Ukrainian Summer: From L’viv to Kiev – Ukraine

From L’viv to Kiev


Drohobych Drohobych “Wailing Wall”
Leaving L’viv, we make a little detour to the southwest to the small town of Drohobych, which is described as a “scenic” little town. Well, there are some occasional stately homes with a certain scruffy splendour, the plaster flaking from their fronts. There are some wooden churches, too, but most impressive, a kind of wailing wall, commemorating the deportation of the local Jewish population, with grey faces looking out from between red bricks, showing all kinds of emotion, anger, pain, horror… Another highlight is the façade of the former synagogue, last of seven, looking like a pockmarked face with its eyes gouged out and towering above the contemporary road, the whole structure bound to collapse in spite of the wooden beams keeping its dilapidated bulk precariously upright inside.

The next day we leave L’viv for good. In the northeast there is the small town of Brody, a garrison town during the age of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, where officers who were pretty incompetent or had fallen out of favour were sent, and who almost inevitably started developing a depression and a penchant to heavy drinking. We see the railway station, a stately building from the old days with its huge stuccoed waiting hall and a handful of people sitting there drowsily patient on their wooden benches, as if they were waiting for somebody to take them into the 21st century.

Pretty hard to discover: the local Jewish cemetery, though it occupies a huge piece of ground of about 600×300 metres, situated far outside the town on the edge of a forest, covered over and over with rows of gravestones, standing side by side like dominoes, some of which have fallen to the soft ground which is overgrown with brambles, thistles and long blades of grass. We slip through the gaps to the next row of stones, which remind us a bit of ceremonial Mayan stelae, covered over and over with intricate symbols and images, like birds, houses below palm trees, menorahs, drinking jars knocked over, or a ship in full sail. On the backside read occasional German inscriptions like “Here lies, heavily mourned by his children, Josef Weintraub”, or “Here rests my beloved dead loss.” There is nobody around, the huge necropolis seems totally isolated with its wall enclosing it. Only the wind is wafting in whispers through the forest of stone slabs, and an occasional handful of sunbeams light up one or the other of the monuments, as if the one below it was trying to direct attention to himself, now that finally someone has dropped by.

Back in town we run into three grinning schoolboys and ask them: “Hey pan, schola Josef Roth?” This is the school of the chronicler of the declining Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Where the prophet of doom got his education, there is a school now, too, reminding us of the schools of our youth, with their high classrooms and the wooden floors smelling of fear and ceiling-wax. A bronze head of the poet together with the ones of other local celebrities adorns the place in front of the school. When Roth was born in 1894, Brody was situated in the northeastern corner of the Hapsburg monarchy near the Russian border, populated by some 16,000 subjects, with more than 70 per cent of them Jews, including little Josef and his father, a stonemason, who created many of the tombstones on the Jewish cemetery. Roth left this place soon and moved between Paris, Berlin and Vienna, but he never forgot his Galychnian place of birth, immortalizing it in the provincial backwater places of his novels, where his heroes stand to meet their fate.

Brody Jewish Cemetery
Brody Jewish Cemetery
Finally crossing the now imaginary border between the Hapsburg monarchy and the former Russian empire,
we drive along small country roads towards Pochayiv monastery. There is hardly any traffic, just some hurried Ukrainian cars overtaking us. Suddenly we run into a police control. A police officer is wafting a cross-breed between a pistol and a light bulb before my nose, directing my attention to the fact that I broke a “big speed limit”. The light bulb shows the number “69”, so I must have been fast. But I can’t succeed in getting rid of the suspicion that this instrument from the flea market that might always show the same number. And as I’m wondering aloud, why it is only strangers who seem to break speed limits – he shows me the torture instrument: a detailed-looking form which, as he tells me, I’ll have to fill in, not here, but back in Brody. I try to bribe him, which he finally agrees to after bravely fighting down legal doubts. The guy in civilian clothes beside him serenely collects the money as if he had never expected any other outcome.

The monastery lies high above a little town on a cliff overlooking the country. Irene, though wearing long jeans, must cover her legs with a big black cloth bound around her waist, which together with a headscarf makes her look a bit like a Russian matka. This is really a Disney World for believers, with gates, golden domes and turrets, some of them in a deep blue with golden stars, representing the vault of heaven, the churches painted in pink and light blue pastels, the whole impression complemented by chiming bell-towers. Elderly women in shabby clothes beg for alms, and my warm-hearted wife doesn’t forget any of them, only to discover a little later that the whole money is collected by the priests. Groups of believers keep shoving along the different holy places, writing their requests on little sheets of paper, buying candles, kissing icons, and repeatedly making the sign of the cross at an incredible speed, thus paying tribute to the holy men lying in caves below the churches.

Back on the road again. Not far from Rivne we see a hotel and restaurant beside the road. Strangely, there is another, new one, just some hundred meters away right in the middle of nowhere. As we hope for a silent night’s rest, we check in there. Again grinning faces as we try to make ourselves understood. It seems that some of the people here still have problems in dealing with foreigners, as they were isolated for such a long time behind the Iron Curtain. Only now, it seems, they are waking up from ages of leaden slumber, trying to come to grips with an unfamiliar situation. The house, though quite new, is full of corridors and corners like a Scottish castle and reminds us of walking in a nightmare place which you try to escape from without ever finding the way out. The Jesus on the crucifix by the wall looks like a shriveled vampire, and we almost feel like slipping into another level of reality, like in a Steven King story. When we are lying in bed in our huge room, someone tries to get inside several times, the window rattles and shakes in the night wind and the trucks are passing by with moaning sounds.

Pochayiv Monastery
Pochayiv Monastery
The next morning takes us back to reality. The motorway to Kiev is not far away. It has two lanes in each direction and makes traveling fast. But you’ve got to be on the alert for sudden problems, like cars taking completely legal U-turns, people crossing the motorway on foot on official zebra crossings, or some cattle being driven across it. Especially after a good stretch of road has lulled you into believing that everything is fine, you may run into unexpected bubbles on the asphalt or have problems with deep track-like grooves and the space between them standing up like crests on dinosaur craniums. People are waiting for the bus by the side of the road, others sell their products on the road shoulder, and once we almost crush a suicidal cock mourning his already flattened companion in the middle of the road.

We safely reach Kiev, the capital.

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