Although he considered himself a Christian writer, the Polish poet, novelist, essayist, and translator Józef Wittlin (1896–1976) was born to Jewish parents and wrote extensively on Jewish subjects during the 1930s and 40s. The city of Lwów (now L’viv, Ukraine), where he lived from his childhood until World War II, plays a major role in his writings, and a collection of his essays on the city has recently been published in English. Comparing Wittlin’s Lwów to the Odessa of the Russian-Jewish author Isaac Babel, Uilleam Blacker writes:
The NKVD, [precursor to the KGB], brought plain old nastiness [to both cities]—though it had existed before, in the pogroms, as described in Babel’s “A Story of My Dovecote.” The startling and bloody fate of the Jewish boy’s pigeons in this tale is surely one of the most shocking scenes in literary history. This kind of cruelty occurred in early 20th-century Europe wherever there was a combustible ethnic mix, which in prewar Eastern Europe was almost everywhere. L’viv was no exception. In 1918, after the Poles had defeated the Ukrainians in the fight for the city, there was a horrific pogrom, carried out largely by Polish soldiers in a sort of grotesque victory celebration.
In 1941, when the Soviets, who had occupied the city for two years, retreated before the advancing Germans, hundreds of dead bodies, executed in Soviet prisons, were dragged into the streets. The Jews were blamed for this, and another, much larger-scale pogrom ensued, this time carried out largely by local Ukrainians. As Wittlin notes with bitter irony, drawing a comparison with the pogroms inspired by the Ukrainian Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki in the 17th century: “the cause of all wars and every kind of evil in the world did not change from Chmielnicki to Hitler.”
Knowledge of the fate of the Jewish inhabitants of these great cities of L’viv and Odessa casts a shadow over our readings of both authors. Wittlin doesn’t dwell on the matter, but neither does he shun it—it is always there, throbbing, like a hidden wound, underneath the superficial lightness of the text.
Read more at Los Angeles Review of Books
More about: Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Isaac Babel, Literature, Odessa, Polish Jewry, Soviet Union