21 March 2011

Historian Andriy Portnov on Sites of Forgetting in Lviv

Andriy Portnov reflects on the forgotten war-time history of a five-star hotel in central Lviv which once housed a Nazi concentration camp for Soviet POWs.

Image source: Wikipedia

Sites of Forgetting

In the 1850s the Austrian authorities in Lviv began building a fortified citadel designed to ensure control of the city in the event of an uprising or military actions. Two large and two small towers were built on Kalichia Mountain in the very centre of the city. In 1853 construction of the so-called Second Maximilian Tower was completed: a 17-cornered tower made of red brick with embrasures for artillery and cellars. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Citadel had effectively lost its military significance, and plans for transforming it into a park were under discussion. These plans were never realised, however, and instead, with the outbreak of World War Two, the Citadel’s buildings were to play a very different role.

In July 1941 the Nazi concentration camp for Soviet POWs, Stalag328, was transferred to the Lvov Citadel. During the war, over 280 thousand POWs passed through the camp. At various points these included French and Italian troops, but the absolute majority of the prisoners comprised Red Army troops. In accordance with Nazi policy on Soviet soldiers, they were starved to death. From the Citadel, the prisoners could see the city lying below, but this city was completely alien to them, both linguistically and architecturally. Several attempted escapes ended in detainment and execution.

According to assessments made by judicial-medical experts working in the Citadel after Soviet troops entered Lvov, over 100 thousand people perished in the camp. Most of the deaths were caused by starvation. According to the recollections of the Citadel’s former prisoners, it was precisely in the Second Maximilian Tower that the interrogation cells and death row were located, and for this reason the tower was dubbed ‘The Tower of Death’.

No memorial was created in the Citadel in Soviet Lviv, and not a single memorial plaque was erected, although there were proposals to do so. Perhaps a contributing factor here was the fact that Soviet POWs were not recognised as war veterans in the USSR and were in fact, at least until Stalin’s death, considered ‘traitors to the Motherland’. Those who survived the Nazi camps often went on to end up in camps at home. Strictly speaking, the status of these people remains undefined to this day: unlike the Ostarbeiters and the ghetto prisoners, they receive no compensation from Germany or Austria, and they have not created any public associations of note to defend their rights.

In the post-war years the Citadel was in a state of semi-neglect. The First Maximilian Tower was used as a book depository for the Lvov Scientific Library, and the ‘Tower of Death’ stood empty, with garages and private residential buildings sprouting up on the adjoining territories. In 1980 the Citadel complex of buildings was made into warehouses for the Lvov ‘Electron’ Factory. In independent Ukraine this site, at the top of a picturesque hill in the city centre, was left unclaimed, although there were voices periodically proclaiming the uniqueness of this architectural construction (the only monument to Austrian fortification architecture in Halychyna) and the importance of the memory of the victims of Nazism.

In 2003 the Second Maximilian Tower became the property of ‘Galician Citadel’ Pty Ltd, and five years later a five-star hotel was opened in the tower. Its website includes a section entitled ‘The Hotel’s History’, where one can read about the ‘revival of royal hospitality and the magnificent traditions of genuine imperial luxury’, and about how the hotel is ‘a living reminder of the epoch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’; we learn that ‘here, in this picturesque nook of Lvov, you can relax, forget your everyday troubles and immerse yourself in an atmosphere of harmony and comfort’, and also that the hotel ‘combines luxury of accommodation and impeccable service, which will satisfy all tastes and the desires of even the most demanding guests’. There is not a word here about the concentration camp and its thousands of victims. Inside the hotel there is neither a memorial plaque, nor any mention of the war years whatsoever. The only way a potential guest of the hotel might learn about the place where he or she was planning to be ‘immersed in the atmosphere of harmony and comfort’ would be to consult the specialist literature or Wikipedia articles about the Citadel. But in order to do so, of course, one would have to know that it was worth looking for this information in the first place!

Obviously there were a number of reasons why it was possible to transform the Nazi concentration camp ‘Tower of Death’ into a five-star hotel. These include the indifference of the local authorities (who were perfectly well aware of the Citadel’s history); the weakness of protests (which, though they did take place, had only local reach and were led by Lviv intellectuals lacking in real influence); and Lviv’s demand for new modern hotels (particularly in the lead-up to the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship). The lack of attention paid to this memorial site during the Soviet period also played a substantial role here. The argument that in any case the state lacked the funds to restore the Citadel and turn it into a museum played an important role in justifying the authorities’ position. No real interventions on behalf of the memory of Soviet POWs were undertaken either by the public, the mass media, international organisations, or official Russia, ‘privatiser’ of the rhetoric of the ‘Great Victory’.

Thus, yet another site of forgetting has appeared on the Ukrainian and European map. In actual fact, to a significant degree, we live in the midst of such sites: we take our children to a park which was the site of a Jewish ghetto during the war; we cheer on football teams at stadiums built on top of old cemeteries; we study at university campuses erected on the sites of mass executions; we go swimming or fishing in water covering flooded settlements and churches. And we fry shashlyk in the Kuropaty. Or go kayaking down Belomorkanal.

In our part of Europe, the individuality of the human being and the absolute recognition of the value of human life remains not an unconditional priority, but an ideal shared only by the minority (!), and which has to be fought for practically on a daily basis. And high-flown phrases like ‘Never Again’ or ‘Lest We Forget’ sound not so much bitterly ironic as horribly prophetic.

P.S. I must admit that I learned of the Citadel’s history a few weeks ago, during a stroll through Lviv, when I found myself near the First Maximilian Tower – at the book depository, where one is immediately struck by the gun emplacement, the ventilation shafts in the ground, the old blind camp searchlights and the remains of the camp fencing. I regret having learned about this so late. And I’m ashamed of having stayed in this very hotel last autumn. At that time I knew nothing about the place where I found myself.

Andriy Portnov

Reproduced with the kind permission of Andriy Portnov, who is currently visiting Cambridge as a Memory at War scholar. This article was originally published on 19 March 2011 in Russian on Andriy Portnov's blog at the Russian portal 'History Lessons', part of the international project 'Learning from History'.


  1. thanks for this post about lviv, i think its a wonderful city having recently been there on a lviv stag do and really enjoyed myself. a city full of history and a must visit now ryanair are flying there