BELZ - As two girls held an icon of the Virgin Mary following
a December Mass, hundreds of Catholic pilgrims bumped each other amidst an eager throng to kiss the holy likeness.
For some, their zeal resulted in their heads thumping the board as they reached over for the kiss, thereby smacking it into the bewildered girls' chests as they tried keeping their balance.
What the worshippers were eager to kiss was only a mere replica of the revered Black Madonna icon, which centuries ago resided in a hamlet on the Polish-Ukrainian border known as Belz.
Only in recent years has Belz begun to attract much attention from anyone beyond the Lviv region in western Ukraine.
On December 18, the town celebrated its 1,000-year anniversary, attended by local civic and religious leaders, Catholic pilgrims, Belz residents as well as its descendants who were forcibly resettled by the Soviets.
Belz experts and history buffs converged on the town the same weekend in what was the biggest such academic gathering to date.
Like many small towns in western Ukraine, Belz is well-deserving of attention from tourists. Poland's most revered icon, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, is believed to have resided in Belz for several centuries until 1382.
Then in the late 19th century, the town became the setting for an entire dynasty of Jews, known as the Belzer Hasidim.
Ancient churches, synagogues and cemeteries bear witness to the deep religious history the small town possesses.
"It was complete democracy at the time," said Tykhon Leschuk, a Belz descendant and foremost expert on the city. "It was only until the war came and they began dividing us that everything began to turn for the worse."
When the German Nazis invaded Belz in 1939, they razed the town, deporting or killing its residents, particularly its Jews, who made up 40 percent of the population.
What the Nazis neglected to do was duly finished by the Soviet Communists, who banned Catholicism and Hasidism and killed its followers or exiled them to labor camps.
Few, if any, Jews currently reside in Belz and the town as a whole has yet to recover from the Nazi and Soviet devastation.
Belz's religious inheritance began sometime between the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Ruthenian Prince Leo brought the Black Madonna icon to his royal palace, according to legend.
Prince Leo is believed to have received the icon either from the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople or Charlemagne, based on which legend you prefer to believe.
And apparently, legend says it was St. Luke who painted the icon upon a table built by Jesus Christ.
Mary posed for the portrait. While he painted, she told the story of Jesus' life, which would later serve as the foundation upon which Luke would base his gospel.
By the time the icon reached Belz, the surrounding region was known as Ruthenia, as the Ukrainian identity would only emerge many centuries later.
In 1382, a Muslim nation in the Crimea known as the Tatars had invaded Belz. During the raid, a Tatar arrow pierced through the Virgin Mary's neck, a mar that is visible to this day.
Fearful that the icon would perish, Prince Ladislaus Opolski decided to take and hide it in one of his castles in the Silesia region of Poland.
Several legends exist to explain how the icon eventually wound up in Czestochowa, a city in southern Poland.
In one popular version, the Virgin Mary appeared to the prince at Jasna Gora ("bright hill"), just outside of Czestochowa, telling him this should become the icon's new home.
After placing it in a small church, Prince Ladislaus built a chapel and Pauline monastery to house and preserve the icon, which remain to this day.
What is widely accepted to be the original icon is still in the church, though no one can say with certainty when it was created.
Through the centuries, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa emerged as Poland's most revered religious symbol.
Several theories have emerged as to why it's called the Black Madonna.
Mary's face was originally painted in a dark olive tone. Soot from the fires it survived, as well as the endless numbers of votive candles burned in front of the icon for centuries, also likely contributed its dark tone.
Poles believe the icon miraculously defended Poland against Swedish and Turkish invaders in the 17th century and a Russian siege in 1920.
Ukrainian Catholics also revere the icon and hundreds had descended upon Belz for the 1,000-year anniversary in order to pay homage to two replicas of the Black Madonna, which is also referred to as the Virgin of Czestochowa or Our Lady of Czestochowa.
During the Mass held that day, two Ukrainian girls carried a miniature, wooden replica for worshippers to kiss and cross themselves in front of.
A second replica, which was a gift from Belz's Polish sister town, was displayed next to the altar in St. Nicholas Church.
An aging, sick Polish artist, Krzysztof Kondratiuk, painted the replica with the hope that it would bring a miracle healing in his life.
Those wanting to see his icon trekked for 15 minutes across ice-caked streets and harsh chilly winds.
Worshippers then stood in a line that was constantly being replenished be people. When approaching the icon, they crossed themselves before kissing it as part of Ukrainian Christian tradition.
The Black Madonna icon represents only a minute portion of the city's remarkable religious inheritance.
Among the most notable are the ruins of the once mighty Dominican Monastery, built by monks in the mid-sixteenth century. It survived for 400 years until it was largely destroyed by Soviet troops who conquered the town in 1944.
Belz's 1000-year commemoration wouldn't have been complete without the presence of Belzer Hasids.
An entourage traveled all the way from Jerusalem, delivering a gift of a painting depicting the town's Jewish structures, both ruined and those still standing.
Hasidic Judaism has its roots in what is now the Lviv region of Ukraine. It began as a movement of Jews seeking a more pious, charismatic and even mystical approach to their faith that extended beyond Jewish law.
Belzer Hasidism originated in 1817 when Rabbi Shalom Rokeach was inducted as rabbi of Belz.
A profound Torah scholar and legendary miracle worker, Rabbi Shalom led the construction of the town's immense synagogue and school complex.
When it was finally dedicated in 1843, the synagogue looked like a fortress, surrounded by walls that were three-foot-thick.
A castellated roof and battlements adorned the synagogue, which was able to seat 5,000 worshippers.
The Belz synagogue produced many great torah scholars, and the community thrived until the World War Two invasion of German soldiers, who slaughtered families and razed the city.
Though the Germans attempted to destroy the synagogue, first by fire and then by dynamite, they were unsuccessful. Finally they conscripted Jewish men to take the building apart, brick by brick, according to Wikipedia.
Belzer Hasids survived either by accepting Soviet citizenship and subsequent deportation to Siberia, or by fleeing through Europe with the help of Samaritans and financing from Belzer Hasids abroad.
Only the foundation of the immense Bet Midrash compound remains, although other smaller structures such as the community's Ishre Lev prayer center survived.
Up to 10,000 Belzer Jews visit the town every year as part of Hasidic rituals in which they pray for their ancestors in cemeteries and at the place where their mighty synagogue once stood, Mayor Ivan Kalysh said.
Jews around the world came to recognize Belz for its religious and cultural significance, even immortalizing it in the Yiddish song, "Mayn Shtetl Belz" ("My Village Belz"), made famous by singer Connie Francis in 1960.
Future Lies in the Past
Belz's future lies in its history, and the town has enormous potential to become one of the prime tourist destinations in the Lviv region.
At present, it could be considered on the tame end of extreme travel.
One passenger bus runs to and from Lviv every day, though it is typically extremely crowded, typically old and navigates unpaved rural roads, thereby making the trip quite hazardous by Western standards.
A cab ride between 75 and 90 minutes can cost between $35 and $50.
The town offers no hotel, and six cafes that barely pass as restaurants. Many of Belz's buildings lack plumbing.
The Belzer Hasid community is currently building a hotel and synagogue complex, which should open this year.
Mayor Kalysh has hopes that the complex will be the first step in a revival that will emerge in Belz.
"Step by step, more people will begin to visit the town," he said. "Then hopefully, they will begin to tell the world about Belz."