Austro-Hungarian troops leaving Jerusalem, 1916. In the first row the second horseman from the left is Captain Truszkowski
But let us tell the story from the beginning. We know very little about the life of Captain Władysław Truszkowski: actually not more than what the personal files of the Austrian War Archives in Vienna reveal about him. According to them, Truszkowski was born in the city of Lemberg, then part of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, on 3 May 1876 as a son of a chief inspector of the State Railways. The prosaic profession of the father should not mislead us: the Truszkowskis were a noble Polish family. This fact is also confirmed by the files of the War Archives that call him “Wladislaus Anton Ritter von Truszkowski”. We learn from the brief records of the archive files that he started his military career in the k.u.k. Army at the age of 19, served in various artillery units and rose in the military ranks until in 1913 he became a captain at the age of 37. In the spring of 1916 he was sent to Palestine as the commandant of the 2nd Mountain Howitzer Battery of the 6th Mountain Artillery Regiment of Kassa (today Košice, Slovakia). As the military district of Kassa was entirely in Hungary, the battery under the command of Captain Truszkowski consisted mostly of ethnic Hungarians.
The battery made up, together with the 1st Mountain Howitzer Battery of the 4th Mountain Artillery Regiment of Budapest, the predominantly Hungarian “Marno Mountain Howitzer Division” – “k.u.k. Gebirgshaubitzdivision von Marno” – which was named after the chief commandant of the division, Major Adolf Marno von Eichenhorst. The main task of the two batteries was to support with artillery fire the Turkish offensive at the Suez Canal, and later, after the unsuccessful Suez offensive to hold the front together with the Turks at the Gaza – Beer Sheba line. They went through the first major test of strength at the first battle of Gaza in March 1917, but not any more under the command of Major Marno. Just two weeks before the battle the Major was suddenly ordered to the Italian front, and Captain Władysław Truszkowski was appointed in his place as chief commandant of the whole division.
Austro-Hungarian artillery officials in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, 1916. The black-haired figure in the middle, without cap, is Captain Truszkowski
On 18 March Truszkowski commanded the two howitzer batteries into positions around Gaza: Battery 1/4 took up position about one kilometer south of the city, while Battery 2/6 was allocated at the foot of Ali Muntar, the hill rising about 70 meters over the city of Gaza. Truszkowski established his command post at the top of this strategically important hill.
The British cavalry and infantry started their attack on 26 March. After heavy fighting, the gunners of Battery 2/6 were forced to retreat, leaving their howitzers behind. Following this, the British infantry attacked and overrun Ali Muntar. Encircled by the British, Truszkowski and his officers had no chance to escape. Captain Truszkowski managed to shoot a British officer with his gun before he fell dead, struck by four bullets.
Ali Muntar remained in British hands until the evening. As the movement of the troops and the maintenance of the communication lines between them proved to be very difficult on the terrain cut by house-high cactus hedges, and as the British commanders realized that they will not succeed to take Gaza before the nightfall, they ordered a general retreat. Taking this chance, the commandant of Battery 2/6, First Lieutenant Dr. Árpád Kopasz and his men recaptured their guns during the night, and when the British forces returned to Ali Muntar the next morning, they were put under heavy fire by the howitzer battery. During the renewed battles of the day, the allied Turkish, Austro-Hungarian and German troops succeeded to force the British troops to full retreat. At sunset all positions around Gaza were in the hands of the Turks and their allies.
The British bombardment of the trenches around Ali Muntar at dawn of 29 October 1917, some days before the third battle of Gaza. This picture does not illustrate the first battle of Gaza, where Truszkowski was killed, but it is an interesting fact that it was drawn on the spot by James McBey, an “official war artist” following the British Palestine Expeditionary Forces.
Besides Captain Truszkowski there were four other fatal casualties among the Austro-Hungarian gunners in the first battle of Gaza: Sergeant Mihály Nagy, Gunner János Lázár, Gunner Kyrill Bene and First Gunner Lajos Gonda. Besides the fallen, the two Austro-Hungarian batteries lost 36 more men: most probably they were all fallen into captivity, as their number exactly corresponds to the number included in the military rapport of 28 March of the British chief commandant Archibald Murray. According to this, the British took four Austro-Hungarian officers and 32 privates as captives.
The five fallen Austro-Hungarian soldiers were buried in a garden in Gaza. The place of four of the graves is unknown for us today.
Not so that of Captain Truszkowski. His body was exhumed on 12 April, and was transported to Jerusalem in an ambulance with the intention to be buried there. This first exhumation was only the first in a long chain of vicissitudes that the late Captain had to suffer, thanks to the frequent shifts in the global political situation. These vicissitudes resulted in no less than four burials and five graves of his corpse.
Austro-Hungarian military funeral procession at Gaza. The picture was probably taken on 12 April 1917, immediately after the exhumation of Captain Truszkowski. The ambulance following the procession is likely the one which then took the Captain’s body to Jerusalem.
Captain Truszkowski’s body was exhumed in Gaza, so it could rest in a more dignified place until the final victory, when his body would be transferred to eternal rest in his native city, Lemberg. This more dignified temporary resting place was found for our Captain in Jerusalem, in the crypt of the convent of the French Assumptionist fathers on Mount Zion, to where the body was accompanied in solemn funeral march after the solemn Requiem Mass, celebrated in the chapel of the French Ratisbonne monastery.
But what have the French to do with the burial of an Austro-Hungarian officer, an ally of the Turkish army? – might ask some of our respected readers. And well, indeed nothing – and as we will see later, this fact also resulted in some unexpected complications. In the autumn of 1914 when Turkey entered the war, the French – as well as the Italians and the British later – were proclaimed enemies, and the subjects of these countries were deported from Turkey – of which Palestine was also a part –, while their remaining property was expropriated for military purposes. In this way the convent of the French Assumptionists became a German-Turkish military hospital, while the Ratisbonne monastery a hospital for the Austro-Hungarian military units. In those days it was standard procedure that the body of the fallen or in diseases deceased Austro-Hungarian soldiers were followed in funeral procession from the Ratisbonne monastery to the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, where a separate non-denominational section was established in the beginning of 1917 for German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. In this section of the cemetery one can still visit the graves of nine Austro-Hungarian soldiers, buried between March and October 1917.
However, Captain Truszkowski, the highest ranking Austro-Hungarian officer on the Palestine front at the time of his heroic death, deserved a more dignified resting place. The reason of the choice of this crypt for his second, temporary burial might have been the intention to make the next exhumation much easier before his final transfer to Lemberg after the final victory.
The solemn Requiem Mass for the Captain was celebrated on 13 April 1917, Friday morning in the chapel of the Ratisbonne monastery, after which the solemn funeral procession proceeded to Mount Zion. We have two vintage photographs of this funeral: the first one shows the procession leaving the monastery, while the the procession on its way up to Mount Zion along the city walls. On this latter picture we can clearly see the military medals of Truszkowski being carried by one of his comrades in front of the funeral carriage.
As we learn it from the obituary of Howitzer Battery 2/6, Truszkowski was the owner of the following decorations and titles:
“Besitzer des Ritterkreuzes des Ordens der Eisernen Krone III. Klasse, des Militärverdienstkreuzes 3. Klasse mit der Kriegsdekoration, der silbernen und bronzenen Militärverdienstmedaille mit den Schwerten, des kaiserlich deutschen eisernen Kreuzes 2. Klasse, der ottomanischen Liakatmedaille und des ottomanischen eisernen Halbmondes, Kommandeur des Ordens vom Heiligen Grabe”.
“Owner of the Knight’s Cross of the 3rd Class Iron Crown, the 3rd Class Military Merit Cross with the War Decoration, the Silver and Bronze Military Merit Medal with the Swords, the 2nd Class Imperial German Iron Cross, the Ottoman Liakat Medal and the Ottoman Iron Crescent; Commandant of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.”
However, the long-awaited victory never arrived – at least not for the Turks and for their allies. The first battle of Gaza was followed by the second one, which ended with an even more disastrous defeat for the British. But the British troops attacked for a third time in October 1917 at Gaza, this time under the command of the newly appointed General Edmund Allenby. The reinforced British army finally succeeded to break the Turkish defense lines. Gaza fell on 7 November, and the British started their advance toward Jerusalem. The rest is history. On 9 December 1917 Jerusalem opened her gates without resistance to the victorious British forces, thus putting an end to the precisely five hundred years of Ottoman rule in the city.
Austro-Hungarian artillery officers after a Mass in Jerusalem. The black bands on the left arms refer to a Requiem Mass. The first two officers at the side of the chaplain from left to right are Major Adolf Marno von Eichenhorst and Captain Władysław Truszkowski. The original photo is kept in the Viennese War Archives.
However, for Captain Truszkowski the war was not over yet. When after the victory of the Entente the French Assumptionists returned to their convent on Mount Zion, their first thing was to remove the high ranking enemy from their crypt. The body of Truszkowski was transferred to the nearby Franciscan cemetery and was buried there in a simple grave on 2 November 1919.
But the wheels of history did not stop turning around. After the First World War, Eastern Galicia and its central city, Lemberg – the Polish Lwów – became a part of Poland. In the Soviet-Polish War that broke out in 1919, the young country found new allies in France. Such renowned French officers as Charles de Gaulle or Maxime Weygand were fighting shoulder to shoulder with Polish officers that once served in the Austro-Hungarian army. This must have been one of the reasons why the late Captain Władysław Truszkowski, commandant of the Imperial and Royal Austrian Army, suddenly advanced to the rank of a Polish officer! We do not know how and why it exactly happened, but the fact is that on 10 December 1929 the body of Captain Truszkowski was exhumed again and was returned to the crypt of the convent of the Assumptionists, where he rests until this very day. His resting place is marked by a simple stone tile with following inscription:
Nevertheless, Captain Truszkowski also has a much more sumptuously decorated grave memorial, under which the Hero of Gaza has never rested, and most probably neither will do so. This grave memorial is in the Łyczakowski cemetery in Lemberg/Lwów, designed as an ornate bronze relief placed on the grave stone of the Truszkowski and Zakrejs families. The relief shows an armed knight, kneeling in front of the entrance of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, holding his helmet in one hand, while his other hand rests upon his heart. Opposing him in the left lower corner of the relief is a shield displaying the Jerusalem cross. According to the signature, the relief was made by B. Soltys.
Under the relief there is a bronze plaque with a longer inscription, made by the renowned foundry of the Grzegorz and Feliks Łopienski brothers in Warszawa. The plate displays the coat of arms of the Custody of the Holy Land in the left upper corner of the inscription and the coat of arms of the Drogosław clan – which the Truszkowskis were part of – in the right upper corner. The Polish text of this plate is the following:
“W Jerozolimie w katakumbach OO. Assumpcjonistów spoczywa snem wiecznym Władysław herbu Drogosław Truszkowski rycerz grobu Chrystusa, kapitan-komendant artylerji wojsk austrjackich na froncie tureckim. Poległ śmiercią bohaterską w bitwie pod Gazą dnia 26 marca 1917 r., odznaczony licznymi wysokimi austrjackimi, niemieckimi i tureckimi orderami.”
“In Jerusalem, in the catacombs of the Assumptionist fathers lies in eternal sleep Władysław Truszkowski from the Drogosław clan, knight of the tomb of Christ, and captain-commander of the Austrian artillery on the Turkish front. He died a heroic death at the Battle of Gaza on 26 March 1917, decorated by several high Austrian, German and Turkish medals.”
We know nothing about the circumstances of the establishment of the grave memorial, nevertheless it is clear from its location that it was created by the Captain’s family members. It is not completely clear either whether its creators had the hopes that one day the Hero of Gaza will find his final resting place in his native land under this grave, or they already have accepted that Captain Truszkowski, Commandant of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem would lay in eternal sleep in the Holy City, for whose defense he gave his life. The text of his cenotaph makes the last assumption more plausible.
The story, however, does not stop here. Our friend, Norbert Schwake living in Nazareth who, as the custodian of the local World War I German military cemetery, has been researching for many years the traces of German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers in the Holy Land, recently discovered two signatures in the old guest book of the Austro-Hungarian pilgrim house in Jerusalem. The first one was by Captain Truszkowski himself who, together with the other officers of the Austro-Hungarian army, enjoyed the hospitality of the pilgrim house between 9 and 13 May 1916. He left his signature in the guest book on 12 May, one day before Captain Truszkowski at the head of Howitzer Battery 2/6 marched further to the south, towards the Suez front. The second signature, however, is even more interesting. This was left by the Captain’s relatives, Olga Zakrejs von Truszkowska and dr. Franz Zakrejs on the occasion of their visit on 30 May 1925, even leaving their home address: Lwów, Gródecka Street 66, 1st floor.
“Wladislaw Ritter von Truszkowski, k.u.k. Hauptmann Kommdt. der österr. ung. Gebirgshaubitz-Batterie” / “Wladislaw Ritter von Truszkowski, k.u.k. captain and commandant of the Austro-Hungarian howitzer battery”
This address has been also confirmed by a newspaper article found later. The 29 October 1928 edition of Dziennik Białostocki reports on the fundraising for the monument of the Polish heroes fallen at the end of 1918 in the defense of Lwów (about whose vicissitudes we will tell in another post), also mentioning that the donations are accepted by the treasurer of the association founded for this reason, Olga Zakrejs at Gródecka Street 66.
We have one day with Andrea Deák before the arrival of the group to fulfill Norbert’s request by going to Gródecka street – today Вулиця Городоцька – 66, taking some pictures on it, and trying to find out whether after six changes of reign and a total population exchange there is any memory there of the Captain and his family. We set out along the city’s western main street which the city authorities at full speed try to make suitable for the purposes of the upcoming European football championship.
We stand in surprise in front of the house number 66. In fact, this corner house has no entrance. Its entire ground floor street front is occupied by a large pharmacy. The flats of the two floors above it can be of course reached, but only from the lateral Odeska street 2. However, had this been the entrance at the Zakrejs’ times, they would have probably written this in the guest book of the Austro-Hungarian pilgrim house in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, we enter and ring the bell of every flat to see if someone knows something, but in vain. Whoever does not work on a weekday morning, has certainly enough reason not to open the door for us.
The only place we can hope the key to the mystery from is the pharmacy itself. I join the queue at the counter. “I have a special question”, I tell slowly but resolutely to the pharmacy leader with grey hairs. “I’m a Hungarian historian, in seek of the traces of a Galician Captain who fell in World War I and who had lived in this house, at Gródecka 66.” It takes time to the pharmacist to come to his senses. “But at that time I have not even worked here” he stutters finally. “Of course. I did not even think about it. But this house has now no entrance from the Gródecka. When was the ground floor converted into a pharmacy?” “Please”, he draws himself up, “this was already built as a pharmacy in 1908! Irinka, please bring us the calendar!” The pages of the calendar of the last year represent twelve ancient pharmacies of the Ukraine, and at October we indeed see this one, named after Hygieia, founded in 1908 by Emil Ezersky. While I take a photo of it, Andrea tries to dissolve the frozen moment by purchasing a hand cream, and by firmly resisting the temptation of any foreign products, she asks Ukrainski please. Irinka gently suggests the same one that she herself uses.
We also go down in the office room opening in the basement next to the pharmacy, whose purpose is only indicated outside by a small label “Club de l’automobile feminin” glued on the door, and inside by not even this much. The fright of the secretary is understandably not relieved by the words of the extraterrestrial visitor on some Galician captain fallen in WWI. “But this is already number 64! You should perhaps try it at the town hall”, she says while she is gently but assertively driving us toward the exit.
We stand helplessly at the corner, and I am more and more convinced that in Lwów, which has already changed its country, language and population, a change of the street numbers was also not impossible during the past seventy years. But who could give any information on this? “Let us wait a bit, perhaps an old man would come who still remembers it”, Andrea says. And the old man actually shows up, in ironed white trousers, waistcoat and jacket, and with a medal on it. “He must be our man”, Andrea says. “Someone who still knows that the bottom button of the vest should not be buttoned, is a real old-fashioned gentleman. He will certainly know everything about the Captain.”
“I am a Hungarian historian…” The old man’s eyes brighten up. As if he waited for years for this encounter, and were this the reason why he dresses his best suit when shuffling from Odeska street to the shop a corner away; as if he had been left here to tell everything about Captain Truszkowski and Olga Zakrejs to the historian who would certainly come one day. “Good day”, he says in Hungarian. He went to Budapest in the 1960s, that is where these words stuck in him. “Don’t you know by chance whether this street was renumbered since the war?” “Of course it was! Please, I know everything. I live here since 1946.” “Were you also born here?” “No, no. I was born in a concentration camp.” “Please?”
Vaclav Kolomeyets’s mother was taken as a young girl by the Germans from Kharkov to Austria, where she worked four years in a labor camp. Here was her son born in early 1945. When they were taken back to the Soviet Union, it was hopeless to return to the ruined Kharkov, so they began a new life in a former Polish flat of the recently sovietified Lwów. His mother did everything so her son could study: this is how he became a lawyer. “Did your father also return home?” “Oh, no. I did not know my father. He was the German surgeon general officer of the concentration camp.”
While he puts down his address so we could send photos to each other, I am watching his medal. “A war veterans’ service medal”, he draw himself up. “But you were just a few month old in the war!” “I did not get it for that one. But for the Afghan war.” Then he adds: “But I did not shed blood. I was the division’s lawyer.”
As for the house of the other veteran, he exactly remembers that before the renumbering of the street’ houses in 1964 the number 66 was the barber shop now bearing the number 84. However, the house is locked by a steel security gate with a combination lock. I experiment a little bit with the most logical combinations, but none of them is successful. So I enter the barber shop. Next to the door, at the receptionist’s desk a middle-aged man, at the back of the shop three women are adjusting the coiffures. “I’m a Hungarian historian…” It is already clear that this phrase puts everyone off the daily routine, and triggers the most unexpected reactions. “Please, this is only a barber shop. But go into the house, there is possibly someone else who still knows something.” He stands up, goes out on the street, enters the code. The gate opens.
A once beautiful Art Nouveau semi-detached house, in a terrible condition. The two staircases – the gates number 84 an 86 open into the same courtyard – have somehow survived, but the court facade was brutally smashed with various annexes, lines and holes. Smell of food is spreading, a radio is heard from the first floor. We start ringing the bells on the ground floor. An old woman in scarf opens the door, as if she wore scarf even at home. “I’m a Hungarian historian…” She listens to the two phrases told in clean Russian, then she looks at me, and answers in an equally clean Russian: “I do not understand.” And she closes the door.
On the outside balcony of the first floor, from where the radio is heard, the door is opened a crack by a woman with intelligent face. When I start my speech, she gets reassured, and completely opens it. She listens along, then she smiles at me just as one smiles at a fantasizing child, and beckons to the courtyard. “Sir, the inhabitants of this house have changed a fifteen times since then. You’ll never get to know anything here about your captain.”
The KehilaLinks database informs us that in pre-war Gródecka 66 there were also two Jewish shops: M. Stefanowicz’s “Ksiegarnia Kresowa” bookshop and Nachum Badner’s haberdashery (“galanterja”). These possibly correspond to today’s Green Verbena barber shop and the “OK!” Shoe and Clothes Shop on both sides of the iron gate. The Ukrainian Wikipedia page dedicated to vulitsya Horodotska even mentions that in the Soviet decades a photo parlor worked here as well, but it does not look back to earlier times: in the Ukrainian Lviv, time started in 1939.
I have just finished an article for the Hungarian Jewish cultural magazine Szombat with the title Lemberg’s empty places, observing that while the history of most cities can be usually reconstructed on the basis of the standing buildings, the memory of Lwów’s Jewish population was written into the urban fabric in the form of blanks remaining after the devastation. The empty house of Captain Truszkowski and the former St. Elizabeth’s church on the other side of the street, converted into an Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, his empty grave memorial in the Łyczakowski cemetery and the Polish war monument erected there with the support of his family and demolished in the 1970s by the Ukrainian power, all indicate that this is not a Jewish peculiarity, but a specific feature of Lwów, equally characteristic of the destroyed Polish culture of the former multiethnic eastern capital of the Monarchy.