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.

Goodbye To All That – Lviv & the Habit of Heartbreak

Goodbye to All That, that famous post World War I book, is the autobiography of Robert Graves, the English poet, writer and scholar. Much of the book deals with Graves traumatic experiences during the war. The title ironically refers to the passing of the old order that existed prior to the war. Such ideas as duty, honor, patriotism and by extension empire all were sacrificed at the front.  For Britain the old order died on the battlefield and so too for many other empires and nations. But for Britain, though it would suffer again in another worldwide conflagration just a couple of decades later, its most traumatic experience ended with the First World War. A way of life, a way of belief, died once and for all time. Sure there was much horror and loss, triumph and decline to come, but the worst for Great Britain was over with by the Great War’s.

Lemberg, Lwow, Lviv
On the other hand, for Eastern Europe the horrors of the First World War were only the beginning. The region has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to all that, again and again and again. The war was just the start, both a beginning of the end and the start of a series of new beginnings that keep coming to an end. There is no place which better reflects this continuing series of historical upheavels than Lviv in the western Ukraine. It sits astride the geopolitical fault lines of east and west. The city began the 20th century as Lemberg, morphed into Lwow and finally transformed into Lviv. It has spent the past one hundred years saying goodbye to one war, one revolution, one ideology at a time.

What is it that Lviv keeps saying goodbye to? The old order, but which one. Consider that if there is someone in Lviv today who is one hundred years old (and in a city of 725,000 citizens there must surely be at least one), then they have lived under at least eight different political regimes, two of which were among the most lethal in human history and all of which repressed the population to a greater or lesser extent. Lvivites have suffered, survived and amazingly even thrived under a withering array of empires, nations and political entities. Life has never been boring for them, even if history has been unkind and often cruel.

Lviv - What A History

Lviv – What A History

Baffling Swiftness, Terrifying Brutality
Imperial, ideological and idiosyncratic usurpers have come and gone, with baffling swiftness and terrifying brutality. There was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which vanished, but left a lasting architectural and cultural imprint. It lost Lviv to the Russian Empire for nine months during the war, an interlude of occupation that saw the last Tsar, Nicholas II visit the city, but his empire was pushed back and then swept away, as were the Austrians by the end of the war. The first successor state, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, lasted all of three weeks. A sneeze mistaken for a hurricane at the time. Despite its brief tenure, it would have an afterlife of influence that would eventually be resurrected.

This still born republic was followed by two decades of another one, specifically the second Polish Republic. A golden age for the Poles, but like all golden ages, it is called such because worse, much worse followed. And that was the rule of the Soviet Union, two horrific years of purges and purgatories followed their occupation and incorporation of the city. Then the Germans arrived, an ill wind from the west and scattered the Soviets. They proceeded to blood spatter and scatter Lviv’s vibrant Jewish community with a whirlwind of holocaust. The Germans came and went, their blitzkrieg moving as fast in reverse as it had moved forward during invasion. In their wake, the Soviets came once again to purge and repurge in the name of Stalin. The Poles were moved out, more Ukrainians moved in. In barely the space of five years, Lviv had suffered four rulers, one ethnic group eradicated, another one expunged and a greatly oppressed one suddenly favored. This was history as whim, as caprice, with neither logic nor empathy.

The Soviets stayed for the next four and a half decades, a miracle of mediocrity, corruption and stasis. That must have seemed like a lifetime, but the clock was ticking away their time in power. The only difference is that in this case the clock moved much slower. Perhaps the clock had no hands, stolen like so much else from this charming city. Ukrainians finally put the hands back on the clock and reset the time in 1991. As it began to tick forward, the nation of Ukraine was finally born once, but not for all time. It was a false dawn. Progress slowed to a crawl, bogged down in a quagmire of corruption.

A Habit Of Breaking Hearts, Nations & Empires
The bog of corruption seemed to thicken as the years went by, but then it froze this past winter and the people found their footing. It started at Independence Square and the Maidan in far away Kiev, but the truth is that resistance never really ended in Lviv. It is in this border lands DNA. The most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine is just that, always and forever. It has said farewell to so many and so much. It has become a habitual heart breaker of political entities.

Candles lit in Lviv. In memory of the protesters who lost their lives in the past week's fight for freedom

Candles lit in Lviv. In memory of the protesters who lost their lives in the past week’s fight for freedom

It confidently declares independence and the rest of the world reacts with shock. Was a new nation being born? Was an old one being given new life? Lviv and the greater region just passed into its eighth political iteration in just a century’s time. At this point the wheel of history here is not so much turning, as it is spinning. Propelled forward by an unseen force, the will of a people who have decided to take hold of their future. Fate has had its way with Lviv over the last hundred years, well goodbye to all that. It is finally a city’s, a region’s, a people’s turn to have their way with fate.