Remembering Wołyn

In 2010 I visited the Polish city of Szczecin for the first time. While I was there I read a curious story in the local newspaper. It concerned a village near Szczecin whose inhabitants were unhappy at the state of their roads and the apparent unwillingness of the local authority to spend any money improving them. They wrote to the local mayor who replied that the villagers, largely people of Ukrainian origin, were UPA terrorists and didn’t deserve good roads. In answering the question what was the UPA and why Ukrainians were living in a former German village in Pomerania I discovered a tragedy that is largely unknown outside Poland and the Ukraine, a series of events that may be little more than a footnote in the unfathomable catalogue of human suffering that was the Second World War but which have left lasting scars. President Komorowski was in the Ukraine this week to participate in a number of events, including a deeply moving Requiem Mass for the victims, that were meant to promote reconciliation between Poles and Ukrainians. Sadly, even seventy years on, not everyone is ready to extend the olive branch as the attack on Komorowski by a nationalist armed with an egg demonstrates. The events that have been commemorated are known as the Volyhnia Butchery or in Polish the Rzeź Wołyńska.

The nineteenth century was the age of the nation builders and it was intellectuals such as the writer and poet Ivan Franko (after whom the city of Ivano-Frankivsk formerly Stanisławów is named, who forged a Ukrainian nation from a people previously known as Ruthenians. A nation, from the perspective of the romantic nationalists needs a homeland and this was where the problems started. All of the territories inhabited by Ukrainians had historically formed part of other states and had significant non-Ukrainian populations. Many of them lived in Eastern Galicia, a territory that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire . Galicia was largely rural, grindingly poor and inhabited by a bewildering array of nationalities, including largely non-assimilated Jews, Germans, Magyars, Czechs and, the largest group, Poles. These territories had formed part of the Polish state that had disappeared from the map in 1795 and it was fairly clear that, if Poland ever regained its independence, they would have a claim to this territory. The same applied to Volynhia which before 1914 was part of the Russian Empire. It was here that conflict was to reach a tragic peak in 1943.

Open conflict between Poles and Ukrainians began after the collapse of Austria-Hungary when both Poland and the Ukraine emerged as independent states. The Ukrainian state was destined not to last long and the outcome of the Polish-Soviet War which ended with the Riga Armistice of 1921 was a division of the lands may Ukrainians regarded as theirs between Poland and the Soviet Union.

Relations between Poles and Ukrainians in the new state were unhappy. The policy of the Polish government was less than enlightened , particularly after 1935 when ham-fisted attempts were made to ban the Ukrainian language and close Orthodox churches, while the policy of polonising the eastern borderlands with Poles resettled from elsewhere in the country was widely resented. The Soviet Union wasted no opportunity to cause trouble posing as the defenders of the rights of the oppressed Ukrainians against the Polish landlords. This was totally hypocritical. The Ukrainians in the Soviet Union suffered one of the twentieth century’s greatest peacetime tragedies, the great famine or holodomor as Ukrainians call it, which followed Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture and led to the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Several countries have recognised this as genocide. It sealed the hatred of many Ukrainians for their Soviet rulers and explains the willingness of many to side with Nazi Germany.

Unsurprisingly these events led to a significant radicalisation of Ukrainian nationalism. There had been Ukrainian terrorist activity in Poland before the warm including political assassinations. After the outbreak of war in 1939 and the dismemberment of Poland radical Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of Stepan Bandera  saw an opportunity. The aim was to cleanse the area of Poles prior to creating an ethnically pure Ukrainian state after the war.

The tragedy of Volhynia or Wolyn unfolded in 1943 as armed bands of Ukrainian nationalists, members of the UPA or Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army, murdered some 70,000 Polish civilians. The wave of killings spread west through Galicia with isolated incidents within the post-war frontiers of Poland.  Accounts of the savagery make difficult reading. The victims were unarmed civilians with women and children disproportionately represented. The killing reached a peak in July 1943, which is why President Komorowski was in the Ukraine this week.

At Yalta the westward shift of Poland was agreed about this still left some 750,000 Ukrainians within Poland, mainly in the Bieszczady mountains of the South East. UPA units remained active, resisting Communist rule. Early in 1947 they assassinated the Polish general Karol Świerczewski in an ambush. This was the cue for the final act of the tragedy as the Polish government launched Akcja Wisła or Operation Vistula, the burning of Ukrainian villages and the forced resettlement of Ukrainians across Poland but mainly in the so-called recovered territories. So it was that a Pomeranian village became a little Ukraine with terrible roads.

I visited the Ukraine three years ago, Czernowitz, Kamieniec Podolski .and Chocim, places with a great historical resonance. My Polish wife had always been very wary of going, fearing that Poles could not expect a warm welcome. She was pleasantly surprised  at the friendliness and warmth of many of the people we meet. And there are plenty of Ukrainians in Poland, many of them admittedly working illegally. Many middle class households in Warsaw could barely function without their Ukrainian cleaning ladies. The two nations are neighbours and will be for some time yet. It is time for reconciliation even if some nationalists still don’t understand. If President Komorowski’s visit has furthered the process his dry cleaning bill is a price worth paying.