Tumultuous history of Polish lion figures in Lviv

Unveiled stone lions guarding the entrance to the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów, part of Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv. Photo: PAP/Vitaliy Hrabar

In 1971 tanks, bulldozers and excavators invaded the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów. The colonnade was destroyed, caterpillars were crumbling gravestones; attempts were made to knock down the arch and pylons with the use of steel ropes attached to the tanks. The devastators shelled the arch and pylon inscriptions so they would be illegible.

On May 20, Andriy Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv [in Polish: Lwów] wrote on his twitter among others: “Let the Lions at the Cemetery of the [Polish] Defenders of Lwów that had previously been an object of controversy and were covered out be a step taken for mutual forgiveness of past wrongs. Long live Poland! Glory to Ukraine!”. The mayor’s twit is accompanied by a photograph in which two lions stand at the foot of the Arch of Glory, not covered with clapboards or foil, as had been the case until now, that is to say since December 2015.

The Polish military cemetery from the mayor's text is the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów commonly called the Cemetery of Eaglets because half of the soldiers buried here after the defense of Lviv in 1918 were under of seventeen. The lion, as indicated by the name of the city itself, has been present in the city's coat of arms since the thirteenth century. It is everywhere – in the coats of arms of cities, European aristocracy, or even in the royal coat of arms of the UK – a symbol of courage and strength.

When the Republic of Poland – reborn after the partitions – decided to honour her defenders in Lviv, two lions were planned at their cemetery as an element of the Arch of Glory, probably for symmetry – the arch is something that resembles a gate and that which is on one side is usually repeated on the other. The arch is the central element of the Monument of Glory – before the war it had been integrated in a semicircular colonnade (12 columns) with two pylons, where the names of battles in which the city’s defenders perished before it was taken over by the Western Ukrainian People's Republic, which was forming with the blessing of dying Austria-Hungary.

”Official” devastation

In Soviet times, the Cemetery of Eaglets was devastated somewhat naturally and on the orders of the communist authorities. Nobody cared for the cemetery, and Poles from Lviv were mostly resettled to the communist Poland. The few who remained were not able to prevent the theft of tombstones, which a trained eye can find on Ukrainian civilian graves in the neighboring Lychakiv Cemetery.

People would forge the inscriptions, leaving their own with different content – the cemetery became a hotbed of local hooliganism. However, it must have been be purely political to forge the words “Always faithful” from the shield of one lion, and “To you, Poland” from the shield of the other. At the end of the 1960s, the lions disappeared from the cemetery and this was the first sign of official devastation.

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By Krzysztof Zwoliński
Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki