Did All That Really Happen? – Yanivsky Cemetery & Lviv’s 20th Century (Lviv: The Story of a City #11)

There are few if any tourists that visit Yanivsky Cemetery, the second largest necropolis in the city of Lviv. Traveling there by tram  #7 on a Sunday morning was like going backward in time. The tram was jam packed. The smell of tobacco, perfume, and body odor was pervasive. Many of the riders looked to be pensioners, headed to pay their respects to family or friends. Disembarking at the Yanivskyi cemetery stop I stepped into a large and slightly chaotic crowd that was milling around the entrance. Noticeably, many of the older men and women were wearing fur coats and hats, looking like fine examples of late Soviet era fashion. Entering the cemetery on a bright, blue sunny day, I immediately felt the opposite. Maybe it was the smell of moldy leaves and dry smoke intermingling, the dense mist wafting through the air or the many tombstones in varying states of dilapidation, whatever the case, Yanivsky was unsettling. There was something darker and deeper about Yanivsky, compared to other Eastern European cemeteries I have visited. It seemed sorrowful rather than sympathetic, a place where the demons of the 20th century felt very close to the surface. A walk down its cracked pavements and dirt alleyways left me with a feeling of disquiet.  This experience and a later reading of Yanivsky’s history left me with a feeling a mixture of melancholy and fear. It also left me with one central question: Did all that really happen?

Tombstone at Yanivske Cemetery

Yanivsky Cemetery has over 200,ooo burials, but it is not the quantity of burials nor the people interred within the 38 hectares and 68 fields that make it worth visiting. Instead it is the sheer weight of history that the marked and unmarked graves, tombstones and sculptures represent. Here lie the victims of the First and Second World Wars, the Ukrainian-Polish War, the Polish-Bolshevik War, Nazi, Soviet and 2nd Republic of Poland atrocities. There are Jewish, Slovak and Hungarian burials. There are hard core communists and blood soaked fascists, democrats, autocrats, plutocrats and technocrats. There are graves filled with bodies and bodies without graves. There are well-tended plots and overgrown thickets of wild nature that have obliterated graves and much of the memories with them.


Entrance to the memorial for Ukrainian soldiers

Entrance to the memorial for the Ukrainian soldiers killed in the Battle of Lviv in November 1918, the Ukrainian-Polish War and those who died as Prisoners of War as part of that conflict. The Soviet authorities demolished the memorial in their fervent desire to control the past. From 1997 to 1999 the Ukrainian government restored the monument, resurrecting their past.

Graves of those killed in protests of the unemployed in Lwow in 1936

Unknown to many is the fact that the Second Polish Republic was a dictatorship. It practiced state terror against Poles as well as Ukrainians. These graves are from among those killed at a protest of the unemployed that took place in Lwow (as Lviv was then known) in 1936. This led to more protests and more killings. The graves can be found to the left shortly after entering the cemetery.

Sculpture at Yanivsky Cemetery

In comparison to Lviv’s famous Lychakiv Cemetery, Yanivsky is 97 years younger, 15 hectares smaller and contains at least a hundred thousand less burials. It does not contain many monumental sculpture or tombs. Yet there are old, chipped and faded sculptures such as this one that reveal an abiding reverence for the dead.

Graves in memorial to Ukrainian soldiers killed in Ukrainian-Polish war

These graves are part of the restored memorial to Ukrainian soldiers who fought against the Poles in 1918-1919. They did not know at the time, that one day there would be an independent Ukraine. They had no idea, all they had was a belief. Without the power of belief there would be no Ukraine.

Memorial commemorating Hungarian World War II soldiers

A close friend of mine once told me “that plenty of good men died for bad causes.” I do not know if these Hungarian soldiers who fought in World War II and commemorated here were good men, but they certainly lost their lives for a bad cause, fascism. Unfortunately they were defeated by a cause almost as bad, Soviet Communism.


Monument to those massacred by the Soviet NKVD during World War II

The memorial to those killed by the Soviet NKVD (precursor to the KGB) in their occupation of Lviv from September 1939 until late June 1941. The atrocities carried out by Stalin’s cadres all across what had been Eastern Poland before the outbreak of World War II are not sufficiently known or discussed in the West. Repression, most often resulting in murder, led to thousands of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews murdered by the bestial forces of Soviet Communism.

Tombstone at Yanivsky Cemetery

Of darkness and light – the sculpture of this lady in mourning with a colorful bouquet of flowers can be seen as metaphorical. For all the darkness of Yanivsky, there is also hope. Despite the violence and unprecedented excesses of the 20th century, the city of Lviv and its citizenry stand as a testament to the human will to survive.

Grave in one of the outer plots of Yanivsky Cemetery

The fringes of Yanivsky in many cases were once main plots in the cemetery. Today some of these are recognizable while others are not. Many of these once held or still hold German soldiers or those who fought on the side of the fascists. Others hold their Jewish victims.

Overgrown plot in Yanivsky Cemetery

The Jewish cemetery which stood close to Yanivsky cemetery was attached to it a decade after World War II ended. Like the overriding majority of Jewish sites in Lviv and the western Ukraine, much of it was obliterated or has become overgrown with only scattered remnants to be discovered in the undergrowth.

Grave and tombstone at Yanivsky Cemetery

The past and the dead are still close to the surface at Yanivsky. A reminder of all the lives lost in this part of Europe during the 20th century. Also, a reminder of how hard it is to keep memories alive.

Sculpture in front of grave at Yanivsky cemetery

In memory of someone’s mother, father, daughter, brother, friend or loved one. They were Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, Russian, German or Slovak. They were a person with dreams and desires. They were a human being.

Tombstone at Yanisky Cemetery

Since 1980 Yanivsky Cemetery has been closed to new burials unless a family applies and receives a special permit from city officials. This is probably just as well. Lviv and Ukraine is a much different and relatively more peaceful place than it was during the 20th century. At some point in the distant future, the city and nation will move beyond that fateful century, but they will never stop remembering.

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