It has been 79 years since the event known as “Bloody Sunday” – the apogee of the murder of the local Polish population living in villages and towns in Volhynia. Following a Polish parliamentary resolution, the commemoration of the National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Genocide Perpetrated by Ukrainian Nationalists on the Citizens of the Second Polish Republic, annual commemoration takes place on July 11th.
The day of July 11, 1943, when 99 villages were attacked, began the main action targeting Poles, lasting until July 16, 1943. It should be remembered that anti-Polish operations began earlier, in early 1943, and included the Volhynia and Eastern Galicia areas. As a result of coordinated actions by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B – Stepan Bandera’s faction) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), subordinated to the OUN and part of the Ukrainian population, some 50-60,000 Poles were brutally murdered. The OUN-UPA referred to its actions as an “anti-Polish action.” One goal was hidden under this banner: the complete removal of all Poles from Volhynia by murdering so many of them and in such a cruel manner that the remaining population would flee on their own.
Poles and Ukrainians were united for centuries by a shared history and a common state. The discord between us has always benefited Russia. Politicians aware of this made attempts to transform the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth tie into a Commonwealth of Three Nations so that Ukrainians would – politically – become full-fledged members of a common state. The last testimony to such a view of our community is the seal of the National Government of the 1863 January Uprising with the Polish Eagle, the Lithuanian Pahonia, and the Ukrainian St. Michael the Archangel. At the beginning of the 20th century, when there was an awakening of the consciousness of their own identity of many European nations, Ukrainians also wanted their own state. Marshal Piłsudski understood and recognized their desires and supported Chief Otaman Petlura’s efforts. However, Soviet Russia ultimately proved stronger and seized most of Ukraine. To fully subjugate it, purges were not enough; it took an artificially induced famine – the “Holodomor” – to subdue and force the Ukrainians into collectivization. Ukrainian nationalists developed their activities where they could in Poland. In the radical pursuit of their own state, they saw enemies in both the Soviets and Poland. It must be admitted that the policy of Polonization implemented in Poland’s Borderlands, rather than winning Ukrainians over to the Polish state, strengthened antagonisms. Despite this, it is worth recalling that over the centuries, Poles and Ukrainians, who jointly inhabited the area, learned to function together. Both nations more or less adapted to the customs of their neighbors. In many localities, good neighborly customs prevailed, mixed marriages occurred, and people played and celebrated together and helped each other. The greater was the drama of the Polish population, who perished at the hands of even crueler, as it turned out, neighbors during the cruel German occupation.
The wave of criminality intensified on July 11-12, when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) carried out a synchronized attack on Poles in more than 200 villages in the poviats of Włodzimierz, Horochów, Kowel, and Łuck (pre-war Polish administrative designations). UPA members took advantage of the fact that on Sunday (July 11th), the vast majority of Poles attended church services where the defenseless Poles gathered in churches and became an easy target for the UPA. The crimes at the churches occurred in the towns of Poryck, Chrynów, Krymno, and Kisielin (pre-war Polish administrative town names), among other places. The latter is poignantly described in the documentary “Było sobie miasteczko,” available on Youtube. UPA’s actions led to the burning and demolition of some fifty Catholic churches.
The crimes against the Poles were characterized by unimaginable cruelty. Victims were burned alive, thrown into wells, and murdered with axes and pitchforks. Poles were often subjected to bestial torture before death, rapes took place, and entire villages were burned to the ground and demolished so that Poles who survived could not return to their homes. This was – to use today’s terminology – ethnic cleansing. The largest massacres were carried out in Wola Ostrowiecka, where 628 Poles were murdered, in the Gaj colony – 600, in Ostrówki – 521, and Kołodnie – 516.
The term “Volhynian crime” does not apply only to the former Volhynian voivodeship but also includes the former Eastern Galicia provinces of Lwów, Tarnopol, and Stanisławów (pre-war Polish administrative city names). Mass murders were also carried out in the Lublin and Polesie voivodeships.
Our memory and the liberating power of truth
“The Volhynian Massacre” – a mass crime committed against citizens of the Second Republic, left a wound that still bleeds. Still today, the dimension of this crime arouses extreme emotions. The crimes were committed in areas annexed to the Soviets after the Second World War. The Polish population, resettled as part of “war repatriations” mainly to lands obtained from the Germans in Poland’s current western voivodeships, carried with them the memory of these crimes.
Due to obligatory “Polish-Soviet friendship,” it was forbidden to talk about this crime for decades. However, the actions of the OUN-UPA and part of the Ukrainian population still cast a shadow over Polish-Ukrainian relations. It is evident that we remember the Victims and want to know the truth about what happened to them because only an explanation of this crime and due remembrance of the murdered Poles can bring at least partial solace and justice. Attempts to come to an understanding with Ukraine on this issue have gone in different directions over the years. For Ukrainians, who remember well the “Holodomor” and Soviet persecution, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the OUN symbolize the forces striving to build Ukrainian national identity and the creation of a free Ukraine; hence it has been difficult for them to get behind their criticism. However, only the truth can set us free. The current war is replete with acts of heroism by Ukrainian soldiers, the National Guard, and other services. For one, the Azovstal defenders of Mariupol set an example for the heroes of the new Ukraine. One can assume that it is around them that the national narration concerning Ukrainian identity will crystallize, much more imaginative and thrilling than the story of Stepan Bandera.
In the current historical moment of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Ukrainians had seen whom they could count on when Poland and the Polish people opened their hearts and homes, providing shelter and a sense of security to Ukrainian women and children whose husbands, fathers, and brothers were fighting the Russian invasion. The Ukrainians have seen who it is they can count on. At the same time, there are comments in Poland that the topic of the Volhynian Massacre is being deliberately overlooked. This is not true; the issue is still present and of interest to historians, politicians, and a large part of society. There is no way that Poles will give up the discussion or strive for a situation in which the historical truth continues to be blurred or manipulated. We have not and will not forget those Victims.
However, since February 24, 2022, a full-scale war has occurred across our borders, with the Russian army committing atrocities by murdering civilian Ukrainians. The Russian leader’s voice denies the existence of the Ukrainian people, and transports of deportees are reaching more than 50 filtration camps and settlement sites deep inside Russia. This is a situation comparable to World War II. Moreover, from the very beginning, the Poles, sensing what this war really represented, were the first to support Ukraine – militarily, diplomatically, and humanitarian-wise. The heroism of the Ukrainians, who, while defending their country, simultaneously defend all of Europe from the “Russian mir,” moves us. So many times in history, we have fought, protecting the West, not fully aware of the threat. Now we look with compassion and admiration at Ukraine’s struggle. The resistance put up by the Ukrainians has spurred Europe and the US into action, giving us a clear example that the world only helps those willing to defend themselves. This is a warning to us. Meanwhile, from the Polish independence point of view, every day of defense of Ukraine on Poland’s eastern borders, 1,000 kilometers from Poland’s borders, every destroyed Russian tank and bombed Russian ammunition depot gives us time to prepare for the defense of the Polish Republic against Russian aggression. Therefore, the diplomatic and material support for fighting Ukraine is in the Polish national interest: Ukraine, with its blood, buys time for Poland so that we can strengthen our forces and become ready to defend ourselves.
In the context of today’s anniversary – this anniversary carries a symbolic dimension.
Poland and the Poles supported Ukraine without imposing any pre-conditions. There were situations where someone whose family had experienced the horror of the Volhynian massacre now said: ‘It’s difficult, but I forgive’, and gave refugees shelter in their own homes. This attitude on the part of the Poles is already having a noticeable effect in changing the attitude of Ukrainians towards Poland and our shared history, a small symbol of which is the unveiling of the pre-WW2 lion sculptures at the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lwów (Lviv). Certainly, the Ukrainians face the difficult task of working through that guilt. We look with hope to the Ukrainian attempts to face this problem – and such an attempt is today’s presence of the Ukrainian ambassador at the commemoration of the Volhynian Massacre.
Let us also be fully aware that at the first possible moment when the situation in Ukraine improves, the discussion about Volhynia will continue. It is essential that the historical truth is unquestionably discussed. It is important for the purification of relations between our two peoples that the perpetrators are properly defined by both sides, and that the Victims see the memory due to them. Then Poland and Ukraine will be able to build a political, economic, and military union that will completely change the face of Eastern Europe – a union based on mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, a common cultural heritage, and unhampered pursuit of future goals. These goals are our countries’ rightful place in the family of sovereign nations, the prosperity of our citizens based on our work and sovereign economy, our own currency, energy independence, and a powerful military deterrent force.
With best regards,
Reduta Dobrego Imienia