Accessibility links

Breaking News

Poland/Ukraine: Painful Chapter Of Shared Past Commemorated, But Many Find It Difficult To Turn Page

The Polish and Ukrainian presidents will today commemorate one of the most painful chapters in the histories of their two peoples. They will mark the 60th anniversary of massacres in which tens of thousands of civilians, mostly Poles, were killed in a region called Volyn, now part of western Ukraine. Preparations for the memorial services have revealed that the tragedies still inspire powerful emotions.

Prague, 11 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ceremonies are being held today in the Ukrainian village of Pavlivka, which in 1943 was the Polish settlement of Poritsk, whose inhabitants were attacked and killed by Ukrainian forces between 11-13 July.

The event will include speeches by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, who are expected to apologize for historic misdeeds. Masses for the Ukrainian and Polish dead will be held at separate cemeteries in the village.

Between the first and second World Wars, Volyn formed part of a predominantly ethnic-Ukrainian area incorporated into eastern Poland. The region boiled with ancient ethnic grievances, as well as fresh hostility caused by Ukrainian resentment at being under Polish rule.

World War II unlocked ethnic hatreds in Volyn, which in 1943 was occupied by German troops but was also a field of operations for Polish, Ukrainian, and Soviet partisans. The partisans fought against the Germans, but also against one another.

Both Germany and the Soviet Union stoked the flames of hatred, leading to violent reprisals between the Ukrainian and Polish communities and their fighters.

In the summer of 1943, that hatred culminated in an effort by Ukrainian guerrillas to expel the Polish population in what Polish historians describe as a savage Balkan-style "ethnic cleansing" operation. Some 80,000 Poles were killed.

Later that year, Polish guerrillas retaliated. Ukrainian historians estimate that around 12,000 Ukrainians were killed.

Today's ceremonies are intended to put to rest the horrors perpetrated at Volyn and encourage reconciliation. But differing interpretations of what exactly happened in 1943 and who was primarily responsible still inflame passions on both sides.

The Ukrainian and Polish parliaments found it difficult to formulate a mutually acceptable text to describe the Volyn events. The dual resolutions were only passed late on 10 July after heated debate.

Many in Poland wanted to describe the killings as "genocide." Others favored more conciliatory wording.

One deputy, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said the need for reconciliation should not lead to resignation from basic values, such as truth and decency. He called the events of 1943 mass-scale genocide. Other deputies also criticized what they called the euphemisms being used about the 1943 events.

In the end, more moderate views prevailed. Parliamentarian Jerzy Jaskiernia said the resolution should honor the victims of the terrible events but also be directed toward the future and Polish-Ukrainian rapprochement. Poland's parliament approved the declaration by a vote of 323 to 35, with 14 abstentions.

Debate in the Ukrainian parliament proved even more impassioned. Many Ukrainian deputies said that focusing only on the events in Volyn presented a slanted version of history. All the blame was being pinned on Ukrainians, they said, and injustices against Ukrainians and the causes of the hatred that led to the killings were not being examined.

Ukrainian deputy Yuriy Kostenko was one of those who voted against the resolution.

"Really, this declaration is not balanced. It stresses the suffering of the Polish population and people but says little about the fact that Ukrainians also suffered a lot. It's impossible to measure suffering in liters of blood or the number of killed. Even one life sacrificed is the world. But in my opinion, the Ukrainian and Polish groups working on this text should have been more precise."

He said Poland has helped Ukraine immensely and that Ukraine has much to learn from Poland, where democracy and human rights are better entrenched. But he says Ukrainian-Polish relations will not be helped if their shared history is treated in what he regards as a superficial way.

"The year 1943 is just one element of history, and you can't just isolate this element and say that by resolving it or by placing a full stop at the end of this, we will build a nice Polish-Ukrainian future."

Some Ukrainian deputies, such as Yuriy Karmazin, say the resolution is so one-sided it could open Ukraine to legal claims for damages.

"The point is that such a resolution can have legal consequences, and one should keep in mind that after the Ukrainian parliament's adoption of such a resolution, people could make [legal] claims against us."

Debates about the Volyn massacres have revealed fierce animosities among Ukrainians themselves. The guerrillas of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) are regarded as heroes by most people in western Ukraine, where they fought against the Germans during the war and against the Soviets until the early 1950s. But many in eastern Ukraine, especially communists, condemn them as criminals.

The Ukrainian parliament adopted the resolution by the narrowest margin possible -- with 227 of 450 members voting for, while the rest abstained, including all the communists.

Pope John Paul II -- Polish born and intimately acquainted with the conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians -- has called for reconciliation between the two peoples. He wrote a letter to the heads of the Polish Catholic and Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches to encourage compromise. He said: "Considering the past events in a new perspective and taking on the responsibility to build a better future for all, let the two nations look at each other with an eye for reconciliation."

In the end, both parliaments passed identical compromise resolutions that avoided the term "genocide" and acknowledged suffering on both sides. It refers to the "tragedy of Poles murdered and expelled from their homes by armed units of Ukrainians, which was also accompanied by the suffering of Ukrainians -- the victims of Polish armed actions. This was a tragedy of both nations."

Polish President Kwasniewski said he is convinced that after today's ceremonies, "we will be better able to listen and understand more, and at the same time we will be able to say that an atrocity is an atrocity and victims are victims."

He called it a "difficult day," but said Polish-Ukrainian relations will be strengthened."

Oleksandr Bandurka is a Ukrainian deputy who voted for the resolution.

"I voted for the resolution because I am conscious that we have to move along the path of greater understanding. Certain wounds still exist, but we have to heal them."

Bandurka added, "I'd put the following inscription on the graves of those people, Poles and Ukrainians, who died there: 'To our ancestors who were enemies, from their descendants who are friends.'"

But Bandurka, like many Ukrainians and Poles, believes much more must be done by both sides to confront the truth before the ghosts of the past can be laid to rest.