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The killings were directly linked with the policies of the Bandera faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its military arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose goal specified at the Second Conference of the Stepan Bandera faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B) during 17–23 February 1943 (or March 1943) was to purge all non-Ukrainians from the future Ukrainian state. Not limiting their activities to the purging of Polish civilians, the UPA also wanted to erase all traces of the Polish presence in the area
At the onset of World War II, with Soviet invasion and annexation of the area in 1939–1941 (see Polish September Campaign), militant Ukrainian nationalist extremists, distrustful of Polish territorial ambitions, saw an opportunity to cleanse Polish people from territory historically considered to be Ukrainian and to exact retribution for the Polonization which the re-established Polish state had inflicted upon the Ukrainians. Killings of Poles in Volhynia and Galicia started soon after the Soviet annexation of the territory, climaxed during the German occupation, and continued after the Soviets re-occupied the Western Ukraine into the last year of the war.
As the Austro-Hungarian government collapsed following World War I, Poles and Ukrainians struggled for control over the city known as Lwów in Polish, Lviv in Ukrainian and Lemberg in German, populated mostly by Poles, but surrounded by a Ukrainian majority in the villages and countryside. Until 1772 the area belonged to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, but later, with the Partitions of Poland, was annexed to the Austrian empire. The conflict, known as the Polish–Ukrainian War, spilled over to Volhynia with the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura attempting to expand Ukrainian claims westward. The war was conducted by professional forces on both sides, resulting in a relatively minimal number of civilian deaths. On July 17, 1919, a ceasefire was signed. On November 21, 1919, the Paris Peace Conference granted Eastern Galicia to Poland. The lost war left a generation of frustrated western Ukrainian veterans convinced that Poland was Ukraine’s principal enemy.
Decisions leading to the massacre of Poles in Volhynia and their implementation were primarily attributable to the extremist Bandera faction of the OUN (OUN-B) and not other Ukrainian political or military groups. The OUN-B’s ideology involved the following ideas: integral nationalism, that a pure national state and language were desired goals; glorification of violence and armed struggle of nation versus nation; and totalitarianism, in which the nation must be ruled by one person and one political party. While the moderate Melnyk faction of the OUN admired aspects of Mussolini’s fascism, the more extreme Bandera faction of the OUN admired aspects of Nazism. At the time of the OUN’s founding, the most popular political party among Ukrainians was the Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance which, while opposed to Polish rule, called for peaceful and democratic means to achieve independence from Poland. The OUN, on the other hand, was originally a fringe movement within western Ukraine, condemned for its violence by figures from mainstream Ukrainian society such as the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytsky, who wrote of the OUN’s leadership that “whoever demoralizes our youth is a criminal and an enemy of our people.” Several factors contributed to the OUN-B’s increase in popularity and, ultimately, monopoly of power within Ukrainian society, conditions necessary for the massacres to occur.
Only one group of Ukrainian nationalists, OUN-B under Mykola Lebed and then Roman Shukhevych, intended to ethnically cleanse Volhynia of Poles. Taras Bulba-Borovets, the founder of the Ukrainian People’s Revolutionary Army, rejected this idea and condemned the anti-Polish massacres when they started.
After Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, both the Polish Government in Exile and the Ukrainian OUN-B considered the possibility that in the event of mutually exhaustive attrition warfare between Germany and the Soviet Union, the region would become a scene of conflict between Poles and Ukrainians. The Polish Government in Exile, which wanted the region returned to Poland, planned for a swift armed takeover of the territory as part of its overall plan for a future anti-Nazi uprising. This view was compounded by the OUN’s prior collaboration with the Nazis, that by 1943 no understanding between the Polish government’s Home Army and OUN was possible. The OUN-B came to believe that it had to move fast while the Germans still controlled the area in order to preempt future Polish efforts at re-establishing Poland’s pre-war borders. The result was that the local OUN-B commanders in Volhynia and Galicia (if not the OUN-B leadership itself) decided that an ethnic cleansing of Poles from the area, through terror and murder, was necessary. Throughout 1942 both Poles and Ukrainians considered Volhynia to be a relatively peaceful area, and there was no significant rise in ethnic tensions between the two peoples
The peak of the massacres took place in July and August 1943 when a senior UPA commander, Dmytro Klyachkivsky, ordered the liquidation of the entire male Polish population between 16 and 60 years of age. Despite this, most of the victims were women and children
The following day, July 11, 1943, is regarded as the bloodiest day of the massacres, with many reports of UPA units marching from village to village, killing Polish civilians. On that day, UPA units surrounded and attacked Polish villages and settlements located in three counties – Kowel, Horochow, and Włodzimierz Wołyński. Events began at 3:00 am, leaving the Poles with little chance to escape. After the massacres, the Polish villages were burned to the ground. According to those few who survived, the action had been carefully prepared; a few days before the massacres there had been several meetings in Ukrainian villages, during which UPA members told the villagers that the slaughter of all Poles was necessary. Within a few days an unspecified number of Polish villages were completely destroyed and their populations murdered. In the Polish village of Gurow, out of 480 inhabitants, only 70 survived; in the settlement of Orzeszyn, the UPA killed 306 out of 340 Poles; in the village of Sadowa out of 600 Polish inhabitants only 20 survived; in Zagaje out of 350 Poles only a few survived. In August 1943, the Polish village of Gaj (near Kovel) was burned and some 600 people massacred, in the village of Wola Ostrowiecka 529 people were killed, including 220 children under 14, and 438 people were killed, including 246 children, in Ostrowki. In September 1992 exhumations were carried out in these villages, confirming the number of dead. Altogether, on July 11, 1943, the Ukrainians attacked 167 towns and villages. This wave of massacres lasted 5 days, until July 16. The UPA continued the ethnic cleansing, particularly in rural areas, until most Poles had been deported, killed or expelled. These actions were conducted by many units, and were well-coordinated and thoroughly planned.
The atrocities were carried out indiscriminately and without restraint. The victims, regardless of their age or gender, were routinely tortured to death. Norman Davies in No Simple Victory gives a short, but shocking description of the massacres. He writes:
Villages were torched. Roman Catholic priests were axed or crucified. Churches were burned with all their parishioners. Isolated farms were attacked by gangs carrying pitchforks and kitchen knives. Throats were cut. Pregnant women were bayoneted. Children were cut in two. Men were ambushed in the field and led away. The perpetrators could not determine the province’s future. But at least they could determine that it would be a future without Poles.
An OUN order from early 1944 stated:
Liquidate all Polish traces. Destroy all walls in the Catholic Church and other Polish prayer houses. Destroy orchards and trees in the courtyards so that there will be no trace that someone lived there… Pay attention to the fact that when something remains that is Polish, then the Poles will have pretensions to our land”.
Timothy Snyder describes the murders: “Ukrainian partisans burned homes, shot or forced back inside those who tried to flee, and used sickles and pitchforks to kill those they captured outside. In some cases, beheaded, crucified, dismembered, or disemboweled bodies were displayed, in order to encourage remaining Poles to flee”. A similar account has been presented by Niall Ferguson, who wrote: “Whole villages were wiped out, men beaten to death, women raped and mutilated, babies bayoneted.” Ukrainian historian Yuryi Kirichuk described the conflict as similar to medieval rebellions.
According to Polish historian Piotr Łossowski, the method used in most of the attacks was the same. At first, local Poles were assured that nothing would happen to them. Then, at dawn, a village was surrounded by armed members of the UPA, behind whom were peasants with axes, hammers, knives, and saws. All the Poles encountered were murdered; sometimes they were herded into one spot, to make it easier. After a massacre, all goods were looted, including clothes, grain, and furniture. The final part of an attack was setting fire to the village. In many cases, victims were tortured and their bodies mutilated. All vestiges of Polish existence eradicated with even abandoned Polish settlements burned to the ground.
Even though it may be an exaggeration to say that the massacres enjoyed general support of the Ukrainians, it has been suggested that without wide support from local Ukrainians they would have been impossible. Those Ukrainian peasants who took part in the massacres created their own units, called Samoboronni Kushtchovi Viddily (Kushtchov Self-Defence Units). People who did not speak Polish but were considered Poles by the perpetrators were also murdered.
Ukrainians in ethnically mixed settlements were offered material incentives to join in the slaughter of their neighbours, or warned by the UPA’s security service (Sluzhba Bezbeky) to flee by night, while all remaining inhabitants were murdered at dawn. Many Ukrainians risked, and in some cases, lost their lives trying to shelter or warn Poles – such activities were treated by the UPA as collaboration with the enemy and severely punished. In 2007, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) published a document Kresowa Ksiega Sprawiedliwych 1939 – 1945. O Ukraincach ratujacych Polakow poddanych eksterminacji przez OUN i UPA (“Eastern Borderland’s Book of the Righteous. About Ukrainians saving Poles from extermination of OUN and UIA”). The author of the book, IPN’s historian Romuald Niedzielko, documented 1341 cases in which Ukrainian civilians helped their Polish neighbors. For this, 384 Ukrainians were executed by the UIA. In case of Polish-Ukrainian families, one common UPA instruction was to kill one’s Polish spouse and children born of that marriage. People who refused to carry such order were often murdered together with their entire family
Roman Shukhevych, the UPA commander, stated in his order from 25 February 1944: “In view of the success of the Soviet forces it is necessary to speed up the liquidation of the Poles, they must be totally wiped out, their villages burned … only the Polish population must be destroyed.”
One of the most infamous massacres took place on February 28, 1944, in the Polish village of Huta Pieniacka, with over 1,000 inhabitants. The village served as a shelter for refugees including Polish Jews, as well as a recuperation base for Polish and Communist partisans. One AK unit was active there. In the winter of 1944 a Soviet partisan unit numbering 1,000 was stationed in the village for two weeks. Huta Pieniacka’s villagers, although poor, organized a well-fortified and armed self-defense unit that fought off a Ukrainian and German reconnaissance attack on February 23, 1944. Two soldiers of the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS Galicia (1st Ukrainian) Division of the Waffen-SS were killed and one wounded by the villagers. On February 28, elements of the Ukrainian 14th SS Division from Brody returned with 500-600 men, assisted by a group of civilian nationalists. The killing spree lasted all day. Kazimierz Wojciechowski, the commander of the Polish self-defense unit, was drenched with gasoline and burned alive at the main square. The village was utterly destroyed and all of its occupants killed. The civilians, mostly women and children, were rounded up at a church, divided and locked in barns which were set on fire. Estimates of casualties in the Huta Pieniacka massacre vary, and include 500 (Ukrainian archives), over 1,000 (Tadeusz Piotrowski), and 1,200 (Sol Littman). According to IPN investigation, the crime was committed by the 4th battalion of the Ukrainian 14th SS Division supported by UPA units and local Ukrainian civilians
A military journal of the Ukrainian 14th SS Division condemned the killing of Poles. In a March 2, 1944 article directed to the Ukrainian youth, written by military leaders, Soviet partisans were blamed for the murders of Poles and Ukrainians, and the authors stated that “If God forbid, among those who committed such inhuman acts, a Ukrainian hand was found, it will be forever excluded from the Ukrainian national community.”
The village of Pidkamen near Brody was a shelter for Poles, who hid in the monastery of the Dominicans there. Some 2,000 persons, the majority of them women and children, were living there when the monastery was attacked in mid-March 1944 by UPA units, which according to Polish Home Army accounts were cooperating with the Ukrainian SS. Over 250 Poles were killed. In the nearby village of Palikrovy, 300 Poles were killed, 20 in Maliniska and 16 in Chernytsia. Armed Ukrainian groups destroyed the monastery, stealing all valuables. What remained was the painting of Mary of Pidkamen, which now is kept in St. Wojciech Church in Wrocław. According to Kirichuk, the first attacks on the Poles took place there in August 1943 and they were probably the work of UPA units from Volhynia. In retaliation, Poles killed important Ukrainians, including the Ukrainian doctor Lastowiecky from Lviv and a popular football player from Przemyśl, Wowczyszyn.
By the end of the summer, mass acts of terror aimed at Poles were taking place in Eastern Galicia with the purpose of forcing Poles to settle on the western bank of the San River, under the slogan “Poles behind the San”. Snyder estimates that 25,000 Poles were killed in Galicia alone, Grzegorz Motyka estimated the number of victims at 30,000-40,000.
The slaughter did not stop after the Red Army entered the areas, with massacres taking place in 1945 in such places as Czerwonogrod (Ukrainian: Irkiv), where 60 Poles were murdered on February 2, 1945, the day before they were scheduled to depart for the Recovered Territories.
By Autumn 1944 anti-Polish actions stopped and terror was used only against those who co-operated with the NKVD, but in late 1944 and in the beginning of 1945 UPA performed a last massive anti-Polish action in Ternopil region. On the night of February 5–6, 1945, Ukrainian groups attacked the Polish village of Barysz, near Buchach: 126 Poles were massacred, including women and children. A few days later on February 12–13, a local group of OUN under Petro Khamchuk attacked the Polish settlement of Puźniki, killing around 100 people and burning houses. Those who survived moved mostly to Niemysłowice, Gmina Prudnik.
Approximately 150-366 Ukrainian and a few Polish inhabitants of Pawłokoma were killed on March 3, 1945 by a former Polish Home Army unit aided by Polish self-defense groups from nearby villages. The massacre is believed to be an act of retaliation for earlier alleged murders by Ukrainian Insurgent Army of nine (or 11) Poles in Pawłokoma and unspecified number of Poles killed by UPA in neighboring villages.
While Germans actively encouraged the conflict, for most of the time they attempted to not get directly involved. However, there are reports of Germans supplying weapons to both Ukrainians and Poles. Special German units formed from collaborationist Ukrainian, and later Polish auxiliary police were deployed in pacification actions in Volhynia, and some of their crimes were attributed to either the Polish Home Army or the Ukrainian UPA.
According to Yuriy Kirichuk the Germans were actively prodding both sides of the conflict against each other. Erich Koch once said: “We have to do everything possible so that a Pole meeting a Ukrainian, would be willing to kill him and conversely, a Ukrainian would be willing to kill a Pole”. Kirichuk quotes a German commissioner from Sarny whose response to Polish complaints was: “You want Sikorski, the Ukrainians want Bandera. Fight each other”.
The Nazis replaced Ukrainian policemen who deserted from German service with Polish policemen. Polish motives for joining were local and personal: to defend themselves or avenge UPA atrocities. German policy called for the murder of the family of every Ukrainian police officer who deserted and the destruction of the village of any Ukrainian police officer deserting with his weapons. These retaliations were carried out using newly recruited Polish policemen. Though Volhynian Polish participation in the German Police followed UPA attacks on Polish settlements, it provided the Ukrainian Nationalists with useful sources of propaganda and was used as a justification for the cleansing action. OUN-B leader summarized the situation in August 1943 by saying that the German administration “uses Polaks in its destructive actions. In response we destroy them unmercifully.” Despite the desertions in March and April 1943, the auxiliary Police remained heavily Ukrainian, and Ukrainians serving the Nazis continued pacifications of Polish and other villages.
Soviet partisan units present in the area were aware of the massacres. On May 25, 1943, the commander of the Soviet partisan forces of the Rivne area stressed in his report to the headquarters that Ukrainian nationalists did not shoot the Poles but cut them dead with knives and axes, with no consideration for age or gender.
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