Accessibility links

Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: May 8, 2001

8 May 2001, Volume 3, Number 17
POLES INVESTIGATE 1943 MASSACRES IN VOLHYNIA. Poland's National Remembrance Institute (IPN), a body authorized by the parliament to investigate "crimes committed against the Polish nation," has launched a probe into the massacres of Poles in Volhynia (Volynska Oblast in present-day Ukraine) by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in 1943. In this manner, Warsaw officially started to deal with what may arguably be called the most appalling page in the history of 20th-century Polish-Ukrainian relations -- a "local Ukrainian-Polish war" in Volhynia under the German occupation. Below is a report on the probe published by PAP on 2 May and subsequently translated into English by translators from the BBC. The editorial note at the end of the PAP report is intended for readers unfamiliar with some basic facts of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine in 1941-44. Essentially, the note is a quote from an article on Ukraine under the Nazi occupation, which was written by the author of this RFE/RL report for the Dutch quarterly "Oost-Europa Verkenningen" and published in Dutch by that periodical in its March 2000 issue.

IPN investigation into the Volhynia massacres is likely to stir up emotional reactions not only in western Ukraine but elsewhere as well. The IPN probe touches not only upon centuries-long Ukrainian-Polish animosities and hostilities but also the contemporary attempts by Ukrainian historians to reinterpret the role of Ukrainian nationalist organizations during World War II in building Ukrainian national awareness and contributing to the idea of Ukrainian independent statehood. The probe may also prove to be a litmus test of the officially declared "strategic partnership" between Warsaw and Kyiv. Reactions in both countries to the IPN probe and its results will surely indicate whether this partnership may be extended from its political level to other spheres of Polish-Ukrainian contacts. The careful wording applied by the IPN in presenting the purpose of the investigation is a sign that Warsaw is fully aware of the political sensitivity and precariousness of the issue of the Volhynia massacres.

Because of the sensitivities involved, the complete PAP report on the investigation is reproduced below:

The National Remembrance Institute wants to uncover and place before the courts "the inspirers and direct perpetrators" of the genocide perpetrated on the Polish population of Volhynia by Ukrainian nationalists from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II. The investigations branch of the IPN in Lublin is conducting an investigation into the case of, as it has been termed in an official IPN communique, "the crimes of genocide perpetrated on the territory of the Wolyn (Volhynia) Province of the Polish Second Republic in the years 1939-45 by Ukrainian nationalists." According to the latest estimates by Polish historians, around 35,000 Poles perished in the murders initiated there by the UPA in 1943, most of whom were civilians and included women and children.

As the IPN has reported, the aim of the investigation is "to determine whether the anti-Polish actions in Volhynia, intended to physically destroy the Polish populace as a national group on the territory of Volhynia, were planned and prepared by the political and military leadership groups of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the UPA and carried out by the military units subordinate to them, Ukrainian self-defense groups in turn subordinate to those and groups of peasants who had been agitated for this purpose, and in the case of the confirmation of this version of events, the uncovering and placing before the courts both of the inspirers of these crimes as also their direct perpetrators."

"There are bases for such a statement, since many people took part in the crimes and it will certainly be possible to determine from such a wide circle whether anyone is still alive who might have charges placed before them," feels Prosecutor Andrzej Witkowski, the head of the investigations branch of the Lublin IPN. "After all, entire Ukrainian villages organized by the UPA took part in this," he added in an interview for PAP. At the same time, he admitted that more than once nationalists had forced their countrymen to murder Poles; there had been cases of suicides among those who resisted.

Asked whether possible perpetrators might be alive in Poland today, or rather abroad, the prosecutor responded: "Both there and here." Asked whether extradition proceedings would be possible against those resident abroad, Witkowski declined to reply, saying that "these are complex issues."

An investigation requires legal help from the Ukrainian side -- among other things, it is planned to carry out exhumations of the mass graves of murdered Poles in Ukraine. Witkowski assesses the cooperation of the prosecutors' offices of the two countries so far in positive terms and that is why he does not feel that the IPN will meet with any problems over this issue. At the same time, he admitted that "on that side the emotional factor in nationality questions is very strong.

"This is a very important investigation for our history and, unlike other investigations, it is not being publicized in the press," the prosecutor stressed. He reported that the investigation was finding "considerable resonance in society," since numerous letters were being sent to the Lublin IPN, even from Poles living abroad who want to testify as witnesses.

Asked whether he did not fear that the investigation might damage present Polish-Ukrainian relations, the prosecutor responded that as a lawyer he was in favor of "first determining the truth, and then building relations on strong foundations."

According to the IPN, almost 1,000 places have been identified where there were murders. The IPN has already accumulated around 450 accounts by witnesses of the murders, or from close relatives, hand-drawn sketches of the sites of the crimes, [and] still incomplete lists of victims. The Ukrainian side had already earlier sent, as the IPN puts it, "statements by the elder generation of Ukrainians, confirming the facts of the perpetration of murders of Poles by the UPA."

Witkowski stressed that the Lublin IPN is also conducting investigations into Polish crimes of retaliation, the victims of which were the Ukrainian civilian populace. This refers to the slaughter in June 1945 by the (right-wing underground) National Armed Forces of the Ukrainian village of Wierzchowina in Chelm District (now southeastern Poland) and the "anti-Ukrainian action" of the (underground loyal to the London government) Home Army (AK) and the Peasant Battalions in March 1944 in Sahryn, Laskow, and Szychowice in Hrubieszow District (now southeastern Poland). "It is not thus possible to speak here of any kind of bias on the part of the IPN," the prosecutor stressed. He recalled that during the war and after there had been confrontations between Poles and Ukrainians.

According to Polish historians, the UPA counted on the outbreak of Polish-Ukrainian battles after the war over the adherence of Lviv [Lwow] and the [Polish] eastern Marches [Kresy] (just as had been the case after World War I) and that is why it decided during the war to already "cleanse" the territories in dispute of their Polish populace. In their memoirs, UPA activists claim that they first issued the Poles who lived there with an order "to return to lands that were generically Polish" and that it was only in the face of a lack of reaction that the UPA moved to actions which, according to them, were to have been based fundamentally on the burning of villages and the killing "only" of men giving resistance. This is not confirmed by Polish historians, who point to the murders by the UPA (often in bestial fashion), and without warning, of all Poles [in given localities], including women and children.

"Certain anti-Polish actions were specially intended so as to frighten Poles as also to force all Ukrainians to struggle to the death for fear of Polish revenge," the historian Grzegorz Motyka (who today works in the Lublin IPN) wrote in a monograph on Polish-Ukrainian battles in the years 1943-48 that was published in 1999 under the title "How It Was in the Bieszczady Mountains."

The first large-scale murders took place in the spring of 1943, in Volhynia. The AK there organized the self-defense of the Polish populace; there were also Polish revenge attacks. From Volhynia, the battles spread to other disputed territories, among other areas to the Zamosc region [now southeastern Poland]. In the spring of 1944 (in the face of the indifference of the Germans, who incited conflicts between the two nations) there was even a several-dozen-kilometer-long front of almost regular Polish-Ukrainian battles. The course of these was savage. As a rule, neither side took prisoners and as a result of the battles entire rural areas were laid [to] waste.

The battles were brought to an end by the arrival of the Eastern Front. After the disputed areas had been brought under control by the Red Army, the force of the Polish-Ukrainian battles abated. The UPA directed the bulk of its forces against the NKVD and the [Polish] Security Administration [UB], generally giving up mass murders of Poles. In 1945, this change of tactics brought about local accords between the Polish independence underground, under the aegis of the "Freedom and Independence" organization, and the UPA. This bore fruit in a number of joint armed actions, the most famous of which was an attack on Hrubieszow.

Today, the entire investigations branch of the IPN is in total carrying on around 50 investigations into murders perpetrated during the war by various groupings of Ukrainian nationalists on citizens of the Polish Republic, mostly on Poles, but also on Jews in hiding and even on Ukrainians opposing the totalitarian nationalism of the UPA.

In January 2001, the IPN undertook anew an investigation into the case of the murder in February 1944 by the soldiers of the Ukrainian SS "Galizien" Division of around 1,000 Poles in the village of Huta Pieniacka (in the pre-war Malopolska Wschodnia region, today in western Ukraine). This was after the much-publicized British ITV television program about veterans from the 14th Waffen SS Division who were allowed into Great Britain after the war. The division was formed by a faction of the OUN in competition with that of Bandera, that of Andriy Melnyk, which, despite the absolute exploitation of the territory of Ukraine by the Nazis, nonetheless came out in favor of the building of a Ukrainian state with their help. [PAP report ends]


Many of the assertions of the Polish scholars are controversial, especially in Ukraine. There, for most of the last half century, facts about the Nazi occupation were hidden, distorted, or falsified by Soviet historiography in previous decades. Ukrainian scholars over the last decade have made a significant contribution to clearing up the situation, but much clearly remains to be done.

One issue on which there is certain to be controversy is the role of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Founded in 1929, the OUN propagated self-sacrifice, discipline, and obedience to the leadership in its fight for Ukrainian independence. Moreover, some of its leaders counted on a German-Soviet war as an opportunity to assert Ukrainian statehood. For this purpose, the organization maintained contacts with the Abwehr, Germany's military intelligence service, and prepared some 2,000 "expeditionary groups" of primarily young Ukrainians in advance of the German attack on the USSR in 1941, in order to initiate the organization of "Ukrainian administrations" to replace the Soviet ones.

The OUN's hopes for building Ukrainian statehood with German support was loosely based in the so-called Rosenberg Plan: a project to build around Russia a number of Nazi-supported buffer states with some measure of self-rule. Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's "expert" on the matters of race, was also the Reich's minister for occupied eastern territories. With regard to Ukraine, Rosenberg envisaged the implementation of some cultural policies that could enhance the national consciousness of Ukrainians and mobilize them against Russia. But the Ukrainian dream of independent statehood under Nazi patronage collapsed as soon as in 1941, when the Germans created Reichskommissariat Ukraine and installed the German civil administration under the leadership of Erich Koch.

"It so happened that I was brought up [to accept] the stereotype that Radio Liberty was a hostile voice, a voice of the world imperialism. At that time, the radio station was being jammed and its programs could be rarely heard.... Time has passed. Now -- with the rigorous censorship of all media as well as the [state] control over the press and journalists in Ukraine -- Radio Liberty is acquiring a new meaning. The station is pursuing a really powerful and necessary policy. One may disagree with some [opinions] in its programs, but the station presents a wide range of opinions and provides people with the possibility to make a choice [of their own]. [RFE/RL] is a model for democratic broadcasting, which should be established in every state as a rule, not as an exception." -- Ukraine's Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz, former parliamentary speaker, in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 4 May.

"I can bet that if tomorrow we propose a referendum with two statements in the ballot -- 'I trust President Leonid Kuchma' and 'I do not trust President Leonid Kuchma' -- the overwhelming majority of the [Ukrainian] population will respond in the affirmative to both of those declarations." -- A staff writer in the Kyiv-based weekly "Zerkalo nedeli" on 5 May.