Town & Country (USA)

This Is Lviv


It is, first and foremost, a city of many names—as how could it not be, given its dazzlingly rich and complex history? In the Latin inscriptio­ns you can still see on many of its impressive public buildings, it’s Leopolis, a name honoring the 13th-century Ruthenian prince Leo I, whose father King Daniel founded the city in 1272. (Italians still call it Leopoli.) Germans call it Lemberg—which is what my grandfathe­r, born in 1902 as a subject of the kindly Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Josef I, called it too, since it was then the capital of the Austrian province of Galicia— and if you grew up there, German was the language you spoke in school. (The forebears of a huge proportion of American Jews began their journey to the New World from the Lemberg train station; Barbra Streisand’s did.) If you are Polish, as many of the city’s inhabitant­s were until World War II, you call it Lwów (pronounced L’-VOOF), as, for instance, did the members of the famous “Lwów school” of mathematic­ians. They would meet regularly at the Scottish Café, which still stands, and debate their theorems, writing them down on the marble tabletops—just a small part of the city’s intense intellectu­al and cultural activity during the 19th and 20th centuries. (It is to the humanist writer Leopold von SacherMaso­ch, an Austrian aristocrat born in Lemberg and the author of Venus in Furs, that we owe the word masochism.) The Russians, to

whom Ukraine belonged until 1992, call it Lvov, and for the Ukrainians it has always been Lviv. The world now waits to see what name it will carry into the future.

Because of its dense and complicate­d history, Lviv is a city of many other things too. Churches, most famously. It is said that no other city in the Habsburgs’ empire boasted as many denominati­ons: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Armenian, you name it—each reflected in its distinctiv­e architectu­ral vernacular. (The yellow and white Baroque confection known as St. George’s cathedral gives anything in Rome a run for its money.) The story goes that when Franz Josef came at the fin de siècle, the entire trip was taken up by churches; as his entourage rushed him to the train station at the end of the state visit, he turned and said, “But what about my Jews?” And so they had to stay to visit all the synagogues. There’s a reason that an elderly gentleman I once knew, who grew up near Lviv in the 1930s, grinned at me and exclaimed, “We were the first multicultu­rals!”

The first time I visited this remarkable city, in 2001, there were portraits of the emperor still hanging in cafés, a not entirely tonguein-cheek nod to the way that the city’s rich past is never very far below the surface here. The Habsburg past, in particular, makes itself felt along the main avenues: squint, and you might be in Vienna. Just look at the Opera House, built in the late 1890s. (At the time, the street it stands on was named for an Austrian archduke; 50 years later, a statue of Lenin stood in front of it.) With its roof topped by giant bronze figures of Poetry, Music, and Glory, it is like 19th-century Europe’s dream of itself. My brother Matt captured it during a gentle rain in August 2001. We hope to go back and see it again, someday.

 ?? ?? A photo of the Lviv Opera House taken by the writer’s brother on a trip to research their family history.
A photo of the Lviv Opera House taken by the writer’s brother on a trip to research their family history.

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