I recently visited the western Ukrainian town my mother lived in. It’s called Peremyshlyany and it’s about 45 kilometers southeast of Lviv.
The town is a shadow of what it used to be. Back in the interwar period, Przemyslany (the Polish name) had a population of about 5,000, with Poles and Jews comprising about 90 percent and Ukrainians the rest. A railroad connected it to Lviv, or Lwow as it was then called, and the town appears to have displayed some class despite the difficult economic times. No less impressive was the political, cultural, and religious vibrancy of all three ethnic communities, each of which had a highly exclusionary sense of identity and all of which lived side by side, didn’t like one another too much, but more or less got along.
World War II and its aftermath changed everything. First the Soviets killed Poles and Ukrainians. Then the Nazis exterminated the Jews. Then Ukrainians and Poles settled old scores. And, finally, the Soviets came back and drove out the Poles and killed many of the Ukrainians. Within a few years of the war’s end, Peremyshlyany had changed completely. Its pre-war Jewish and Polish populations had disappeared, but so too had its pre-war Ukrainian population, most of whom had either died in the war, fled to the West, or been deported to Siberia. Their place was taken by new settlers—from other parts of Ukraine, from the surrounding villages, and from the formerly Ukrainian parts of Poland whose population was expelled in 1947.
Unsurprisingly, virtually all traces of the town’s pre-war vibrancy also disappeared as Soviet totalitarianism forced everything, including history and memory, into its institutional straitjacket. Peremyshlyany’s civil society was replaced with the Communist Party and its monolithic rule. The railroad that connected the town to Lviv had been bombed during the war and was never rebuilt, and a short commute to a metropolis turned into a complicated trek with unreliable buses. Although the economy grew thanks to some industry in the area, Peremyshlyany turned into a deeply provincial place. Things became worse after Ukraine became independent in 1991. The local economy went into a tailspin, unemployment rose, and large numbers of residents fled abroad to find work and send their meager earnings back home. A sense of listlessness and hopelessness descended on those who stayed, while the town itself became increasingly shabby. Those lucky enough to be receiving remittances from abroad have the money to fix up their houses and buy cars. Everything else, alas, looks gray and neglected and in need of a simple paint job.
Peremyshlyany has been “erased,” to use Omer Bartov’s term, several times over. The pre-war Jews and their memories are gone. The pre-war Poles and their memories are gone. The pre-war Ukrainians and their memories are gone. And, now, the post-war Ukrainians, with their Sovietized memories, are also going. The town’s cemetery is about the only thing that’s “alive and well.”
That’s too bad, as the town generated many remarkable individuals. One is my uncle, Bohdan Hevko. He’d spent some five years in Polish prisons in the 1930s, underwent extensive beatings and torture, was arrested by the Soviets on June 22, 1941, and then killed during the “night of long knives,” on June 30th, along with thousands of other western Ukrainian political prisoners. The locals found him at the bottom of a pit, his hands tied behind his back with his underpants and his tongue torn out. Another is my mother’s best friend, Fania Lacher, a Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust by finding refuge in a Ukrainian Catholic monastery, converted to Catholicism, became a nun, Sister Maria, and turned into a leading figure in the underground church in Soviet times. The love of her life was a young Ukrainian nationalist, Volodymyr Zaplatynsky, who helped hide her and her parents from the Nazis and took his life during a firefight with the Soviets in 1944. Still another is Father Omelian Kovch, the parish priest who persuaded the local Gymnazium to let my mother finish her studies tuition-free and who, for his efforts to save Jews, was arrested by the Nazis and killed in the Majdanek concentration camp. The street my mother lived on is named after Kovch, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001. And, finally, there was Adam Rothfeld, the future Polish minister of foreign affairs who survived the Holocaust in a nearby monastery.
Peremyshlyany is a sad and tragic place. I’m drawn to it precisely because so much of its history has been destroyed by the Nazis and Soviets. I’m also drawn to it because so much of that history lies just below the shabby surface and is struggling to get out. One could do worse than to remember Hevko, Lacher, Zaplatynsky, Kovch, Rothfeld, and the many others who were erased.