„Ikon”, the obscure object of desire

After 1989, customs officers detained smugglers both taking valuable icons out of Poland and those that were illegally imported into our country. The photo shows 180 icons seized at the border and handed over to the District Museum in Białystok. Photo: ZDZISŁAW LENKIEWICZ / PAP

Polish Orthodox churches had been devastated, demolished and robbed for several dozen years. Valuable furnishings had fallen into the hands of individuals and smuggling gangs. Quite paradoxically, in many cases it was the thieves who helped save the temples since the robberies forced an inventory of the religious buildings.

The Orthodox and Greek Catholic churches were silent witnesses of multidimensional dramas: deportations resulting from the August 1944 agreement on population exchange between the PRL and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR), fighting between the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the “Vistula” operation from 1947 conducted in parallel with eliminating the UPA and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). The expulsion was brutal: resisting villages were often set on fire. After the expatriation, many villages were left with houses and fully equipped temples. The parishioners couldn’t evacuate the church furnishings: iconostases, icons, vessels and liturgical books, standards etc. Theoretically speaking, each Othodox/Uniate church had its own “curator” – usually the local village leader or a level crossing attendant – but in practice they were abandoned.

Conservation officers to the rescue

Unattended religious buildings became the target of looters in search of valuables and, in the absence of building materials, were subject to demolition (among others in Jabłonki, Ustrzyko Górne, Buk, Stuposiany, turned into storehouses or production cooperatives (Caryńskie, Hulskie, Krzywe, Rajskie), moved to others places (the Rosolin church moved to the Museum of Folk Architectures in Sanok).

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE As the art historian, professor Ryszard Brykowski recalls: “these demolition expeditions were attended not only from Rzeszów, but also from further voivodeships. Of course, everything was done with the tacit official and party approval. Therefore, the demolition was carried out by state-owned enterprises, including the emerging state-owned farms and production cooperatives, also on their own account by various district and commune prominent figures of the then party and state power. The “demolition” actions intensified in the first half of the 1950s as a result of the escalation of the conflict between the authorities of the People’s Republic of Poland and the Catholic Church, which took over some of the abandoned Uniate churches.

Click here to read the remainder of the article. – Małgorzata Borkowska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki