Inspiring Ruins – Krzyżtopór: Poland’s Largest Castle 

It started again the other night. That was when an irresistible urge to travel into the further reaches of Eastern Europe suddenly possessed me. This was caused by nothing more than a short entry in Wikipedia. While researching a blog post on the Ossolineum, I happened upon the entry for the House of Ossoliński , a family of powerful Polish aristocrats who were at the height of their wealth and fame during the Renaissance. The following sentence related back to that time and gripped my imagination:  “The Ossolinski’s castle was reputedly the biggest in Europe prior to the building of Versailles. Its name was ‘Krzyżtopór’ (“The Battle Axe of The Cross”).” Suddenly I was transformed. My pulse quickened, as I was seized by a yearning to visit Krzyżtopór castle. To be the biggest castle in Europe at one time was notable, but to be mentioned in the same sentence as Versailles was an outright honor. Questions came to mind immediately: Where was this castle? Was there anything left to see? What was its history? Why had I never heard of it? How could I get there? After a few seconds this question morphed into not if, but when would I get there? In my imagination I was on already on my way.

Krzyżtopór Castle

Krzyżtopór Castle – Europe’s largest castle when it was built during the first half of the 17th century (Credit: Jakub Hałun)

A Sizeable Achievement – Accessing Krzyżtopór
Researching the location of Krzyżtopór Castle I expected it to be off the beaten path, in a remote, rural backwater untouched by modern tourism. There was some truth to this. It is situated in the southeastern part of Poland, in one of its least visited regions. On the other hand, the castle turned out to be located not that far from the top tourist destination in the country.  By road Krzyżtopór is 140 kilometers or a two and a half hour drive away from Krakow, the beautifully preserved, former royal capital of the Polish Kingdom. A day trip from the city to the castle was doable. With a generally accessible location, my suspicion was aroused as to why the castle was pretty much unknown. Perhaps nothing was left except for scant ruins.

I discovered that presently, Krzyżtopór did consist of “ruins” but because of its size, the castle redefined that term. The sheer scale of the ruins as they exist today is bigger than most intact castles in Europe. The interior areas, which historically suffered the worst damage, were hollowed out by invaders and pillagers long ago, but there is still much left to see. Considering the original size of the castle’s interior it is hardly surprising so much of it still remains today. The castle was estimated to have 750,000 square feet of room space. This is equivalent to 350 average sized American homes. As for the outer walls these stretch nearly half a mile and are almost completely intact. The moat and bastions are also in pretty good condition. It is hard to believe the castle has not achieved greater notoriety.

Inner area of Krzyżtopór Castle

Panoramic view of the inner area of Krzyżtopór Castle (Credit: Agnieszka Kwiecień)

Gigantic, Austere and Lonely – An Ill-Fated Castle
Krzyżtopór castle has been resigned to the touristic and historical netherworld, but why is this? To put it simply, the history of Krzyżtopór Castle is the antithesis of the size and scale of the actual structure. It is defined more by mystery than hard facts, the unknown outweighs the known. While mysteries usually attract interest, in this case too much is open to question. No one knows when construction began or who the original architect of the castle was. It took at least a quarter century just to build it, but the interiors were never completed. This is because the castle’s “historical” period – when it acted as a fully functioning residence – lasted a mere eleven years. Krzyżtopór Castle was ill-fated almost from the start. A year after its completion, the founder Krzyzsztof Ossoliński died. He had bequeathed the castle to his son Kryzsztof Baldwin who was killed at the Battle of Zboriv against the Cossacks and Tatars in 1649, only five years after inheriting the castle. The next tenants were just as unlucky. In 1655 the castle was taken and pillaged by the Swedes.

The Swedes took all the castle’s valuables. They also did lasting damage to historical knowledge concerning the castle, as they stole its library and family archives. These were hauled off to Sweden, where they subsequently vanished. The Swedish occupation of Krzyżtopór did not last, but it led to a new era in the castle’s history. Restoring the entire structure was too costly for even the wealthiest of aristocrats. Those who owned the castle decided to use parts of it as a residence. Unfortunately for these residents, the castle was always in an area that was riven by geo-political fighting between East and West. More invasions of the area and occupations of the castle ruins were to come. Ironically the size and stature of Krzyżtopór acted as a deterrent to both reconstruction and destruction. The ruins of the castle were just too extensive. They stood for centuries isolated in the Polish countryside, gigantic, austere and lonely.

View of Krzyżtopór Castle from the inside

Looking through a window of ruins – view of Krzyżtopór Castle from the inside (Credit: Jakub Halun)

The Obscure and the Unknowable – Traveling to a Castle, Traveling to Myself
After finishing my research on Krzyżtopór Castle I have resigned myself to the fact that a complete understanding of the architectural and human history of the castle is out of the question. That really is not the point. The castle for me has acted as a stimulus to travel deep into the Polish countryside, to both visit the ruins and fulfill a longing for the obscure and unknowable. The obstacles to accessing the castle have stimulated my interest. There is something inspiring about a place that leaves so many questions unanswered, that can never be made complete or whole. That will forever be lacking. I have to visit Krzyżtopór Castle for the simple reason, that by learning about it, I will learn more about myself.

A Transcendent Vision – Lwów’s Ossolineum: Triumph of the Intellect (Lviv: The Story of a City in Ukraine #6)

The cultural destruction wrought upon Eastern Europe by war and revolution is not well publicized in the west.  Hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, maps and artifacts have been stolen or destroyed as a direct result of conflict. Consider for instance, the successive Soviet, Nazi and Soviet occupations of Lviv during World War II. While the human destruction has been largely documented, the loss of cultural wares and institutions has been almost forgotten. In the aftermath of World War II, the city’s Polish culture, like its majority ethnic Polish population was uprooted. Much was lost in the upheaval, but fortunately some parts of the Polish intellectual legacy were so important and prominent that they managed to be at least partially saved. Chief among these was the renowned Ossolineum (National Ossoliński Institute), an intellectual powerhouse of Polish literature and learning.

Statue of Józef Ossoliński

Statue of Józef Ossoliński on a buidling in present-day Lviv

The Immense Legacy of What Was Almost Lost
Prior to World War II, the Ossolineum held hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts, autographs and maps, many of which were the rarest of their kind. The material losses of the Ossolineum in Lwów (the Polish name for Lviv) can be somewhat quantified, but the intellectual loss was incalculable. The library survived in another form, in another city, in a new part of Poland. Today it is a storehouse of Polish culture in Wrocław (formerly Breslau, Germany). Meanwhile a new institution was created in the exact same place where the Ossolineum once stood, the Lviv National Vasyl Stefanyk Scientific Library of Ukraine. The library, like the city, became Ukrainian focused.  Nevertheless, it is something of a miracle that both Ukrainian and Polish intellectual traditions still survive at these institutions today. This would not have been possible without the immense legacy of the original Ossolineum and the strong vision of its founder, Józef Ossoliński, a man who had also lived through geo-political changes which his love of learning had managed to transcend.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński was the scion of Polish nobility. The Ossoliński family’s aristocratic roots stretched all the way back to the earliest days of the Polish Kingdom. Over the centuries they acquired estates across the eastern parts of the kingdom. One of these, Krzyżtopór, was home to the largest castle in Europe before the construction of Versailles. The family’s wealth and splendor was threatened by the late 18th century in one of the most turbulent periods in Polish history as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth disappeared during three partitions. The Ossoliński family estates were now in lands ruled by the Austrian and Russian Empires. It was during these times that Józef Ossoliński came of age. Because of his homeland’s geopolitical situation Ossoliński developed hybrid loyalties, straddling the lines between Polish nationalism and adherence to Austrian rule.

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński

Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński – the visionary who founded the Ossoliński Institute

A Gift Of Knowledge – Creating the Ossolineum
At the time when the Commonwealth suffered through its third and final partition in 1795, Ossoliński was living in Vienna where he was head of the Austrian Imperial Library. He was known to be a voracious reader and researcher with a love for learning that has rarely been surpassed in Polish history. Ossoliński was able to use his cleverness to great personal advantage, co-opting Austrian policies to expand his own personal library holdings. When Emperor Joseph II dissolved the monasteries, Ossoliński took the opportunity to expand his holdings through acquisition of many rare books and manuscripts. In his later years, he decided to transform his personal library into an institution to promote Polish literature, learning and history.

Ossoliński had earlier been involved in the reestablishment of the University of Lwów in Austrian ruled Galicia. This helped lead him to a decision years later that the city would become home to the Ossoliński National Institution (Ossolineum). To house the institution he acquired another asset from a shuttered monastery, an abandoned convent building. Within these walls, where spiritual enlightenment had once taken place, the enlightenment of intellect would now take precedence. Sadly Ossoliński did not live to see this happen. As a matter of fact, during the last years of his life he could not see at all. Ossoliński had lost his vision, but his love of learning was so great that he employed Polish students to read aloud to him. Ironically, this took place far from Lwów and Poland, Ossoliński lived out his finals days in Vienna where he died in 1826. The Ossolineum opened the next year.

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

The Ossolineum Institute in its pre-World War II heyday in Lwów

From Polish Intellectual Resistance to Renaissance
At the time of its founding, the Ossolineum was an island of Polish culture beset by sweeping tides of Germanism. The Austrian authorities had imposed the German language on Polish Lwów. The city’s was given a German name, Lemberg. The language on public signage was changed from Polish to German. The professional classes were completely dominated by Germans. The Poles were reduced to second class status in a city where they held a majority. The Ossolineum acted as a bulwark of Polish intellectual resistance. This alarmed Austrian authorities to the point that they took harsh measures against the Ossolineum during its early years. A director and his closest associates were imprisoned for treasonous activities. At times the entire facility was shut down and catalogs of its holdings taken away.  During the Revolution of 1848, an Austrian general openly regretted that the building had not been subjected to artillery fire.

It was only in the late 1860’s, following the Austrian loss in the Austro-Prussian War and the Habsburgs historic compromise with Hungary, that Polish culture was finally given room to blossom in Galicia. The Ossolineum was in the vanguard of this Polish intellectual renaissance. Illustrious Polish aristocratic families, such as the Lubomirski’s, bequeathed their entire personal museum collections to the institution. A famous publishing house developed, known as the Ossolineum Press. World War One delayed progress, but this turned out to be only a temporary setback. During the interwar period, the Ossolineum’s holdings expanded to over 220,000 works with everything from rare tapestries to coins to the largest newspaper collection in Poland. It was an incredible accomplishment of Polish intellectual achievement, but then the World War II began and everything changed.

Vasyl Stefanyk Lviv's National Scientific Ukraine Library

Vasyl Stefanyk Library now on the former site of the National Ossoliński Institute

Worst Was Yet To Come – The Ossolineum on the Brink
In 1928 an article entitled “The Centenary of a Great Home of Research in Poland, The Ossolineum, 1828 – 1928” in The Slavonic Review by Roman Dybosko stated, “the Ossolineum, now entering, in a free and reunited Poland, on the second century of its existence, we behold – and I think must admire – a house which has outlasted the earthquakes of a tragic national history, and proudly stands as a monument to the power of self-sacrifice and endurance, in the service of high ideals of culture and progress.” The author wrote this a little too soon because the worst earthquakes, from both east and west, were yet to come.