Volyn’s Own Katyn

3 October 2011, 17:29

Skeletons of people of different ages and both sexes were stacked up in the ground. Some convulsively pressed children to themselves to protect them against bullets, while others held their relatives. The victims knew they faced a violent death: they were put in groups of 30-60, driven into dug-out pits and quickly shot. The bodies were then covered with a thin layer of dirt and a new batch was brought. The butchers did not take pains to aim well and shot almost at random. They finished off the wounded with rifle butts. Several infants with crushed skulls were found.


“Last year we started searching here for a wall of a 14th-century castle which was built for King Casimir III the Great. The wall is very important for European history: the castle was never completed, so one can date all castles in Europe by examining the bricks and the way they were laid,” says Oleksiy Zlatohorsky, director of government-owned Volynski Starozhytnosti archeological enterprise. “Prior to the excavations we duly scanned the possible location of the cultural layer in question with ground-penetrating radar. It revealed a wall and next to it – an unidentified burial place.”

The archeologists found and examined six skeletons at the time. In July 2011, permission was obtained to continue the excavations, and the remains of 326 people have been found to date. Even though there is no official explanation of who these people were and why they were shot, scholars believe these are victims executed by the NKVD in 1941. Artefacts found on the site suggest they were Polish subjects – military men, civilians and the rich.

“Here are two badges of Polish police officers. They have numbers, and so we already know who they belonged to: Josef Kuligowski and Ludwig Malowiejski, both from Łódź. According to NKVD documents, one of them was shot in Kalinin (now Tver) and the other one in Ostashkiv (near Kharkiv). In other words, the documents were sent but the people stayed, because the Germans crossed the border in July 1941 too quickly. The border was a mere nine kilometers from Volodymyr-Volynsky,” Zlatohorsky says. “I believe that here they hurriedly killed everyone whom they did not have time to deport to Russia. Evidently, the prison contained entire families of those who were deemed suspect or disloyal by the Soviet authorities. Thus, entire families were shot. That the NKVD was in a hurry is corroborated by the fact that people were not searched. One of the deceased had 10 tsarist gold coins on him, while another carried around 200 cartridges for four different types of guns in his bag. Most personal belongings have clear Polish or other Western European identity: a photo of Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly, women’s combs, a vial with ‘Warszawa’ printed on the bottom, a tin with Polish text, a bottle of perfume, silver spoons and forks, etc. We have also noted very high-quality dentistry which only the rich could afford. I believe these were members of the Polish elite.”

Bullets and cartridge cases were also found on the site. Researchers believe the victims were shot using 9mm German-made Walter P38 guns or Parabellums. It is a known fact that before the war the NKVD armed its executioners with these weapons – Stalin’s USSR and Hitler’s Germany were friends and economic partners at the time. The cartridge cases found were dated 1941, which confirms that the victims were shot that year. The killers left their own marks in the mass grave – a metal cup with a stamp of a plant located near Moscow and bottles made of expensive glass.


In October, the bodies will be reinterred in the local cemetery, but it is already clear that the plot of land allocated for this purpose is too small. “Test shafts near the opened grave show that there are about 1,000 more people buried there. We do not know the figure for the entire territory. It could be tens of thousands of victims,” Zlatohorsky continues. “Due to a shortage of funds we are now shutting down the works here in order to resume them next year. I am very thankful to history student interns from Volyn National University. They have been helping us for two years now since the excavations were launched. This is a great test for them: in the first days all of them simply wept, but no one quit.”

In 1976, archeologists from Leningrad also searched for the same ancient castle wall here but found a burial place instead. KGB officers immediately came to the site and prohibited any further archeological activity there. Numerous testimonies of the locals, collected and kept in the Volodymyr-Volynsky Historical Museum, also point to a possible mass burial at the site of the ancient settlement.

Mykola Kucherepa, professor at the Department of Modern History of Ukraine at Volyn National University and head of the Center for Ukrainian-Polish Studies, comments: “The settlement has been studied only in part. I believe that mass graves – of both Poles and Ukrainians – may be scattered across its territory. The prison was packed both before and after the war. The shootings began in 1939 with the arrival of the Soviets: among others, they arrested members of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine and more or less well-off peasants. This was a refined technique: come and immediately cleanse, kill all those who could be a potential enemy and whose activities could be anti-Soviet. They killed people up to the fifth generation to eradicate entire families. Thus, they shot everyone, even babies. There are testimonies that at night, they put two tractors in the prison yard and kept their engines running without mufflers to drown out shots. This way they emptied prison cells for new inmates. When the Germans entered the town in 1941, they let the locals search for their relatives in a heap of bodies – over 100 people had just been killed near a stable. […] It is not known for a fact whether executions were carried out here under the Germans. The camp where 4,000-8,000 Soviet POWs were kept was located just outside the town. It was unlikely that the Nazis would bring them all the way to the center to shoot them.”

After the Soviets returned, they filled the prison with those who had helped or simply sympathized with the UPA. The prison cellar has not been examined so far. It is bricked up, but it has to be there, because the building was originally designed as a prison. Historical sources tell us that NKVD officers often shot people in cellars. I am in charge of the Rehabilitated by History project in Volyn oblast, but I am afraid that it will be impossible to identify all the people executed here.”


Andrzej Kola, professor at the Institute of Archeology at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland:

For 16 years now, I have carried out exhumations in Ukraine: in Kharkiv, Bykivnia near Kyiv, Lutsk and Lviv. My colleagues and I are working on commission from a Polish government organization called Council for Protection of Memories of Struggle and Martyrdom. But I have never encountered a situation like this one here. We are now excavating a 14-by-4-meter pit, but it is evidently just a small part of a much bigger burial place. It seems that this large killing ground is a Katyn in Volyn.

It is hard to say exactly how many people were murdered here, but they included ethnic Poles and Ukrainians – all of them were likely Polish subjects. It is also clear that this was a crime. You will remember that Polish military men were in Volodymyr-Volynsky for a while, but [the NKVD] had enough time to transport them deep into Russia. There are only civilian remains, apart from two Polish police officers. All of them were killed. A horrible tragedy.

To me, there are more questions than answers here. Who were the killers? If the Germans did it, why in such disorderly fashion? Why does it all seem so chaotic and careless? Why doesn’t it match the culture of death the Germans adhered to? Why weren’t gold crowns and bridges removed from the victims’ mouths? Why weren’t they stripped of valuable things? If Germans had done it, it would look totally different: Ordnung, order. A shooting squad, victims facing the shooters…So all of this suggests that NKVD officers did the killing. However, we will have conclusive results when we have studied the entire territory of the settlement.


Volodymyr Stemkovsky, director of the Volodymyr-Volynsky Historical Museum:

This is the second stage of excavations in what was once an NKVD prison. The first one was completed in 1997-98 and the scholars were guided by testimonies of local residents then. At the time, Leonid Mykhalchuk, leader of a local People’s Movement branch, and I explored a small plot of land where we found over 90 human skeletons, including seven women’s skeletons, and a lot of footwear, buttons, cartridge cases for handguns that NKVD troops used, many Soviet coins minted in 1932-40, leather belts and the remains of other Polish military accoutrements.

The fist version we had was that these people were Polish refugees who found themselves sandwiched between German and Soviet troops in 1939. Another version was that this was part of the corps led by General Mieczysław Smorawiński. They retreated via Volodymyr-Volynsky to Brody and further to Romania but were surrounded by Red Army units on September 18-20 and went missing. In October 1939, the NKVD started arresting intellectuals, clergymen, OUN members, one-time Polish army and UNR officers and members of Ukrainian cultural societies. Before the arrival of the Nazis, the NKVD launched mass executions of inmates. German war correspondents reported these facts in their newspapers. The Berlin archive has videos shot in June 1941 by German documentary filmmakers in Volodymyr Volynsky. Soviet propaganda attributed the atrocities to the Nazis.

Victims of “reunification”

In 1939-41, 10-20% of the population in Western Ukraine were deported to Siberia, Volga region, Kazakhstan and northern parts of the USSR. A large number of intellectuals fell victim to Stalinism: attorneys, school and college teachers, priests and cultural figures. Many innocent people – among others, Ivan Franko’s son Petro – who were in local prisons when the Second World War broke out were murdered.

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