„Ikon”, the obscure object of desire

Polish Orthodox churches had been devastated, demolished and robbed for several dozen years. Valuable furnishings had fallen into the hands of individuals and smuggling gangs. Quite paradoxically, in many cases it was the thieves who helped save the temples since the robberies forced an inventory of the religious buildings.

The Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches were silent witnesses of multidimensional dramas: deportations resulting from the August 1944 agreement on population exchange between the PRL and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR), fighting between the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the “Vistula” operation from 1947 conducted in parallel with eliminating the UPA and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). The expulsion was brutal: resisting villages were often set on fire. After the expatriation, many villages were left with houses and fully equipped temples. The parishioners couldn’t evacuate the church furnishings: iconostases, icons, vessels and liturgical books, standards etc. Theoretically speaking, each Othodox/Uniate church had its own “curator” – usually the local village leader or a level crossing attendant – but in practice they were abandoned.

Conservation officers to the rescue

Unattended religious buildings became the target of looters in search of valuables and, in the absence of building materials, were subject to demolition (among others in Jabłonki, Ustrzyko Górne, Buk, Stuposiany, turned into storehouses or production cooperatives (Caryńskie, Hulskie, Krzywe, Rajskie), moved to others places (the Rosolin church moved to the Museum of Folk Architectures in Sanok).

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE As the art historian, professor Ryszard Brykowski recalls: “these demolition expeditions were attended not only from Rzeszów, but also from further voivodeships. Of course, everything was done with the tacit official and party approval. Therefore, the demolition was carried out by state-owned enterprises, including the emerging state-owned farms and production cooperatives, also on their own account by various district and commune prominent figures of the then party and state power. The “demolition” actions intensified in the first half of the 1950s as a result of the escalation of the conflict between the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland and the Catholic Church, which took over some of the abandoned Uniate churches.
Terrified academics came to the rescue of sacred objects. Already in 1946 three conservation officers from Kraków, i.e. Bogdan Treter, Józef Edward Dutkiewicz and Hanna Pieńkowska initiated an action to set up “icon repositories” into which mobile furnishings from disused churches were brought in. Such facilities were established in Muszyna, Sanok and Biecz, some of the historical objects were moved to museums in Tarnów and Kraków. They managed to save most of the church equipment in the Kraków voivodeship.

Conservation officers from the Rzeszów voivodeship, where there were hundreds of closed and destroyed Orthodox/Uniate churches, worked in substantially worse realities. It’s enough to say that out of 170 churches in Rzeszów as many as 86 were unattended, whereas further 80 enjoyed only minimal protection. Due to a shortage of funds, lack of personnel and reluctance of the authorities it wasn’t until 1957 that Jerzy Tur, a conservation officer and Aleksander Rybicki, an employee of the Sanok museum initialized an inventory of the temples in the Lemko Region.

During summer camps organized by Feliks Wolski (1957) and Barbara Tondos (since 1958) academics and students explored the site on foot and made inventories. On account of the reluctance of the authorities the operation was almost clandestine. “[The churches – author’s note] looked as if the faithful had just left after the service. They were fully decorated: tablecloths on the altars, candles in the candlesticks and even remnants of incense in the thuribles – as it was recalled by Barbara Tondos in an archival interview for the “Skarby Podkarpackie” newspaper. The conservations officers recognized approximately 400 objects.

In 1960 the Voivodship Repository of Mobile Heritage was opened within the Łańcut Museum, in which church furnishings were hidden against thieves, vandals and the passage of time. The objects were thoroughly described and deposited, with the knowledge and agreement of the head of the Culture Department of the Provincial National Council.

Massive looting

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Alas, robbers, who quickly discovered the value of the secured antiquities and started looting on a massive scale, went on to their rounds next to those who had a passion for culture. “when after two or three years I was coming back to those churches, where I first had arrived between 1957 and 1959 I stood on their threshold horrified. Horrified at the state of devastation of most of them. The interiors, untouched only two or three years before, were now, in many cases simply devastated. Overturned iconostases, icons with the faces of saints cut out, scattered chaotically on the floor. It was so, inter alia, in Ustianowa Górna – reported Barabara Tondos.

The situation was aggravated by the fact that a certain fashion for the Old Church and Slavic works of art began in Western Europe in the 1960s. As a result, massive looting of churches was taking place in the Lublin, Białystok, Nowy Sącz and Rzeszów voivodeships. At least 2500 icons from 15th to 19th centuries were stolen, as well as about a dozen or so antique books and prazdniks (the festive icon is a type of image depicting Christian festivals, arranged according to the order of the Orthodox calendar, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries - ed.) The objects went to private collectors. A substantial part of the – even up to 70% – was smuggled to the West. The crimes were very often committed by professionals, among others: art historians, art students or people knowing the true value of those objects. Only in the years 1963-4 the Citizens’ Militia (MO) from Rzeszów heard 9 cases against smugglers. For example the District Headquarters of the MO in Ustrzyki Dolne investigated the case of Helena G., a painter, suspected of stealing several dozen icons from the church in Ustianowa Górna. The District Headquarters of the MO in Lesko caught four students of the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts red handed – they were the perpetrators of the theft of icons in Wokowyja. A gang of art historians was broken up by the District Headquarters of the MO in Jarosław. Sadly, only fragmentary information on that has survived. A few objects of unidentified origin were taken away from PRL by members of the Goldenheads gang, having a very bad reputation. Unfortunately, their description is so vague (e.g. an icon-polyptych from the early 19th century, an icon from the 19th century) that I was unable to settle which objects exactly are in question.

The thief comes back thrice

It had long been impossible to eradicate the looting – still in late 1960s Barabara Tondos act as consultant helping establish if the secured object was – as the militiamen would put it – an “ikon”. Surely, works of Orthodox art had flooded from PRL for many years. What makes it worse, certain looters came back to specific temples.
The Uniate church in Ulucz is the oldest wooden Orthodox church in Poland. Photo: Marek Skorupski / Forum
And so, the church of the Ascension of Jesus in Ulucz, storing the oldest preserved furnishings dating back to the second half of the 17th century fell prey to them at least thrice: first after the local population was displaced (before 1960 the building fell into ruin and was robbed by unknown perpetrators), second in 1986 when two icons from the Sovereign tier were stolen: one of Christ Pantokrator and the Ascension of Jesus as well as prazdnik “Presentation of Jesus at the Temple” written [one doesn’t paint icons, they write them – trans.] by Jan from Hyrów. The latter was regained accidentally by the Citizens’ Militia one and a half year later. In August 1989 12 sacred pictures were stolen including Christmas, Pentecost, Circumcision of Jesus by Stefan Dzengałowicz. Now the icons “Presentation of Jesus at the Temple” and the “Last Supper” are kept safe in the Museum of Folk Architectures in Sanok.

After the 1989 turning point the perception of the Ukrainian community in Poland has gradually changed: in 1990 the Senate condemned the “Vistula” operation; in 2002 president Alexander Kwaśniewski regretted that it had been carried out. The reception of the Orthodox art has also been subject to change and the consciousness of the value of this heritage has also increased. In 2013 a number of Polish and Ukrainian Orthodox/Uniate churches was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. At present historic churches are tourist attractions in many places.

– Małgorzata Borkowska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists


• The vicissitude of the Orthodox church in the Lemko region in the 20th century, Damian Nowak (http://www.beskid-niski.pl/index.php?pos=/lemkowie/religia/losy)
• “Architecture and furnishings of the church of the Ascension of Jesus in Ulucz” - prepared by Jarosław Giemza, page 4
• Abandoned – Rescued: Greek Catholic church complexes in south-eastern Poland - materials from a scientific conference edited by Monika Rzepiejewska http://skarbypodkarpackie.pl/numery/sp_34_2012.pdf “Rescuing the world of icons”, pp 4-9; interview with Barbara Tandos
• Injury – paper by Barbara Tandos “Przemyśl Bells” No. 3(17)/ 1994
• Crime against monuments in South-Eastern Poland in the context of Polish-Ukrainian Historical Relations; paper by Franciszek Trzebski, p. 165
• “Forgeries and smuggling of coins and works of art in Poland” – materials of the scientific symposium on October 24-25, 1986. Feliks Dzierżyński Military Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs; chapter by Tadeusz Rydzek “The origins and forms of smuggling of cultural goods in Poland in the years 1945-1986”
• Orthodox church of the Ascension of Jesus in Ulucz of from 1650. „Brzozowska Gazeta Powiatowa” pp. 21-22 https://powiatbrzozow.pl/images/download/BGP/rok2001/3.pdf
• National list of stolen or illegally exported monuments, IPN BU 01255/253/D Pagination according to the one preserved in the files: p: 1325; 1328; 1330
• “A rhapsody on the churches in Bieszczady” Jerzy Friemann, “Tygodnik Powszechny” October 1, 1967.

Main photo: After 1989, customs officers detained smugglers both taking valuable icons out of Poland and those that were illegally imported into our country. The photo shows 180 icons seized at the border and handed over to the District Museum in Białystok. Photo: ZDZISŁAW LENKIEWICZ / PAP
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