Three pitfalls of the Volhynia tragedy

6 September 2018, 10:10

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko in front of the memorial to the Ukrainians that were victims of the bloody Home Army attack on Sahryń, 8 July 2018. In 2016, Poroshenko attempted to negotiate with Polish politicians and avoid the adoption of a resolution on the Volhynia events of 1943. Then he also went down on one knee, but on that occasion in front of the monument to the victims of the Volhynia Tragedy in Warsaw. The Poles' ignoring of the Ukrainian opinion prompted Ukrainians to take steps concerning their common historical memory. The opening of the memorial in Sahryń is one such event



In discussions on "Volhynia-43", Ukrainians objectively occupied a losing position, failing to react to facts or even accusations that flowed abundantly from the Polish side. When the Polish Sejm adopted a resolution in 2016 to commemorate 11 July as a day of memory for the Volhynia Tragedy, this seemed to consolidate the one-sided interpretation of those events. Against this background, the opening of a monument in Sahryń to Ukrainians who died at the hands of the Home Army and Peasant Battalions by Petro Poroshenko on 8 July 2018 was an unexpected and at the same time strong gesture from the Ukrainian side of the conflict.


The events in Sahryń occurred in March 1944 and it seemed that there was no reason to open a memorial. However, by linking the opening of the memorial to the 75th anniversary of the Volhynia Tragedy, the Ukrainian side unequivocally demonstrated its desire to speak about "Volhynia-43" in a wider context, going beyond the territory of Volhynia and extending the timeframe.


Ukrainians – Victims or Perpetrators?


The notion of Ukrainians as the perpetrators of the "Volhynia Slaughter" has gained such a fixed meaning that it has given an impetus to initiatives that at first glance seem to be completely innocent. Indeed, those who searched for any bright sides to these events began to compile lists of the "righteous" – people who saved the persecuted – and stories about "good Ukrainians" are now available on bookshop shelves. Such measures not only confirm the myth of the one-sided Polish tragedy in Volhynia, but also often contradict historical reality, as well as accessible and well-known facts.


Even a quick review of documents from the time gives an idea of ​​the scale of the tragedy for Ukrainians. Indeed, even before the July events of 1943, the May-June reports of Soviet partisans informed the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party that the Polish police alongside the Germans had killed almost a quarter of the Ukrainians, including women and children, in the Ludwipol District of the Rivne Region.


Besides the red partisans, this was also confirmed by a Polish representative who in his end-of-year report to the London-based government-in-exile not only mentioned killings of the Poles – the number of victims was calculated to be 15 thousand – but also noted that "huge losses have been inflicted on the Ukrainian people".


A little time passed and by the beginning of 1944 Polish sources specified that "what is happening now in rural areas is no different from the brutality that has been shown until recently by Ukrainian gangs in their attitude towards the Poles. Polish partisan groups organise attacks on Ukrainian villages, expel the Ukrainians from them, take their things and burn the villages to the ground. The Ukrainians who do not have time to flee are shot on the spot with no exceptions, it seems, even for women and children."


The flow of refugees from Volhynia was one of the reasons that the conflict spilled over into new regions. In particular, an outbreak of violence struck the neighbouring Chełm Land. Orthodox Church documents dated 15 May 1944 count and list the dates of what had been eradicated by the Poles in the past year: 52 destroyed Ukrainian villages and around 4,000 murdered peasants in Hrubieszów County alone. The total number of Ukrainian victims by June 1944 would reach 15,000 people from 150 villages.


In general, the number of victims is be one of the most controversial issues. Way back in 1989, Polish intellectual Tadeusz Olszański (under the pseudonym Jan Łukaszów) published his Historical Notebooks in Paris, which gave the example of the Volhynian village of Kysylyn, where 5,000 Poles were killed according to an authoritative researcher. Another pointed out that there could have only been a few dozen victims and Łukaszów himself would later draw attention to the fact that before the war about 500 people lived in the village, most of them Orthodox (Ukrainian).


Over the next three decades, the situation would hardly change fundamentally: in response to the data of researchers Władysław and Ewa Siemaszko that was recognised in Poland, Volhynia history expert Yaroslav Tsaruk analysed the Volodymyr-Volynskiy District and showed that the number of victims on the Polish side is overestimated by 4.1 times, while the figures for Ukrainians are underestimated by 25 times.


Nevertheless, Ukrainians are not able to react to Polish data in a timely manner and the Poles are in no rush to argue their case. Famous American historian Timothy Snyder would mention another figure: 167 settlements destroyed by the UPA on the night of 11 to 12 July 1943. This figure greatly surpassed all others that had been mentioned by Polish researchers. Although Snyder did not provide either a list of villages or sources, Ukrainians, through the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, recognised him as "an example of personal moral and scientific integrity". At least that was the formulation that was used when the historian was presented with the Omelian Kovch award this year. The latter was not only a martyr priest who voluntarily condemned himself to death at Majdanek concentration camp, but also an Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists activist. His figure could have expanded perceptions about Ukrainian nationalists, but now Kovch's name has been held hostage by other processes 

RELATED ARTICLE: Polish politics in Volyn

The Home Army and Other Participants in the Anti-Ukrainian Campaign


Despite the common cliché of a one-sided "slaughter", Polish society is at least aware of some villages that are symbols for the murder of the Ukrainian population. Some undoubted examples are Sahryń, Pawłokoma, Wierzchowiny and Zawadka Morochowska. The first two were "slaughtered" by Home Army soldiers, Wierzchowiny by the National Armed Forces (a military formation established after the dissolution of the AK) and Zawadka Morochowska by detachments of the Polish People's Army, who committed three punitive actions against the Ukrainian population between January and April 1946. During the Solidarity era in the early 1990s, those who organised the destruction of Pawłokoma and Wierzchowiny were rehabilitated and celebrated as fighters for Poland.


The list of symbolic destroyed villages should also include Malyn in Volhynia, which was settled by Czech colonists. It was burned on 13 July 1943, just after the Orthodox feast of Peter and Paul. The punitive action was carried out by the Nazis, but not without the participation of the Poles. At least five of the seven Czechs who escaped the massacre claimed that Poles (or Polish speakers) took part in it. Four Polish attackers were identified and one more became well known for rescuing a Ukrainian family.


Malyn should have gone down in Czech history, because 374 Czechs perished there, many much more than in Lidice near Prague, which has already become a symbol of innocent blood shed by the Nazis.


The inability to cover up the numerous cases when Ukrainian villages were destroyed has created another phenomenon, more commonly known as the "retaliatory action". This term is used to try to justify and diminish the acts of "genocide" (to use the Polish wording) that various Polish formations committed against the Ukrainian people.


Jacek Kuroń, one of the intellectuals who had both the opportunity and great enthusiasm for working on Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, illustrated the nonsense inherent to this position. He retold the story of an eyewitness to the destruction of a Polish settlement in Volhynia. This witness, being a small boy, miraculously escaped. He and his father immediately joined their family in Hrubieszów County. They talked about the atrocities of Ukrainians and local residents immediately picked up their weapons and went to destroy the neighbouring Ukrainian village. Obviously, this crime was covered by the concept of "retaliation".


When the first UPA songbook was published by emigrants in the 1950s, the lyrics concerning the Poles were also in the context of retaliation and revenge. Out of 65 songs, only three directly mentioned the Poles. While one was associated with territories to the west of the Kurzon Line, where Lemko squadrons "smashed the Polacks in their villages", the other two linked them to the Bolsheviks: "they drive out communism and the foreign Poles" and "drive the Polacks and the Muscovites out of Ukraine"…


Home Army songs were often more specific. "Szołomyja went up in flames and all the stupid villages will go up in flames," militants of the so-called 14th Home Army sang after burning down the village of Sholomyn near Lviv. The memoirs of one of them, Stefan Dąmbski, contained scenes of not only brutal murders committed by Home Army soldiers, but also torture and gang rape.


When speaking about the "reciprocal action", which has been appropriated by the Poles, it is worth mentioning some Ukrainian examples. In particular, two cases are very revealing. When a special Home Army hit squad arrived from Warsaw in September 1943 to shoot dead Ukrainian professor Lastovetskyi in Lviv, the Ukrainians "retaliated" in the same way – by shooting Polish professor Jałowy. This brought the Polish underground to their senses and the two sides agreed not to take punitive action against the Lviv intelligentsia.


On the other hand, Polish historian Grzegorz Motyka recalls the post-war history. He referred to the difficulties the underground movements of the two peoples had in finding common ground: "The situation in Rzeszów County, where Home Army units repeatedly took part in eliminating the Ukrainian population, was somewhat worse. Only after the UPA burned down the village of Borownica did the two sides come to an agreement on 29 April 1945 in the village of Siedliszcze.”


Speaking about these and other cases when the Ukrainian population was murdered, it is necessary to pay attention to another point that often remains "out of the picture": the "Volhynia resolution" refers to citizens of the Second Polish Republic who were murdered in 1943-1945. Of course, a question arises towards the chronological limits, as the Ukrainian side has on several occasions pointed out examples of violence in the Chełm Region in 1942 and similar events after 1945. In the end, even if one accepts everything as it is, the question remains how to interpret killed civilians of Ukrainian nationality, who, according to the logic of the Polish Sejm, are also formally counted as "citizens of the Second Republic". Although it seems that the parliamentarians cared more about the perpetrators than the victims – to answer all possible additional questions, the resolution clearly states "the victims of the genocide committed by the OUN-UPA in the Eastern Borderlands of the Second Polish Republic".

Ukrainian victims in Sahryń and Wierzchowiny who perished at the hands of the Polish underground. This photograph, as is often the case in Polish media, was used to illustrate "the Volhynia slaughter"



Does the Shadow Fall on the Banderites?


It is worth mentioning separately how the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) became a power – after all, in autumn 1942 Banderites were still mockingly called "the apostles" in Volhynia. Lacking armed brigades, they began to rebuild much later than other groups into the army that would later became known as the UPA.


The simple version of the story tells us they emerged as a real power after March 1943: Ukrainians who were in the Nazi auxiliary police went to hide in the forests. This story is somewhat true, but "the devil is in the detail". First of all, not all the police switched to the UPA in an organised manner. Even a month later, the district leader of the OUN issued a separate appeal to Ukrainians who had left the police, but not yet joined the underground. When the first UPA organiser, commander Dmytro "Klym Savur" Kliachkivskyi, died, a table indicating the structure of the UPA was found in his bag – it had 6920 members in Volhynia and Polesia at the beginning of 1944. At that time, about the same number of men were part of the "Volhynian" 27th Home Army division. In addition, about 4,000 Poles from the security and self-defence corps were stationed in Volhynia and its organisers affirmed that with full mobilisation their ranks could swell to 15,000 soldiers.


If we add the Poles in Nazi police units and the Communist partisans, it is hard to see how the UPA would be able to commit such mass "genocide". Nevertheless, when reviewing reports from the time, it is impossible not to notice that the UPA and Bandera were hardly mentioned.


The materials of red partisans mainly mentioned the Bulbaites [armed formations led by Taras Bulba-Borovets]. "The nationalists are carrying out mass acts of terror against the Polish population. In the villages of the district centres Stepan, Derazhne, Rafalivka and Klevan, the Bulbaites do not just kill, but slaughter every man, woman and child, completely burning down Polish settlements," reported secretary of the Rivne underground regional committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party and head of the regional partisan headquarters Vasyl Behma on 11 April 1943


A year later, in spring 1944, Officer Mazurek of the USSR Polish Corps, responsible for the mobilisation of Poles, reported the following based on conversations with mobilised men: "The terrible, blind and brutish hatred of the Ukrainian chauvinists was directed against the settlers. In this way, the Bulbaite gangs took revenge for the policy of denationalising the Ukrainians that was carried out by Sanation officials."


It can be assumed that at that time it was difficult to distinguish a "Bulbaite" from a "Banderite", but the report of the Polish representative for Volhynia at the end of 1943 emphasised that the anti-Polish campaign began in the Sarny and Kostopil Districts, where Bulba-Borovets held a very strong position.


The confusion of Bulbaites and Banderites still renders the latter a disservice to this day. Recently, new touches were added to this story: John-Paul Himka, a Canadian historian of Ukrainian origin, accused the UPA of murdering Jews in Volhynia, and one of the reasons for this accusation was the memoirs of one of the witnesses regarding participation in Bulbaite massacres.

RELATED ARTICLE: Ukraine and Poland: Time to Shed Myths

Whether the units of Bulba-Borovets were involved in these events or not is an issue that requires its own investigation, although a whole series of facts indicates that Bulba himself had a negative attitude towards ethnic cleansing. These various testimonies only show the complexity behind unambiguous and simple accounts of the anti-Polish campaign in Volhynia. Finally, a Polish author who prepared a report on the events of the time for the government-in-exile remarked that "it is difficult to identify the main perpetrators of this campaign, since in Volhynia, besides the Ukrainian police departments, there were Banderite and Melnykite units, in addition to the police that were subordinate to the Banderites, Soviet saboteurs, Petliurites, i.e. units of local military organisations made up of former officers from Petliura's army, wandering Cossacks fleeing from German service, civilian refugees, deserters and ordinary bandits."

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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