When I heard last February that Russian troops were massing along the borders of Ukraine, I immediately thought of my father’s hometown, Lviv, Ukraine. My husband and I had visited Lviv in 2016 on my quest to learn more about my father’s escape in March 1939. He never spoke of his pre-war life in the city, then called Lwów and in eastern Poland. I also hoped to learn more of the fates of my uncle and three grandparents who were murdered during the Holocaust.
I could not help but wonder what role Ukrainian and Polish Nazi collaborators played in their deaths. I also knew that Janowska Concentration camp, situated in Lwów, was the model camp and training ground for guards for all the other concentration camps in Poland. The Nazis found Ukrainians particularly suited for the job because of their viciousness toward Jews. They welcomed the Nazis with flowers, much as the Austrians did during the Anschluss, because they viewed the fascists as liberators from the yoke of Communism.
And so I love Lwów, I loathe Lwów. Birthplace of my father, crime scene of my murdered relatives and thousands of other Jews.
During the first days of Russia’s aggression this spring, compassion vied with my legacy and I felt a tinge of ambivalence. When Putin declared that Ukraine has no history and that Ukrainians are Nazis, I was aghast. The former statement is revisionist, the latter a projection from a new breed of autocrat; the world is familiar with German fascism, but Russian fascism is new.
For my documentary, “Family Treasures Lost and Found,” I had been researching archival footage of the fierce September 1939 Battle for Lwów the Nazis and Soviets waged against the Poles. It raged for ten days until the Poles were vanquished and Hitler withdrew so that the Soviets could occupy the city. When the pact between the Germans and Russians fell apart in June 1941, the Jews were the victims of a hideous pogrom known as Petlyura Days. This was the first of a series of aktionen that eliminated the city’s 100,000 indigenous Jews by shooting them or deporting them to concentration and death camps. Over 100,000 Jewish refugees who had fled to Lwów from German occupied Middle Europe were slaughtered.
The Soviet and Nazi bombs sound as loud as Putin’s do today. The people are different. But the terror and suffering remain the same.
As my husband and I watch the news, I think of the sweet, young waitress at Lviv’s George Hotel, who had worked very long shifts in its restaurant. I remember the merchant who sold us shearling coats that were ridiculously inexpensive because the hryvnia had recently devalued. But most of all, I wonder how Dmytro, the guide, historian, and genealogist I had hired, was doing. He had researched my family’s documents in Ukraine’s State Archives, patiently sifting through yellowed registries to discover when my paternal grandparents married and where my grandmother was born. Moreover, he had acted as translator when we got into my grandfather’s house.
In the winter of 2014, I sleuthed the Internet and discovered my grandfather’s charming townhouse with its amber-colored façade and large windows fringed with beautifully crafted ceramic tiles. I marveled at its image on my computer screen as I sat at my desk in my Upper West Side apartment controlling Google StreetView with my cursor. I pointed at three cast-iron, filigree balconies hovering over the lane below. A forged door echoed the motif of the lacy balconies. The building seemed inviting, a cordial shelter on a sunny, old-world street in the heart of Lviv.
Every day on his way home from school, my father, David Frenkel, had pushed open that heavy door and scampered up to his parents’ apartment on the second floor. He and his family had gazed through those large windows at passersby below. Perhaps his mother, my grandmother Michaela, had sipped coffee and savored linzer torte while seated on her balcony. My grandfather Ojzer would have been toiling over his textile import business. And one weekend while their parents were at the opera a few blocks away, the three Fränkel brothers, ever pranksters, swung from the dining room chandelier and crashed into their mother’s china-filled cabinet.
But I was not just gawking at a lovely townhouse. This place was a crime scene. For me the whole gorgeous city was fraught. Here, my paternal grandmother Michaela swallowed cyanide, but it was surely murder; had the Gestapo not hunted her down, she would never have taken her life. My mother and her parents, Teofila and Izydor Goldberger, had fled here from Kraków. Like Michaela, my maternal grandparents hid and perished on the Aryan side; Teofila was denounced in the street and disappeared just like that. Izydor jumped off a train on its way to a concentration camp and was never heard from again.
With Dmytro’s savvy we got into my grandfather Ojzer’s house and learned from an old-timer that this beautiful architectural gem, now a World UNESCO site, was turned into a brothel during the German occupation. She said there were two passageways––one on the top floor and another from the basement––to the theatre next door, which had become a cabaret. After shows, the girls further entertained their clients in my grandfather’s house. This was a clue as to how Ojzer, who after escaping a work camp, had hidden in his attic and fled when the Gestapo came to ferret him out. I treasured this new information, but was dismayed by the state of the house.
The floor tiles in the vestibule were smashed to obscure the original Polish address and year of construction. Every Jew associated with the house––from the one who commissioned it, to the architect, to the studio that baked the glazed majolica tiles––had been persecuted, murdered or both. Revisionist Ukrainians, with their sledgehammers, had succeeded in crushing the past. Now the house appears as if my family never dwelled there, as if my family had never even existed.
Since my visit, Dmytro and I have corresponded. After the Russians invaded, I emailed him to ask if he was OK. He reported several air raid alerts, but said he and his wife were fine and still had water and electricity. They had been crossing the Polish border to buy medicine for refugees from eastern and south-eastern Ukraine. “They are in much worse situation,” he wrote. When he asked me to donate to the Ukrainian army, I unhesitatingly complied.
The deafening bombs are different. The terror and suffering are not. It does not matter that the people are different. They’re still victims of war crimes.
Curious to know what other descendants of Holocaust survivors were thinking, I visited one of many such Facebook groups. Someone had ranted that all Ukraine was a Jewish graveyard, so she didn’t care one jot about today’s Ukrainians. I was shocked at the callousness and left the group’s page. I vaguely recalled something about not visiting upon the sons the sins of the fathers. Because I am not learned about scripture, I looked up teachings about ancestral sin.
It turns out that there are inconsistencies. The Hebrew Bible provides two passages of scripture regarding generational curses:
The Lord, the Lord, compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and truth … Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. — Exodus 34:7
But Deuteronomy says otherwise:
Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each will die for their own sin. — Deuteronomy 24:16
The Talmud rejects the idea that a person can be justly punished for another’s sins and Judaism in general upholds the idea of individual responsibility, according to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Said R. Jose b. Hanina: Our Master Moses pronounced four [adverse] sentences on Israel, but four prophets came and revoked them …Moses said, The Lord … punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” Ezekiel came and declared, “The one who sins is the one who will die.” ––Makkot 24b
Russia’s barbarism has escalated shockingly in the last two weeks. Even if it had not, I would have gone with Deuteronomy and the Talmud. Will the Russians, despite Ukrainian resistance, eventually level every Ukrainian city? I worry about Dmytro, the people of Lviv, and this beleaguered, young democracy. Few people in the west know that “the Ukraine,” as we used to call it, meant “the edge” of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Now Ukraine is at the edge of annihilation. Putin’s murderous abuse of power has been evident for decades. Today his megalomania and war crimes are indubitable; we see what his policies and orders reap. The blame for the carnage rests with him and his perpetrators. No one else.
On March 18, Russian missiles struck a repair plant near Lviv’s airport.
The bombs sound the same. The victims’ blood flows the same shade of red. Terror and suffering, once again, are unspeakable.
Link to Rabbi Sack’s piece: