At my favorite cafe in Lviv, Ukraine, one frigid afternoon a couple of winters back, a sharp-featured young woman took off her stylish coat to reveal a gold swastika the size of a 50-cent piece hanging around her neck.

I thought of that finely wrought piece of jewelry as I read recent news coverage of rising anti-Semitism in Europe. I had been warned about Ukraine. While others congratulated me for getting a Fulbright award to teach in Uganda, Uzbekistan, Kosovo or wherever the heck I was going (this was just before Ukraine's EuroMaidan revolution caught the world's attention), a friend who had actually been to Ukraine asked me why I wanted to spend time among a bunch of anti-Semites.

I don't like that kind of talk. Sweeping condemnations of Ukrainians as anti-Semites are as offensive as sweeping condemnations of Jews as swindlers. As far as I could tell, Ukrainians behaved like everyone else in Europe during World War II: Some collaborated with the Nazis, some hid Jews in their attics and cellars, and most silently approved or disapproved without taking an active part. I assumed that in present-day Ukraine, as elsewhere, some people continue to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, some are tolerant and most don't think much about it one way or the other.


During my season in Lviv, a picturesque city of 750,000 people in western Ukraine, I was never attacked or threatened or even made to feel unwelcome. I experienced anti-Semitism as more of a low-grade fever that lingers in the culture in the form of symbols, gestures, images or beliefs rather than overt acts of violence or exclusion.

I lived on Staroyevreyska Street — Old Jewish Street. Down the block were the ruins of the Golden Rose Synagogue, built in the 16th century and destroyed by the Nazis in 1942. The restaurant next door has appropriated the name of the synagogue and taken Jewishness as its theme.

From the outside, Under the Golden Rose appears to be a kind of homage to the Jews of Lviv. But when you go in, you learn that you have the option of wearing a black hat with sidelocks sewn into it and that there are no prices on the menu: You are expected to haggle like a cheap Jew over the cost of your meal. All in good fun, say the restaurant's defenders.

One of my friends, a well-educated and well-traveled young woman, spoke of the "tricky Jews" who got around height limits on the buildings they owned on Lviv's main square by lowering the ceilings of the apartments enough to be able to squeeze in an extra floor — and squeeze out some extra rent money. Here, as with sports teams named the Braves or the Warriors in the United States, defenders of the stereotype say they express admiration, not disdain. If only Ukrainians had as much business acumen as the Jews!

Even more disturbing were the caricatures of hook-nosed, coin-counting Jews for sale in the city's craft market. Then, at Christmastime, I saw the vertep, a traditional Christmas play performed on buses, in the homes of strangers and friends and out on the street. In addition to Death, the Devil, King Herod, angels and shepherds, one of the stock characters in the vertep is Zhyd — the Jew.

Whoever plays Zhyd usually wears a hat and a fake beard, sometimes sidelocks and a hooked nose, and carries a briefcase or a bag of gold coins. He doesn't see why the birth of Christ should interrupt business as usual. A friend played Zhyd in one of the verteps. He acknowledged that the character is a stereotype, but argued that it's such an obvious one that to laugh at it is to laugh at the absurdity of the stereotype itself, not at the Jewish people.

"The problem with stereotypes," the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie says in a TED talk, "is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."

This, I told my friend, is what is objectionable about Zhyd. Seventy years after all but a handful of Lviv's Jews were killed in the Janowska work camp, few residents of the city know or interact with any Jews, so the narrative of Jews as greedy and unscrupulous businessmen — reinforced by news media attention to the presence of Jews among the oligarchs who dominate the Ukrainian economy — goes unchallenged by any experience or counter-narrative of Jews who are not greedy and unscrupulous businessmen.

In such an environment, anti-Semitism seems more clueless than malicious. When people express anti-Semitic attitudes, they're not talking about anyone they know, but about a character out of Ukrainian folklore.

As I watched a performance of the vertep on a massive stage in Lviv's main square, it occurred to me that this was the only country in Europe where one could still see such a public, sanctioned display of anti-Semitism. The square was packed. I wanted the crowd to hiss and cry "shame!" instead of contentedly nibbling their jelly doughnuts and sipping their hot wine.

One does not have to stand with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his false claim that the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was engineered by anti-Semitic fascists to acknowledge that anti-Semitism persists in Ukraine, as it does in the rest of Europe.

Frank was a Fulbright fellow in Ukraine in the fall of 2012. He teaches journalism at Penn State University.