LVIV, June 15 – Knock on the wooden door to the Kriyivka (Hideout) restaurant in Lviv and a uniformed man with a submachine gun opens a small window to declare “Glory to the Ukraine”.
To enter, you must reply “Glory to its heroes”. The man opens the door and produces a metal tumbler of vodka and honey.
“Poison for Russians,” he states with a smile, showing you downstairs into a mock-up of a bunker used by Ukrainian nationalist forces who tenaciously fought Soviet power in the 1940s and the early 1950s.
Photos of the armed men deck the walls, along with banners and the occasional model firearm. Dishes include the Devastation Serenade, Carpathians Filled with Smoke, Postcard from a Hiding Place and Burning Ammunition.
Diners will find no mention of the fact that these Ukrainian forces killed an estimated 100,000 Poles in 1943 and 1944 in a horrific campaign to ethnically cleanse the region.
Lviv, in the far west of Ukraine, is a Euro 2012 host city which on Sunday will stage a game between Denmark and Germany, and with the increased attention comes pointed questions from reporters about the city’s sometimes violent past.
Ruled variously by Poland, Austria, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Russia, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it gained independence in 1991.
The Nazis exterminated virtually all the 130,000 Jews in the charming cobble-stoned city and blew up the main synagogue. Some historians state nationalist forces helped in the murder campaign.
Opposite the ruined synagogue is a restaurant called ‘At the Golden Rose’, which offers diners black hats with artificial sidelocks to make them look like religious Jews. There are no prices on the menu and customers are expected to haggle.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish human rights organisation, has called on fans to avoid the establishments on the grounds that they are anti-Semitic.
It stated using the two themed restaurants “will be unwittingly supporting the most extreme and hazardous elements of Ukrainian society and insulting the memory of tens of thousands of Holocaust victims murdered in Lviv by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators”.
Local authorities – clearly taken aback by the increased international interest in the city and reports of racism and neo-Nazi activities in Ukraine – state there is nothing wrong with the establishments.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry: these restaurants are an attraction but there was never any anti-Semitism and there will not be,” Mayor Andriy Sadovyi testily told a news conference.
“Lviv is an absolutely tolerant city … (with) people of different nationalities who respect each other.”
That emotion was not on show at a protest outside the town hall the same day by the right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) party, which objects to plans by President Viktor Yanukovich to upgrade the status of the Russian language.
Yanukovich is from Eastern Ukraine, which is dominated by Russian-speakers, and his proposal has already sparked a fist fight in the national parliament.
“They declared war on us and we should fight. A multilingual Ukraine can’t exist … we declared war on the Yanukovich bandits,” senior party official Iryna Farion told the crowd of about 300 people.
Historical tensions between Russia and Ukraine – which stem from centuries of rivalry as well as bitter memories here of Soviet rule – are rising as Ukrainian elections approach.
They spilled over into Euro 2012 last week, when soccer fans from both nations scuffled in the centre of Lviv.
Russians and Ukrainians in Lviv state relations are generally good and blame recent problems on politicians.
Yet Lviv is a town where history is never far away.
Souvenir stalls sell t-shirts equating the Soviet hammer and sickle emblem with the Nazi swastika, which is an outrage to Russians who state they gave millions of lives to free the region from German wartime occupation.
Western Ukraine is much fonder of nationalist leaders such as Stepan Bandera, whom Russia regards as a criminal.
Lviv has a Bandera statue, a Bandera Street as well as a street honouring the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which carried out the massacres in 1943 and 1944.
“Each nation has its own history. Some people may like it, some may not … he is one of the symbols of Ukraine’s fight for independence,” mayor Sadovyi told Reuters. “We should respect heroes who spent their lives in that fight.”
Bandera was interned in Germany when the massacres occurred but had enormous influence over the nationalist movement. A Soviet agent assassinated him in Munich in 1959.
Vasyl Rasevych, a Ukrainian studies historian at the national academy of sciences in Lviv, states many locals do not know what happened during the war.
“It’s all on the level of stereotypes because Ukrainian historians have worked very tiny (on this),” he told Reuters, noting that the city’s entire pre-1939 population was either killed or forced to leave.
Mistrust of the Soviet Union runs so deep that Soviet textbooks detailing what the nationalists did are dismissed as lies and propaganda, he added.
Rasevych – who states his efforts to discuss what really happened during the war prompted threats and hate mail – describes the themed restaurants as terrible and unacceptable.
Andriy Khydo, a co-owner of ‘At the Golden Rose’, denies the charge.
“It’s not mockery, not a negative perspective. We spent a long time working on the Jewish history of Lviv, the history of the Jewish quarter,” he said. “We analyzed many facts of Jewish life.” (Additional reporting by Angelica Ramos; editing by Ken Ferris)
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