Monday, June 18, 2012

The Lvov Connection

Thursday night. I had just come home after a long day of work, when my phone rang. I looked at the display. Number unknown. For a moment I considered letting the voicemail pick up the call. Then I figured: you never know. And indeed, a surprise it was. ‘Hi, it’s Tom Egbers calling.’ Tom Egbers? Tom Egbers!

This marked the beginning of an interesting conversation, which was, not surprisingly, entirely about the Lvov/Lviv controversy. Tom had read my piece in NRC Handelsblad. What had struck him the most was that I had used the phrase ‘stupid or insensitive’, referring to his and the NOS’s use of the name Lvov. Tom told me about a personal connection he has to the city as it was before World War II. I don’t think it’s up to me to unfold his story in detail here; that’s for him to decide. The gist of the story is that it is out of his affiliation with exiled Poles and killed Jews that he speaks of Lvov, not Lviv. ‘I claim the right to call the city Lvov’, was his final statement on the matter.

I felt deeply moved by his account. I didn’t see it coming, a personal story like his. Had I myself been insensitive? Had Tom not been touched by the same ‘city of ghosts’ that had inspired Frans and me to embark upon a public art project in Lviv, ‘Ask Us Why?’

Two years ago, I was wondering about a way to pay tribute to Lviv in pictures. Lviv, where 80% of the pre-WW II population - Poles, Jews, Armenians, Russians, Ukrainians – had been either chased away or killed in 1950, while the city itself remained virtually undamaged. Today, in each and every house, the ghosts of exiled or murdered linger. How to portray a city of ghosts? How to create space for the ghosts of Lviv? For those who are there, in absence?

Our solution was to step up to some individuals sitting on a bench near Rynok Square. We were holding our camera.
- ‘May we take your picture, please?'
- 'Da...’
- 'Please step away from the bench then, just for a minute. Leave all your things behind, though.'
Our request led to surprised looks and frowns. But apparently these young people found us intriguing enough, these ’lost boys from Holland' – and they got up from the bench, quite happily. I took some pictures.
- 'Now, ask us why?'
Again, big question marks in their eyes… The girl who was most fluent in English responded to the challenge. An exciting conversation developed. We stated our reasons for visiting Lviv, explaining why it was a city of ghosts.

'Ask Us Why?' is meant to make room for the ghosts of Lviv. In doing so, it assists inhabitants in becoming citizens. Frans and I have kept on going about it in the same way, over and over again. On the square, at city hall, at the university... What happened there, at the university, I’ll never forget. We had taught a class there, did one of our photo sessions. And then a girl came up to me: 'Sir, can you teach us how to become democrats?’

All of this went through my mind while I was talking with Tom. When Tom says Lvov instead of Lviv on Dutch national television, isn’t he trying to do exactly what Frans and I aim to do during our photo sessions: make way for the ghosts of the past? On the other hand: what price is being paid here – and isn’t it too high?

I asked Tom whether he was aware of the fact that the name Lvov comes across as an insult to the city’s inhabitants. I explained that Lvov is a word that belongs to the language of the Soviet Union - not to the language of the oppressed and the murdered, but to that of oppressors and murderers. Tom had not realized, he said. It had not been his intention to offend the citizens of Lviv in any way. Yet he remained convinced that it was his prerogative to speak of it as Lvov.

Concluding remarks

The phone conversation had come to a close. It had been more than pleasant, starting with ‘Mr Meij’, ending with ‘Tom’ and ‘Ruud’. I couldn’t stop going over it again and again in my head. Question number one: is it all right for Tom to turn an episode from his private life into a public act by calling Lviv Lvov in the face of the entire world? Is he, by doing so, doing justice to the city’s population? Can one do justice to the ghosts of Lviv by doing harm to those who live there today? Shouldn’t Tom at least explain to these people – not to me, but to them – the reasons behind his remarkable choice? What about their right to become part of this public act?

Next question: how can it be that not only Tom Egbers, but the entire staff of the NOS – and the editors in chief of NRC Handelsblad, for that matter – have chosen Lvov over Lviv, unlike like the majority of Dutch and foreign media have done (including de Volkskrant, De Morgen, De Standaard, Frankfurter Allgemeine and Le Monde)? What is it that makes Tom, the NOS and NRC oblivious of the injustice they’re imposing on the citizens of Lviv?

So far, the questions remain unanswered. Tom’s story has put me on guard for insensitivities of my own. I’d like to call for a sequel to our conversation: Tom and me, sitting at a table together, with cameras catching every word we say. A joint inquiry into Lemberik, Lemberg, Lwow, Lvov, Lviv – because that is what Lviv is, all of this.

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