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The Volhynia Massacre

fot. PAP/Jarek Delmanowicz
fot. PAP/Jarek Delmanowicz

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army started the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia in February 1943. The ethnic cleansing was an attempt to prevent the post-war Polish state taking over Ukrainian-majority areas that had been part of the pre-war Polish state.The Volhynia massacre had its apogee in July 1943 but mass murders of Poles living in the area had begun several months earlier. The decision to carry out an anti-Polish purge in Volhynia was taken by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), supported by local Ukrainians, in early 1943 and was influenced by events on the eastern front of the Second World War.


In mid-September 1943, the mass slaughters of Poles spread to the territory of Eastern Lesser Poland (Ternopil, Lviv and Stanislaw provinces). In total, approximately 100,000 Poles were killed by the UPA and Ukrainians.

According to the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINM), the slaughter of Poles in Volhynia began with the pacification of the Ukrainian village of Krasnyi Sad near Mykhlyn in April 1943 by Poles and Germans. 

“On 19 April 1943, Poles and the Nazis killed 104 civilians in Volhynia. This tragedy marked the beginning of a long-lasting armed Polish-Ukrainian confrontation in Volhynia in 1943,” reads the publication entitled "The Tragedy of Krasnyi Sad" and posted on the UINM’s website. The article presented a thesis of Ukrainian historians, according to which, the Volhynia massacre (euphemistically referred to as the Polish-Ukrainian confrontation) was the aftermath of the murder of over 100 Ukrainians by Poles and Germans in the village of Krasnyi Sad in western Ukraine. This thesis is by all means false, and the true chronology of events proved it.

In fact, the chronology of events in Volhynia was different. The defeat of Germany at Stalingrad (2 February 1943), currently called Volgograd, made Ukrainian nationalists realise that they would have to fight the USSR or Poland for their country’s independence. They were convinced that the ethnic structure of these lands would be decisive in the Allies' decision on statehood. Therefore, the decision was made to remove all Poles from Volhynia considered by them as Ukrainian land.

The first anti-Polish UPA’s action, as a result of which an entire Polish village was annihilated, was an attack on the colony of Parośla I, located in the community of Antonówka (there were two villages named Parośla in Antonówka, numbered I and II) in the Sarny district on 8 and 9 February 1943. Ukrainians entered it, pretending to be a unit of Soviet insurgents and, using axes and other tools, massacred the inhabitants, not sparing women, children or infants. According to various sources, between 149 and 173 people were killed. Commander of a local Riflemen's Association, Walenty Sawicki, was murdered with particular cruelty. Only 12 Poles (according to other sources eight), mostly children, managed to escape. The victims' properties were looted and transported on sledges. After leaving Parośla I, the UPA unit committed another massacre on 15 Poles in Tuptyn, and also planned an attack on Wydymer, which ultimately did not take place due to the non-appearance of reinforcements.

As a result of the crimes in Parośla I, Poles began to organise self-defence units, which often together with German or Soviet forces, resisted Ukrainian troops or took part in reprisal-pacification operations. This was the true nature of the pacification of the Ukrainian village of Krasnyi Sad, contrary to what UINM stated. According to Prof. Grzegorz Motyka, the author of a monograph on the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in 1943-1947, the pacification of Krasnyi Sad  took place on 29 June 1943. And, although the murder of civilians under any circumstances remains the crime, it was a response to the mass murders committed against the Polish inhabitants of the village of Andriivka.

"On 29 June, the UPA attacked… Andriivka, where the Germans had set up a Schutzmannschaft (Auxiliary Police—FH). People stayed overnight in a brick school. The Ukrainians fired a small-calibre cannon at the building, damaging its corner. After four hours of fighting, however, three Germans and Poles from the Schutzmannschaft repulsed the attack. Ten Poles, who remained in their homes, were killed. In retaliation, the Germans, together with Polish Shutzmannschafts, pacified the village of Krasnyi Sad. Between a dozen and a hundred Ukrainians were killed there," Prof. Motyka described in the Rzeczpospolita daily.
The massacre in Parośla I was only a prelude to further bloody ethnic cleansing of Poles. The culmination was on 11 and 12 July 1943, when brutal murders took place simultaneously in 150 villages in the Wlodzimiersk, Horochow and Kowel districts. 

In response to the Volhynian massacre, which culminated on so-called Bloody Sunday on 11 July 1943, when the UPA attacked more than a hundred villages and killed several thousand Poles on one day alone, Polish self-defence units began to form in the summer of 1943. The criminal actions of the UPA made it necessary for Poles to find ways to stop the murders of the Polish population. The AK’s Headquarters decided to direct underground forces to fight the UPA.

On 20 July 1943, the Commander of the Volhynian District of the AK issued an order to set up insurgent units with aim of protecting the Polish population from Ukrainian nationalists. Nine divisions were formed, totalling approximately 12,000 soldiers. The creation of self-defence bases consisting of several villages with larger concentrations of Polish population had begun. These bases were supposed to be defended by local troops.
The AK units not only provided defence for the Poles against the UPA, but also organised revenge attacks for the genocide committed by the Ukrainian nationalists. The brutal systematic slaughter of entire settlements triggered the Poles' desire to retaliate. However, most historians agree that the scale of these actions was much smaller than the UPA's crimes and did not bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. There are known isolated cases of such actions and each time they were retaliatory and not a planned destruction of the Ukrainian population. For example, in retaliation for the destruction of the village of Viliya near Kostopil and the murder of almost two hundred of its inhabitants, one AK unit attacked Viliya, killing around forty UPA soldiers and civilians. 

Furthermore, while the UPA command ordered the murder of all Poles, including women and children, in areas declared "ethnically Ukrainian," the AK Volhynia District command explicitly called on subordinate units to fight only men.

There should be no equivalence between the criminal activities of the OUN-B and UPA and the retaliatory and defensive activities of the Home Army. The reprisal actions did not assume a mass scale, and their aim was not to physically destroy the Ukrainian population, but to provide a bloody "warning" against further attacks. The number of victims of Polish reprisal actions was incomparably smaller, not exceeding several thousand people.

The activity of the Home Army (AK) in Volhynia was not a planned annihilation of the Ukrainian population, and therefore did not bear the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing. The AK units’ primary objective was the defence of the Polish population against attacks by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The reprisal actions taken by AK insurgents in Ukrainian villages supporting the UPA never reached a scale comparable to the Ukrainian genocide against Poles. Thus, there can be no equivalence between the organised genocide committed against Poles by Ukrainian nationalists from the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) and the UPA, and the Polish defence.

An author of the text published on 23 May 2023 on the Ukrainian portal kp.ua and submitted for fact-checking by FakeHunter argued that Ukraine cannot unilaterally take responsibility for the Volhynian massacre. According to the author, both sides are guilty of the tragedy. In his view, Poland turns a blind eye to the fact that "peaceful Ukrainians were murdered by Polish paramilitary units". He claimed that Poles, at the instigation of the Germans, destroyed entire Ukrainian villages, not sparing children, women or the elderly.

The author quoted Ukrainian politician Taras Chornovil as saying that “The Polish Home Army also killed Ukrainians, but for some reason no one talks about their exhumation in Poland.”

It is worth mentioning that, according to some historians, the AK operations in Volhynia were insufficient. It was only in January 1944, after the Red Army had crossed the pre-war Polish border, that the AK command ordered the mobilisation of insurgents’ units in Volhynia and formed the 27th Volhynian Infantry Division. In addition to operations against the Germans, the division carried out 16 major combat actions against the UPA, partially removing the threat to Polish civilians in the west of Volhynia.

There are claims that the Polish Catholic Church was passive in the Volhynia massacre. They are false. According to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), both the hierarchs and ordinary priests made attempts to defend and rescue the Polish population in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. The Polish Catholic Church also gave shelter to Poles fleeing the threat of extermination by Ukrainian nationalists.
"Polish Episcopate: On 7 July a statement will be signed that would be a step on the road to Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. Where was the Episcopate when OUN-B activists were murdering in #Wolyn (Volhynia)," an author of a tweet submitted for fact-checking wrote, suggesting that the Polish Church was passive in the Volhynia massacre.

It should be emphasised that the Catholic Church itself was a victim of the extermination of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. The Polish clergy was one of the targets of the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). In the eastern part of pre-war Poland, Latin Catholicism was identified with the Polish nation. One of the OUN-UPA orders was clear. The UPA had to "liquidate traces of Polishness… destroy all walls of churches and other Polish religious buildings." The murders of Polish priests and the destruction of Catholic shrines were intended to break the Polish spirit of resistance.

According to the latest research by a team of 23 historians and archivists of the IPN, a total of 255 clergymen (including 56 monks, 167 diocesan priests, and 29 military chaplains of the Catholic Church) of the Lviv metropolis perished between 1939 and 1945. As a result of the UPA actions, about 70 per cent of Roman Catholic parishes ceased to exist; churches and chapels and liturgical equipment were destroyed.
Many priests stood by their faithful as long as the latter remained in the parish, although they were aware of the dangers and paid for it with their lives. Some died at the altar while celebrating Mass. At least 25 priests, monks or nuns died in churches, convents or chancelleries in the course of their pastoral ministry. It was an act of courage to work in parishes threatened with attack by armed Ukrainian forces. However, Polish clergy took up the parishes entrusted to their care aware of the danger. Catholic clergy, especially in the countryside, often warned Polish parishioners of the imminent threat from the UPA and gave them shelter in their rectories and churches, risking their lives.

There is evidence in the IPN’s archives that, despite such unfavourable conditions, the hierarchs of the Catholic Church also made several efforts to defend and save the Polish population in Volhynia.
First of all, they attempted to negotiate with the Greek Catholic Church in Lviv to halt the escalation of crimes committed by Ukrainian nationalists against Catholics of the Latin rite. The Archbishop of Lviv, Bolesław Twardowski, was particularly involved in these negotiations. As early as August 1941, he asked Greek Catholic Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky to intervene and stop the ethnic cleansing of Poles.
On 30 July 1943, in the face of the culmination of the Volhynia massacre, Archbishop Twardowski sent a letter to Sheptytsky asking him to prevent similar incidents in Galicia. This letter initiated an exchange of correspondence between the two hierarchs, which lasted until 8 March 1944.

Archbishop Twardowski appealed to Sheptytsky and asked him to address "his faithful and remind them of the fifth commandment 'thou shalt not kill'." Sheptytsky refused and treated Twardowski's petitions as false accusations that Ukrainians were organising armed attacks on Poles. In 1943, Archbishop Twardowski also wrote to the diocesan Greek Catholic bishops Hryhoriy Khomyshyn and Josaphat Kotsylovsky. In response, Bishop Khomyshyn issued his own pastoral letter in which he "placed a curse on anyone who, in hatred and blindness, sheds someone else's blood."

Furthermore, Archbishop Twardowski informed the doyen of the Polish episcopate, Archbishop Adam Stefan Sapieha, about the extermination of the Polish population in Volhynia. In 1944, he sent three letters with detailed reports on the scale of the genocide committed by Ukrainian nationalists. At his request, on 27 March 1944, Archbishop Sapieha sent a letter to the head of the General Governorate for the Occupied Polish Region, Hans Frank, presenting a list of murdered priests of the Lviv archdiocese and a list of cities and villages where ethnic cleansing had taken place. The further fate of this intervention is not known.
During the escalation of the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in Volhynia, Archbishop Twardowski became involved in organising aid for Polish refugees. A special department for Volhynian refugees was created at the Lviv Curia. The clergy of the Lviv archdiocese assisted in the evacuation of Polish families from the endangered areas of Volhynia. In addition, on the initiative of Archbishop Sapieha, the Kraków church organised humanitarian aid and provided temporary shelter for Poles fleeing Volhynia. The dioceses of Kraków and the Lesser Poland became a refuge for people fleeing annihilation by Ukrainian nationalists. Between 1942 and 1945, more than 138,000 refugees arrived on the west side of the San River.

Over the years Polish authorities and institutions have been actively working for the exhumation and commemoration of the victims of the Volhynian massacre, contrary to a tweet submitted for fact-checking. According to the author of the tweet, Polish government have only now become active on the Volhynia issue due to the upcoming general elections in Poland.

Firstly, we should recall the opinion of the then deputy minister of foreign affairs, Bartosz Cichocki, who said in November 2017 that the Polish side hoped to discuss the exhumation of the remains of the victims of the Volhynian massacre.

Two months later, Krzysztoł Łapiński, at that time spokesperson of the Polish President, said that there is a need to keep repeating Polish demands to the Ukrainian side.

In March 2018, there was a phone conversation between Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the then Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, in which the head of the Polish government said, among other things, "I hope that Ukraine will lift the moratorium on the search for and exhumation of the remains of Polish victims of war and political repression in Ukraine".

In 2019, the then Speaker of the Polish Senate Stanislaw Karczewski during his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky raised the subject of exhumations of the Volhynia massacre victims.
Shortly afterwards, in August 2018, the issue was raised by Poland’s President Andrzej Duda during his meeting with Zelensky, and the Ukrainian president declared readiness to unblock the issue.

In September 2019, Deputy Foreign Minister Marcin Przydacz said that the cancellation of the moratorium on the search for the remains of Polish victims of conflicts on Ukrainian territory would be a real sign of change in relations between the two countries.  Almost at the same time, the Polish ambassador to Ukraine, Bartosz Cichocki, handed over to the government in Kiev a request for permission to carry out search and exhumation work on the remains of Polish victims of war and repression buried on Ukrainian territory.
In December 2020, the president of Poland’s IPN Jarosław Szarek met with the Director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINM), Anton Drobovych, during which the issues of search, exhumation and commemoration by the Polish side in Ukraine and Ukrainian activities in Poland were discussed.
Finally, after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Freedom and Democracy Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the Ukrainian side had agreed to allow search and exhumation work with the participation of Polish specialists at the graves of Poles murdered by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in February 1945 in the village of Puzhnyky in Podolia, in the former Ternopil region.
These are only a selection of activities undertaken by Polish authorities and institutions in the matter of searching for, exhuming and commemorating the victims of the Volhynian massacre. But in all actions undertaken by the government and other institution Poland had never demanded reparations to be paid by Ukraine for the Volhynia massacre. The issue of financial reparations for this crime was not present in the public debate in Poland.

FakeHunter was asked to fact-check an article suggesting that there was an idea to seek such reparations from the Ukrainian side. According to the author of the article, the US has prohibited Poland from doing so. 
It is impossible to find reports of ideas, projects or even just the possibilities of seeking reparations from Ukraine in any sources other than fact-checking services, including FakeHunter as these services fact-check stories published by media known for spreading  Russian propaganda.

Representatives of the Polish authorities and politicians discussing the Volhynia massacre, talk above all about the need for the Ukrainian authorities to recognise the fact that the genocide of Poles took place in Volhynia during the Second World War and that its perpetrators were Ukrainian nationalists.

In August 2022, the Deputy Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Jaroslaw Sellin told Studio PAP in an interview that Ukrainians should acknowledge the massacre so that Poland and Ukraine could build mutual relations based on the truth. During this interview, Jarosław Sellin also mentioned reparations owed to Poland by Germany for the destruction of the country during WWII and the murder of millions of Poles. However, this concerned Germany only and he didn’t link it with the Ukrainian issues.

As early as 2016, when the Sejm (lower house of Polish parliament) passed a resolution establishing 11 July as the National Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Genocide Committed by Ukrainian Nationalists against the Citizens of the Second Republic of Poland, it emphasised the need to call those events genocide, but any forms of reparations were not mentioned in the Sejm’s resolution.