Zupa nic literally means “soup nothing.” In postwar Poland, some families who were “repatriated” from western Ukraine whipped up milk and egg yolk with sugar and served it with rice or sweet rolls. It fills your stomach fast. So does borscht. And солянка. And gołąbki, with cabbage soaked in vinegar to make it soft. Lviv cuisine.
My great-grandmother served the meals she learned to cook in Lviv to my father in post-Stalinist Poland. Born and raised in Lviv, she survived World War II in the city and must have felt that she was being relocated to a foreign land, to the great unknown, when she and her husband were told to pack up and leave when Lviv became part of the Soviet Union. Even though they were technically moving to what was then new Poland, they didn’t know anyone west of Lviv. My great-grandfather picked a train station in Inowrocław for their destination, most likely at random. His father had worked in the train business, so getting off at a large train hub was a logical choice. As logical as any other.
This morning I see a photo in the New York Times that makes me think of my great-grandmother leaving Lviv. A bird’s-eye view of an ashen evening in Kyiv, gray except for the glaring red taillights of cars fleeing west toward the Polish border. A major highway lit up, bloodred, families escaping the Russian shelling. Red like the ribbon I wore around my neck at May Day parades in communist Poland, where I sang, “Пусть всегда будет солнце.” Let there always be sunshine.
A crawling procession of cars fleeing Kyiv. Putin’s bombs buzzing down on the breadbasket of Europe like locusts. I think back to a literary garden party I attended as a grad student in the US, where I interviewed Derek Walcott about migration and colonial violence. After the interview, instead of joining the other guests, he sat with me by a brick wall and asked me to read Adam Zagajewski’s poem “Jechać do Lwowa” in the Polish original (“To Go to Lvov,” which sometimes retains in translation the Russian spelling rather than the Ukranian). I read this and other poems, but sensing hostile looks from other guests, I soon snuck out.
Now the unreal, distant Lviv that the speaker of the poem yearns for washes over me.
Jeżeli Lwów istnieje, pod
pokrowcami granic i nie tylko w moim
But only if Lvov exists,
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport
If the Lviv of Zagajewski’s infanthood is but a mirage replaced by a new, otherworldly polis, is it really Lviv he is returning to? The poem always struck me as a meditation on the impossibility of returning to places we know only from family lore, from legend, from history books, from the food on our plate. From soup nothing.
Zagajewski dedicates this poem to his parents, both Lviv natives, who, like my great-grandmother, were told after the war to leave their city of learning and culture, of cobble-stone streets between cathedrals and Orthodox churches. Zagajewski was born in and banished from Lviv in 1945, the same year my great-grandmother boarded a train with a one-way ticket, sent even further west after the Polish border shifted, as it had many times before, and left her behind.
Every time that border shifted, with every tyrant who came to power, others were told to leave: Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Armenians. Still others perished in Ukrainian pogroms and in the Holocaust. The culture of Lviv changed with each exile, with every life lost; it is not one thing but an amalgam of many peoples, a child of human migratory paths and constantly shifting borders. So is its history, its language. As Adam Kirsch reminds us in The Odessa Review, “in the course of the 20th century, a resident of the city now known as Lviv would have lived in five different countries without ever leaving home”: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, Germany, the Soviet Union, and finally Ukraine. The list of names for the city itself is migratory: Львів, Lviv, Lvov, Lwów, Lemberg.
The forced expulsions that followed World War II — of ethnic Poles from the eastern edges of what used to be Poland, of Ukrainians “back” to their “homeland” — affected more than a million people. It was Stalin’s policy, but Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to it, first in Tehran and then in Yalta. Autocrats love euphemisms, so these expulsions were called “repatriations.” Putin calls his current invasion of Ukraine a “peacekeeping mission.”
Peacekeeping — a word I want to wrap around my shivering body as I scroll through endless images of gutted buildings in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Peacekeeping — two long, lulling e sounds that drag out as I avert my eyes from an image of a six-year-old girl killed by a Russian bomb.
Do not panic, people in Ukraine heard from an autocrat abroad. Do not panic, they heard from pundits. Do not panic, they heard from priests. Do not panic, they heard from strangers at the bus stop on their way to work.
War, like Zagajewski’s Lviv, is unimaginable until our fingers touch its scorched stones. Until our eyes see its lightning. Until our ears hear the silence it makes of our church bells. Until our feet feel the trembling of the earth.
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,
War is unreal until we feel the cold, precise metal cutting, as Zagajewski once had it, “diligently, as in a child’s cutout / along the dotted line of a roe deer or a swan.” From the fire and metal falling through the sky, the people of Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Odessa hide — in subway tunnels, in basements, in cars along roads that can no longer guide them to safety. They hide from a nightmare that always starts the same way: with an air-raid alarm, announcing that the once powerful Soviet project, collapsed in disgrace, has been resurrected by Putin’s tanks, bombs, and cyberattacks and returns to lay claim to truth and memory.
Zagajewski asks in “To Go to Lvov”
dlaczego każde miasto
musi stać się Jerozolimą i każdy
człowiek Żydem i teraz tylko w pośpiechu
pakować się, zawsze, codziennie
i jechać bez tchu, jechać do Lwowa, przecież
istnieje, spokojny i czysty jak
brzoskwinia. Lwów jest wszędzie.
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.
Lviv is everywhere. War is everywhere. Unreal until you can touch it. I hear that Poland will open a humanitarian corridor at the Lviv-Rzeszów border crossing for the refugees pouring west, bent
as if leaning toward another, better planet,
with less ambitious generals,
less snow, less wind, fewer cannons,
less History (alas, there’s no
such planet, just that slouch).
My Polish friends, I hope, will wait for them with hot soup.