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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A pilgrimage to Stepan Bandera and Jeremi Wisniowiecki

4 October, 2011 - 00:00
JEREMI WISNIOWIECKI / Photo from the website WEEKLY.UA

I am visiting Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski for a second time. When I first came here, I did not know that this Polish city stands next to such an interesting object as Lysa Gora (Bald Mountain) with what once was the Bernardine Monastery of the Holy Cross. This monastery, as, after all, Ostrowiec Swietokrzyski, has something to do with Ukraine. One of those who made a major contribution to building Ostrowiec was Prince Janusz Ostrogski. Incidentally, this city’s coat of arms bears the armorial symbols of the Ukrainian princes Ostrozky – moreover, it is done in yellow-blue colors. Towering in the city center is a majestic cathedral Janusz Ostrogski built in 1608. The local museum also mentions this prince.

But the object of my interest was Lysa Gora, for it is linked with two significant figures of our history, which, unfortunately, have not yet been duly appreciated. But I will get back to this later.

Lysa Gora is now part of the Swietokrzyski National Park. It is a ridge of low forest-covered mountains of glacial origin. The name in fact derives from that of the Swietokrzyski (Holy Cross) Monastery on Lysa Gora.

When I approached the hill, I saw a ground studded with buses and cars. I had never thought that Lysa Gora was a place of pilgrimage. In fact, it is one of Poland’s biggest religious sanctuaries. I usually came across young Poles. It is not so easy for an elderly person to climb a mountain almost 600 meters above sea level.

The Polish traditionally remain very religious – they lead in this respect among the Europeans. But, by contrast with us, Polish religiosity is not overformalized and showy. For example, a lot of Polish higher educational institutions hold distance learning classes on Sundays or even during religious holidays.

Lysa Gora really creates an impression. You can feel a breath of the past here. Some evidence says this once was a cult place for ancient Slavs: according to the Polish medieval chronicler Jan Dlugozs, they worshipped their gods Lelia, Polelia, et al.

No wonder, the Christians, who wished to oust the pagans from here, founded a Bernardine Monastery of the Holy Cross. This was one of the Krakow diocese’s main centers in the Middle Ages, which kept a relic – a fragment of the wooden cross on which Jesus had been crucified. The relic was gifted by Saint Emeric, the son of Hungarian King Stephen I. A monument to this saint was erected in the monastery courtyard.

To climb Lysa Gora, pilgrims have to walk up a woodland path with various little figures of Jesus Christ on the sides. They can see Him carrying the cross, being nailed to, and hanging on it. Yet Christ slightly looks ancient Polish: I would even say there is something pagan in Him.

And, finally, here is the monastery and a majestic cathedral. You cannot but ask yourself how this wonder could have been built on this hard-to-climb mountain top. As you enter the cathedral, you catch the sight of a plaque that says there is the crypt of Jeremi (Jarema) Wisniowiecki in the temple’s underground.

To get in there, you must buy an admission ticket that gives you information about the prince. Here it is – with my comments: “Prince Jeremi Korybut Wisniowiecki (1612-51) originated from Orthodox Lithuanian-Ruthenian princes, with the family line descending from Dmitry, the brother of Wladyslaw II Jagiello. Born in Wisniowiec, near Horynn. The son of Michal and Raina, daughter of Moldovan Hospodar Jeremi Mohyla. Orphaned at an early age, he gained a good education. Converted to Catholicism in 1632. Colonizing Transdnieper, he took ownership 38,460 households and 30 cities. Took part in the wars against Muscovy and defended the state’s frontier from the Tatars. In 1639 he married Gryzelda Zamoyska, a granddaughter of Hetman Jan Zamoyski. Appointed Ruthenian voivode in 1646. Played an important role during the Cossack uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Defended Zbaraz in 1649. In 1651, at the head of a 60,000-strong Polish army, he gained one of the most illustrious 17th-century victories of the Polish arms in a battle against a 100,000-strong Cossack/Tatar force. In pursuit of the enemy, he contracted a disease that assumed the nature of an epidemic and was mowing down the Polish troops. Died on August 20, 1651, in Pawolocz. Owing to the ongoing hostilities, the coffin with his body remained behind in Sokal. The ceremonial funeral was to be held in Wisniowiec. As the Cossacks approached Sokal in 1653, Gryzelda ordered the coffin to be taken to the burial ground of her relatives Olesnickis on the Holy Cross. In the 17th century the sarcophagus was desecrated by the Swedes. The son Michal Korybut wrote the following epitaph for his father: ‘Jeremi, the terror of Cossacks, a leader and prince from Wisniowiec, father of Polish King Michal the First, buried in 1653.’”

In general, this information is quite right. Yet if an ordinary Pole reads it, he will think that Jeremi, a Polish-Ruthenian prince, had almost nothing to do with Ukraine, except for his role in fighting Ukrainian Cossacks. But, in reality, he was a Ukrainian prince, for the term “Ruthenian” was interpreted at the time almost as the term “Ukrainian” is now. Jeremi was a Ruthenian voivode for some time. That voivodeship embraced the territory of what is now Galicia. He also made a sizable contribution to defending the Ukrainian lands from the Tatars and developing economic entities on the Ukrainian Left Bank. Although converted to Catholicism, Jeremi cared about Orthodox monasteries, sponsored Orthodox Church publications, and helped his relative, Kyiv Metropolitan Petro Mohyla.

Yes, he was an enemy of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. But could it have been otherwise if this Cossack hetman’s people had defiled the prince’s estate? Besides, Khmelnytsky brought the Tatars to the Ukrainian land, and they fought against Jarema. It is also questionable that the Battle of Berestechko was an encounter between the Ukrainian and Polish armies and that this battle was an illustrious victory of the Polish arms. The Tatars, who made up a major part of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s army, harbored no warm feelings towards the Ukrainians and plundered our land. They went to war for the sake of loot. Conversely, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s army comprised a lot of Ukrainians. After all, Jeremi Wisniowiecki, who secured the victory of the royal troops, was not and did not consider himself Polish. The so-called uprising headed by Khmelnytsky resembled a civil war in many respects.

It is anybody’s guess whether it is the body of Jeremi Wisniowiecki that rests in the crypt of a Bernardine Monastery on Lysa Gora, for the crypt was destroyed more than once.

The genuine or fictitious Jeremi, dressed in red attire, lies in a glass-covered coffin. His clothes look Asian rather than European. For it was a vogue among the Polish-Lithuanian nobility at the time to wear clothes in the so-called Sarmatian style which combined European and Asian elements, with the latter clearly standing out. Next to the coffin is a portrait of Jeremi and a picture that shows the Battle of Berestechko. Incidentally, the flags are neither Polish nor Ukrainian but Volhynian – red with a Maltese cross in the middle.

Almost 200 years later Jeremi “met” another “controversial” Ukrainian, Stepan Bandera, on Lysa Gora. Here is the history of this “meeting.” After the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Holy Cross Monastery became part of the territory annexed by Russia. The Polish could not resign themselves to a state of subjugation and repeatedly rose up. There were two major uprisings on the lands that became part of tsarist Russia: in 1830-31 and in 1863-64. The Polish movement often centered in Catholic cathedrals and monasteries which remain sort of nuclei of Polish patriotism even today. You can see near them monuments and commemorative plaques dedicated to the 19th-century Polish rebels, the 1918 fighters for Poland’s independence, soldiers of the Armia Krajowa, et al. So after the 1863-64 Polish uprising, the Russian government had nothing better to do than liquidate the Bernardine Monastery on Lysa Gora and set up a… prison at its place. What an original, cynical, and perhaps symbolic decision! For that was a monastery of the Holy Cross… As Christ was once punished on the cross, so were 19th-century prisoners within the walls of a former Holy Cross monastery.

This prison was inherited by the Second Polish Commonwealth, i.e., the interwar Poland. The prison was notorious as one of the cruelest in that country. Among its inmates was also Stepan Bandera and his comrades convicted at the Warsaw and Lviv trials in 1935-36. One of these prisoners, Mykola Klymyshyn, reminisces that on the first day they were thrown into the basement, where there were neither windows nor bunks. The inmates had to sleep on the bare floor. The guards would wake them up every few hours.

Now the Lysa Gora monastery hosts a museum whose exhibits also refer to the prison period. But I failed to find any reminders of Stepan Bandera. To tell the truth, the Polish sources that supply information on the history of the Holy Cross Monastery do mention him. Some of the Polish authors note that Jeremi Wisniowiecki and Stepan Bandera “met” here.

But it is perhaps not the only paradox of Lysa Gora. Once set up by the Russians, the prison was used to hold the same “Russians,” or, to be more exact, Red Army men, during World War II. The monastery museum says that there was a death camp here, which claimed several thousand human lives. What shocked me was a conspicuous inscription in the concentration camp. It said that cannibalism was punishable by shooting. Clearly, as the prisoners of war were extremely poorly fed, cannibalism was not uncommon.

Thank God, there is neither a prison nor a death camp on Lysa Gora now. The monastery has been reopened. Hundreds of people keep coming to the cathedral – perhaps to atone for the sins of their ancestors whose shadows are still haunting this place.