Tumultuous history of Polish lion figures in Lviv

In 1971 tanks, bulldozers and excavators invaded the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów. The colonnade was destroyed, caterpillars were crumbling gravestones; attempts were made to knock down the arch and pylons with the use of steel ropes attached to the tanks. The devastators shelled the arch and pylon inscriptions so they would be illegible.

On May 20, Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv [in Polish: Lwów] wrote on his twitter among others: “Let the Lions at the Cemetery of the [Polish] Defenders of Lwów that had previously been an object of controversy and were covered out be a step taken for mutual forgiveness of past wrongs. Long live Poland! Glory to Ukraine!”. The mayor’s twit is accompanied by a photograph in which two lions stand at the foot of the Arch of Glory, not covered with clapboards or foil, as had been the case until now, that is to say since December 2015.

The Polish military cemetery from the mayor's text is the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów commonly called the Cemetery of Eaglets because half of the soldiers buried here after the defense of Lviv in 1918 were under of seventeen. The lion, as indicated by the name of the city itself, has been present in the city's coat of arms since the thirteenth century. It is everywhere – in the coats of arms of cities, European aristocracy, or even in the royal coat of arms of the UK – a symbol of courage and strength.

When the Republic of Poland – reborn after the partitions – decided to honour her defenders in Lviv, two lions were planned at their cemetery as an element of the Arch of Glory, probably for symmetry – the arch is something that resembles a gate and that which is on one side is usually repeated on the other. The arch is the central element of the Monument of Glory – before the war it had been integrated in a semicircular colonnade (12 columns) with two pylons, where the names of battles in which the city’s defenders perished before it was taken over by the Western Ukrainian People's Republic, which was forming with the blessing of dying Austria-Hungary.

”Official” devastation

In Soviet times, the Cemetery of Eaglets was devastated somewhat naturally and on the orders of the communist authorities. Nobody cared for the cemetery, and Poles from Lviv were mostly resettled to the communist Poland. The few who remained were not able to prevent the theft of tombstones, which a trained eye can find on Ukrainian civilian graves in the neighboring Lychakiv Cemetery.

People would forge the inscriptions, leaving their own with different content – the cemetery became a hotbed of local hooliganism. However, it must have been be purely political to forge the words “Always faithful” from the shield of one lion, and “To you, Poland” from the shield of the other. At the end of the 1960s, the lions disappeared from the cemetery and this was the first sign of official devastation.
Most of the buried defenders were under 17. It was for them that the Monument to Glory was erected in the Defenders of Lwów Cemetery. Photo from the 1930s. Photo: NAC/IKC
In 1971 tanks, bulldozers and excavators invaded the Cemetery of the Polish Defenders of Lwów. They colonnade was destroyed, caterpillars were crumbling gravestones; attempts were made to knock down the arch and pylons with the use of steel ropes attached to the tanks. It did not work out, the foundations were too solid. The devastators shelled the arch and pylon inscriptions so they would be illegible.

The plots were covered with column fragments and fertilized soil. When the catacombs standing above the Monument of Glory were converted into a terrazzo slab production plant – the ashes of the fallen had previously been swept away – the cemetery no longer resembled a cemetery.

The lions survived because, as an irritating symbol of Polish “occupation of Lviv” they were removed before a tank action on August 25, 1971. Initially, they stood in Stryiskyi Park below the castle hill, but because the local Poles laid flowers there, one lion was moved to the exit road to Vynnyky, and the other to the fork of the roads to Kiev and Rava-Ruska. The construction of a gas station at a fork resulted in the transfer of the lion to a municipal cleaning plant.

Both lions in their new places had, on their shields, the city's coat of arms, with a sickle and hammer above it. The pre-war Lviv coat of arms on the shield of one was modified according to the current design, and the Polish emblem was of course removed from the shield of the other.

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Independent Ukraine, proclaimed in 1991, was immediately recognized by the Republic of Poland, and the Ukrainian authorities, breaking with the Soviet past and heading towards the West, wanted to have the best possible relations with our country. The central authorities residing in Kiev certainly did. As for the city authorities of Lviv and the Lviv Regional Council, we have had three decades of stormy talks and arrangements with the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites (HRTA: CPSMS) and other Polish organisations, also from Lviv.

The CPSMS wanted to implement what was committed to at the level of foreign ministers and even leaders of both countries. The Lviv City Council broke off and dragged out talks and did not fulfill the arrangements. The “fault” of the Polish side was the desire that the rebuilt Cemetery of Eaglets should look like in the interwar period. This was not accepted by the Ukrainian side at the local level, even having been disciplined by letters from Kiev.

The tombstone crosses in the shape of the Virtuti Militari crosses and the Order of the Defenders of Lwów crosses held by angels on top of the catacombs were unthinkable. The angels themselves could not have winged heads. The inscriptions reading that the fallen were buried here “for independent Poland”, “for a free Republic”, “Defenders of Lwów”. The city authorities accepted that the soldier had died in the “Polish-Ukrainian war”, but he could not have died “heroically”.

It was difficult to force the inscriptions on the pylons and the sword on the Arch of Glory, because it was associated with Szczerbiec (king Bolesław Chrobry’s legendary sword), although there is no gap (szczerba – hence its name) in it. The colonnade was unacceptable and hasn’t been restored to this day; the pylons and the arch are not linked, because it is said that it was the colonnade that made the cemetery a pantheon of foreign military glory.
1990: Ukraine is still a Soviet republic, and the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów – is ruins. Photo: PAP/Ireneusz Sobieszczuk
Subsequent days of ceremonial opening of the cemetery were postponed, once even president Aleksander Kwaśniewski canceled a state visit to Ukraine, which was closely related to the actions of the Lviv City Council. Finally, on May 13, 1999, the Presidents of Poland and Ukraine, Aleksander Kwaśniewski and Leonid Kuchma, showed up at the cemetery. To the surprise of both sides, the central plate read; “To unknown Polish fighters killed in the Polish-Ukrainian war”. The Polish side had already accepted the “Polish-Ukrainian war”, the soldiers were surprised by the humorous and disrespectful term “fighters”. The authorities of both countries had to think about a new opening of the Cemetery of Eaglets.

Earlier negotiations over the inscription in the centre of the necropolis inspired a letter from the city authorities to Kiev, which – as usual – pressed for the acceleration of restoration work in order to quickly open the cemetery:

“We are categorically against the restoration of the pompous pantheon of Polish rule in Lviv built in the interwar years, which would remind the living and future generations of Poles of the so-called Polishness of Lviv (…) Universal history knows no case where the people of an independent country on their own soil have built similar pantheons to their former oppressors”.

The Polish side could not understand that American pilots and French infantrymen also seemed to be some kind of oppressors. It was not possible for a long time to put up their figures and restore pre-war inscriptions, because the phrase “they fought for Poland” reminds of the Polishness of Lviv, as one councilor honestly admitted in a local newspaper.

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There was no consent either to re-commemorate the battle of Rarańcza heroes, a point when the 2nd Legion Brigade broke the front upon the news that the Austrians had signed a treaty handing over Galicia to the newly established West Ukrainian People's Republic.

Skirmishes between Poland and Lviv

The cemetery was officially opened on June 24, 2005, with the participation of heads of state Viktor Yushchenko and Alexander Kwasniewski, clergy, members of governments and deputies. The lions, without hammers and sickles, were still standing far from the cemetery then. Thanks to the efforts of the Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Society for the Protection of Military Graves in Lviv, they returned to the Cemetery of Eaglets in December 2015, with the consent of the local monument conservator.

Fortunately for the lions, the Polish side was asked to finance copies so that they lions stand on the outskirts of the city, at the same time replacing those from the cemetery and weakening their uniqueness. When the local sculptors who were making the copies, took the casts, they washed the sculptures, which, at least one of them, said prof. Janusz Smaza – were painted with brocade paint.

As professor Smaza recalled, the situation forced the local Poles taking care of the cemetery to pack the lions fiberboard boxes in order not to irritate the Ukrainian side and not to escalate the conflict. Especially that just after installing the lions, the city authorities wanted to take them down, and it was only for professor Smaza’s firm statement that dismantling would destroy the lions, that the sculptures were saved in their original location by the Arch of Glory.

The Lviv Regional Council made another demand to dismantle the lions in 2018.

Polish conservators and Poles from Lviv feared acts of vandalism that could be aimed at the lions sculptures. Sometimes tombstones and plaques were flooded with paint in the renovated cemetery. On the centrally located plate devoted to unknown soldiers, someone wrote in paint “Mess”, in broad daylight elements of the inscriptions were chained, once a swastika and the inscription “No Pl [Poland]” appeared.
Lwów, październik 2021 r. Lwy jeszcze w niewoli. Fot. Waldek Sosnowski / Forum
Secured lions waited for their time. It happened several times that a group of Polish tourists tore off the packaging and “released” the lions, not knowing what the reason for their packaging was and who had done it.

The plates protecting the lions did not withstand rains and winds, began to detach themselves over time, and one of the lions was officially unveiled wrapped in black foil. Security considerations, apart from political ones, required that something be done about it, because on windy days fragments of the packaging could start fly around the cemetery.

Visible and safe

Finally, from May 20, the lions are free or, more precisely – exposed. It happened during the period of the best possible relations between the Ukrainian and Polish states, when Poland is helping Ukraine to repel Russian aggression, and it gives Ukrainians shelter from the consequences of war.

When unveiling the lions, the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, did not write why they were covered up. For the unveiling to make sense, the atmosphere among Lviv officials and councilors must have changed, and the city's more bloodthirsty nationalists must have been locked in the children's room by the paternal hand of Mayor Sadovyi. The unveiling means that the lions are not only visible, but also safe.

– Krzysztof Zwoliński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki
Main photo: Unveiled stone lions guarding the entrance to the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów, part of Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. Photo: PAP/Vitaliy Hrabar
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