter erected in the square. While dismissing Putin’s claims of Nazism in today’s Ukraine as black propaganda, he struggles to come to terms with the glorification of someone he describes as an ethnic cleanser of Poles and Jews. There may be a felt need for a “usable past” common to many nationalisms, he concedes, but he warns that collective identities based on falsification of history are inherently contaminated and potentially dangerous.
As a border town on the E40 intercity highway, the former Krakowiec is today a “kissing-point” where Ukrainians and Poles embrace their European togetherness, and where refugees stock up at the filling station as they flee the latest invading army to shed the blood of Ukrainians.
Conor O’Clery is a former Moscow Correspondent of The Irish Times