It was not to be found on the list of top attractions for Lviv. The Bradt Travel Guide To Ukraine, which is far and away the best English language guide to the country did not even mention it. Fortunately, Lonely Planet did have a short paragraph covering it. I had downloaded and printed out the Lviv section of the guidebook before I left home. I was intrigued, because the place I was going to had seemed to be something of an afterthought, worthy of mention, but not much more. It was shadowy and did not seem to quite fit what was turning out to be one of Eastern Europe’s most beautiful cities. It was a place that was best avoided for decades on end. Even after Ukraine gained independence in 1991 it lay dormant, slowly fading into anonymity, but its history was too important to be forgotten. It was the history of tyranny, terror and totalitarianism all contained in an old, slowly dilapidated building. The place was the Prison on Lontskogo, National Museum and Memorial to the Victims of Occupation.
The Darkest Days – Lontskogo Prison 1939-1945
Even though it was only a ten minute walk from the city center, finding it was hardly easy. The popular tourist attractions in Lviv are marked by directional signage in both Ukrainian and English, but not this museum. Perhaps this was an unconscious nod to historical accuracy. I am sure there was never any signage that noted the place as a KGB, NKVD prison (predecessor to the KBG) or Nazi Prison during its period of operation. During its most horrific days, from 1939 – 1945, it was a place no one wanted to even go near. Innocents (anti-communists, Ukrainian and Polish Nationalists among others) only came when forced and the majority of them never made out of the place alive.
It was here during the dark days of late June 1941, with the German Army set to take Lviv (the city was officially known as Lvov at the time) that the fleeing NKVD began to execute prisoners by the hundreds, many of them murdered with dreadful bestiality. Fragmented records show that at least 1,700 were killed, many on June 28, 1941, the night before the German stormed into the city. The lucky ones were murdered with a shot to the back of the head, but many more were stabbed to death with bayonets. Some were even found crucified and castrated. The sheer savagery is hard to imagine and it not only occurred during those darkest of days, it continued in some form or fashion for the rest of the war and even beyond it.
Deep & Dark Thoughts – On The Way To Prison
Seeking out a place that is not very popular may sound like an adventure, but it also can be eerie. On this occasion I found myself asking, “What kind of a person am I? What kind of person would be fascinated and drawn to such a place? What kind of person visits a place where thousands of innocent people were murdered? Here I was at a place where the majority of the murderers went free, a place where justice was only a word, with no meaning. This was a place where the judgment of history would never right the wrongs that had been committed within these prison walls. Just going here made me question not only myself, but everything I believed about right and wrong. These were the thoughts swirling inside my head as I found my way to the prison.
To be honest I was lucky to even find the Prison on Lontskogo. There was only a single sign, on the wall beside what would turn out to be the entrance door. The sign was rather small, but noticeable, it showed a white candle on a black background. I wondered whether I should even try to open the door, it looked oppressive, like it had been closed for years. The outer façade of the place looked the worse for wear, with its chipped paint and fading plaster. This is what happens to history, when it is left to the main ingredient of history itself – time. The prison had closed in 1991 and not been reopened as a museum until 2009. Being left to the elements, the building now had an added aesthetic of neglect.
Cell Life – An Ever Deepening Darkness
I was surprised to find that after a slight turn of the handle and soft push, the door to the museum’s entrance easily opened. An older woman was the only staff member present and I was the lone visitor. The woman was wearing a coat even though it was a rather warm early autumn day. It was very cold and damp inside the building, drafty air permeated the corridors. After entering, I soon noticed that the place looked like not so much a museum, but a historic site frozen in time. This was probably a highly accurate representation of what the prison looked like when it was shut down in 1991. Even more surreal, it was a relative approximation of what it was like during the Second World War.
The woman spoke no English, but it hardly mattered. She ushered me further down a corridor where I encountered a series of small cells. The windows were not barred, but instead sealed. No sunlight was allowed inside. There were some exhibits, but they were in Ukrainian. Language was not a problem here. I could easily interpret with my senses, through sight and smell what the place really was about. It was a building of intense suffering. The place looked frightening enough in the broad daylight. I started to imagine what it must have been like in the dark, not just of the night, but also during the dark of the day. The cells were tiny. They could at best house a few people, but at times each had been packed with up to 15 people. If the cells were not bad enough, there were two things that made the terrifying history of this place palpable.
Approaching the Unimaginable – For Those Who Died, For Those Lived
The first happened to be the room where prisoners had been photographed. This was the last place where one image after another was made of thousands of prisoners who were soon to be killed or at best sent to the gulag in Siberia. Each person photographed was an individual, someone’s father, brother, mother, son, daughter. A few were nuns or priests, many others patriots. They were all innocent. They were all soon to be victims. To have this be the last place an image of them would ever be made seems the cruelest of fates. The photos would become part of a record, a record made up of lies. The one thing that would not lie would have been the look in their eyes. Photos in one of the exhibits showed some of their faces, they stared blank and fearful into the lens. The question came into my mind: what if that had been me staring into the lens? Would I have had a look of courage, defiance or fear? Perhaps all three mixed with confusion. If that was not enough, one object in that room bothered me the most. It was a little stool that the prisoners sat on while having their photograph taken. It looked uncomfortable, tiny and belittling. Everything in this place was meant to bring the imprisoned to their knees.
I made my way on through the building and stepped outside into a large, walled courtyard. This was where mass executions took place on the evening of June 28th. Inside the museum I had viewed photos and newsreel footage of the victim’s bodies laid out. These images had also shown family members who came to identify their loved ones. The faces of mothers and wives displayed a look of unspeakable grief. It was almost unimaginable. Standing in the vacant lot, with the sounds of the city muffled, I put myself in this courtyard seventy years before. A feeling came over me, the reality of being terrified. I do not know what would have been worse: to have died here or to have identified a loved one among the corpses. It was a place of no escape, for those who died or those who lived.
The Memory That Never Escapes Me
I did escape the museum within minutes after visiting the courtyard. The woman keeping watch over the museum kindly acknowledged me as I was leaving. Back outside, I made my way down the street, trying to put it all behind me. Soon I lost myself somewhere else in that beautiful city, but I cannot quite remember where or what took me away in the hours that followed. Forgetting about the Prison on Lontskogo was not so easy. Several years later I still remember that visit. It was one of the most authentic places I have ever been. This was “history” but it also was not “history” because the memory of what happened at that prison has stayed alive within me. It lives as a warning to what lurks deep in the heart of radical ideology and human depravity.