LVIV, Ukraine – Near the end of June 1941, as the German army began its offensive on Lviv and the ruling Soviets were in retreat, Ivan Kindrat and three other medical students scurried toward the city’s prison. It was commonly known as Number One.
An acquaintance who lived across the street from the penitentiary told them that on the night of June 28, 1941, he had heard gunshots and blood-curdling screams coming from there.
What Kindrat saw at the prison, which was run by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, horrified him.
“From the courtyard, doors led to a large space, filled from top to bottom with corpses,” he later wrote. “The bottom ones were still warm. The victims were between 15 and 60 years old, but most were 20-35 years old. They laid in various poses, with open eyes and masks of terror on their faces. Among them were many women.
On the left wall, three men were crucified, barely covered by clothing from their shoulders, with severed male organs. Underneath them on the floor in half-sitting, leaning positions – two nuns with those organs in their mouths. The victims of the NKVD’s sadism were killed with a shot in the mouth or the back of the head. But most were stabbed in the stomach with a bayonet. Some were naked or almost naked, others in decent street clothes. One man was in a tie, most likely just arrested.”
The archive photo shows a victim of executions by NKVD, the Soviet secret service, in 1941. (www.memoria.com.ua)
Within a week, photographs that Kindrat had taken at the prison were published in Krakivsky Visti, a Ukrainian-language newspaper based in Krakow, Poland. Some would never appear in print. They were censored by the authorities because “they did not risk showing such savage crimes,” Kindrat wrote.
As Ukraine, Russia and Belarus elaborately commemorated the 65-year anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on May 9, Lviv’s museum Prison on Lonskoho stands as a stark reminder of the other side of history – the terrors Soviet authorities unleashed on their own people, both during and after World War II.
Soviet archival documents later revealed that of the prison’s 3,638 detainees, 1,366 were executed from June 22-28, 1941, although the museum notes that number is closer to 1,700 people. Of the prison population murdered in Lviv in the final days of the city’s first Soviet occupation, which lasted from 1939-1941, 42 percent came from prison Number One.
“The museum is meant to preserve the national memory,” said Iryna Yezerska, a young researcher who is focusing on the prison’s history. “It is a reminder that these crimes against people shouldn’t happen again.”
Located near Lviv’s famed Polytechnic Institute near the city center, the Prison on Lonskoho museum was established on June 29, 2009, following nearly four years of citizen’s initiatives demanding that Ukraine’s authorities honor the memory of those who had been killed and detained there during the years of Soviet rule. It was designated a national museum on Oct. 13, 2009.
One of the museum’s guiding principles is to show visitors the conditions in which detainees lived and to indicate those places where mass executions took place, said museum director Ruslan Zabiliy.
Ukraine’s state security services had hoped to build living quarters for officers on the grounds of the prison. Construction was abandoned after one-time detainees of the Soviet-era prison protested, arguing that prisoners had been executed in the courtyard. (Natalia A. Feduschak)
“We wanted to preserve what was here,” Zabiliy said.
To that end, the museum is an object frozen in time. With peeling paint and rust on the walls, the building looks just as it did when the secret police vacated it in the early years of Ukraine’s independence.
Branching off its long corridors are cells once meant for those condemned to death: The windows are boarded up so that sunlight, which could indicate the time of day, cannot filter in. Museum staff members have recreated rooms where detainees were questioned and, in one cell, painted a white square on the floor that shows how much space was allocated to each prisoner – half a square meter. Although cells were supposed to hold six people, they often held 10-15 people for days and months on end. The room where inmates had their pictures taken remains intact.
Rooms also commemorate those bloody days in June 1941, when the Soviet secret police began massacring Ukrainians. Pasted on the walls in one room are clippings from Ukrainskiy Schodenniy Visti (Ukrainian Daily News), which ran ads by relatives looking for family members who were detained by the NKVD. Another wall denotes the number of people who were killed in the prison from nearby villages.
Black-and-white footage of desecrated bodies lying in the prison’s courtyard and weeping relatives bent over in anguish replays in another room. Upon reaching the prison, the Germans had immediately filmed the results of the Soviet massacre and used it for propaganda purposes. The film was shown internationally. Soon, foreign media from then-neutral countries, as well as the International Red Cross, descended on Lviv to document the horrors.
It was not long, though, before the Germans began their own executions at the prison.
High on their list were members of the more radical Bandera faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, often referred to as Banderites. Established in 1929, OUN strove to create an independent and unified Ukrainian state, frequently using armed struggle to achieve its goals. The Nuremberg trials unveiled a secret document from Nov. 25, 1941, on display at the museum, where Germany’s leadership called on its own secret police to “immediately arrest and after detailed questioning secretly execute (Banderites) as thieves.”
But Poles and Jews were also executed at the prison.
After the Soviet Union consolidated its power over western Ukraine in 1944, the prison continued to be Lviv’s primary holding center for Ukrainian nationalists who were frequently detained and questioned before being shipped off to Siberian labor camps. Some were shot. In the 1960s and 1970s, the prison housed some of Ukraine’s leading dissidents, including the late Vyacheslav Chornovil, and conscientious objectors. It closed as a prison in the mid-1990s.
Despite its long and mostly tragic history, the prison museum today faces an uncertain future.
The museum was supposed to become a part of the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory until Ukraine’s new government started sending signals the institute might be liquidated.
Although one of the benefits in being a national museum is that it is funded through the state budget, the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has not allocated any money for the museum this year, not even for employee salaries, said Zabiliy. Some in Lviv say because of its significance, authorities in Kyiv are afraid to shut the museum down, but hope it will die its own death through a lack of funding.
Zabiliy said he is certain the museum will survive, although, as a result of the financial cutoff, many of the plans for expansion are now on hold. Staff had hoped to improve the museum using the latest media technologies that would give the visitor a better feel for the complex history which led to the atrocities that took place there, as well as create conditions for scholars to conduct research.
Currently, the museum is functioning largely through donations from local philanthropists who believe in the museum’s importance, said Zabiliy.
“People are not apathetic,” he said.
Natalia A. Feduschak is the Kyiv Post’s western Ukrainian correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the museum:
The Prison on Lonskoho museum is located at 1 Stepan Bandera Street, but the entrance is on Briulova Street. Hours of operation are Wednesday through Sunday, from 10:00-13:00; 14:00-17:00. English language tours can be arranged through 032/243-0446 or email@example.com. Entrance is free. The museum’s website is www.lonckoho.lviv.ua.