10.07.2013 | Halya Coynash

Volyn 1943: In Remembrance


In a project entitled “Unity through Difficult Remembrance*”” Polish and Ukrainian students have recorded stories of the terrible massacres in Volyn during these months in 1943.  In memory of the victims – men, women and children, entire villages.  In honour of those Ukrainians who interceded in defence of Polish neighbours and Poles who defended their Ukrainian neighbours under siege. 

We owe such young people gratitude at a time when politicians and others with an ideological axe to grind aggressively foist their interpretation of the events of that time.  There are attempts, for example, to stir up emotions by convincing people that the statement of the Polish Sejm to mark the 70th anniversary of the events in 1943 accuses the “Ukrainian people” of a crime they didn’t commit.  It is the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists [OUN] and Ukrainian Insurgent Army [UPA] that are accused not the Ukrainian people, and these are not synonymous terms.

Politicians’ cynicism is, as always, boundless. 148 MPs from the ruling Party of the Regions and Communists have just written to Poland’s Sejm asking them to “declare the Volyn Massacre by the OUN-UPA genocide of the Polish population and condemn the actions of Ukrainian nationalists”.  

This is in keeping with Party of the Regions tactics of late, seen most ignominiously in the “antifascist demonstrations” of 18 May with their lavish use of administrative resources and hired thugs. How much more befitting it would have been for them to write to President Yanukovych asking him to change his mind and join Poland’s President Komorowski at a remembrance ceremony in Lutsk on 14 July to honour both Polish and Ukrainian victims of the tragedy.

Over recent months Ukrainian media sites have been full of articles talking of the “Polish side” and “Ukrainian side”.  Where children were axed to death because they were Polish, or Ukrainian, there can be no “sides”.   Those who committed such atrocities committed a foul crime whatever motives they used to justify their actions. 

It is profoundly frustrating that seventy years after those events, the accounts in Ukrainian and Polish are so different, and most Ukrainian history textbooks make it next to impossible to understand what happened. 

Arguments about numbers of victims, Polish attempts to classify the massacre as genocide are eagerly used to imply the existence of two separate “memories”.  Many such attempts are made by Ukrainian supporters of OUN and UPA who reject Polish charges that there was a policy of ethnic cleansing ordered by the Bandera supporting faction of OUN.   Most arguments are unfortunately at the level of rhetoric, whereas their position would be better served by unemotional reference to facts and documents, including proof that other documents are Soviet forgeries.

They have a valid right to defend their position.  What neither they, nor Polish nationalists, are entitled to do is to try to minimize or distort historical facts in order to push their line. 

The facts are basically known, including the key perpetrators.  The first massacre of an entire village – Parośla – was carried out on 8 or 9 February 1943 by a unit of UPA led by Hryhory Perehynyak which had just carried out the first armed attack against the Nazi occupier.  Ukrainian publications mention the attack on the Germans, but most avoid talking about the village.  According to historian Grzegorz Motyka, at least 155 villagers were massacred.  Much is known about the events thanks to the testimony of a survivor, Witold Kołodyński, 12 years old at the time.  He can to this day show the marks on his skull from the axe wound he sustained.

During the following months, and especially in July and August 1943, there were widespread attacks on Polish villages by Ukrainians, with the bloodiest massacres on 11 July.   Although plans to drive the 8% Polish population out of Volyn had been discussed earlier, there remains controversy over how much this was known and approved by the leadership of the Bandera branch of OUN-UPA.  A particularly fateful role in the carnage was undoubtedly played by Ukrainian auxiliary police who had served the Nazi occupiers and began defecting in large numbers during those months.  Many joined UPA and took part in what is now known as ethnic cleansing.

As well as desperate attempts to defend themselves, there were also revenge massacres of Ukrainian villages by Poles.   

This is not an attempt to give a historical account of these events.  Whatever Ukrainians saw as their grievances against Poles, whatever grounds for wanting revenge there may have been, the victims were children, innocent civilians, and there quite simply can be no justification. 

Nor is there justification in politicizing painful memories, or distorting historical facts.  Attempts to place the ethnic cleansing in Volyn 1943 in some kind of “broader context”, which includes the crimes committed against Ukrainians during the Operation Wisła are like attempts by many Russians to deny the very specific nature of Holodomor by adding it to the unquestionably huge list of Stalin’s crimes.   

On 27 June in Warsaw, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Patriarch of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church asked forgiveness from “every Polish family who lost relatives at the hands of my compatriots”.  I can say it no better.

* Pojednanie przez trudną pamięć. Wołyń 1943 / Поєднання через важку пам’ять. Волинь, 1943


Updatied version of a text first published here

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