- Lemberg. Die vergessene Mitte Europas by Lutz Kleveman
The dismantling of multiethnic Central Europe, begun after World War I and completed after the next one, is a subject of considerable historical importance, the narration of which shapes much of the discourse about contemporary European society and politics. Setting aside the attempted destruction of European Jewry, which is universally understood as a moral outrage, there is much room for debate about how one discusses the fates of the other peoples of Europe after 1945. Writing a history of the respective dislocations, forced migrations, and territorial rearrangements among the various postwar peoples—Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Latvians, Ukrainians, Romanians, and Germans—is not a benign project. Narratives and experiences are contradictory; opposing claims are equally legitimate; timelines that recall a century can be undermined by those that recall four. Even the most careful historian must write from a particular vantage point, draw a boundary, and choose a frame. [End Page 182]
In his new book, Lemberg: Die vergessene Mitte Europas, Lutz Kleveman joins an important and growing body of research aimed at chronicling the experience and demise of multiethnic prewar East Central Europe. Taking as his focus the city of Lviv, Kleveman tells the story of how a place that once embodied cosmopolitan urbanism was gradually transformed, often by violent means, into an almost entirely monoethnic city. He writes: “Lemberg könnte hier als pars pro toto stehen, als eine Stadt, deren Geschichte vergleichbar ist mit der anderer mitteleuropäischer Städte von Vilnius bis Czernowitz, von Danzig bis Reichenberg” (19). His title, which retains the German name of the city, alludes to this prenationalist past, and is clearly meant to conjure up images of Lviv’s historic multiethnicity, rather than imply a politics of Habsburg neorevanchism.
Kleveman’s narrative moves backward, beginning with the city today and inter-weaving a contemporary ethnography of the twenty-first–century urban landscape together with documentary accounts of the people and ideas that once made it a center of Polish and Jewish culture. Kleveman’s style is taken, in part, from that of travel literature, with the author as scholar-guide, leading the reader in and out of libraries, archives, cafés, market places, and private homes, in search of a language that is at once evocative and analytic. One of his greatest intellectual debts is to the Italian novelist and academic Claudio Magris, whose Danube (1986) evoked the complex interwoven cultures of pre-1939 Central Europe.
Lemberg is divided into eleven chapters, almost exclusively focused on the years after the outbreak of World War I. Kleveman has an easy, flowing style, and the capacity to take the reader into the library and then out onto the street again. One of the strengths of the book is how much emphasis he places on compelling stories and intriguing anecdotes. For example, in chapter 5, Kleveman reconstructs that most archetypical of Central European urban spaces: the café. In this case, it is Lviv’s Schottisches Café, the meeting place of a group of preeminent mathematicians, who sit at their tables, perform calculations, and converse while the politics of Europe roil at ever higher temperatures around them. And, in that same chapter, we meet one of Kleveman’s most fascinating contemporary interlocutors, Larissa Kruschelnitzka (Krushelnytska), a historian and former director of the Vasyl Stefanyk National Scientific Library. In her Viennese-accented German, the eighty-six-year-old recounts for a rapt reader the once seamless cultural byways that allowed privileged Central Europeans to see themselves in the middle, rather than at the margins of the continent.
It is impossible, in a book like this, for the murder of East European Jewry ever to be far from the surface. Kleveman investigates what remains of the built heritage of the Jews of Lviv—strikingly little, considering the size of the community before World War I. Only a single synagogue still stands, as well as an overgrown cemetery and the faded paint of Hebrew lettering on the exterior walls of prewar shops. It is a [End Page 183...