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Volhynia: The Reckoning Begins

The first memorial to Poles massacred by Ukrainians in World War II is just one step toward a common account of history. by Inessa Kim 18 July 2003 WARSAW, Poland--Next year, when Poland joins the EU, the relationship between Warsaw and Kiev could prove the key tie across the “Brussels curtain” that will divide Central and Eastern Europe. Certainly, many in Poland’s political elite believe their country has a special responsibility to help Ukraine, its formerly partly Polish neighbor, to become more deeply integrated with the rest of Europe.

But this is a solidarity strained by history, as a controversial ceremony held last week in a small village in western Ukraine highlighted. Sixty years ago, in this village, then known by the Polish name Poryck, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) killed 200 civilians attending mass.

Poryck was just one of 167 towns and villages in Volhynia, then part of Poland, that the UPA attacked on 11 July 1943.

On that day, and on other days in 1943 and 1944, Ukrainian nationalists killed a total of 50,000 to 60,000 Poles, Polish historians say. (Some figures are much higher.) The aim was to ethnically cleanse the region, leaving it open for settlement by Ukrainians after the war.

In retaliation, the Polish Home Army, the Polish resistance, killed 10,000-20,000 Ukrainian civilians in 1944.

This was one of a violent--some say connected--sequence of events on the Polish-Ukrainian border at the end of the war. Volhynia, like Galicia after World War I, was contested territory.

In 1947, the communist government in Poland uprooted roughly 150,000 Ukrainians from southeastern Poland and settled them in northern and western areas formerly populated by Germans.

Both historical wounds have festered through the decades of communism and one post-communist decade.

In 2002, Poland took a first step toward settling the two issues when President Aleksander Kwasniewski expressed “regret” over the postwar resettlement program, known as Operation Vistula. “The infamous Operation Vistula is a symbol of the abominable deeds perpetrated by the communist authorities against Polish citizens of Ukrainian origin,” he said. He continued, labeling the argument that “Operation Vistula was the revenge for the slaughter of Poles by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army” in 1943-1944 “fallacious and ethically inadmissible,” as it invoked “the principle of collective guilt.”

Reaching agreement on any similar statement about the massacres in Volhynia has been harder still. The text of the declaration received just one vote more than the necessary majority in the Ukrainian parliament. Staring failure in the face, the speaker of parliament tried without success to persuade the speaker of the Polish Sejm to change the text to accommodate grievances that Ukrainian victims had received less prominent mention.


The result was that, at last week’s ceremony, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma spoke of “sadness and sorrow” at the Polish deaths, but did not say the words of apology wanted by many Poles.

Marek Siwiec, a chief of the National Security Bureau, said he knew that the word “sorry” would not pass Kuchma’s lips, as an apology would have been unacceptable to the political elite around Kuchma.

source: station in Zytomyr (formerly Zhitomir), Volhynia. Photo by Dave Obee
Nor did Kuchma want to risk upsetting Ukrainian society as a whole, argues Jerzy Kozakiewicz of the (Polish) Institute of Political Studies. “We all know that Kuchma is not accepted by the vast majority of Ukrainian society,” he says. “How, then, could we expect that he would apologize on behalf of the Ukrainian people?”

The Polish Sejm took the view that a compromise was necessary. Two days before the ceremony, in a heated debate about the text of the common declaration, Marek Jurek from the center-right Law and Justice Party (PiS) argued that the word “genocide” should be included in the text. In the end, most Polish parliamentarians agreed the Ukrainian side would find that unacceptable.

Nonetheless, in his speech President Kwasniewski did use the term “genocide,” while Kuchma stressed that there were also Ukrainian victims.

These were two pointed comments on what proved a prickly occasion.

A bus full of Polish veterans that was supposed to be heading to Pavlivka (as Poryck is now known) was stopped at the border. UPA veterans were also refused entry.

Locals were also left outside--though how much they wanted to take part is questionable.

“The local people did not want to talk to us; the atmosphere before the ceremony was tense,” said Jaroslaw Junko, a Ukrainian journalist working for the Ukrainian section of Radio Polonia.

“Then I understood what Poles in Jedwabne might have felt,” says Junko, referring to a similar 60th-anniversary ceremony held two years ago at the site of a Polish slaughter of hundreds of Jews in 1941.

In the end, the ceremony in Pavlivka was attended only by national and local officials (and journalists).

Junko’s conclusion is that “the ceremony in Pavlivka was just window-dressing.” The words of reconciliation, he argues, were not sentiments shared by ordinary Poles and Ukrainians.

Jerzy Kozakiewicz takes a radically different view. “The idea of presenting the problem as an axis of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation was senseless because there is no historical tension between our nations, and relations between the two neighboring states are developing in a positive direction,” he contends. The ceremony should therefore not have been held, he believes.


This is not the view expressed by Kwasniewski and Kuchma. “The truth of those dramatic years is painful for everyone,” their joint declaration read, “but both Poles and Ukrainians should know about it."

For Polish historian Grzegorz Motyka, the massacres are a crucial issue that needs to be addressed. The Soviet massacres of Polish army officers in Katyn in 1940 may be referred to more frequently, but Volhynia is also prominent in Poles’ historical awareness.

The same is not true in Ukraine. Many Ukrainians heard of the Volhynia tragedy for the first time only in February 2003, after a meeting between Kwasniewski and Kuchma.

“Over the past six months, the Ukrainian mass media has aired the opinions of our academics, politicians, and journalists on the events in Volhynia far more than in the previous decades,” a Ukrainian historian from Kiev University of Slavic Studies, Igor Ilyushin, wrote in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.

As a historian, Ilyushin believes this new attention is healthy. However, it also touches a raw nerve.

Kwasniewski’s statement that “there are no guilty nations” is, in part, an attempt to avoid inflaming that nerve. Survivors of the massacres have also argued against collective guilt. Aleksandr Niedzwiedzki, who escaped the killings, emphasizes that the whole Ukrainian nation cannot be held responsible. He and others say that many Ukrainians helped them to escape the slaughter.

In Niedzwiedzki’s view, the ceremony’s motto of “reconciliation” was therefore inappropriate, as the massacres were the work of the UPA and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), not nations.

Ukrainian academics are a long way from apportioning guilt on such an individual level. According to Ilyushin, most of his colleagues view the Volhynia tragedy as just one issue on the broader canvas of Polish-Ukrainian conflict before and after World War II.

Some of these historians argue, in Ilyushin’s words, that through the Polish resistance, the Polish government-in-exile “to a large extent provoked a decisive reaction by the most influential Ukrainian political force in the region, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists” because they had “violated” the rights of Ukrainians in Volhynia and Galicia before and during the war.

There is also a reluctance to condemn the UPA because, until 1953, it fought a rearguard battle for Ukrainian independence against the Soviet army.

“For the inhabitants of western Ukraine the UPA nationalists are national heroes, while in Central and Eastern Ukraine people see them as bandits,” says Kozakiewicz of the Institute of Political Studies.

He takes this as evidence that “the Ukrainians themselves have not yet squared up to their history.”

But it also highlights a fundamental distinction that may partly explain why it is proving harder for Ukrainians to acknowledge the Volhynia massacres than for the Poles to come to terms with Operation Vistula: The Poles can ascribe the expulsions to the Communists, but the Ukrainians have to acknowledge that men who fought for independence from the Soviet Union were also the killers of women and children.

Ukrainian journalist Jaroslaw Junko agrees that “national and historical awareness is very weak” in his homeland. This is not an excuse, though, he argues. “A civilized person cannot ignore the argument that the OUN and UPA murdered innocent children and women.”

Junko attributes part of the difficulty of coming to terms with the past to Ukraine being a “young and unstable state.”

But in Poland too, Volhynia is a relatively new topic of public debate. As Bogumila Berdychowska from the National Center for Culture points out, in communist times it was forbidden to talk or to write about issues such as the Volhynia massacres.

Indeed, Polish communist media tried to omit any topic related to Poles from the eastern lands that now form part of Ukraine and Belarus. The Soviet regime may have tried in many other ways to blacken the legend of the UPA, but it did not want satellite countries to criticize peoples within the Soviet Union.

“In fact,” says Berdychowska, “neither Polish nor Ukrainian scientists were allowed to deal with the Volhynia massacres.”


Poland, too, is only just beginning to clear its own accounts with the past, says Jacek Borkowicz, a commentator for the Catholic monthly Wez. He points to Jedwabne and the massacre of Jews, and to other examples of complicity with the Nazis.

“It is a sad irony,” he wrote, that while the OUN “was killing Poles under the motto of fighting communism … under the same motto Polish servants of the Hitler police were burning Ukrainian villages.”

Nonetheless, Poland’s apologies about Jedwabne and Operation Vistula mean it is clearing its accounts faster. “Ukrainians do not have any experience of open discussion about crimes they themselves committed,” Borkowicz says.

That is one reason why Borkowicz and others particularly appreciate any gesture from Ukraine. He quotes as an example an open letter from Ukrainian intellectuals that read:

“We apologize to those Poles whose lives were shattered by Ukrainian weapons. … We apologize to the whole of Polish society. … We are sorry that those weapons were directed against innocent civilian Polish families and we acknowledge that the removal of the Polish population from Volhynia by force was a tragic mistake.”

The letter, sent to mark the 60th anniversary, was entitled “We Forgive and Apologize,” a reference to a letter sent in 1965 by Polish bishops to their German counterparts that paved the way for a Polish-German reconciliation.


As things stand, Ilyushin writes, most Ukrainian historians believe there are two truths about Volhynia: Polish and Ukrainian. The ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the tragic events will not close the discussion.

Indeed, there has been little dialogue. A joint historical commission of historians to look into the period may be some time away.

Source: market in Rowno (now Rivne). Photo courtesy Paul Havers
“The time for common talks about the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations has yet to come,” argues Jerzy Kozakiewicz, while Bronislaw Komorowski, a parliamentarian from the liberal Civic Platform, asserts that “obviously, it is impossible to move forward faster.”

For Bogdan Maciejewski, a commentator, this is all reason for pessimism. “It is not true that the past never comes back,” he wrote in the daily newspaper Super Express. “Its ghosts stay well; time does not heal the wounds and is not a good doctor, at least not in Ukraine’s and Poland’s complicated relationship.”

Adam Szostkiewicz, a journalist at the weekly Polityka, sees the difficulties as principally a matter of nationality and political ideology. “The truth of a Pole from Volhynia clashes with the truth of Volhynian Ukrainian … the truth of western Ukraine with the truth of eastern Ukraine. … The truth of a nationalist will never match the truth of a democrat either in Poland or Ukraine.”

In this part of Europe, it seems, the question of historical truth is so hot it can scorch.

History, though, is unlikely to stop Poland’s leaders from what some see as a mission to help bring Ukraine closer to the rest of democratic Europe. If Szostkiewicz is right, by promoting democracy Poland could also cool attitudes toward the past.
Inessa Kim is a TOL correspondent in Warsaw. She is a Kazakh.
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