The Devil And His Details – Eichmann In Lvov

Official statistics state that the Lviv Railway Station handles 1.6 million passengers a year. Using this number as a benchmark it is possible to make a very rough guess at the number of people who have used the station during its long and eventful life.  Over its one hundred and seven year history, the station has witnessed the comings and goings of more than 50 million visitors, citizens, passers through, passers-by and every other type of traveler imaginable. From Emperors to Kaisers to killers, the famous and infamous, a withering array of humanity has passed through or by the station. One of these included a man who was neither using the station as a point of arrival or departure. This man was one of the most infamous war criminals of the 20th century, his name forever synonymous with the phrase “banality of evil.” The phrase was famously used by the philosopher Hannah Arendt to describe Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Adolf Eichmann in 1942

Adolf Eichmann in 1942 – the year he traveled from Minsk to Lvov

The Road To Lvov
What Arendt was saying when she used the term banal to define Eichmann was that he was an average, ordinary person rather than a psychopath or madman. His actions were the product of career ambition and stupidity. Part of his stupidity was on display at the trial as he relied on clichéd defenses to explain away his behavior. He was the living embodiment of the “just following orders” line of defense. He followed orders to the point of aiding and abetting in the murder of millions. The fact that Eichmann was so utterly ordinary made him seen even more chilling. The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem was a fascinating study in human psychology.  It was during this trial that Eichmann also revealed what would seem to be a rather banal detail from his experiences during the war, a sighting he made of the train station at Lvov (during the trial Eichmann referred to Lviv by its Soviet/Russian name). This cold blooded, seemingly emotionless bureaucratic killer mentioned the train station in his testimony. It was the bizarre context in which he mentioned this at the trial which was not banal, but revealing.

Eichmann’s road to Lvov first ran through Minsk where he witnessed the shooting of Jews by Nazi murder squads. He recounted this at the trial. When I got there I only managed to see how young marksmen, I think there were these marksmen with the death-heads on their coat collars…they were shooting into the pit, which was quite a large size, let us say four or five times this room, perhaps even six or seven times. I have…I have…all my recollections of this instance are unreliable for I only saw this thing without any thoughts, without forming any thoughts about it whatsoever. I simply saw – and nothing more than that: they fired into the pit, and I can still see a woman…with her arms behind her…and then her knees buckled and I made off.”

Jews being murdered by Nazi killing unit in Ukraine

Jews being murdered by Nazi killing unit in Ukraine

Transit Points – A Stationary Moment
According to Eichmann, this unsettled him to the point that he drove all the way to Lvov with his mind clouded by the horrors he had just seen. The reader of these transcripts gets the idea that Eichmann was in a state of shock. Conversely, one cannot help but remember that it obviously did not rattle him enough to reconsider his role in the growing atrocities. Eichmann had been and would continue to be a point man for the Nazi regime. He was an integral part of the movement from coerced emigration to deportation to extermination of the Jews. He could have stopped at any time, but did not. Eichmann was not just a fellow traveller in this murderous regime, he was also an instigator. He could have driven back to Germany and resigned, but instead he drove on to Lvov. His destination was not really Lvov, but somewhere much more hideous. It was just a pass through point, albeit a memorable one.

“I got in and started driving (at Minsk) – I drove to Lvov. I had no orders to go to Lvov…even this I remember now but apparently the road passed through Lvov. Somehow I came to Lvov and saw the first encouraging picture, after the awful things I had seen there: This was the railway station building, which had been erected to mark the Sixtieth Anniversary of the reign of the Emperor Franz Josef. And seeing that I personally was overwhelmed with joy regarding this period of Franz Josef, possibly because I had heard an abundance of wonderful things in my parents’ home about this period, or about events that occurred during this period. My relatives on the side of my step-mother were, at this time, as you would say, of a high social standing…It was painted yellow.

This chased away for the first time – I still remember this today otherwise I wouldn’t have realized this, that this sixtieth jubilee…that the figures of this Jubilee were engraved on the wall of this station building – those terrible thoughts which had not yet departed from me since Minsk.”

The Lviv Railway Station during the Soviet years

The Lviv Railway Station during the Soviet years

Between Civilization & Depravity
These were Eichmann’s memories of his arrival in Lvov. What he talked about before and after this bit of testimony was nothing less than horrific. The juxtaposition of the beautiful, art nouveau railway station between his description of the ghastly acts he witnessed and commiserated in makes the whole incident seem rather unreal. Eichmann recognized the beauty and elegance of the station. He felt the power of its grandeur, but never considered making a comparison between the empire that had built it and his own depraved Third Reich. Perhaps he lacked the capacity to understand the difference between civilization and depravity. How could Eichmann not distinguish between Nazi occupied Galicia and the Kingdom of Galicia ruled over by Emperor Franz Joseph for sixty-eight years largely peaceful years. Austria-Hungary was an empire that offered unprecedented freedom to the Jews of Galicia. It co-opted their abilities and skills to the Empire’s advantage. The Jews had not brought the empire down they had lifted it up economically, culturally and militarily. Too many Jews in Austrian Galicia had been unable to escape poverty, but they never came close to being herded into extermination camps either.

Eichmann’s reference to the railway station as “that first encouraging picture” was a tragic irony lost on him. It had been the design of an ethnic Pole, its platforms constructed by Czech masters. They were members of Slavic races which had been attacked by the Nazi regime without remorse. The designers of the station were representative of the brilliance and refinement these people could attain. They had created an architectural wonder. Meanwhile the Third Reich was creating devastation and destruction. The difference between the depravity of the Nazis and the civilization created by the Habsburgs – even if it had been fatally flawed – stared Eichmann right in the face, but he failed to comprehend this vast difference.

Railway line into Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Railway line into Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha)

The Ultimate Destination
The moment that Eichmann experienced obviously made an impression upon him, though it did not have any effect on his behaviour. Eichmann’s initial impression of Lvov was a momentary escape from the horrors that he was helping perpetrate. He went on to visit with a German commander in Lvov. He recalled I paid a visit there to the commander since I was passing the place, and said to him: “Yes,” I said to him “this is terrible, what is going on there,” I said to him, “these young men are being brought up as sadists.” This is exactly what I said…he said to me: “Exactly so, this is also happening with us here, they shoot here, too. Do you want to see it once? Do you want to see it once?” I said: “No, I don’t want to see anything. He said “Anyhow we are going to pass by.”

Then I saw something else which was terrible: there was a pit, perhaps it was already closed. There welled up like a geyser blood…how should I say this…a jet of blood. I have never seen anything like it. As far as I was concerned this assignment was enough and I drove to Berlin and related this to Gruppenfuehrer Mueller.”

It is telling that despite what Eichmann says he witnessed and felt, he never stopped anyone, most of all himself from carrying out the Final Solution. His actions would lead to the deaths of millions. After leaving Lvov and those fleeting memories of Austria-Hungary behind, Eichmann would travel back to Berlin. His next trip abroad was not long in coming, it was to Auschwitz.


The Real Ghosts Of Galicia – Pidhirtsi Castle (Part Two)

Paradoxically it was the loss of Polish sovereignty that brought the longest period of prosperity to Pidhirtsi and its inhabitants. A long era of peace set in after the Austrian acquisition of southeastern Poland in 1772. By the end of the 18th century Poland had ceased to exist, but the Polish aristocracy remained. It was during this time that Pidhirtsi thrived as a residence par excellence. Visitors could enjoy a private zoo, several gardens and parks on the grounds. The castle’s interior was an exquisite series of eye popping chambers, including the Knights Hall, Golden Hall, Chinese Room and others named after a full spectrum of colors. The Green Room functioned as a virtual art museum unto itself with over one-hundred paintings covering its walls. The castle’s interior also held several hundred portraits. Floors were covered in marble tiles and each had a fireplace built from the same. Wild parties took place with an orchestra and theater on offer to entertain deep into the night. A guest inn on the castle’s west wing housed the visiting gentry. The glittering glory of Pidhirtsi later attracted such famous visitors as Emperor Franz Josef and Kaiser Wilhelm to the castle. Pidhirtsi was an immaculate conception of style, grace and culture for the Polish aristocracy of Galicia. Like everything else in this land, the First World War would prove its undoing. The long period of peace was lost forever to the outbreak of war. The grand balls and famous denizens at Pidhirtsi were forgotten in a matter of months as the echo of artillery grew louder by the day. This ominous manmade thunder shook everything in the area to its very foundations. Was the castle to be sacrificed on the altar of a worldwide conflagration?

A Path To The Past - Pidhirtsi Castle and surrounding grounds

A Path To The Past – Pidhirtsi Castle and surrounding grounds

Conflicted History – A Modern Thirty Years War
Pidhirtsi’s location in the borderlands of Eastern Europe had nearly been its undoing in the 17th century. The long period of peace as part of the Habsburg ruled province of the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria turned out to be the golden age of the castle’s existence. When Austria-Hungary entered the First World War, Pidhirtsi was suddenly at the very center of conflict in Galicia. An era of unprecedented tumult was now inaugurated in what would become one of Europe’s deadliest regions during the first half of the 20th century. Thirteen of the next thirty-one years would be consumed by war. The castle was directly in the line of fire, quite literally. The Austro-Hungarian Army converted it into a headquarters for its 5th corps at one point, but this was not before the Russian Army had thoroughly looted the castle. The castle straddled the front lines for long periods of the war’s first two years. Amazingly it somehow avoided being shelled into ruin. That did not keep the Russians from knocking the insides of the castle out. Tiles were pulled up and walls torn down. Incredibly, despite the destruction Pidhirtsi suffered, the castle was re-occupied by a Polish aristocratic family following the Soviet-Polish War, that little known conflict whereby Poland saved Europe from a widespread communist revolution.

The years between the wars were a period of disquieting, uneasy calm. Seen in retrospect, this period was a last, final grasp at restoring the castle’s former greatness. This could not last. Pidhirtsi was part of inter-war Poland, caught between the hammer of Nazism and the anvil of Communism. To further complicate matters, its own backyard was a simmering cauldron of Ukrainian nationalism. When the Second World War broke out the owner of the castle, Prince Roman Sanguszko did the most prudent thing possible, he made himself and the last treasures of the castle scarce. They ended up in the safest place possible, half a world away in Brazil. When the Nazis took over the area, they found Pidhurtsi useful, as a place for their sick to convalesce. This may have healed physical wounds, but not the self-inflicted ones of an evil ideology. Fortunately the Nazis became like everything else at Pidhirtsi a thing of the past, only to be replaced by Soviet totalitarianism.

The Past Is Not What It Used To Be At Pidhirtsi

The Past Is Not What It Used To Be At Pidhirtsi

A Wayward New World
The German Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt famously theorized that German Nazism and Soviet Communism had more in common than not, both were equally tyrannical. When it came to their utilization of Pidhirtsi their commonalities were eerily similar. The Soviets also used the castle as a sort of hospital for those with tuberculosis. A trivial detail perhaps, then again it seems quite telling. The fact that both totalitarian systems could find no better use for what had once been an unparalleled palace of art and culture than a home for the wounded, sick and infirm says more about these two ideologies than any number of history books. They were trying to build a whole new world, but compared to what had once inhabited Pidhirtsi, it was nothing more than a decadent and depraved shadow world.

Try as they might, the Soviets could not totally destroy the essence of Pidhirtsi, but nature and neglect nearly did the job for them. In 1956 a bolt of lightning set the edifice alight. Flames of impure fire burned the structure for three weeks straight. And yet the castle survived, albeit with innumerable scars. Now a mere shell of its former self, Pidhirtsi still maintained enough presence that its preservation was proposed by citizens of a new nation that would inherit this grandiloquent semi-ruin. Ukraine was born from the ruins of the Soviet Union, now Ukrainians would try to resurrect a past that had never been their own. It was decided in the late 1990’s that Pidhirtsi was a heritage worth securing for posterity.

Many Windows Into the Past at Pidhirtsi Castle

Many Windows Into the Past at Pidhirtsi Castle

The Ghosts of Greatness
For the first time in its 350 year history the castle was turned into a museum, the Lviv Gallery of Painting, named for that famed city, ninety kilometers to its southwest. Restoration work began in an effort to restore the castle to at least a semblance of its former glory. The problem is that there is too little money in Ukraine to ever truly recreate Pidhirtsi in the image of its former glory. Perhaps this is best, since the aged, beaten look of the structure communicates the depth of history the castle has endured. The fact that it has outlasted every one of its owners and all of its conquerors is astounding. Unfortunately the depth and breadth of its past is often overlooked, obscured by a popular fixation with the legendary “Woman in White.” The tale is taken seriously by many. If only the rest of Pidhirtsi’s history could engender the same interest and recognition. The castle may be informed by myth and legend, but at its core is a history of both light and darkness much more fascinating than anything supernatural. The spirit of Pidhirtsi goes beyond ghosts, to a profound past that tells the story of a region, its struggles to survive and a beautiful, lost legacy.

Click here to read Ghost Stories: Pidhirtsi Castle (Part One)