Guest Author - Barbara Swiech
Although the Poles and Ukrainians coexisted together for many years, it was hard for both of nations to forget about the disputes they had in the past and their origin. After the partition of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth both of the nations were forced to forget about their independence and to live under the rule of oppressors. After World War I Poland gained independence that the citizens had dreamt of for 123 years. Some of the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were, however, were incorporated by Soviet Union (as Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic) while other parts were placed within newly formed Poland. That political situation did not satisfy the Ukrainians. Some of them took pacific approach of helping out Ukrainian minority in Poland, while some chose the terrorist way of dealing with things. The occupation of Poland by Germany and Soviet Union caused old conflicts to arise even stronger than before. The Volhynian Voivodeship – occupied by Soviet armed forces – was annexed into Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. New opportunity for Ukrainian nationalists occurred. Ethnic cleansing operation was supposed to ensure that Volyn would be inhabited only by Ukrainians.
Although during the interwar period Volyn characterized with policy of toleration, supported by Jozef Pilsudski (one of the greatest Polish leaders) already in 1937 the government of Second Polish Republic started Polonization process. Religion was used as one of the main tools – that included destroying Orthodox churches or turning them into Roman Catholic ones. The authorities supported also colonization therefore originally Polish settlers were encouraged to move into the Volyn territories. After Poland was invaded, Organization of Ukrainian nationalist perceived their chance in forming future Ukrainian state, independent and free of other nationalities. In 1943 the leaders of the party decided to remove the Poles from Volhynia region. Although single attacks started much before, the peak of the massacre (called in polish ‘Volyn slaughter’) took place in Summer 1943. Numerous Polish villages would be attacked at the same time – very often on Sundays using the fact that the Poles would gather for a Sunday mass. Although planned action was to involve extermination of Poles between 16 and 60 years old, the Ukrainian nationalist would not spare women and children. Their victims were very often tortured before death, killed with severe cruelty while the villages would be destroyed so as not to enable the Polish settlers to come back to their homes.
‘Bloody Sunday’ happened on 11th of July 1943 when 99 Polish villages were attacked at the same time. The Ukrainian Nationalists were very often joined by Ukrainian peasants who were convinced about the need to kill the Poles who inhabited originally Ukrainian land. The inhabitants were most of the time taken aback so that to ensure that they do not have a chance to form self defense. Hardly anybody could save their life. The nationalists would murder even mixed marriages that happened at that time between the Poles and Ukrainians. It is hard to assess the number of people killed during the cleansing introduced by Ukrainian Nationalists but the historians take, as the most possible amount, the number of 50-60 thousand Poles who died during the actions of cleansing. The witnesses would tell the stories of people being cut with saw, burnt alive and children being nailed to trees.
The time has passed and nobody thinks of revenge now. Although Volhynia is a part of Ukraine now, both of the nations do their best not to let the victims of this event forgotten. However, Poland and Ukraine are fighting about acknowledgement of the massacre and the fact of recognizing it a genocide. It is hard, however, to convince any other nation to remember that part of their history while the surveys show that only about 15% of Polish population is aware of the tragic events of Volyn Massacre.