March 27, 2013

Massacre at Volhynia: Remembering the victims

Seventy years ago a reign of terror was unleashed against the Polish population of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. It was a bloodbath - a horrific carnage of unspeakable proportions that even today historians are compelled to turn their faces away from the facts, preferring to remain oblivious to one of the most heinous massacres of World War II. Any mention of it during the communism era in Poland, was strictly taboo. Now the truth is slowly emerging.

At the start of WWII, political undercurrents rapidly escalated in the eastern borderlands of Poland that had catastrophic effects. Many Polish people were unknowingly on the precipice of destruction, but were assured by their Ukrainian neighbours that no malice would befall them.  It was a ruse.  Dmyto Klyachkivsky, senior commander of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army), had issued an order that all males of Polish origin between the ages of 16 and 60, residing in the regions of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia were to be "liquidated". The UPA action began in March 1943 and continued unabated to the end of the war. When it was all over, there were up to 90,000 Polish casualties: from 40,000 to 60,000 Polish people were murdered in Volhynia, and between 25,000 and 30,000 Poles were killed in Galicia. Most were women and children.

The UPA was the military adjunct of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, aka the Bandera faction, whose prime objectives were to establish a united,  independent  and ethnically homogeneous Ukrainian state.  All foreigners were considered enemies, foremost among them were the Polish people (in particular the Polish Underground), as well occupants from the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Nazi Germany.  

The strategy of the UPA  was to wield violence as a political tool in the attempt to drive out all non-Ukrainians from the future Ukrainian state.  (Incidentally, the UPA and OUN-B (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) had briefly cooperated with Nazi German forces in waging battle against the Soviets when the Red Army began exhibiting military ambitions in the region.)   The level of violence grew to unimaginable proportions.  According to a OUN order, all traces of Polish establishments were to be completely erased foremost the destruction of Polish Catholic churches, Polish homes, and even trees and orchards that had been planted by Polish people,  " that there will be no trace that someone lived there....".

Victims of massacre committed by  UPA in Lipniki Poland 1943

The tensions between the Ukrainians and Polish peoples had its roots in antiquity, marked by the infamous Khmelnytsky Uprising from 1648 to 1657.  The battles resulted in substantial loss of control by the Polish szlachta (Polish nobility) as well as Jewish intermediaries and ecclesiastical hierarchy and virtually ended Polish power in the region.  Unsurprisingly, the void was quickly occupied by Imperial Russia.

However after the end WWI, nationalistic fervor exploded resulting in an epic struggle by Poles and Ukrainians to reclaim the territories of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia - a conflict which persisted during the inter-war years. During the 1930s the OUN launched a series of terrorist actions against the Second Polish Republic, but were met with swift government reprisals. Unfortunately, Polish efforts accomplished nothing to stem the hostilities and only served to further inflame the Ukrainian Resistance.

In September 1939, after the joint invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian nationalists seized upon the opportunity of "cleansing" Polish influence from territories that they considered to be Ukrainian. Theirs was more than a nationalistic fervor but rather, a vitriol reaction against Polonization.

The height of the carnage took place during the months of July and August of 1943, when UPA troops marched through hundreds of villages, killing thousands upon thousands of Polish civilians on sight. Roving gangs of murderous thugs teamed up with the UPA, and armed with torches, axes, pitchforks and bayonets, descended upon villages, raping women, stabbing pregnant women, dismembering children, crucifying priests, and disembowelling or beheading their victims. The attacks were not random, but carefully planned, and instigated when least expected, at around 3:00 am, when no person could escape in time. Initially, Polish residents had a false sense of security because the members of the UPA promised that they would not be harmed. In the aftermath of the massacres, personal Polish property was looted, and entire villages were razed to the ground, disappearing forever. These actions continued until the Polish people were either murdered or deported.

Bullet marks visible on  Podkamie┼ä Abbey stormed by UPA on March 12, 1944
Eastern Lesser Poland,-now Ukraine

After the end of WWII, the Soviet-backed Communist Polish government embarked on a policy of Operation Vistula, code-named for the forced resettlement of Ukrainian minorities to  the "Recovered Territories" (areas that had been part of Germany before WWII).  These expulsions were intended to usurp the power of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, but according to other sources were meant to be reprisals against Ukrainian villagers.

Only after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, did many Polish and Ukrainian politicians and historians, join ranks with the West in openly condemning the policy of Operation Vistula for its  tactics of "ethnic cleansing" on the Ukrainian populace.   Despite reports of repression and violence having been committed against the Ukrainians, they were not subjected to the butchery that had been inflicted so viciously upon the Poles by the UPA.  Tragically, for decades after the war, the West chose to be oblivious to the facts, determined  to erase the very memory of the Volhynia Massacre from the pages of history. 

In 2002, President Aleksander Kwasniewski expressed regret for the policy of Operation Vistula, describing it as an abomination perpetrated by the communist authorities against Polish citizens of Ukrainian origin.  He denied that the resettlement program was an act of "revenge for the slaughter of Poles by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army" and referred to such insinuations as "fallacious and ethically inadmissible".  

Finally on July 11, 2003, President Aleksander Kwasniewski and President Leonid Kuchma met in the Volhynian village of Pavlivka to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the massacre. and unveil a momument of reconciliation.  Pavlivka is now part of the Ukraine, in the Volyn Oblast, hear Volodymyr-Volynskyi, near the Luga River.  During the interwar period, the town belonged to Poland in the Wolyn Voivodeship.

President Kwasniewski stated that it was unjust to blame "the entire Ukrainian nation for these acts of terror...." and that " the Ukrainian nation cannot be blamed for the massacre perpetrated on the Polish population.  There are no nations that are guilty.... it is always specific people who bear the responsibility for crimes."  President Kuchma shared the plea for forgiveness and reconciliation stating that, " this place where Polish victims rest, on behalf of all Ukranians who want peace and justice, I wish to express my deep sympathy to all the wronged Poles, all those who suffered as a result of this disaster.  We issue a strong condemnation of the violence committed against the Polish civilian population."

Monument for Polish victims of Volhynia Massacre
 by Stako-edited by Goku122

Tablet of names of Poles killed in Berezowica Mala Eastern Lesser Poland
now in Ukraine

Plaque in remembrance of victims of Volhynia Massacre-
Church of St Bridget-Gdansk

Massacre of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia