By Jenny Arnold
I awoke on Sunday morning, 13 March 2022, to listen to the latest news on the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia. The newsreader informed me that a city, Lviv, in the west of Ukraine, and close to the Polish border, had been hit by rockets.
The name of the city of Lviv struck a chord as I have recently been absorbed in the reading of 2 books strongly influenced by the history and happenings in that city.
The author, Philllippe Sands, is a barrister, Professor of Law, and Director of the Centre of International Courts and Tribunals at University College, London; he also acts as an Advocate and Counsel for trials on war crimes; and furthermore, sits at the European Court of Justice and Human Rights. He was born in London to Jewish parents in 1960.
His first book, entitled, ‘East West Street,’ is largely biographical and historical in context. It tracks his ancestral origins back to the city of Lviv (then Lvov) where his great grandfather ran an inn. Phillippe Sands’ great grandmother gave birth to his grandfather in 1904 in a wooden house on East West Street across the road from the Synagogue.
The book largely tracks the history of the city of Lviv until the end of the Second World War, including the story of the annihilation of 33 members of his family, but the survival of his grandparents, and the subsequent birth of his mother in Vienna.
The second book was published in 2020 under the title, ‘The Rat Line,’ and is again biographical in its content. However, this biography is about the man, Otto Wechter, who became the Nazi political Gauleiter of Lemberg (Lviv) during the occupation of that region, and the man who ordered the genocide of Lviv’s Jewish population, and therefore, Sands’ extended family.
Both books are well worth reading, and quite astounding in regard to the extreme amount of research carried out in many countries including Germany, the USA, France, Austria and Italy.
My reading of these books had already told me that Lviv is a city which had already seen much violence and upheaval, much bloodshed and human tragedy during the 20th century. For instance, in the 1946-47 Soviet famine when 900,000 people died of starvation, Lviv was one of the areas where large numbers of people died.
History has thrown up many evil men in many parts of the world, and Russia’s President Putin is just one more at this point in history. Perhaps because this particular one has arisen much closer to home, and the inhabitants of the Ukraine look much more similar to us, and has echoes of Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler and the Second World War, that we appear to be more concerned about this current conflict than in others seemingly removed from our safe world here in the UK.
I don’t know but what I do know is that this is not simply about Putin. As the people of God, we surely know that our struggles in this world are not just against flesh and blood. Ephesians 6:12 KJV, ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.’
We also understand that suffering is part of this world. John 16:33, ESV, ‘I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’
I do not know what I personally would strive to achieve if I were living in Ukraine right now. Would I try to flee? Would I be able to flee? Probably not.
I was much touched a couple of days ago by the testimony of a young Ukrainian woman. She said that initially she wanted to flee Kyiv, that was her first response. But then she prayed and realised that she was to stay and serve. She has now been part of a team providing 600 meals a day to those who have been unable to provide for themselves.
With shops closed and supplies running low, she and her brothers and sisters are stunned at how God is providing enough food each day. But He always provides doesn’t He, and promises to do so. The young woman went on to say that because she is a believing Christian it doesn’t matter whether she dies today or tomorrow, whether she is killed in a bomb blast or dies in her bed. This life is transitory and she has been promised eternal life in Heaven.
Perhaps this is the real truth we should lean on; and it is of course, God’s word too. Revelation 21:4, ESV, ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’
The essence of the 2 books I have been reading is just that. There will always be pain and suffering, always changes, always loss, always grief. But there will also be joy and survival, rebirth and new life.
3,500 Jews, men, women, children, old and young alike, babes in arms and babes not yet born were either shot and buried in mass graves, or transported to death camps from Lviv (then Lemburg) in 1941. They were just a fraction of the total of 6 million murdered by the Nazi regime.
But one man survived. He had escaped to Vienna in 1938, married his wife Rita, who gave birth in 1939 to a daughter, Ruth. Ruth was smuggled out of Austria and hidden for 4 years in a small house in rural France. Her parents also escaped to France and worked with the French resistance. They all survived and Ruth became the mother of Phillippe Sands who now seeks justice for the victims of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
One more interesting fact about Lviv, Lemberg, Lvov: A Jewish man by the name of Raphael Lemkin, who went to university in Lviv in the 1920s, was a lawyer who was also a survivor of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. It was this gentleman who coined the terms Crimes against Humanity and Genocide at the 1946 Nuremberg trials, and his work is continued today by Phillippe Sands.
Coincidence? Or evidence of God’s work!