The book consists of two essays about the city now called Liviv, in Western Ukraine. Between the wars it was Lwów and part of Poland; until 1918 it belonged to Austro-Hungary and was known as Lemberg. Wittlin (1896–1976) lived in the city from 1904 to 1922, and wrote his essay in New York in 1946; Sands’ grandfather was born there, lost his whole extended family in the Holocaust, moved to Paris, and never spoke about it again. Sands has also written a much longer book, East West Street, in which the city has a central role – several people had read and recommended it; and has made a film, My Nazi Legacy (referred to in City of Lions), about events in Poland and Ukraine during WW2, which is available online (also being shown on BBC4; 27th December, 11pm).
Grażyna read Wittlin’s Polish text online, and said his love of the city, and his humour, came across in his use of language. Tom commented on the rhapsodic ending to both essays, and Wittlin’s ornate, almost baroque style. Krystyna commented on the melancholy black-and-white photographs (historical and contemporary), while she’d been struck by the colour of the city when she visited. Magda commented on the sensual aspects of the book (aromas and food), Robin on the city’s historical layers – the example of a law professor who taught three different law codes in his career (Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Soviet).
The notes to Wittlin’s piece are necessary, as so many of the passing references are completely unfamiliar to me, and to most English-speaking readers, I imagine. In Ulysses Joyce wrote about Dublin from a distance, and often critically. Wittlin also writes his city from a distance, but after much destruction and an orgy of death; perhaps that’s why he’s more forgiving of the city’s faults than Joyce is, for Dublin remained extant. He sketches; I’d have liked more on the grand station. He brings in personal stories, yet it’s not a memoir; I have little sense of the trajectory of his life. He says the title “was imposed by the publishers”; which publisher, what sort of readership? Perhaps Poles exiled from, forced out of the city in 1945.
Sands’ text acts as a kind of Afterword to Wittlin’s, offering context and referring back to it, while also offering new material, by way of Sands’ own experiences and histories. Writing at a greater distance from World War Two, he fills in details of German policy and actions against the Jews, information unavailable to Wittlin. He’s there, experiencing the present; Wittlin’s absent, remembering the past.