Darkness at Zolochiv Castle –The Never Forgetting (On The Trail Of The Golden Horseshoe: Part Five)

Leaving Pidhirtsi behind was not easy. The tour group was on the verge of slumber. Many had partaken of a snack bar that was conveniently situated close on the castle’s parking area. It also allowed everyone to get a taste of the local flavor, which in one notable case had little to do with food and much to do with drink. As we were loading up to head off to our final destination, Zolochiv Castle, a middle aged local man, unwittingly tried to board our bus. The bus driver stopped him just in time. The man was confused, protested mildly and then headed to another bus filled with school kids. It was obvious by his stumbling gait that he was badly inebriated. He stepped into the next bus, getting past the driver who was busy filling out paperwork. The kids onboard began laughing heartily and cheering on their new passenger. A female teacher saw this and alerted the bus driver, who then went about trying to get the man off the bus. The man was so drunk that he did not understand that this bus was not a local one. He pulled out some money and tried to pay. When this was refused, he got even further confused. Why could he not pay to ride the bus? After a couple of minutes he was gently coaxed back outside. He then wandered past the covered local bus stop and disappeared. The entire incident was harmlessly cute, yet it also reminded me how few times I had seen public drunkenness in Ukraine. Alcoholism is said to plague the rural areas of Ukraine. Maybe it does, but in my limited experience, it seemed no worse than anywhere else.

Zolochiv Castle complex

Zolochiv Castle – the Grand Palace where scenes of unspeakable horror took place is to the right (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

From Ashes To Glory – A King & Queen At Zolochiv
Zolochiv Castle was the third and final stop on the Golden Horseshoe Tour. Scheduled immediately after lunch, with a warm mid-afternoon sun heating up, this led to perpetual yawns and a lapsed attention span. At first glance the castle seemed to be just as sleepy. It was laid out as a rectangular fortification. Oddly the major buildings were unconnected. It felt more like a park than a former royal residence. The complex included a “grand palace” that was a bit less than grand and the eclectic Chinese Palace, a rotunda with one story wings on either side. The castle did not seem all that interesting, but I could not have been more wrong.  Zolochiv had a shocking, frightening history that reminded me of just how violent and conflict ridden the past really was and this included relatively recent times. The violence that occurred at Zolochiv was obscured by the castle’s most glorious era when it had been graced by the presence of King Jan III Sobieski and his beloved wife Marysienka (Queen Maria Kazimiera). Yet even this golden age was tainted by violence.

The castle was laid out and constructed in 1634. Less than forty years later, the Turks put the town of Zolochiv to the torch, burning it to ashes and leaving the castle in ruins. Sobieski’s military prowess soon turned the tide of warfare against those same marauding forces. Turkish prisoners of war were then forced to rebuild the castle they had ruined. Thus vindication followed violence and from ashes rose the glory days of Zolochiv. King Jan III and Marysienka spent many summer days at the castle. When the King was away on campaign, Marysienka made a second home for herself here.  She had the Chinese Palace built. The name “Chinese” is something of a misnomer. The architects had no useful knowledge of Chinese architecture. Instead they built it in an imagined, exotic oriental style. Unfortunately, I was unable to go inside as it was closed for renovations. I especially wanted to see the palace’s famous toilets.  Stylistically they are reputed to be some of the finest Renaissance era toilets in Europe, whatever that is supposed to mean.

Cherubs and the Chinese Palace at Zolochiv Castle

Cherubs and the Chinese Palace at Zolochiv Castle

In The Name Of Ideology – Descent Into Darkness
The first and only building I entered was the “Grand Palace.” A multi storied structure that looked more utilitarian than fantastical. Soon after entering I broke away from the rest of the group. Once again I would be on my own trying to discern what the exhibits meant and each room had been used for. Since there was no text in English almost all the exhibits and explanatory panels on this tour were lost to me, except for one.  There was an exhibit on the ground floor of the Grand Palace that dealt with one of the darkest moments in Zolochiv’s (known at the time by its Polish name of Zloczow) history. After the Soviet takeover of the area in 1939, the NKVD (precursor to the KGB) had rounded up Ukrainian and Polish nationalists, politicians and intelligentsia. They were imprisoned in Zolochiv Castle, where they were interrogated and liquidated. Interrogation was a byword for torture, while liquidation meant murder. One exhibit was an original wooden door from the prison. How many desperate and bloodshot eyes had stared at this door? How many prisoners had listened through this door as boots walked across damp stone floors? How many perpetrators had opened this door? How many victims passed it on the way to their execution? In front of the door were several strands of barbed wire. Zolochiv had been a human holding pen for those awaiting execution.

At least 649 people were murdered at Zolochiv by the NKVD. One part of the exhibit showed the victim’s faces. There were women, young men, older professionals, intelligent and honest looking faces, handsome and rugged, gentle and beautiful, they were marked for death because of what they believed, what they did, what they had accomplished. Each of them was a mother, son, father, daughter, brother or sister. They had died in this castle, murdered in the most bestial of manners. The largest massacre took place right after the Nazis invaded in late June 1941. As the Soviets fled the area, the NKVD carried out mass executions of prisoners. This happened all across western Ukraine. The same exact thing took place at Lontskogo prison in Lviv. There I had learned that prisoners were murdered in horrific acts such as having grenades tossed in packed cells or mass bayoneting. These atrocities were committed in the name of an ideology. A diabolical evil had possessed this land throughout World War II, the depraved power of Stalinism. This was an ideology that could murder countless innocents while transforming Zolochiv Castle into a house of unfathomable horrors. Darkness fell over me in this room. Here was a truth from which there was no escape. Incredibly, worse was to follow.

Victims - faces of those murdered by the Soviet NKVD at Zolochiv Castle

Victims – faces of some of the 649 people murdered by the Soviet NKVD at Zolochiv Castle

A World Gone Wrong – Masscares At Zolochiv
After that exhibit as an introduction, I wandered numbly from room to room, scarcely noticing much of the palace.  The royal chambers, antique furnishings and a wall sized painting that showcased Sobieski’s forces in battle, while well done, were overshadowed by the massacre exhibit. I decided to step outside for a respite. Trying to distract myself I took some photos, which considering my mood turned out rather good. I had another half an hour left to myself. What was I going to do? While looking at the exhibit on the NKVD massacres, I had started to wonder what happened to the Jews of Zolochiv during the war. I already knew that they had been killed, but was there a link with what happened at the castle. The coming of the Nazis may have swept the Soviets suddenly away, but it also brought another regime of pure evil. In Lviv, the Nazis had opened up the prisons to the public. They wanted them to see firsthand what the Soviets had done and then blamed these atrocities on the Jews. This had led to thousands of Jews being murdered.

Prison cell door from Soviet occupation period at Zolochiv Castle

Prison cell door from Soviet occupation period at Zolochiv Castle

What about in Zolochiv? I decided to do some research using my phone. The castle offered free wi-fi access. I used this to go online, googling “Zolochiv Jews Holocaust.” In the search results, I found an article that had appeared in the August 24, 2006 edition of the International Herald Tribune written by Roald Hoffmann, a native of Zolochiv who went on to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1981. He was one of the few, lucky Jewish survivors from the town. In the article he described his experiences during the war along with his thoughts on revisiting Zolochiv years later. The castle played a part in the narrative. As I stood in the middle of Zolochiv Castle I read the following, “I traveled to Zolochiv in Ukraine, the town I left as a small boy. I was returning for the first time in 62 years, to remember. Remember whom? The people who lived there and are forever gone from us – the Jews of Zolochiv. They were there for centuries, as their gravestones once testified. There are no gravestones left.”  This information was tragic, but sadly it did not surprise me. I expected as much. What came next in the article was startling. “In the first week of the war, the SS Einsatzgruppe C shot 2,000 Jews at the castle, the same place where the Soviets had killed many Ukrainians days before. By the end of the war, there were no more than 200 Jews left. I was one of perhaps five children who survived.”

The difference between Hoffman’s wartime memories and the present day peaceful environment of the castle was startling. Perhaps because there was no one else outside with me or the fact that the weather was beautiful with a blue, sunny sky overhead, made Hoffman’s words particularly arresting. Beneath the silence, I imagined voices of screaming and wailing in unspeakable torment. Looking around, I suddenly noticed in front of me a playful sculpture of three cherubs, behind which stood the Chinese Palace, a cruel irony. I had been at the castle less than an hour, in which time I learned of 2,649 murders committed there in the space of several months. I did not want to be at Zolochiv anymore. There was nothing right was this world.

Roald Hoffmann

Survivor and Nobel Prize Winner – Roald Hoffmann (Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation)

The Never Forgetting
My adventures in Eastern European history have taken me to many tragic places, secret police dungeons in Budapest and Vilnius, the ghetto site in Krakow, the abandoned city of Pripyat on the edge of Chernobyl, the ravine at Babi Yar, and cemeteries from the Yugoslav War on the hillsides above Sarajevo, to name just a few. I would have to say that Zolochiv Castle was the most disconcerting of all these places. I was unable to make sense of what had happened there. In that serene and placid environment, I felt the pain and horror of war most acutely.  I felt a sense of relief when the tour group reappeared. On my way to the bus, I noticed a couple of plaques mounted to the walls. I had failed to notice them when we entered. One commemorated the Ukrainian and Polish victims of the NKVD massacres, while the other memorialized the Jews murdered by the Nazis. I was comforted by the fact that there was commemoration of what had happened at Zolochiv Castle, because I was pretty certain I would never forget. These plaques reminded me of what Roald Hoffmann had written at the end of his article, “Ukrainians, Poles and Jews – we need to remember, together. To put the horrors of the past truly behind us.”

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