During the massacre in Volhynia, many Ukrainians saved Poles. For us, they are forgotten heroes, and who are they for their contemporary countrymen? There is no simple answer to this question.
Darek Delmanowicz / epa / PAP
The book written by Witold Szabłowski “The Righteous Traitor. Neighbors from Volhynia” describes the slaughter in Volhynia exactly from the perspective of those Ukrainians who tried back then to save Poles. Certainly, reading will not leave anyone indifferent. The author, despite the fact that he verifies carefully all the events he describes, is not interested in politics or history, but in humanity. He does not ask why the local Ukrainian peasants suddenly attacked their Polish neighbors with axes and forks. He is not interested in the criminal message of the Bandera ideology or geopolitical determinants of that drama. Instead, he tries to reach witnesses to find the answer to the question why this particular Ukrainian risked his life to save some Pole.
They survived owing to help
The leitmotif of the story is the history of several cases of Poles being rescued by local Ukrainians. They are often very well-known figures, such as the astronaut General Miroslaw Hermaszewski, the mother of the great composer Krzesimir Dębski or the grandfather of one of the most important custodians of remembrance of the Poles murdered in Wołyń – the historian from Lublin, dr. Leon Popek. In their family histories, next to the Ukrainian – a murderer appeared a different Ukrainian who provided them rescue and survival. As Szabłowski writes at the end, it is not known how many Poles were saved in Volhynia by their Ukrainian neighbors. It’s certainly about thousands of people. How many Ukrainians were involved? We do not know that neither. It is known, however, that often many Ukrainian families had to cooperate so that one of the Polish children could survive..
The topic is not new. The figure of an Ukrainian saving Poles, often putting in jeopardy their own lives, appears in many memories of those who were saved during the massacre. Among others the heroes of the fundamental study by Włodzimierz and Ewa Siemaszko tell about it. The stories collected by Marek A. Koprowski in his trilogy concern the same topic. The IPN dealt with elaborating this theme and created in 2007 “Kresowa book of the Righteous 1939-1945. About Ukrainians rescuing Poles subjected to extermination by the OUN and UPA “. that was developed by Romuald Niedzielka. According to his estimate, among thousands of towns where Poles died, there were more than 500 cases of involvement of Ukrainians in saving Polish neighbors. There is a documented participation of 1,300 Ukrainians in saving Poles. Several hundred of them were murdered by UPA. Niedzielka’s work, however, is only a collection of short notes. Szabłowski follows this lead to tell us much more. He travels from the village to the village in Volhynia to meet those who at the time were involved in rescuing, or their families. He asks them why they took such a huge risk and what further consequences it had for their lives.
The stories told by him show not only the horror of the murders of Poles, but also the risk that the Ukrainians trying to help them were taking. The Banderites were no less cruel against them than against Poles. They treated them like traitors whose exemplary punishment was about to scare off the others. The fate of the Petro Parfieniuks’ family that warned Poles about UPA attacks in the summer of 1943, shows how terrible this hatred was. The thugs murdered his grandparents, later his parents, and finally his wife and daughter. It happened that the cleavage occurred among Ukrainian families. When some went to murder the Lachs, others helped those who survived.
The little-known fact, recalled in the book, is the participation of Czechs in saving Poles in Volhynia. The Czechs were descendants of the settlers who came there in the 19th century. It is estimated that at the time when the slaughter began, nearly 30,000 Chechs lived in Volhynia. Ukrainians treated them differently than Poles. Assaults to Czech villages were rare. However, the Chechs were also threatened with danger if they decided to help Poles. One of them was the pastor Jan Jelinek from Kupiczewo, who along with a group of compatriots saved several hundred Poles seeking salvage from murder and conflagration in their settlement.
The Banderites meaning who?
In the reportage of Szabłowski, the survivors and those who saved them keep their names. Most often, however, murderers still remain nameless –meaning the Banderites and peasants who helped them. Sometimes their nicknames are given, and the real names are known to the locals, who prefer not to remember them. Even though in the stories of the Ukrainians the Banderites appear as a sinister force, terrorizing also their compatriots, they are not judged explicitly negatively. – They fought for free Ukraine -emphesize even those who distance themselves from their crimes. Szabłowski implies that the locals remember who behaved how back then. Who went to the forest with the UPA, who helped in the attacks and set fire to the Polish barnyards, and then robbed the Poles’ property and stayed on their land. Sometimes the murderers came from the same families as the Ukrainians who saved Poles.
Many Banderish thugs were later repressed in Soviet times. Most often, not because they murdered Poles, but because they fought against the Soviet authorities. Today that’s for them a pass to the modern history of Ukraine and a title to let go of their crimes.
Can you, however, worship the formation that carried out such horrible crimes? Ukraine has still not dealt with this problem. What do the torturers from Volhynia think who have reached to our times? We do not know that. Only once Szabłowski says a story of the UPEU member, who during the common feast with our compatriots in the 90s of the previous century suddenly declared that during the war he killed seven Poles and did not regret a single one. “Today, if there was an opportunity, I would do the same” – he added, got up from the table and left. Most often, however, the locals do not admit that someone from their family took part in crimes. It happened that they came up to Polish people visiting Volhynia assuring them that none of their families was involved in murders.
There is nothing built on blood
The Ukrainians did not make money on the land they received from the UPA just after the homicide of their Polish owners. The Soviet authorities drove everyone to kolhozes and till today it is one of the poorer regions of Ukraine. Beautiful farms and large orchards, from which Volhynia was once famous, were not rebuilt. Not many Poles stayed in Volhynia, and problems of the locals have not been solved.
Szabłowski describes a characteristic scene that shows how Ukrainians evaluate these events from the perspective of years. In the 90s of the previous century a group of Poles who managed to save themselves arrived to the area of Wola Ostrowiecka, which in 1943 was erased from the Earth in a few hours. They stood on the overgrown Polish cemetery. A group of Ukrainians working on the kolkhoz land, where once stood Wola Ostrowiecka approached them. One of the Poles dropped agitated towards them: “You murdered us! And you have sneaked everything what is ours! ” The agitation was growing on both sides, the situation was getting more and more dangerous. Suddenly one of the Ukrainian women spoke. Turning to the Poles, she said: “Yes, everything is true. Our people killed yours. And so what? Take a notice how you look today and how we look. We’re still villagers. And you all look like the heiress Konczewska before the war. ” And ended with the words: “It was what it was, we will not change it, you’ve got frozen, come for tea.”
And one more record of the reflection of contemporary Ukrainians from Volhynia about their position. This says a person whose parents helped Poles. Today, he works hard by us to maintain relatives. “Please make a notice that we have our Ukraine, free from the Lachs, free from Jews. And what? And nothing. Because nothing can be built up on blood. ”
To bring back their memory
Szabłowski’s story does not relativize the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists. As he rightly writes, “Volhynia slaughter was one of the bloodiest episodes of World War II.” The good Ukrainians described by him do not constitute an alibi for monsters who in the name of “pure” Ukraine were able to inflict cruel deaths to tens of thousands of Poles. It is however an important complement to that story; it introduces to it figures of noble people who should be role models for the contemporaries. However, they are still in neither Ukrainian nor Polish memory, neither in symbolic nor educational dimension. In western Ukraine, monuments are being made to UPA murderers, but the memory of the Ukrainians who saved Poles at that time was not celebrated in any place. We also do not remember about them in Poland. Only on the monument of the victims of Borderland genocide in Wrocław in 2002 there was placed a plaque with words of gratitude and remembrance about Ukrainians who gave their lives away helping the Poles.
It did not occur earlier to the righteous to boast about it. “It was necessary, so we rescued” – says Ola to Szabłowski. She risked her life to save Polish neighbors. Szabłowski’s book brings back memory of such people in Poland, but it would be good if it was read also in Ukraine.
Another funeral of people whose mortal remains were exhumed in the village of Ostrówka and deposited at the local cemetery is on the 30th of August 2016. The works are being supervised by Dr. Leon Popek, whose ancestors were saved by Ukrainians during the slaughter in Volhynia.
Tłumaczenie: Agnieszka Dyba