Does a fact have to be true for us to accept it as true, or does faith in the truthfulness of a fact make it true, even if what is supposed to have happened has not happened? And what if, despite our attempts to find out whether the event happened or not, we come to a dead end full of uncertainty and we cannot be sure if the story someone told us on the terrace of a café in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, was it based on a little-known but verifiable historical fact, or was it a legend, or a bluff, or an unsubstantiated rumor that had passed from father to son? Even more important: if the story is so amazing and eloquent that we are shocked with amazement and with the feeling that our interpretation of the world has changed or deepened, does it matter if the story is true or not?
Various circumstances brought me to Ukraine in September 2017. I had to go to LvivBut I took advantage of a day off to travel two hours south, to spend the afternoon in Ivano-Frankivsk, where my paternal grandfather was born in the early 1880s. I had no reason to go except curiosity or what I could call the attraction of a false nostalgia, because the truth is that I never knew my grandfather and even today I know practically nothing about him. He died 28 years before I was born, a man in the shadows of the past not written or remembered, and, while I was heading to the city from which he had left in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, I understood that the place in the that he had passed his childhood and adolescence was not the same in which I was going to spend the afternoon. Still, I wanted to go there and, thinking now about the reasons I wanted to go, perhaps it boils down to a single verifiable fact: the trip was going to allow me to traverse the bloody lands of Eastern Europe, the center of the horror of the massacres. of the 20th century; If the man in the shadows from whom I had received my name had not left that part of the world when he did, I would never have been born.
What I already knew before arriving was that, before acquiring the name Ivano-Frankivsk in 1962 (in honor of the Ukrainian poet Ivan Franko), the 400-year-old city had been successively called Stanislawów, Stanislau, Stanislaviv and Stanislav, depending on the periods under the Polish, German, Ukrainian or Soviet power. The Polish city became the Habsburg Empire, the city of the Habsburg Empire became Austro-Hungarian, the Austro-Hungarian city became Russian during the first two years of World War I, then became Austro-Hungarian again, then it was Ukrainian for a short period in the postwar period, then Polish, then Soviet (from September 1939 to July 1941), then it fell into the hands of the Germans (until July 1944), then it became Soviet again and now, after the fall of the USSR in 1991 , is Ukrainian. When my grandfather was born, he had a population of 18,000, and in 1900 (the approximate year he left) 26,000 people lived there, more than half of whom were Jews. When I visited it, the population was 230,000, but, during the years of the Nazi occupation, there were probably between 80,000 and 95,000 inhabitants, half, Jewish, and the other half, no; what I had known for many years was that, after the German invasion in the summer of 1941, that autumn, they arrested 10,000 Jews and shot them in the Jewish cemetery, which, between then and December, locked up all the surviving Jews in a ghetto, from which 10,000 others were deported to the Belźec death camp in PolandAnd then, throughout 1942 and the first months of 1943, the Germans took the remaining Jews in Stanislau, one by one, five by five and twenty by twenty, into the forests surrounding the city and They were shot, shot and shot, until there was not a single Jew left alive; Tens of thousands of people were shot dead in the neck and buried in mass graves that had been dug by the murdered themselves before they died.
What happens if we reach a dead end and we cannot be sure if the story that someone told us on the terrace of a café started from a historical event or was a legend?
A nice woman I had met in Lviv organized the tour for me; He had been born and raised in Ivano-Frankivsk and still lived there, so he knew where to go and what to see and even went to the trouble of hiring someone to take us. The driver, a crazed young man unafraid of death, flew down the narrow two-lane highway like he was on a test run to be a specialist in a car racing movie, taking huge risks every time he passed every car he encountered. ahead, when I was calmly giving sudden swings to change lanes although there were cars in front of us that were coming at full speed in the opposite direction towards us, and at various moments of the trip I thought that that gray and cloudy afternoon of the first day of autumn 2017 was going It was going to be my last day on earth, and how ironic it was, he told me, and at the same time how appropriate, that I had gone there to visit the city that my grandfather had left more than a hundred years before and was going to die. before reaching it.
Luckily, traffic was light, a mix of fast cars and slow trucks, and at one point, a horse-drawn cart with a mountain of hay, moving at a tenth the speed of trucks. Chunky, thick-legged women with kerchiefs babushka on their heads, they were walking along the roadside with plastic bags full of food. Except for the plastic bags, they could have been figures from 200 years before, the typical peasants of Eastern Europe trapped in a past so ancient that it had reached the 21st century. Along the way we traversed the outskirts of a dozen villages with large freshly harvested fields stretching out on either side, but then, when we carried two-thirds, the rural landscape became a no-man’s-land of heavy industry whose most spectacular example it was the gigantic power plant that suddenly rose to our left. If I did not misunderstand what the friendly woman told me in the car, that monolithic installation supplies most of its electricity to Germany and other countries in Western Europe. Such are the contradictory truths of that 1,300 kilometer-wide State, wedged in the lands of death between East and West, because, while Ukraine supplies its neighbors on one side with electric energy so that they have light and can function, in the another extreme continues to shed blood to defend its territory, harassed and increasingly reduced.
Ivano-Frankivsk seemed to me an attractive place, a city that had nothing to do with the disintegrating urban ruin that I had imagined. The clouds had cleared a few minutes before arriving and, with the bright sun and dozens of people strolling through the streets and squares, I was impressed by how clean and tidy it was, that it was not a provincial corner trapped in the past but a small town Contemporary with bookstores, theaters, restaurants and a nice mix of new and old architecture, with a visible antiquity in the buildings and churches of the 17th and 18th centuries, built by the Polish founders and the Habsburg conquerors. I would have been content to walk two or three hours and then return, but the woman who had organized the visit knew that my trip had a purpose related to my grandfather and, since my grandfather was Jewish, she thought that it would be useful for me to speak to the only one remaining rabbi in the city, the spiritual leader of the last Ivano-Frankivsk synagogue, a solid and beautifully designed building from the early years of the 20th century, which had managed to survive World War II with minor damage long time they had been repaired. I’m not sure what I thought, but it didn’t seem wrong to talk to the rabbi, since he was probably the only person still alive in the whole world who perhaps – perhaps – could have told me something about my family, the anonymous horde of invisible ancestors who they had dispersed, died, and vanished from the realm of the knowable, because their birth certificates had almost certainly been destroyed by a bomb, or a fire, or the signature of some overzealous bureaucrat at some point in time. the previous hundred years. Talking to the rabbi would be useless, I realized, a side effect of the false nostalgia that had brought me to the city, but there it was, at that moment, only that day, with no intention of ever returning, and what could be wrong with that? I asked him several questions and saw if he could answer me any?
There were no responses. The bearded Orthodox rabbi met us in his office, but apart from telling me what I already knew — that Auster was a common name among Stanislav’s Jews, but nowhere else — and then rambled on, recounting an anecdote from the war, about a woman named Auster who eluded the Germans by hiding for three years in a hole and when she came out she had gone mad — and remained the rest of her life — she had no other information to give me. Nervous and agitated, he spent the entire conversation smoking non-stop very fine cigarettes: he threw each one after a few puffs to get another from a plastic bag that he had on the table, and he was neither friendly nor hostile, but distracted, like a He was a man with other things on his mind and, it seemed to me, too absorbed in his own concerns to be interested in the American visitor and the woman who had arranged the appointment. According to most reports, today no more than 200 or 300 Jews live in Ivano-Frankivsk. It is unclear how many practice their religion or attend services in the synagogue, but from what I had seen an hour before I interviewed the rabbi, it seemed to me that only a small part of that already small group participated. By chance, my visit coincided with Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the liturgical calendar, but I had only seen in the temple, ready to hear the touch of the shofar that announces the arrival of the new year, to a fortnight of people, 13 men and two women. Unlike their brothers in Western Europe and the United States, the men wore not a dark suit and tie but a nylon raincoat, and covered their heads with red and yellow baseball caps.
He had no reason to go except curiosity or false nostalgia. My grandfather passed away 28 years before I was born, a man in the shadows of the past not written or remembered
We got out of there and went around for an hour, an hour and a half, maybe more. The friendly woman had arranged for me to meet at four in the afternoon to speak to another person, a local poet who, apparently, had spent years investigating the history of the city, but we had time to explore some places to the that we had not been able to go before, so we continued our walks until covering much of the city. At that time, the sun was shining and, in the beautiful light of September, we arrived at a large open square and found ourselves before the Church of the Holy Resurrection, an 18th-century Baroque cathedral that is considered the most beautiful building of the time. Habsburg, the years when Ivano-Frankivsk was called Stanislau. When we entered, I assumed that, as it had happened to me in other beautiful churches and cathedrals that I had visited in cities and towns in Western Europe, it would be almost empty, that there would be nobody except a few tourists with the camera. I was wrong. After all, this was not Western Europe, but the western boundary of the former Soviet Union, a city located in the province of Galicia, at the eastern end of the former Austro-Hungarian empire, and the church, which was neither Catholic nor Orthodox Russian but Greek Byzantine Catholic, it was almost full, not of tourists or students of Baroque architecture, but of local citizens who had gone to pray, think or commune with themselves or with the Most High in that vast stone space illuminated by the light of September passing through the stained glass windows. There were maybe 300 people, maybe 200, and what struck me most about that silent crowd was how many young people there were, half at least, men and women in their early twenties sitting on benches with their heads bowed or kneeling with hands clasped, head raised, staring into the stained glass light. A working day in the afternoon, with nothing to differentiate it from any other day except that it was an extraordinary time, and, on that radiant afternoon, the Church of the Holy Resurrection was full of young people who were neither working nor sitting on the terraces. from the cafes, but kneeling on the stone floor, praying with joined hands and looking up. The smoking rabbi, the red and yellow baseball caps, and now this.
After that, it was completely logical to find that the poet was a Buddhist. No, he was not the typical convert new age that he had read a couple of books on Zen, but an old believer who had just returned from a four-month stay in a monastery in Nepal, a serious man. That he was a poet and student of the city where my grandfather was born. He was a huge guy, with fleshy hands and an affable attitude, attentive, clean-eyed, dressed in European clothes, who did not mention his commitment to Buddhism more than in passing, which seemed encouraging, so I decided that I could trust him. and be sure that you would be honest with me. The encounter happened only two and a half years ago, but the strange thing is that, despite the fact that a short time has passed and I have thought about that moment almost daily since then, I am unable to remember a single thing he told me about the city until he told me about wolves. When he began to tell that story, everything else was erased from my memory.
Talking to the rabbi would be useless, but there he was, with no intention of ever returning, and what could be wrong with asking him several questions and seeing if he could answer any?
We were sitting on the terrace of a café in the largest square in the city, the center of Stanislau-Stanislav-Ivano-Frankisvk, a large space full of sun, without cars and full of people who went from here to there, in all directions, without making any noise, that I remember, a mass of silent people who passed in front of me while the poet reel off his story. We had already made it clear that I was familiar with what happened to the Jewish half of the population between 1941 and 1943 but, when the Soviet army entered and took over the city in July 1944, he said, just six weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy, not only the Germans had left, but also the other half of the population. They had all fled in one direction or another, east or west, north or south, so that the Soviets conquered an empty city, a land full of nothing. The human population had dispersed to the four winds, and they found a city inhabited by wolves, hundreds, thousands of wolves.
How horrible, I thought, so horrible that it contained the horror of the most terrifying dream, and suddenly, as if I woke up from a dream of mine, a poem by Georg Trakl came to my mind, On the eastern front, which I had first read 50 years before and reread over and over again until I knew it by heart, and from which I had later made my own translation: a 1914 poem, from the First World War, about Gródek, a city not far from Stanislau, in Polish Galicia, which ends with this stanza:
A thorny nature surrounds the city.
From bloody steps the moon
chase a terrified women.
Wild wolves have stormed through the gates.
Why did he know that story? I asked him.
His father, he said, had been told by his father many times, and explained to me that, in 1944, his father was a young man in his early twenties and, when the Soviets took over Stanislau – thereafter Stanislav – they forced to enlist in the army unit in charge of exterminating wolves. The task lasted several weeks, or perhaps he said several months, I do not remember correctly, and, when Stanislav became habitable again, the Soviets populated the city with the military and their families.
I looked at the square in front of me and tried to imagine it in the summer of 1944, all those people who were going to do their errands suddenly disappeared, erased from the scene, and I began to see the wolves, dozens of wolves running around the square, walking in small herds as they searched for food in the abandoned city. The wolves are the end of the nightmare, the end result of the stupidity that leads to the devastation of war, in this case the three million Jews killed in those eastern bloodlands, along with so many other civilians and soldiers from other religions and without religion; When the slaughter is over, the wild wolves burst into the city. Wolves are not mere symbols of war. They are products of war and what war brings us.
I have no doubt that the poet believed he was telling me the truth. Wolves were real to him, and he was so calm and convinced in telling me the story that I, too, accepted them as real. Of course, he hadn’t seen wolves with his own eyes, but his father had, and how could a father tell his son such a story if it wasn’t true? No, I told myself, and as I left Ivano-Frankivsk that afternoon, I was convinced that, for a short time after the Russians snatched Stanislav from the Germans, the wolves had taken over the city.
The wolves are the end of the nightmare, the end result of the stupidity that leads to the devastation of war, in this case the three million Jews killed in those eastern bloodlands
In the weeks and months that followed, I did my best to investigate the matter further. I spoke to a friend who had contacts with historians at the University of Lviv (Lviv, formerly Lvov, Lwów, and Lemberg), in particular a woman specialist in the history of the region who said that she had never, in all her research, been found with nothing about the wolves of Stanislav, and that, when he also began to investigate in more detail, he did not find any reference to what the poet had told me. What he did discover was a short documentary on the capture of the city by Soviet troops on July 27, 1944; He sent me a video copy and I could see him sitting in the same chair I am in now.
Fifty to one hundred soldiers in orderly ranks enter Stanislav as a small mass of well-dressed and fed citizens cheer their arrival. The scene is seen again from a slightly different angle, from which the same soldiers and the same well-dressed and fed crowd are observed. Then he changes the shot and we see the image of a collapsed bridge, and then, before slowly approaching the end, he returns to the original scene of the cheering soldiers and spectators. The soldiers may have been authentic, but in that case, they had been ordered to play the role of soldiers, just as the actors who were making the excited crowd were playing their part in an unfinished and awkwardly assembled propaganda film intended to extolling the heroic goodness and courage of the Soviet Union.
It goes without saying that no wolf appears in the film.
Which brings me back to the beginning and to this unanswered question: What to believe when we cannot be sure whether an alleged fact is true or not?
In the absence of any information that could confirm or deny the story he told me, I prefer to believe the poet. And, whether they were there or not, I prefer to believe in wolves.
Brooklyn, March 21, 2020 (in confinement for covid-19).
Translation by María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia.