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© Douglas Hykle
2006-2012
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Czerwonogrod (Czerwonogród)

Ruins of Czerwonogrod castle   I had been intending to visit Czerwonogrod for many years, but something always seemed to keep me from undertaking the journey – usually a combination of inclement weather and work. However in 2007 my interest in Czerwonogrod was piqued again when I received the following email from reader Lucy Gertner, who asked me to post her message on the website in hopes of finding someone with answers to her query:

“I am writing to you because I am seeking information about myself, in particular, about my early childhood. I was born in Buczacz and during World War II, was placed in a convent and raised as a Catholic. The convent was in Czerwonogrod, which I believe is near Tluste and a priest in Tluste helped arrange for my placement in the convent. I was there from the ages of 2 until 5 and have no memory at all of my stay there or of the years thereafter. My mother survived the war in hiding and we were reunited at war's end. We spent 1945-49 in a DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Germany (Foehrenwald), coming to the United States in 1949. My mother told me that following the liberation, the convent was burned and the remaining children and nuns killed by hostile neighbors. I don't know whether this is what actually happened and wonder whether there are any surviving inhabitants of the area who recall those years and could possibly provide me with additional information about the convent and its occupants. If you can help me by posting my query on your website or informing any known persons of my search, I would greatly appreciate your help. Thank you for doing this important and humanitarian work and I send my best wishes to you and your family. Lucy Gertner (formerly Lusia/Luscha Fenster) New York City”




An opportunity to visit Czerwonogrod finally presented itself in October 2007, when I traveled to this enchanting place – about 11 km southwest of Tovste – for the very first time.

More importantly, my trip and subsequent research offered some tangible evidence in support of Lucy’s quest for knowledge about her childhood.
 

Map (1923) showing Tluste and Czerwonogrod.

Click to enlarge 1923 Polish era map


More on this later, but first a bit of background on Czerwonogrod.


Background

I'm sure there are more authoritative sources of information on Czerwonogrod in the literature and even on the web (in Polish or Ukrainian), but the following details are sufficient for a Czerwonogrod 'primer'.

Czerwonogrod castle, photographed in Polish times.   When people refer to Czerwonogrod, they are likely thinking about the remains of the impressive castle that once stood there. It takes its name, quite literally, from the red stone from which it was constructed. But in former times (ie during Polish administration), Czerwonogrod was surrounded by a small collection of houses, so the name once referred also to a village, which no longer exists. Click to view an aerial photograph of the landscape on an external website.

 

The residents would have been peasants who worked the land and provided produce, such as milk and eggs, to their feudal landlord. They lived in wonderful surroundings, blessed by the presence of a splendid waterfall, which provided the driving force for running the mill that once stood on the banks of the water course.   Waterfall at Czerwonogrod, photographed  in the 1930s.


According to Pawlyk (pers.comm., 2007), Czerwonogrod was first mentioned in 1240, but there was already a wooden castle on the site in the 9th century, during the period of Kyiv Rus. There is also said to be evidence of human occupation in the area around 2000 years BC, in the form of a massive carved stone – of Stonehenge proportions – that would have been an object of prayer.

Thus Czerwonogrod has a centuries old existence, one that was closely linked its relatively close neighbour Tluste. Indeed, during the 1830s, the major landowner in Tluste, Fürst (Prince) Poninski was one of the last in a long succession of residents of the castle of Czerwonogrod. (At some point, the ownership passed to Maria Lubomirska who lived in the palace until around 1939 when she was forced to flee.)

The Convent

In 1844, Fürst Poninski’s wife, Helena Gurska, arranged for the construction of a hospital / convent nearby. It would serve the whole of Zalishchyky district for the next 100 years. It was situated on top of a steep hillside overlooking the castle, just in front of the modern day village of Nyrkov.

Details of the convent are given in the 7 November 1857 issue of Gazeta Lvovski (no. 45), which can be found in the Lviv archive or one of that city’s specialised libraries (Pawlyk, pers. comm.). The three-story building was constructed of the red stone typical of the area. With some 30 beds, the convent served to treat the local populace and give comfort to orphaned children. In the mid-1800s, it was run by Karolina Pisko (transliterated spelling) and five nuns.

* * * * *


Remains of foundation of convent at Czerwonogrod   Fast forward to 2007 and the fascinating story of Lucy Gertner. I was interested to learn if anything remained of the convent and to see for myself exactly where it was located. I soon had my answer, courtesy of Jaroslav Pawlyk, who informed me that the building was destroyed by the Soviets around 1944. He proceeded to show me where the foundation once stood. This is all that remains today of the convent overlooking Czerwonogrod castle.

Pawlyk knew of the building’s demise because, through an odd twist of fate, he had a personal involvement in its demolition. That year, while working as director of the school in Rozanivka, a village 2 km south of Tluste, Pawlyk's allegiance to his new Soviet masters was put to the test. Although it was against his personal convictions, he was ordered by the head of the Rozanivka’s collective farm – a man by the name of Levshenko – to help transport stone from the destroyed convent to Rozanivka, where it was used to build sheds for cattle. Had he not obeyed the request, non-compliance would have been interpreted as a sign of anti-Soviet sentiment.

The story of the convent does not end there, however, as my own research revealed an even more interesting history. A number of first-hand accounts confirm the story of Lucy Gertner – namely, that the convent once served to shelter not only orphans but also young Jewish children who were placed there by parents seeking to hide them from the atrocities of the war.

In the original Polish manuscript of his diary, Baruch Milch describes the convent run by three Sisters of Mercy and their Mother Superior. The following passage, translated into English, appears in The Righteous, by Martin Gilbert:

 
‘These heroic women ran the religious services of the parish, conducted the choir, played the organ and managed the kindergarten. Later in the summer they opened a secret shelter for foundlings. Among these tiny outcasts were about six or eight Jewish children left by desperate parents roaming the fields and forests, or just found abandoned at the monastery’s threshold.’ On one occasion the three nuns found in their backyard a four-year-old boy, speaking only Yiddish. ‘They gathered him into their midst. As long as the murderers were unaware of what was going on behind the walls the self-sacrificing women shared their scanty provisions, fed their charges, cared for them and took them to the church.’


But the convent had an even darker story to tell, as revealed by one of its former residents, Karolina Heuman. The following information is contained in a major compilation, by Mark Paul, entitled “Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy”. (Click on the link to download a 1.1 MB pdf file.)

After escaping from the ghetto in Drohobycz, Ms. Heuman and her younger brother Henryk were placed by their father in the convent of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul in Nyrków near Czerwonogród. [I presume this to be the same convent mentioned above, since it is unlikely for there to be two such edifices in close proximity]. Ms. Heuman recalled those turbulent years in her account published in Sliwowska, The Last Eyewitnesses, at pages 187–89:

 

“I remember how we were driven by night in a horse-drawn wagon to the cloister and how Father bade us farewell. Pointing to the sky, he said, “We shall meet there.” He then paid for our stay with money he kept hidden in a bottle, and he left. From that moment I never saw him again.

In the cloister, I used the name Marta Regusz. I worked in the fields. Whenever Germans showed up in the cloister, I would die of fright (after all, my brother was circumcised!). After placing us in the cloister, Father went into hiding in Horodenka, where he was shot at the beginning of 1943. … I don’t know where Mother perished. … My brother perished during a raid on the cloister by the followers of Bandera [Ukrainian nationalist partisans who attacked Poles]. He was then nine years old. Here is how, at the time, I described the events of this horrible day:

“It was the second of February 1945, at eleven o’clock. … There were three of us young girls and my beloved brother … I woke up with a start during the night and heard terrible shooting around the cloister. … I got up and walked up to the window. … All of us girls were already dressed when Sister Wladyslawa walked in and said we were surrounded by Bandera’s followers. We were terrified. “Right away, we went over to the bedrooms of the Sisters, and there, by the window, we stood for three hours, watching the terrible tortures of people who were fleeing in panic from the flames. The inhuman barbarians ran around furiously with flares in their hands and set fires to one hut after another, and whenever they saw someone, if they could, they grabbed him alive, and if not, then they would shoot him on the spot. They captured one family in our village and all that was later found of the children were fragments of burned-up bones, and the father’s skin had been ripped off from his stomach all the way to his head. We, the girls, stood all the time by the window, waiting for what would happen next.

We felt that our own lives, too, were hanging by a thread. … “Soon, our suppositions came to pass. At three o’clock in the morning, we heard terrible knocking on the front gate, which seemed to foretell our approaching end. Sister Wladyslawa called us into the chapel and began to pray and prepare us for death. We knelt in front of the altar for perhaps ten minutes. … “I had no regrets about dying, because until then I had not experienced contentment on earth. … In the last moment, when the glass of the windows in the lower corridor started falling onto the floor with a loud crash, Sister Superior hid us under the altar.”

It is reported that during the Ukrainian attack on Czerwonogród some 60 Poles lost their lives, including the pastor Rev. Szczepan Jurasz and two nuns. The Jewish children hidden by the nuns survived.

An account given on a Polish website that describes the history of Czerwonogrod also refers to a massacre of Poles at the hands of the UPA, which took place during the night of 2-3 February 1945. Click on this external link for a map that shows the castle of Czerwonogrod and surrounding buildings, including the convent.

This leaves us with strong evidence that the convent at Czerwonogrod remained intact at least until February 1945, but its days were probably numbered after that. It is plausible that later in the same year, it was ordered destroyed by the Soviets as part of a drive to rid the land of symbols of religious affiliation. Even more interesting from a personal standpoint is the direct connection of these passages to Lucy Gertner’s quest for answers about her past, which was the initial impetus for my investigation.

The present

And what about Czerwonogrod today? In a sense, this enchanting place in the middle of a valley surrounded by dense forest epitomises the best and the worst – as well as the past and potential – of western Ukraine.

Sadly, the former castle of Czerwonogrod – its splendour revealed in photographs from the 1930s – has deteriorated over the years, almost beyond recognition. Left to the mercy of the elements, stone thieves, and young vandals intent on inscribing their names on every surface they can reach, the once proud castle is probably reaching the point of no return. There is not much left apart from the shell of the two graffiti-scarred towers. Once one or both of these structures start to collapse, it probably won’t take long for this familiar landmark to be erased from the skyline.

Czerwonogrod photo gallery (click on each image to enlarge):

     

Yet, all is not lost. The beautiful landscape around the castle is still largely intact, partly because of its relative inaccessibility during inclement whether. (Heavy rain turns the dirt track leading down the valley into a muddy mess that is difficult for most vehicles to negotiate, until dried again by sunshine.)

Waterfall at Czerwonogrod  

The waterfall at Czerwonogrod is a sight to behold at certain times of the year when it is most vigourous. One could not imagine a more pleasant spot for a day-long outing for families, in the tranquil surroundings and fresh air. During the summer months, a youth hostel operates on the site (which explains all of the grafiti).

Alas, too many people with the same idea and a total lack of respect for nature, can despoil even the most beautiful of places. Fortunately, this rubbish collection point is relatively concentrated, but discarded plastic can be found scattered around the site.

   

Within walking distance of the castle, one can explore the remains of what appears to have been quite an impressive church.

Remains of church at Czerwonogrod Church interior Church interior
 

And overlooking the valley, with a stone's throw of the foundation of the convent, stands the outer shell of a mausoleum constructed for the Poninski clan in the 1800s.

Click on this link to an external website that shows how the massive mausoleum looked in former times.

  Remains of Poninski family mauseleum


Finally, as an added bonus on a day-long outing to Czerwonogrod, it's worth taking a detour on the way back to Tovste, to catch a splendid view of the Dniester River as it meanders across the countryside near Ustechko.

View of Dniester river near Ustechko   Follow the main road leading from Nyrkov to Torske, and turn right on the dirt road just after crossing the major intersection that lies between these two villages.   View of Dniester river near Ustechko

A vision of the future

With the castle restored to its former glory and protected by the status of a national park (with entry regulations, and perhaps even a modest entrance charge to offset maintenance costs), Czerwonogrod could one day join the league of other historical places in western Ukraine that appear on the itinerary of domestic and foreign tourists. All that is needed is an infusion of capital and a healthy dose of civic pride among people who must come to appreciate that the potential for Ukraine’s future prosperity lies, to some extent, in its past.

Douglas Hykle
November 2007

* * * * *

PS: There is not much written about Czerwonogrod on the web in English; however it does receive mention on a number of Polish websites, including one that has several old and modern photographs that give a good impression of what Czerwonogrod would have looked like in the 1930s, as well as today. There is also a website in Ukrainian that is worth taking a look at: http://www.castles.com.ua/index.php?id=chervon 

Location: Approx. 11 km southwest of Tovste
Visiting: It should be possible to find a driver in Tovste willing to go to Czerwonogrod for a few hours, provided the road is accessible.