Poland is a country that from time to time has emerged from the mists of history, but always in a different place.
— Len Deighton, Blitzkrieg
Lviv (Lwów when it was in Poland) is a city in western Ukraine.
Volunteers serve meals to evacuees in front of the railway station in Lviv
From: ‘We have to do something’: Lviv gears up to help those fleeing war (openDemocracy)
What native Lviv residents fear most are the air raid sirens. People who have been displaced don’t feel [the fear] so strongly.
How has the flow of customers and demand changed? Since there are now so many displaced people from Kyiv and Zhytomyr, lots of parents with kids come in. They buy a lot of sweets. Probably just to keep the kids distracted from the whole situation. Now, more displaced persons than locals pop in.
So, it’s a sort of return to normal life. People keep coming to Lviv to take a break. Only now, it’s a break from the war.
How are things in comparison to before the war? We had tourists, Lviv residents. Guests from all over Ukraine, and other countries. Demand itself hasn’t changed. Now we just have fewer local customers from Lviv.
That’s just the way it is in the country now. There aren’t any particular kinds of books that are in higher or lower demand. People who have been displaced buy more children’s books to comfort their kids. They buy books for themselves, as an escape, and for their kids.
We’re collecting books for refugees outside the country – both children’s and adults’ books. Slovakia, Lithuania and Poland are the places where we’re sending books – as a way to support Ukrainian culture.
Simply put, I lost absolutely all my material property. But by a stroke of luck, I managed to save the most valuable thing: the lives of my loved ones. That’s what matters.
We’re now in Lviv, recovering bit by bit. My mum’s also bouncing back, and she feels so much better after the hell she went through. (This is what a ‘true Russian fascist saviour’ does to us). She went from a state of almost complete immobility and unconsciousness to a totally stable condition. I plan to send my daughters further on to somewhere safe, but I want to return and do what my country needs.
How did we escape? By the skin of our teeth.
When the Russian fascists showed up in Hostomel [a town outside of Kyiv], they went around all the bomb shelters. They took people’s phones, so we’d lose connection to the rest of the world, and then thoroughly ‘demilitarised’ our homes and vehicles. They knocked doors in and robbed 300 apartments clean in our apartment block alone (this happened in other apartment blocks, too). Overnight, they placed military equipment very close to residential buildings and positioned defensive artillery crews in playgrounds. While we hid in basements, they turned our apartments into barracks. They advised us basement dwellers to “stock up the essentials” and to keep our mouths shut (whoever argued was taken to who knows where). For some reason they were frightened whenever they saw that someone wanted to head off to the evacuation zones.
How did we evacuate? With the help of a guardian angel.
If this stranger hadn’t promised to help, and hadn’t lived up to that promise, it’s not certain we’d have remained alive. To put it extremely bluntly.
When I realised it would only get worse, I started listening to the radio constantly. That’s how I learned about a planned humanitarian corridor. They announced that the gathering point was 15 kilometres from us. They had blown up my car, and we wouldn’t get far carrying my mum (although she’s as light as a feather). I found a cart, the sort with one wheel, and carried her like that. I quickly learned that it would take a while to travel 15 kilometres down a bumpy road covered in debris, wreckage and other bits of scrap. There was no guarantee I’d make it. My wife walked alongside and cried, while other evacuees went off far ahead.
The gathering point changed location three times, and in the end, the evac buses took off from the same place we had started our travels. From one place to another, I carried my mum in my arms, carried her in an ice-cream fridge, pulled her along on a tire, and dragged her atop a shutter. Just when I had lost heart is when our guardian angel appeared, literally out of nowhere, and helped us. Near the end he got his hands on a grocery cart and I comfortably got Mum to the gathering point in no time. The buses were bursting with people, since only seven buses out of 30 made it to Hostomel. A lot of people that had embarked on this hellish quest to get to the evacuation point simply didn’t fit on the buses. But they let us on with my bedridden mum. A few guys who had managed to be among the first to sit down gave up their places to the women.
That’s how we set off, accompanied by the desperate gazes of the ones we couldn’t save on that day, uncertain that they’d be saved the next.
Adam Zagajewski was born in Lwów in June 1945. His family was expelled later that year to central Poland.
To go to Lvov. Which station for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew gleams on a suitcase, when express trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September or in March. But only if Lvov exists, if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just in my new passport, if lances of trees – of poplar and ash – still breathe aloud like Indians, and if streams mumble their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs in the Russian language disappear into thickets. To pack and set off, to leave without a trace, at noon, to vanish like fainting maidens. And burdocks, green armies of burdocks, and below, under the canvas of a Venetian café, the snails converse about eternity. But the cathedral rises, you remember, so straight, as straight as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket full of raspberries standing on the floor, and my desire which wasn’t born yet, only gardens and weeds and the amber of Queen Anne cherries, and indecent Fredro. There was always too much of Lvov, no one could comprehend its boroughs, hear the murmur of each stone scorched by the sun, at night the Orthodox church’s silence was unlike that of the cathedral, the Jesuits baptized plants, leaf by leaf, but they grew, grew so mindlessly, and joy hovered everywhere, in hallways and in coffee mills revolving by themselves, in blue teapots, in starch, which was the first formalist, in drops of rain and in the thorns of roses. Frozen forsythia yellowed by the window. The bells pealed and the air vibrated, the cornets of nuns sailed like schooners near the theater, there was so much of the world that it had to do encores over and over, the audience was in frenzy and didn’t want to leave the house. My aunts couldn’t have known yet that I’d resurrect them, and lived so trustfully, so singly; servants, cleaned and ironed, ran for fresh cream, inside the houses a bit of anger and great expectation, Brzozowski came as a visiting lecturer, one of my uncles kept writing a poem entitled “Why”, dedicated to the Almighty, and there was too much of Lvov, it brimmed the container, it burst glasses, overflowed each pond, lake, smoked through every chimney, turned into fire, storm, laughed with lightning, grew meek, returned home, read the New Testament, slept on a sofa beside the Carpathian rug, there was too much of Lvov, and now there isn’t any, it grew relentlessly and the scissors cut it, chilly gardeners as always in May, without mercy, without love, ah, wait till warm June comes with soft ferns, boundless fields of summer, i.e., the reality. But scissors cut it, along the line and through the fiber, tailors, gardeners, censors cut the body and the wreaths, pruning shears worked diligently, as in a child’s cutout along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan. Scissors, penknives, and razor blades scratched, cut, and shortened the voluptuous dresses of prelates, of squares and houses, and trees fell soundlessly, as in a jungle, and the cathedral trembled, people bade goodbye without handkerchiefs, no tears, such a dry mouth, I won’t see you anymore, so much death awaits you, why must every city become Jerusalem and every man a Jew, and now in a hurry just pack, always, each day, and go breathless, go to Lvov, after all it exists, quiet and pure as a peach. It is everywhere.
— Adam Zagejewski, Selected Poems, Faber, London 2004
I performed this material in Moon At Night at Pentameters Theatre, Hampstead on 27 March 2022.