CITY OF LIONS   3 comments

This is the story of a city and a man who was a citizen of that city. It is a city which history seldom forgot to visit when wars ignited and washed over Europe. The citizen is my father and the city is Lwów. Others know it by other names. Today it is Львів, in Western Ukraine. Once it was Lemberg, when Austro-Hungary reigned and later when Nazi Germany invaded. Russians who occupied it in both World Wars call it Львов. Jews, who once thrived and were annihilated here, called it לעמבעריק. In medieval times, it was known as Leopolis. The city was founded by the Ruthenian King Danylo in the 13th Century and was named for his son Lev. Lev means ‘lion’, and a fashion developed to place lions in all symbolic representations of the city, its crest, civic seals, and on the facades of administrative buildings. I knew the city of Lwów firstly as the place my father fled from, and only later began to put the pieces of the shattered jigsaw of his life back together. City of Lions has its origins in my childhood pestering. I had many questions for my father, accumulated over the years and stemming from my own mixed identity as his son – the son of a refugee, who after more than half a century living in Ireland still spoke with a Polish accent. I remember the stories he told me as a child: they carried an air of both fairy tale and nightmare. They described a lost world; and those vibrant descriptions and foreign names wove a spell which was irresistible. My childish imagination was often populated with wild bears, campanulas, and gun battles in the Carpathian Mountains. And if I did not comprehend the historical significance of such events, I understood that the land he came from, whence he brought all his stories, could never exist again. That added a fearful excitement to them.


Before the world came crashing down. My father with his parents on holiday. Norway 1938

Before the world came crashing down. My father Wojtek with his parents on holiday. Norway 1938


As I got older I began to appreciate the journey he had taken, and reflect on how it might have left certain historical or psychological traces within me. He was the last of his line. He had nobody left in that lost land of his. But he seemed to carry the archives of those memories with him in his personality. He rarely brought up the topic of Poland himself in conversation but when you asked him something about it, his eyes would light up and he revealed a treasure trove of characters and events. On a good day, he would describe his early life in the grand old city of his birth, relate the dark days of occupation by the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, describe how he joined the underground resistance, tell you about the girl he loved and lost, and round it off with some ancient poem or a rousing song in the dialect of his home. And once he was warmed up, the stories began to flow. The detail and the intimacy he offered made you feel as though he had taken his home with him when he left and was now not describing it but showing it to you. If later I loved my father’s stories because we were so similar, in the beginning I loved them because we were so different. For a start, he is Polish, a refugee whom time and fate forced west: and I am Irish born and bred, as Irish as any other, if I didn’t have my father’s name. We come from different worlds. In school, I was taught, among other things, about the Irish rebellion, how English tyranny was overcome by the sacrifice of her Fenian martyrs, from the safety of my desk and chair. My father’s youth, on the other hand, was marked by war and invasions, true horror and strife. I remember Ireland’s Troubles like her winter weather, a constant grim rat-tat-tat on the window pane of my childhood. My father’s teenage years were spent in combat, in urban warfare or guerrilla operations high in the mountains, fighting not only Nazis and Soviets, but other factions our history books forgot to mention.


Several years ago, I decided to find out what had happened to my father and his family. It was not that he did not wish to speak of his past, but that he had had no-one to tell it to. Ireland, his adopted land, had given him sanctuary from the war and its aftermath, but also deprived him of the company of those who shared his fate. He arrived in Ireland on an autumn day in 1948, on a scholarship to study medicine at University College Dublin. Barely a quarter century a ‘Free State,’ Ireland was still peeling back the layers of her often tempestuous relationship with Britain, in an attempt to free herself from shackles which were as much psychological as political. Three months after he arrived, Ireland became officially a Republic. Ireland was as far as my father could hope to get from the war-ravaged mainland of Europe. Here, he was greeted warmly, as an exotic visitor, in a land whose insular homogeneity, while creating its own internecine strife, had meant it had remained largely untouched by the war. This was a land neither for tourists nor refugees. Even a quarter of a century later, long before the Celtic Tiger, European integration, and labour migration, I would be known as the Polish boy. In school, I would sit next to the Italian boy, in a sea of Irish surnames, and wonder why exactly I was different.


That larger question of identity, and historical curiosity, would spur me towards understanding more about the world beyond my name, or any name for that matter. I read the histories, memoirs, and polemics. I followed the Cold War and the political residues of the Second World War with the knowledge that somewhere, at the back of all the threads of these so called great events, I would somehow find my father and a world which perhaps had left faint traces in me. As though above and beyond history, I would locate his own story. In school, we learned by rote the themes of the Second World War like a political liturgy, absorbed the lessons to our age of the threats of unchecked democracy and one-party states. I knew the names of dead heroes and the ageing villains who even now come to the surface to strike a solemn warning that justice is endless and always incomplete. But my own search was always something personal and pragmatic; it had to do with chasing knowledge, with filling in the gaps, restoring a sense of family where there had been only shadows.


When I was a child the story came to me. My father’s old world threw up surprises, which were also challenges and puzzles to my young mind. When I was five years old, I and a handful of other Polish refugees and exiles who had made Ireland their home, were granted a special audience with Pope John Paul II, on an official visit to Ireland in 1979. This was both the politics of the age and was also somehow connected with the battles my own father had fought long before. Once every few years we would receive a letter or even a visit from my father’s few surviving relatives. None of them lived in Poland then of course. They came from America, Austria, and Israel, brought old photographs, and embraced us with what I now realize was the wonder of rediscovering family, a precious commodity in their world. As I grew up, I realized that, one day, this generation, neither these international relations of mine, nor my father, would be here to tell their story. It wasn’t the momentous events I wanted; those I could read in history books. It was the simple, the day-to-day, the personalities, the human setting – the things that I could not read in books. I wanted firstly to add faces to history, to see the big beside the small. Then I would measure our History (upper-case ‘H’, of text books and political rhetoric) against my (humble, human, lower-case)  history, and discern the irony and the tragedy that lie between.


I studied Slavic languages at university and went to see the world. I found myself attracted unconsciously to the places where refugees conglomerated, and only later consciously found in their movements an answer to my own. East Timor, Dharamsala, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. I eventually found a home of sorts in former Soviet Central Asia, the place Stalin had once sent the exiles of his empire, from throughout the territory of the Soviet Union, from the Caucasus, the Crimea, the Far East, and Europe. It was there too that I met ethnic Poles whose parents and grandparents had been forcibly relocated during the Second World War. I remembered my father once telling me we had some cousins who were among them. I had the thought one day, that in the bazaar in Samarkand, or on the streets of Almaty, I might pass my own bloodline and never know about it. That thought alone brought me home. I told my father we should go to Lwów, to the city he grew up in, and he should tell me about the family I had never known, and the circumstances which had all but destroyed them. Before he had joined them.


The Empire before Nationalism.  Austro-Hungary: an ethnographic map 1911


City of Lions is a series of conversations, descriptions, questions and answers, historical puzzles with human solutions.  Sometimes I added to the story, if I discovered what happened to an old acquaintance, an old enemy, or found a distant relative my father had thought long dead. After I had taken him back to Lwów in 2005, when I had pulled all the threads of this family saga together, interspersed with photographs and with a picture of my father on the cover, I proudly presented it to him one day, not long before his death. I told him: “This is the story of your life, Wojtek. I put all our conversations together, and bound them in a book!” He put his glasses on, leafed through the pages, and smiled. Then he handed it back to me.


“Don’t you want to read it?” I asked.


“Oh,” he laughed, “I lived it. Once was enough!



3 responses to “CITY OF LIONS

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  1. Wow that is an excellent post. It brought me to tears. All my ancestors came from Slovakia..I was born in USA but still am Slovak. I have done years of research most of my ancestors arrived on US soil before 1910. The last was my great grandparents in 1949 they were both 70 years old. Nobody alive knows how they made it here. I would like to go to the 3 villages in Slovakia where they were all from,maybe someday if I have the money. Your story is so inspiring it would make great movie. I just read a book Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman wow the chilling accounts of the war and its people. I was all kinds of emotion reading that. But ever so grateful for my life and what I have. Thank you for your awe inspiring post. God Bless You!

    • Thank you! That is really nice to hear. Tracing back the journeys of family members who ended up on the wrong side of history can often be disturbing when faced with gruesome acts of violence or the silent spaces of fates unknown. But like you say, the end result can ultimately be one of gratitude and even wonder for the life we have. But for a slice of luck, or an act of kindness or desperation, we ourselves might not be here to unravel these stories. If you get the chance, go to Slovakia, stand in the places your ancestors stood in. From my own experiences in Poland and Ukraine i’m sure you won’t regret it.

  2. You have to read this

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