Vilnian secrets not for everyone. Things Polish tourists aren’t told

Few people know that there are passages, tunnels made of concrete and large chambers in the hillside. There used to be reliefs of the White Eagle but then someone meticulously chipped them off. It is possible to enter some of the warehouses and bat colonies live inside.

In late spring/summer the Old Town of Vilnius is dominated by the Polish language. Trips and pilgrimages from Warsaw, Cracow and many other cities walk around the popular routes: from the Gate of Dawn, through the Old Town to Rasos Cemetery. They don’t notice less-known sites – the ones that the guides here don’t talk about – and they have no chance of seeing what, howbeit important, remains completely unknown to visitors.

Here is a sample tourist route – found on the Internet. Starting with the Gate of Dawn, of course – a very important place to Poles, a tiny (not until the arrival can one see how actually small) chapel housing the miraculous painting of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, located over the only preserved city gate. The next stop on the tour is the nearby Orthodox Church of the Holy Spirit and, further on – the Basilian Monatsery of the Holy Trinity with the cell of Konrad, the main character of the 3rd act of Adam Mickiewicz’s “Dziady” (historically speaking it was here that Mickiewicz himself was incarcerated).

The next places are: the city’s first baroque church, St. Kazimierz’s, and then the Old Town Hall, restored before the war, as well as the University of Vilnius (former Polish Stefan Batory University, today a Lithuanian university), the Presidential Palace (in the interwar period, a Representative Palace of the Republic, presidents Stanisław Wojciechowski and Ignacy Mościcki stayed here, but the most frequent visitor was Marshal Józef Piłsudski), and finally the Vilnius Cathedral and the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania (almost completely reconstructed after 2002). To see the Upper Castle (or rather its remains) and Gediminas’ Tower, you have to climb a small hill.

The next points of the trip are the church of St. Anna and the gothic Church of St. St. Francis and Bernard. All of that is located in the city centre, mainly in Vilnius Old Town; a little further, to the north-west, a must see place is the beautiful baroque church of St. Peter and Paul.

Going south-west from the old town, we come to the most important Polish necropolises in the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Rasos Cemetery, where, at the entrance, stands the former mausoleum of Józef Piłsudski’s mother, with the inscription: “The Mother and the Heart of Her Son”. In the necropolis itself, we will see the graves of many outstanding Poles, including Joachim Lelewel, Władysław Syrokomla, as well as Juliusz Słowacki’s father – Euzebiusz.

If you go to Vilnius on a pilgrimage, next to these places we will certainly see the house of St. Faustina in Antokol; it was there that she had her revelations. In turn, the first image of the Divine Mercy, originally located in the Polish Church of the Holy Spirit (where all masses are celebrated in Polish) was transferred in 2005 to the Church of the Holy Trinity, which became the Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy and is a destination of pilgrimages from our country.

Built “during the Polish occupation”

But wandering around Vilnius in this way, we will see only a small part of this city – and we will learn only a fragment of its history. Tourists go to Rasos, enter through a wrought-iron gate into the former “The Mother and the Heart of Her Son” mausoleum. Before the war, behind the tombstone there was a canopy with a White Eagle; probably taken down before the Soviet aggression on September 17, 1939, was lost and never returned to Rasos. The gate is pre-war; one of the bars has a strange groove, as if someone had tried to drill it from the side. It is a trace of a bullet, probably a Soviet one, from September 18, 1939.

The Soviets attacked along Rossa Street from the south. On the wall surrounding the mausoleum, just from the south, you can also see a large trace of a bullet, probably from a Soviet cannon. There are also much smaller traces of rifle bullets. From the other side, you can see similar dents in the wall, because probably the Polish defenders of Vilnius shot too low several times and instead of hitting the enemy, they hit the wall. Who of the visitors to Rasos pays attention to this?
Unfortunately, the dramatic September history of Vilnius has fallen into complete oblivion. The city defended itself for only one day, because the commander-in-chief in this area, General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński, sent an order from Grodno that Polish soldiers should stop fighting and withdraw to Lithuania. Alone and broken, he also set off for the border, but before he reached it, he met Red Army soldiers and was murdered by them...

Meanwhile, before the war, Vilnius was an important garrison city, there was also the so-called Fortified Area, intended to be an important point of resistance in the event of Soviet aggression. It’s just that a fight with two enemies had no chance and could at most be a kind of political demonstration.

Tourists willingly visit the historical museum in the Lower Castle – the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. If you look closely at it, you will see that it was built in a very mixed style: the east wing is Gothic, the south wing is Renaissance, and the south-west is Baroque. Standing in the inner courtyard, we will see fragments of a building that does not really fit in with the rest. This is the former Villa Podzamcze, incorporated into the palace building, before the war the only remnant of the Lower Castle, housing the Army Inspectorate (there were several such inspectorates throughout the country, subordinate to the General Inspector of the Armed Forces).

The last army inspector stationed in Vilnius was General Stefan Dąb-Biernacki, commander of the Reserve “Prussia” Army in the September Campaign. However, there is no chance to visit another important military facility, the former command of the Fortified Area. Today, this pretty building houses the Ministry of National Defense of Lithuania.

So it is worth seeing something that an ordinary tourist will not see for sure and go to Šeškinė. You have to park your car on one of the streets in the vicinity of the shopping centre – where exactly, someone local should explain. Then go down to a slightly recessed area leading along the hill. There are entrances to the former Polish ammunition magazines. Corridors were carved into the hillside and modern concrete tunnels and large chambers were built. Similar facilities were built in several locations; they had two entrances each with characteristic doors, above which there were round ventilation openings.

Above the opening there was a relief of the White Eagle holding a wreath in its paws, surrounding the opening. Today only the wreaths remain, whereas the eagles were meticulously chipped off. Some of the warehouses can be entered, although it is very dirty inside, and sometimes you can come across colonies of bats. It is a pity that there is no chance of creating even a small museum of the Fortified Area here… SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE There are similar warehouses in Belmont, in a beautifully arranged park. The plaque in Lithuanian informs that they were established “during the Polish occupation”. Most of them are also inhabited by large colonies of bats, protected by law. The entrances to them look identical to those from Šeškinė, in some places the traces of eagles are more visible. If you climb the hill, you can see the remains of the ammunition chamber ventilation system.

It is also worth taking the street towards Naujoji Vilnia (Nowa Wilejka), that is to say towards the vicinity of the former Batory Route. On the right, there are pre-war Polish fortifications, now easily accessible, which were supposed to block access to Vilnius in the event of a Soviet aggression. In 1939, they were not used because they were not occupied by soldiers; if any attack was expected, it was rather German and from a different direction. They can be reached via a carefully constructed wooden path and stairs. The Lithuanian-language boards accurately describe the shelter located there – the position of a heavy machine gun.

Climbing a little higher, we have a chance to see a beautiful panorama of the Vilnia river valley. In the past, there was a telescope by the wooden balustrade to observe the area, but it was dismantled because there is a characteristic black building nearby, the private house of Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, who prefers to live there than in the official presidential residence. It is better not to look into the presidential house... And on the other side of the road leading to Naujoji Vilnia, there is another Polish shelter, but hidden behind trees and bushes.

What does “Ponas Tadas” mean?

But Vilnius is not only about history and beautiful, old houses or fortifications overgrown with greenery. They are also our compatriots who live in this city. According to official data, it is 16% of its inhabitants. There are fewer Lithuanians here today (over 60%) than there were Poles before the war (66%). In the Vilnius region (i.e. around the capital of Lithuania), our compatriots make up about half of all inhabitants; in the neighboring region of: Šalčininkai – nearly 80%, Trakai – about 30%, and Švenčionys – about a quarter of the population.
In fact, there is a high probability that the people we pass on the streets of Vilnius and neighboring cities are local Poles. Of course, when shopping in stores or dealing with matters in offices, they speak Lithuanian – and usually not worse than the Lithuanians themselves. On the other hand, when we ask someone in Vilnius a question in Polish, if we hear an answer in our language, we cannot be sure that we are talking to a compatriot. Although, unfortunately, many more Lithuanians used to know Polish; nowadays, young Lithuanians know rather English.

But it is also worth noticing what we do not notice at first glance. Let’s take a look at, for example, the press sold in kiosks, because there are also magazines in Polish. “Kurier Wileński” is a small newspaper, published three times a week; “Magazyn Kuriera Wileńskiego” looks nice, it is available for purchase once a week. If we have a laptop with us – which will probably happen most often during business trips – let’s take a look at the website of Polish Wilnoteka – while writing this article, the author had the opportunity to watch a mass celebrated in the chapel in the Gate of Dawn, broadcast live on YouTube. And if we have a radio, let’s look for 103.8 FM Radio Znad Wilii The local cable TV also has Polish TV programs, there is also a TVP centre .

Coming from Poland, passing through Lazdijai (Łoździeje), we will most likely reach Naugarduko (i.e. Nowogródzka) Street in Vilnius. We will certainly pass by a restaurant and a hotel bearing the Lithuanian name “Ponas Tadas”. What do these two words mean? A “survey” conducted among friends showed that in Warsaw, about every fourth person comes to the conclusion that it must be “Pan Tadeusz”. Both of these institutions operate in the Polish House, an important place for many organizations gathering our compatriots, from the already mentioned Wilnoteka to the only Polish political party in this country Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance. EAPL-CFA currently has three deputies in the Sejm (in the past there were even eight), 57 councilors in the Vilnius region and one Member of the European Parliament.

Of course, there are many more such Polish places. If a building of a school appears in front of our eyes, it can be, for example, the Adam Mickiewicz Senior High School or Władysław Syrokomla Junior High School – so state institutions, but teaching in Polish. And the young people running out of school are local Poles. Because Vilnius is a living city, not just a well-preserved reminder of the good old days. Let us remember this during our next trip or pilgrimage.

– Piotr Kościński
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

On a voluntary basis, the author runs Joachim Lelewel Foundation, which in co-production with TVP and in cooperation with Wilnoteka is working on a film about the defense of Vilnius in September 1939. There are still a shortage of funds, so the foundation asks for support: – Wilno 1939
Main photo: Wilno. Widok na stare miasto. Fot. PAP/Valdemar Doveiko
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