LVIV -- Visitors stepping from a contemporary city street walk under a wrought iron gate enclosed by melancholy gray concrete walls and enter a scene from the early 1940’s. Guard towers with spotlights watch over two long wooden barracks. A rusting freight car sits on a short stretch of railroad. The walls surrounding the exhibit are punctuated by barred windows and topped with barbed wire.
Lviv’s new Territory of Terror Museum educates visitors on the dangers of totalitarianism and the lessons of Ukraine’s turbulent past -- the Nazi occupation and the Soviet seizure of western Ukraine.
Last year, 2.6 million tourists flooded Lviv – 7,000 per day. Now, some visitors may want to sidestep the crowds and find stimulation off the beaten track.
Two kilometers north of Lviv’s historic market square, the new city-funded museum had a soft opening in May. As of early July, some exhibits are still under construction. Currently, the only exhibit explores Soviet anti-religious propaganda.
A Holocaust exhibit is to open by the end of July. An exhibit on Stalin’s deportation of Tartars from Crimea is to open in September.
The museum sits on a sinister location, a long, narrow stretch of land parallel to the railroad that runs through central Lviv. From 1941 until 1944, this was the site of Lviv’s Jewish ghetto, the largest in Nazi-occupied Soviet territory. At its peak, an estimated 140,000 Jews were forced to live in the ghetto, cut off from the rest of the city by barbed wire fences.
In June 1943, as Soviet troops advanced westward, the Nazis liquidated the ghetto. Tens of thousands of surviving Polish and Ukrainian Jews were packed into cattle cars and sent to their deaths at the Belzec and Janowksa concentration camps. When the Red Army finally entered Lviv on July 26, 1944 less than 400 Jews were left in Lviv.
Under the Soviet occupation, Transit Prison No. 25 was set up on the site of the Lviv ghetto. The transit prison, one of the largest of its kind in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, housed priests, nationalists and political prisoners awaiting transportation to the gulag, the Soviet network of slave labor camps.
As many as 500,000 people may have gone through during its decade of use by the Soviets. The transit prison was closed in 1955, the virtual end of armed nationalist resistance to Soviet rule.
“In some ways, people here are not aware of this history,” said Museum Curator Yuri Stepove. “The museum seeks to remind both locals and visitors of what took place in Lviv and Ukraine in general. We think it is important to respect the history.”
The new museum has a fully bilingual Ukrainian-English website: http://territoryterror.org.ua/en/
However, all exhibit captions are in Ukrainian. Museum organizers plan to post English and Polish captions by the end of this year, the curator said.
“We are still evaluating the exhibits,” Stepove explained. “We need to see what people are interested in.”
Stepove admits that museum’s all-Ukrainian content will put off some visitors. Ukraine’s top international tourist destination, Lviv receives many visitors from Poland, Germany, Austria, Britain, Canada and the US.
Museum organizers plan to attract tour groups later this year. With only 20 to 50 visitors per day, the museum now offers a chance to ponder history in solitude.
Once a week, Ukrainian documentaries about the country’s history are screened at the museum. Seeing a vocation as a cultural center, organizers plan to host public lectures and presentations on topics related to totalitarianism and moral issues.
“We want to involve the community as much as possible,” said Stepove.
Multimedia is at the core. The exhibit on anti-religious propaganda includes historical video clips projected onto walls. Audio stations allow visitors to choose among guide narratives and oral histories. Eventually, organizers plan to open the museum’s database to allow visitors to research relatives who passed through the camp during the Nazi and Soviet periods.
The Territory of Terror is a rare example of a real effort in Ukraine to memorialize victims of the Holocaust and all victims of totalitarianism. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Mikhail Tyaglyy, of the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies, estimated that only half of the nearly 1,000 sites in Ukraine where Jews were shot en masse in World War II are marked with a memorial.
For comments and story ideas, please contact UBJ Lviv Correspondent Mark Satter at email@example.com