It was in the Summer 2016 when I first encountered the story of the derelict building at 12 Sholem Aleichem street (formerly Bernstein street). I came to Lviv to research Debora Vogel and her literary and artistic circles of the inter-war period. Wherever I turned I seemed to hear about the building – Google, resources at the Lviv Centre for Urban History, ad-hoc chats with people at the Centre.
Off I went to find the building. The door was locked. A sign БIБЛIОТЕКА (‘library’) on the adjacent building №14 was my route in – I walked in and sneaked at the back.
14 Bernstein street, 21 July 2016 (photos by Asya Gefter)
Crumbling walls separating the two buildings №14 and №12, a relatively recent (January 2015) communist newspaper with a picture of Lenin, some sort of a target shooting board, bits and pieces scattered around.
A couple weeks later Alena Andronatiy called and announced she got the keys to the building. The three of us – Alena, Olesya and myself – met. The world outside stopped to exist when we entered. I lost the sense of time. But we live in the digital age when everything is recorded. The first photograph was taken at 16:30:08, the last one at 17:27:47. It lasted less than an hour what seems a century. The building became a character in our project and film.
The Lviv Jewish museum was opened on 17 June 1934 in the building of the Jewish community on 12 Bernstein street. It immediately became a noticeable phenomenon in the cultural life of the multiethnic Galicia. Its collection included religious artefacts of the 17th-19th centuries (Maksymilian Goldstein Judaica collection) andmodern art.
The custodian of the museum was Ludwik Lille, artist and connoisseur of Jewish relics. He joined Artes, an avant-garde art group which tried surrealism, symbolism, abstractionism, cubism, constructivism and other movements which were in fashion in the European art of that timeheld exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and Vogel wrote about matters close to their area of interests; Henryk Streng, another member of Artes, illuminated Vogel’s prose collection Acacias Blooms well as her poetry books Day Figures and Mannequins.
In early 1940 the communist regime liquidated the Jewish Museum, and its holdings were transferred to the collections of the Industrial Museum and other museums in Lviv. Despite all the efforts of the Museum administration to save Goldstein and his family, thewere murdered during the Aktion of November 1942.
The same fate as of Debora Vogel and her family.
Ukrainian employees of the Industrial museum saved the artifacts by hiding them in the basement. In 1944 they visited Pavlo Zholtovsky, the director of the newly created Museum of Ethnography and Arts and Crafts, and presented him with the antiquities. In 1948, after the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union issued the resolution “On the Struggle against Rootless Cosmopolitanism,” Zholtovsky received an order to destroy all Jewish artifacts. The Ukrainian scholar, risking his freedom and life, issued to the NKVD a false certificate attesting to the destruction of the antiquities, and then hid them in the attic of the museum.
The people of Lviv discovered the twice-saved collection only in 1990, when the art historian Dr. Faina Petryakova unveiled an exhibit dedicated to the Jewish material and spiritual heritage.
‘Relics of the Jewish World of Galicia’ exhibition is currently on display at the Lviv Ethnography Museum – the very collection that was housed at the Lviv Jewish Museum in the 1930s.
The building of the former Jewish Museum survived too but has become a victim of difficult politics in the Lviv Religious Jewish community in the post-Soviet independent Ukraine.
Will be history obliterated and all memory erased yet again by the recent 2017/18 controversial renovation that might result in turning it into a hotel?
Join us at Pushkin House, London on November 14 for a special evening of imagery, history, words and music with London resident Asya Gefter, who has just launched the ‘Fragments of Memory’ project in Lviv, and Lviv resident Mark Tokar, double bass player and a key figure in the Ukrainian free jazz scene.
Over the past two years, Asya Gefter and Olesya Zdorovetska had been on a journey to discover Debora Vogel, an overlooked intellectual, writer, art critic, the Gertrude Stein of inter-war Lviv. They walked the places Vogel inhabited, exhibited and wrote about. They met people who survived the war and went on living, or were born long after and reconnected with the vanished world. They encountered the story of the former Lviv Jewish museum, a derelict building presently at risk. The work that resulted from this voyage is concerned with the presence and absence of people, with a discontinuous perception of poetic and physical spaces, with personal stories pointing to Lemberg/Lwow/Lviv for present and future generations.
Vogel’s experimental poetry, all written in the 1920s-30s, was, in the spirit of early 20th century European literature, radically avant-garde and attuned to all the modernist minimalisms. Being skilled in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish, she published essays covering Lviv’s intellectual life and urban landscape, the role of women in society and art. Yet, her name has always been connected with the Polish prose stylist Bruno Schulz. Vogel’s own work received little attention during her life and after her death in Lviv ghetto in 1942.
The multimedia exhibition was launched at the Lviv Museum of Ideas during the International Book Forum in September 2017. Project research and Lviv exhibition were supported by A-n Travel bursary (UK), Asylum Arts ‘Small Grant’ (US), Kickstarter Crowdfunding campaign, Lviv Book Forum and Lviv Museum of Ideas. The plan is to tour the exhibition and develop a website with project material in English, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish.
Lviv is not only about the past but also about the present. Mark Tokar will play and talk about contemporary music scene in Ukraine, his collaborations in Ukraine and internationally, including the multi-genre projects (visualisations, literature, performance) with Yuri Andrukhovych, one of the leading Ukrainian authors writing today. Among these projects: Endless Journey or Aeneid (multimedia collage based on Yuri Andrukhovych-Ivan Kotliarevskiy with the elements of lecture, concert and banquet). Albert, or the Highest Form of Execution (Albert was created on the base of eponymous story written by Yuri Andrukhovych. In the center of action there is the story of ingenious cheater Albert Vyrozemskiy who agrees to sell his soul to the devil to avoid death penalty. However, the agreement signed with blood did not work. One autumn day in 1641, he was publicly burned in the middle of the Rynok Square in Lviv.
Last year I have been awarded an Asylum Arts Grant to collaborate with a Ukrainian musician Olesya Zdorovetska to research Debora Vogel, an overlooked Polish Yiddish writer of poetry, prose, literary and art criticism from the 1930s avant-garde Lviv.
And so in July 2016, supported by the Asylum Arts (US) and a-n Travel Bursary (UK) off we went on our audio-visual journey to Galicia of Debora Vogel. The time has flown by fast – it has been an enriching and wonderful experience that we hope to build upon by making a film next year.
In the meantime, I will be sharing the various steps of our research process in the A-n blogand on my vimeo channel.
Last month I reconnected with the places of my childhood holidays – Lviv and the Carpathian mountains in Western Ukraine. This area (former Galicia) was for centuries on the crossroads between Middle and Eastern Europe, and so it is small wonder that it has become a melting pot of people and cultures – Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish, Armenian, Belorussian, Lithuanian, Romanian, German.
The outbound trip started with an early flight from Stansted to Rzeszow (the most south-eastern Ryanair destination town of Poland) followed by a 2hour bus journey to Przemyśl. There I found a cozy little cafe with the titles of dishes scribbled on the wall (in Polish only) and after a few minutes of hesitated multi-lingual interaction I was presented with some superb soup followed by a much needed delicious coffee. Next leg of the journey involved a mini-bus to the Polish-Ukranian border that I crossed by foot. All that was rather emotional for me – as a 14-year old I crossed the border of Ukraine and Slovakia on my first Russian passport (Soviet template actually). It was my first ever time travelling to *Europe* and the excitement was overwhelming. Now, 20 years later, I was travelling the opposite direction on my British passport reliving childhood memories in the light of two decades of wanderings. I boarded another mini-bus on the Ukrainian side and was told that in an hour and a half I would arrive in Lviv where I was to join my friend Olesya, the very one who prompted me to come here and now.
To follow were days of peeping into courtyards of old Lviv, walking the cobble streets, climbing onto the roofs opposite the former Golden Rose synagogue in Staroyevreyska street, wandering in the Lychakivskiy Cemetery reading mournful tributes inscribed in Ukrainian, Russian, German, Polish, Armenian, Latin. And of course there were poetry readings, music and late night discussions. Olesya bought a newly printed Ukrainian edition of Debora Vogel poetry with illustrations and that was the start of our collaboration, our voyage to explore text, images and sounds of Vogel’s work and life.
Debora Vogel was born in 1902 in Burshtyn (Galicia) in a non-observant, Polish-speaking home. During WWI the family fled to Vienna and later moved to Lviv. She traveled extensively in Europe and was part of the vibrant Polish modernist scene of the interwar period. It was in Lviv where Vogel wrote poems in Yiddish in the 1930s that reflected the radical and minimalistic outlook that all art aspired toward during this period in history. Her experiment in poetry was mostly about fusing poetry and art. She called this technique ‘white words’ and described it as an attempt to “create a new lyric poetry of the urban condition”. Together with her husband and son, Vogel was killed in the Lviv ghetto in 1942.
Around 1930 Debora Vogel became acquainted with the Polish Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz who was as yet unpublished. The two developed a close relationship and carried on an intensive correspondence. It was Fogel who encouraged Schulz to develop the lyrical postscripts to his letters, passages that became the basis for his first publication “Cinnamon Shops” (1934), published in English as “Street of the Crocodiles.” Half a century later brothers Quay created a stop-motion animation based on this short novel. Ironically, Vogel is better known today for her connection with Schulz than for her own unique and innovative poetic vision. Very little of her work has been translated into Russian and Ukrainian, none into English.
Bruno! The background scenery of this letter is Skole.
And here I am, on the early morning train from Lviv to the Carpathian mountains, not yet knowing of this letter, following my own story reconnecting with the places of my childhood. I doze off and when I open my eyes I am blinded by the sun breaking through the clouds, next what I see is the station building with ‘Skole’ on it exactly how I remember it when I was a kid.
The letter continues:
Твое последнее письмо вернуло мне давний образ осеннего ландо, на котором мы должны были вместе уехать в красочную страну. Запах путешествия обладает неотразимым очарованием и странным образом всегда ассоциируется с образом кого-то другого, спутника. Затем оказывается, что хорошо быть одному, совсем хорошо быть более чем одному — быть одиноким, оставленным, безнадежно отданным на милость оставленности и бездомности. Тогда «видится» хорошо.
Your last letter brought back the distant image of the autumnal landau which should have taken us to a beautiful far away land. The smell of the journey has an irresistible charm, and strangely, it makes me think of someone else, of a companion. But then it turns out that it is so good to be on my own, and what is even better is to be alone, deserted, left at the mercy of abandonment and homelessness. Then one can ‘see’ well.