The bleeding land of Volhynia

Anna Cichobłazinska talks to Ewa Siemaszko, the author of the publication about the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia conducted by the Ukrainian nationalists.

Ewa Siemaszko
The author of works on the genocide of the Polish population conducted by the Ukrainians during World War II; co-author of the exhibitions ‘Zbrodnie NKWD na Kresach wschodnich II RP, czerwiec – lipiec 1941’ [The Crimes of the NKWD in the Eastern Territories of the Second Polish Republic, June – July 1941] and ‘Wolyn naszych przodkow. Sladami zycia – czas zaglady’ [Volhynia of Our Ancestors. In the Traces of Life – the Time of Genocide], and of the study ‘Z dziejow konspiracji wojskowej na Wolyniu 1939-44’ [From the History of Military Conspiracy in Volhynia 1939-44] in the collection ‘Armia Krajowa na Wolyniu’ [The Holy Army in Volhynia]; ‘Terror ukrainski i zbrodnie przeciwko ludnosci dokonane przez OUN-UPA na ludnosci polskiej na Wolyniu w latach 1939-1945’ [The Ukrainian terror and crimes against the Polish population in Volhynia conducted by OUN-UPA in the years 1939-1945] in ‘Studia Polonijne’ [Polonia Studies]; ‘Mordy ukrainskie na Wolyniu w czasie II wojny swiatowej’ [The Ukrainian massacres in Volhynia during World War II] in the collective work entitled ‘Europa NIE-prowincjonalna’ [Europe NON-provincial] – the Jozef Mackiewicz Award. Together with her father Wladyslaw Siemaszko she wrote a two volume work ‘Ludobojstwo dokonane przez nacjonalistow ukrainskich na ludnosci polskiej Wolynia 1939-1945 [The Genocide of the Polish Population in Volhynia Conducted by the Ukrainian Nationalists 1939-1945].

Anna Cichobłazinska: – Could you outline the historical background of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict, which was the basis of the massacres of Poles conducted by the Ukrainians during World War II?

Ewa Siemaszko: – Such an outline should begin from the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries when the Ukrainian national awareness was formed and at the same time among the intellectual Ukrainian elite, mainly in the territory of the Polish Commonwealth under the Austrian partition, there were increasing desires to create a Ukrainian state. The First World War was an occasion to gain independence by Poland and the Ukraine. The Polish people thought about returning to the borders before the partitions whereas the Ukrainian elites living in these lands desired to have their own country. The military clash of the Polish and Ukrainian aspirations for independence happened in the years 1918-19 in the territory of Eastern Galicia, especially in the fights of Lvov, during which the Galician Ukrainians were defeated. Poland did not only maintain Galicia but also defended herself against the Bolsheviks’ onslaught in 1920, the consequences being the peace treaty with the USRR and USRS in Riga. Thus Volhynia and Eastern Galicia – the territories where Poles and Ukrainians had lived together for several centuries – were granted to Poland. The Ukrainian circles having independence ambition could not accept this situation and they organised themselves in anti-Polish organisations, which exerted considerable influence on the Ukrainian society: the Ukrainian Military Organisation (UWO) in the years 1920-29 and from 1929 the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). In the inter-war period both organisations conducted terrorist anti-state activities, i.e. sabotage, diversions, assassinations and anti-Polish agitation, especially conducted by the OUN. The anti-Polish activities were fought back by the Polish state, which having regained independence after 123 years of captivity, cared for preserving territorial integrity and its state of possession, and these activities evoked dissatisfaction of the Ukrainian masses and an increase in the popularity of the OUN. The conflict of the Ukrainian and Polish interests, which could not be overcome at that time, need not have led to the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Galicia in the years 1943-46. The main reason for the massacre was the extremely fascist doctrine of Ukrainian nationalism of Dmytro Doncov, which the UON accepted as its ideology. To realise its national aims this ideology presumed using ruthlessness, fanaticism, hatred, the so-called creative violence, which was connected with the UON concept of the Ukrainian state as a homogenous country as far as the ethnic aspect was concerned. An example of the vision of the future country without any ethnic groups was the appeal of the Great Assembly of the Ukrainian Nationalists in August 1939, which postulated, ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians! Do not leave an inch of Ukrainian land in the hands of the enemies and aliens!’ Therefore, the OUN decided to struggle for the Ukrainian state by ruthless and merciless cleansing of non-Ukrainians, first of all the Polish population, from the territory of their future country, not excluding massacres of Poles. The OUN regarded World War II as a historical occasion to realise their desire and the first wave of crimes against the Polish population, conducted by both the Ukrainian nationalists and communists, rolled over in September 1939. The so-called Soviet order imposed after the invasion of the Soviet Union against Poland on 17 September stopped the massacres of Poles by the Ukrainians. The invasion of Germany against the Soviet Union in June 1941 was used by the OUN, which had actually collaborated with the Nazi Germany since 1933, to proclaim the Ukrainian state in Lvov, which was immediately annulled by the German authorities. Nevertheless, under the German occupation the situation favoured the OUN: the Germans tolerated the anti-Polish actions of the Ukrainians. So, commencing with June 1941 the OUN made intensive efforts among the Ukrainian society to evoke hatred towards the Polish neighbours with whom they had had proper relationships earlier and they tried to convince the Ukrainians that Poles had to be annihilated. That happened at the beginning of 1943 when the OUN created the so-called Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

– The peak of the massacres of Poles in Volhynia took place in July and August 1943. The Sunday of 11 July became a symbol of the genocide in these territories but actually the massacre of the Polish population had lasted for several months and ended much later after that date…

– The first alarming attacks took place in Volhynia in 1942, especially in the second half of the year. The victims were individuals and families. Most likely it was a kind of test to the Polish reaction, checking whether the Poles living there had some organised defence. Mass massacres happened from the beginning of 1943. In the first big attack on 9 February 1943 the Polish settlement of Porosle in Sarny county was completely exterminated. Then 150 people were killed. Two northern-eastern counties of Kostopol and Sarny were seized with terror and from April the attacks spread to the remaining eastern counties, in June the central county of Lutsk was included. The pick of the massacres took place in July. The OUN-UPA attacked the Polish population in the western districts, which had remained quiet, of Horochow and Wlodzimierz Wolynski, part of Kowel county, and some attacks happened in smaller areas of the remaining counties. 11 July is the symbolic date of the genocide of the Polish population in Volhynia. All anniversary celebrations focus on that day because it was exactly on that day (it was Sunday) that the OUN-UPA attacked ca. 100 Polish settlements at the same time. What was characteristic was that they attacked believers in their churches in Kisielin, Poryck, Chrynow, Zablocce and a chapel in Krymno. Three priests were killed in these attacks. But these parishes do not end the list of the sanctuaries where the faithful were killed. There were also assaults on other days and furthermore, dozens of churches and chapels were destroyed and burnt. And the attackers were Christians… In August there was another wave of massacres in the western counties and selected regions of other counties, where a similar number of Poles was killed. At that time the Volhynia massacres began in the whole territory of Eastern Galicia, where at first, as in Volhynia, there were few attacks, but from the beginning of 1944 mass attacks were organised. At the beginning of 1940 the villages in Volhynia were practically cleansed of Poles and in 1945, where the remaining Poles were expatriated from Volhynia, still several dozen people were killed. The time of the massacre in Eastern Galicia was moved for one year as compared with Volhynia. There the year 1944 took the heaviest toll of lives and the massacres occurred until the end of the repatriation in 1946.

– Why do both the Ukrainian and Polish states avoid using the term ‘genocide’ to describe the crimes against the Polish population conducted by the Ukrainian nationalists?

– The Ukrainian state is not only going to acknowledge the Volhynia-Galician massacres as genocide (moreover, they ‘will never acknowledge’, as the known Ukrainian historian Ihor Iliuszyn said to Poles on the Polish Television last July, on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the massacres in Volhynia) but also the massacre is not a problem for Ukraine at all, apart from the fact that Poles did not manage to make some forms of commemoration at the sites of the mass graves in Volhynia and Galicia and that in Poland the crimes of OUN-UPA were discussed to the least extent. The glorification of the UPA, its ‘rehabilitation’ – the activities coming from Volhynia and Galicia, i.e. the areas where the UPA originated and conducted its activities and where one can see an increasing Ukrainian nationalism – are to constitute the anti-Soviet historical tradition, i.e. own Ukrainian tradition, on which the national-state identity would be built. These actions are supported by false publications, teaching in schools, celebrations to commemorate the OUN-UPA and their commanders, erecting monuments to them, and all of that is being done under the patronage of President Yushchenko. In this situation acknowledging that OUN-UPA committed the crime of genocide would seriously violate the heroic image of these organisations, their activists and members. In turn, Polish politicians seem to think that meeting the expectations of the Ukrainian nationalists, which they wrongly treat as the expectations of the whole Ukraine, when in eastern Ukraine there are more opponents of the UPA than its sympathizers, is to oppose a repeated subordination on Russia, favouring Ukraine to keep her independence. This conception lacks logics since supporting the Ukrainian nationalists who are ‘contaminated’ by the anti-Polish bug and at the same time they are strongly anti-Russian, i.e. do not incline to return to the situation before 1991, can be harmful to Poland in some longer perspective.

– Both this year and last year the representatives of the government and Parliament avoid participating in the official celebrations and conferences on this genocide in Volhynia. Can closing our eyes to these crimes really help the Polish-Ukrainian relationships? Or can it only postpone the problem? Will the ghosts of the dead speak up for the truth? Will those who survived the massacres and their families, dispersed all over world, live to see to be treated with respect?

– These behaviours are not only expressions of the false conception not to ‘irritate’ Ukraine but also expressions of the intellectual, moral and personality weakness of our politicians, which shows the weakness of the country. Since the absence of the President, representatives of the government and of the Parliament in the celebrations resulted from the intervention of the Ukrainian Embassy and Ukrainian environments. Thus our authorities have shown that they could be subordinate to an alien state. And one should see that as a dangerous phenomenon. Closing our eyes does not eliminate the problem. It will return. Downplaying the massacre means accepting evil and accepted evil causes next evil. One should remember of the obligations of the state as far as the victims and their families are concerned. The state officials do not fulfil these obligations. The genocide of the Polish citizens, members of the nation that has their state, is treated worse than the victims of natural cataclysms.

– Historians still argue about the number of the victims of the massacre in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. What was the scale of the extermination of the Polish population in these territories according to your research?

– In Volhynia ca. 60,000 Polish people were murdered whereas in Eastern Galicia, i.e. in the territories of three southern voivodships: Lvov, Stanislawow and Tarnopol, ca. 70,000 Poles, altogether ca. 130,000. These numbers are the sums of documented and estimated numbers, i.e. resulting from analysing the events and estimating the possible victims. Several dozen years after the crime one cannot settle its scale with all certainty, and especially the personal data of the victims. That’s why, one can expect some corrections.

– What do you think of honouring those Ukrainians that protected the Polish population against death in Volhynia and the Southern-Eastern Territories (the so-called Kresy)?

– This is a right initiative. Many people living in these territories feel grateful to the Ukrainians who contributed to their rescue and want to honour them properly. A suitable gesture would be to establish some medal or award. However, that involves many problems. One should notice that the majority of ‘righteous’ Ukrainians is not known by name. Moreover, the ‘righteous Ukrainians’ are dead, considering that they were old then, and those who showed courage and felt moral obligation to save their Polish neighbours, belonged to this social group. Their descendants are alive but the question arises whether they would be pleased to receive such a distinction, which would juxtapose the official myth of the heroic OUN-UPA promoted by the Ukrainian country… In the light of the ideology and practice of these formations those who saved Poles were treated as traitors, some paid the price of life for this ‘treason’. And that’s why, today in Volhynia and Galicia one can meet Ukrainians who are afraid of speaking about the massacres of Poles, afraid of showing where the destroyed Polish settlement and graves were. Those living in the Eastern territory include inscriptions commemorating all the Ukrainians, without mentioning their names, who saved the Poles, on the tablets and monuments if this is possible. Other suitable forms of remembrance are descriptions of the cases of Ukrainian help offered to Poles in all publications concerning the genocide in the Kresy and even the special study ‘Kresowa ksiega sprawiedliwych’ [The Kresowa Book of the Righteous] written by Romuald Niedzielka and published by the Institute of National Remembrance.

"Niedziela" 28/2009

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: