The Tale of Bygone Years has an entry of crucial importance for this town: “Yaroslav captured Belz.” This is the first mention of the city located on the banks of the river Solokiya. Historians insist, however, that it existed before 1030 AD, which makes Belz the oldest city in Halychyna. It is thus one of the oldest cities in Europe, an architectural monument of the Middle Ages, which has preserved its characteristic planning and structure of streets and squares.
They say that the minute and hour hands on the clock at city hall were once made of Tatar arrows. This is one indication that many battles were fought for the city. It was a tasty morsel, located on the crossroads of several trade routes. Indeed, the city often changed hands: it was part of the Galician-Volhynian Principality (1234-1340), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (1340-77), under the Hungarian crown (1377-82), then the Polish one (1382-1772). In other words, this city is most closely connected to our complex history and its dramatic pages should be acknowledged. One would think that tourists are frequent guests here. However, the former princely seat, shrouded in legend and mystery, is a dilapidated provincial town from where young people flee and older people leave in search of better jobs. Mayor Ivan Kalysh fought for seven years to attract attention to Belz, watching enviously as Zhovkva’s history was finally honored by marking the 600th anniversary of Magdeburg Law. Belz received these privileges under this law twice, in 1377 and 1509. The current mayor finally succeeded. First, a cabinet resolution was enacted in 2001, granting Belz the status of a historical-cultural preserve. Later, Cabinet Directive No. 235 of July 7, 2005, allocated nearly eight million hryvnias to prepare for the town’s millennium. Now there is hope that in time Belz will become a tourist mecca, attracting pilgrims and tourists from everywhere. (Kalysh is sure of this and his confidence has infected the populace.) This will add to the local population’s worries, albeit pleasant ones, which will mean more jobs and a decent life.
The jubilee festivities were a success. Guests came from Poland, Israel, and surrounding Ukrainian towns. There were Cossacks clad in festive attire; there was music and singing to gladden the visitors’ hearts. Even though it was very cold, the town square was packed with merry-makers. People stayed there until the early hours of the morning, greeting each other and remembering good old times; some used the occasion to have a glass or two.
THE ICON RETURNS
The first prince of Belz, Vsevolod Mstyslavych (1180-95) was intrepid and steadfast; in this sense he matched his older brother Roman. The two brothers had a relationship complicated by property disputes. Before his death Vsevolod became a monk. His son and successor Oleksandr Vsevolodovych married the daughter of Kyivan Prince Volodymyr and held the throne of Belz several times. He was a skilled politician and intriguer, who tried to take over Volodymyr’s princedom, even the lands of Halych if the opportunity had presented itself. Historians believe that he ended his life in prison, where he was incarcerated by Danylo Romanovych.
After the poisoning of Boleslaw Jerzy II in 1340, Halychyna became the object of a struggle among Hungary, Poland, and Lithuania. Polish king Kazimierz III the Great renewed his agreement with King Louis I of Hungary (Nagy Lajos). Mykhailo Hrushevsky writes that he “talked the pope into giving him money and tried to get at least the lands of Belz and Kholm under his control, in collaboration with the Hungarian king Louis. He launched several campaigns for this purpose, but we have little data on them. The most important event then was the siege of Belz in 1352. After losing interest in further warfare, Louis abandoned Kazimierz and the latter had to return home without achieving anything.” Although the enemy was rebuffed, Belz lost its relic, the miracle-working icon of the Mother of God.
The history of this image of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Belz dates back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Historians say that it is impossible to distinguish between established facts and the countless legends that arose around the icon, believed to have been created by St. Luke. The Virgin Mary allegedly permitted the apostle, a skilful icon painter, to portray her on several occasions; when she saw his paintings, she said, “The Grace of the Christ Child and of Me shall be upon these icons.”
No one knows precisely when the icon found its way to Ukraine. According to one theory, Anna, the sister of Byzantine emperors Constantine and Basil, brought it to Kyiv where she arrived as the fiancee of Prince Volodymyr the Great, whereupon the prince ordered the icon installed in the Church of the Tithes, Kyiv’s first brick church. The icon remained there until 1240, when it was secretly transferred to the small princely city of Belz during the onslaught of the Golden Horde.
Another theory points to the second half of the 12th century, when the two exiled Byzantine emperors, Andronicus I Comnenus and Alexius of Atel, could have brought the icon as a gift to the princes of Halych, who had offered them refuge.
According to a chronicler, one day when he was exploring the valuables at Belz Castle, Duke Wladyslaw Opolski, who had received lands from King Louis, “discovered anew the beauty of the icon created by St. Luke.” Later, when Belz was besieged by the Tatars, Wladyslaw ordered the icon displayed on the castle wall. A Tatar arrow pierced the Virgin’s neck, the hole started oozing blood, and darkness instantly descended on the Tatar troops. Raising their swords against each other, they perished beneath the walls of Belz.
Then the duke began considering a plan to transfer the icon to a safer place. Wladyslaw had the icon packed in a box and collecting other valuables, he was about to set off on the long journey, but twice the horses were rooted to the ground. That night the duke had a prophetic dream in which a heavenly voice ordered him to transfer the icon to Jasna Gora and found a monastery there. After the duke promised to do this, the carts were able to set out westward. The duke invited Catholic monks of the Paulist order to the monastery at Jasna Gora and gave them the miracle-working icon. Today, this icon of the Mother of God of Czestochowa is the most popular one in Poland. However, few in Poland know that this icon was in the Galician-Volhynian Principality during the 12th-14th centuries, including the princely city of Belz. True, Belz now has this icon. On Dec. 11, the long- awaited ceremony marking the presentation of a copy of the Mother of God of Czestochowa (of Belz) took place in a Roman Catholic church in the village of Dolhobyszow in the province of Hrubieszow (Hrubeshiv). From now on this icon will remain forever at St. Michael’s Church (Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate) and will help the residents of Belz overcome all their problems, and it will be with them on weekdays and holidays.
TOWN “RETURNED” EMPTY
It is simply unbelievable that little is manufactured in this town, which has so few financial resources. In the Middle Ages Belz was host to large fairs twice a year. At the time this city was famous for the wares of its shoemakers, weavers, coopers, and blacksmiths. It was thought that the best sword-makers resided in Lviv and Belz. Starting in the 1460s, local Ukrainian and Polish Catholic craftsmen founded two guilds in the city. In general, a student of history can only marvel at the huge benefits that rulers conferred on cities if they wanted them to develop; at the scope of local self-government, and the broad powers vested in the elected municipal council headed by the burgomaster and the reeve. For example, the warehousing of salt was the most important privilege for Belz. This gave the city a monopoly on the salt trade in the northwestern part of Rus’ and beyond its borders, and generated significant profits. The Belz municipal council also had the right to collect bridge tolls for passage across the Solokiya River and the duties imposed on mead and other kinds of hard liquor. Toward the end of the 15th century the city was granted the right to cut down trees in the forests on the territory of the starosta district. A privilege, or charter, dated Nov. 10, 1509, once again granted Belz privileges under the Magdeburg Law, whereby the residents were temporarily relieved of tax payments and were allowed to hold fairs and trading. In 1512 King Sigismund I reaffirmed the tax-exempt status of the city and its outskirts; a year later he allowed the town to have a candle-making factory. In 1532 Belz obtained the right to collect duties from merchants passing through the town, and in 1546 King Sigismund Augustus granted Belz the right to collect the royal duty on grain sales (known as pomirne). Civic life thrived at this time. There were schools, monasteries, and guilds. Jakob of Belz, a noted scholar and academician of Krakow University, was born there in 1453.
However, it cannot be said that Lady Fate always smiled upon Belz. Although it was devastated by wars and fires, every time it rose from the ruins, perhaps because of its democracy and tolerance. In 1665, when the city was in decline, the local Jewish community obtained equal rights with the Roman Catholics, and they were allowed to build homes in the city. From this time the proportion of Jews increased. Until World War II the town was inhabited by Ukrainians, Jews, and Poles.
During the First World War the city sustained considerable damage. In January-February 1919 it was the site of pitched battles between the Ukrainian Galician Army (UHA) and Polish troops. The Belz cemetery has eight common graves that contain the remains of over 100 soldiers of the Ukrainian army. Before WWII, the population of Belz numbered 7,000, 40 percent of whom were Jews. There were several small businesses: a brickyard, oil factory, power plant, sawmill, and factory that produced brushes. Needless to say, the people who lived there knew how to trade; here one could always find goods to satisfy every taste. In those days the town was made famous by the popular song “Mein Shteitele Belz,” which is still one of the world’s best known Jewish melodies.
“Before the war we lived right next to the central square of Belz,” recalls Myroslava Fedoryshyn, “so that everything happened before our very eyes, like the residents celebrating their holidays, establishing friendships. Everybody always knew when someone was sick or getting married...Of course, the family didn’t always approve, but neither would they make a big deal if young people from different nationalities decided to get married. So a number of families were mixed. No one worked on a Jewish religious holiday, God forbid! And the Jews and Poles also respected our holidays. Kids of all nationalities loved the smakolyky, homemade lollipops, and it was common practice to treat each other. Then the terrible times came. The Germans took the Jews to that horrible concentration camp Belzec, where they gassed them. We were afraid to save Jews because the Nazis would come and shoot the whole family...Then the wave or deportations began for us ...”
Initially, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the town found itself on the German side, because the frontier between the Soviet Union and the General Government of the Third Reich passed along the river Solokiya. After the war Belz ended up on Polish territory. Almost the entire Ukrainian population of the town and the surrounding villages was deported to the Ukrainian SSR, while those who tried to dodge repatriation were deported by the Poles in 1947, during Operation Vistula.
In 1951, on the basis of the Soviet-Polish treaty, the towns of Belz, Uhniw, Variazh, and Krystynopil were exchanged for the district of Ustryk Dolishnikh. The towns were handed over empty, as the Poles had already been resettled. They were settled by residents from villages in Halychyna and resettlers from other raions of the USSR. Today there are very few indigenous residents left in the town. There are only two Jews living there today. Yet the Jewish Diaspora paid for the construction of a small hotel that accommodates quite a few tourists eager to visit this former religious center of Judaism. After all, it was here that the miracle-working Hassidic Tzadik Sholem Rokakh made his home. From then on the title of tzadik has been handed down from father to son in the Rokakh family, and Hassidim flocked to the city. What can they see there today? Whereas artillery shells turned the Great Synagogue, Bet Midrash, and the Talmud Torah into ruins, under the Soviets they were completely demolished. On the site of the Great Synagogue are a vacant lot and the playground of a local high school. The only surviving monument to Jewish culture in Belz is a former mikvah (ritual bath), a building belonging to the Ishre Lev prayer society that was rebuilt after the First World War, and an entrenchment on the outskirts of Lublin, where one can find fragments of several matzoh. However, the Jewish community believes that even this is worth restoring Belz in the nearest future, and the synagogue, the ritual baths, and baptismal fonts are being rebuilt.
IN SEARCH OF GOLDEN HORSES
What is being planned for the town with budget funds? Most of all the residents of Belz are expecting to be hooked up to gas, for which four million hryvnias have been allotted. The sewer system is continuing to be modernized. Funds have been channeled into restoring historical sites and the town’s infrastructure. Nearly 850,000 hryvnias have been spent on restoring buildings and architectural sites in the center of town.
“It’s true that delayed funding is a problem,” says Mayor Kalysh, “and it has slowed down a number of scheduled projects. The cabinet directive came in July, and relevant government instructions continued arriving throughout September. But we’re happy even with that, because we succeeded in doing the main work. Today the town is lit at night. We have also restored Saint Mary’s Chapel with funds from Naftohaz Ukrainy, 1.5 million hryvnias. The icon of the Mother of God now hangs there after being transferred from Poland. We have restored city hall and finished repairing the facades of the downtown buildings.
“Compared to the 19.5 million hryvnias that were allocated for making arrangements to celebrate the ‘Days’ of this town, considerably larger sums were obtained thanks to contributions from local budgets, philanthropists, and various businesses and organizations. In this sense, the central budget, cabinet, and local self-governments have contributed nicely. Lviv oblast also did its best to help us. What I find most heartwarming is the fact that practically none of the residents — the males, I mean — left the town for work, because of the great number of construction jobs here. I think this work will continue next year. “Ukrrestavratsiia” has set up a branch here, which will focus exclusively on restoration work. This will be done on a large scope. I realize that our women cannot find jobs because the local enterprises are standing idle. I hope that if and when this town becomes a tourist mecca, they will find employment.”
What is your current population?
I.K: There are some 3,000 people living in Belz. Don’t be surprised; I know a Polish town, Kazimierz Gorny near Warsaw, with a population of 2,000, but every year it welcomes nearly a million tourists. We also have the Ukrainian president’s instruction concerning the start of construction of a customs crossing at Belz; this will also give an impetus to the development of this former princely seat. Above all, however, we are counting on pilgrims and tourists. Every year this town receives at least 10,000 Jews, who come to pay homage to the graves of Tzadiks. There is also an increasing influx of Polish tourists. This town has about 60 architectural sites, five of which are of national importance. These include the Dominican complex with St. Michael’s Church; the Dominican convent, a wooden church with a chapel, the church at Zamochok, and the Aryan Gate.
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It should be emphasized that among the mayor’s active supporters are the archaeologists that work every summer in Belz, excavating wonderful precious objects. They have discovered enough to fill an entire history museum. Every cultural layer, every centimeter yields fresh material for study. Two years ago a team of archaeology students from Drohobych University discovered a cache of ancient coins, including eight dating to 1380, the times of Queen Jadwiga. No one has found such coins anywhere else. In Zamochok they unearthed ancient wood structures with a snow-white flooring — a thrilling find! They have also discovered many pieces of unusual ceramics. The residents of Belz are always pestering the archaeologists about whether they have found the golden horses. Legend has it that in the mid-18th century some local Jews buried a gold carriage and gold horses somewhere in the vicinity, and that the treasure is still waiting to be found. Archaeologists joke that so far they have found only iron horseshoes. But they are determined to keep searching, confident that they will make many new discoveries.