The last besieged fortress: Peremyshl wracked by Ukrainian-Polish confrontation

by Petro Tyma

PEREMYSHL, Poland - The city of Peremyshl (Przemysl in Polish) has recently become associated, both in Poland and outside her borders, with intolerance towards Ukrainians.

This intolerance manifests itself in written protests against the presence of Ukrainian establishments in Peremyshl, such as the Greek-Catholic eparchy and the Markian Shashkevych Ukrainian school; against events such as the Festival of Ukrainian Culture; against Ukrainian national symbols; in accusations and provocations, in graffiti on walls and billboards ("Gas Ukrainians," "Death to Ukrainians," "Poland above all"); as well as more extreme actions, such as the setting on fire of the doors to the OUP (Organization of Ukrainians in Poland) office or the attempt to firebomb the building that housed participants of the XIV Festival of Ukrainian Culture.

During the festival held in Peremyshl last summer, six young men were charged with trying to firebomb a school residence occupied at the time by festival participants, including a large number of children. Their trial was held in Peremyshl, in November and December of last year.

The accused, six physically well developed young men, had been seen during the festival tearing down posters, threatening people, shouting anti-Ukrainian slogans near the OUP office and, as it came to light during the trial, had also taken part in painting anti-Ukrainian graffiti. The trial itself had some peculiar aspects.

During the trial, the prosecutor posed only one insignificant question to a witness. Otherwise, he said nothing at all, although, in my opinion, some important events and questions were left unexplained.

The questions raised by the defense were somewhat run of the mill. They were related to the rental of the school residence and suggested that the damage caused by the firebombing should be covered by the OUP because, according to the contract, the cost of any damages was to be covered by the festival organizers.

A fire expert emphasized several times that there had been no actual fire, that the damage had been caused by "mechanical acts." The fact that the fire was quickly put out was made to be a point in favor of the accused.

No persons who had contact with the accused before the crime and who could have confirmed the preparations (one of the accused had been seen going into the building beforehand) were called as witnesses.

There was not a single journalist present at the trial - no representatives of the Polish media at all. No mention of the trial was made in any newspaper. This was in great contrast to the noise that had been generated by the media in the days leading up to the festival, when journalists admitted they were there expecting some sort of flare-up. We learned, from unofficial sources, that the procurator of the Peremyshl region had set up an information blockade of the trial.

There was a contrast between the demeanor of the witnesses and the defendants. Some of the witnesses appeared frightened; several showed up with their parents. In spite of the fact that they could have been facing sentences of up to three years in prison, I did not notice any parents of the accused in court. The defendants were insolent, regarded the witnesses with unconcealed contempt and were visibly bored by the whole procedure.

On December 1 the court met for the third time to decide on the verdict. The fire expert claimed that one could not speak of a threat to life as there had been no real fire. The smoke from the blazing curtains, according to the expert, was not toxic and did not pose a threat. There was also no danger of an explosion of the gas tank of the bus under which a fire had been set, he said. Only in answer to a question put by the judge did the expert admit that there could have been a huge fire if the bottle with the flammable liquid had fallen somewhere else in the room and set the bedclothes on fire.

The prosecutor summed up the charge and admitted that it was only due to luck that a serious tragedy had not occurred. According to him, the defendants were aware of the threat they had posed; during the trial they had admitted to the accusations and had further accused each other. But, because "of their age, this being their first offense, their good characters" the prosecutor asked for a sentence lower than the one prescribed by law for this type of crime.

The defense went further and attempted to have the charge changed from "attempted setting of fire which posed a significant danger to life and property" (the penalty for which is imprisonment for three years) to "public damage" (the penalty is a fine) and not making the defendants responsible for court costs. The accused, according to the defense, did not want to harm the festival participants; they merely wanted to frighten them. Several times the defense asked the court to look at the matter "realistically," without elaborating on what this was supposed to mean.

Only one member of the defense team tried to analyze the events of the night in question. He spoke about the atmosphere before the festival, heated up by politicians and journalists, who speculated about "what kind of excesses will be attempted in Peremyshl." In his opinion, the accused youths became the victims of this atmosphere. He finished his statement with a telling observation: "My client has never exhibited aggressive intentions, not even towards foreigners."

The sentence was one year and six months, imprisonment for all the defendants, suspended for three years, a fine of 1,000 zlotys and court costs.

Neither the trial nor the sentence received any mention in the press, although punishment has an educational function only when it is made public. Meanwhile, the daily Zycie Przemyskie, in its police digest, wrote that "the police arrested a 23-year-old Ukrainian who, without reason, beat up a resident of Peremyshl." In Peremyshl, there are criminals and there are "criminals."

An investigation of the OUP, based on accusations by Polish organizations of Peremyshl that the OUP allegedly called for interethnic strife, is now proceeding. The investigation is being conducted according to the following logic: OUP are the agents of the OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and Ukrainian community leaders are the agents of nationalism, which, in coded Polish language, means murderers of Poles.

As part of this investigation, there have been interrogations of OUP leaders, priests and Ukrainian journalists throughout Poland, and the collection of evidence includes "articles from the Ukrainian press of the diaspora, Ukraine and Poland." While this investigation continues, no attention is paid to a host of illegal activities of the "Peremyshl patriots" who, according to Stanislaw Stempijen, a Polish historian from Peremyshl, "are voicing what others are thinking but, for various reasons, not admitting."

To understand the reasons for this attitude, one has to analyze the historical and sociological conditions of the formation of Polish consciousness in Peremyshl, a component of which has always been anti-Ukrainianism. After the war, a monument to Gen. Svjerchewski - who was supposed to have died at the hands of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) - was put up in the center of the city. On every anniversary of the general's death, children, young people and representatives of community organizations of the city would gather beside the monument so that they could be instructed in "the truth about Ukrainian nationalists."

This monument was put up on the site of an old Ukrainian cemetery on land that was owned, until 1947, by the Greek-Catholic Church. The monument no longer stands there, destroyed during the recent battles against the remnants of Communist ideology, and the square has been renamed the Square of Independence (of Poland). But a monument to the "Young Eagles of Peremyshl" (Pzemyski orliata), young boys who died during the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918, has been put up in the city. Today, "real Poles" gather beside this monument, and one can hear familiar anti-Ukrainian expressions.

This situation is becoming awkward for the municipal authorities who have received a European flag and a citation from the Council of Europe for promoting tolerance and mutual understanding among nationalities and cultures and for cooperation with the city of Lviv. The municipal authorities are caught between wanting a "European face" and the fear of being called "Ukrainian nationalists."

That is why the city administration declares, officially, that it does not support the extremists, while at the same time takes part in events organized by them. Such events include the unveiling of a plaque in the former Greek- Catholic cathedral - now the Church of the Carmelites - which featured the Ukrainian "tryzub" (trident) together with a swastika. Another example is the decision to put up a monument to "victims of Ukrainian nationalists" opposite the present Greek-Catholic cathedral.

In spite of all the official declarations or the initiatives of individual persons, Peremyshl is afflicted with anti-Ukrainianism. Views, that in Peremyshl are considered normal and are often heard in statements by politicians and some Roman Catholic priests, would be called racist anywhere else. For a part of Peremyshl society, a Ukrainian is still a "Ruskyj," a pejorative name for a citizen of the former USSR - and everything that is Ukrainian is bad or questionable.

During the Communist regime, the "Ukrainian problem" did not officially exist. Ukrainians were invisible, but now, according to the patriots, they are "getting ready to Ukrainianize the region." Ancient phobias take the upper hand while political capital is being made on old hatreds.

The reality is slightly different, and it is hard to believe that it can be seen as threatening. In Peremyshl, a total of 200 children are learning Ukrainian in a school funded by the government. Ukrainian cultural initiatives depend mainly on community efforts - there is no money in the government's budget to fund a single staff person to work on behalf of Ukrainian culture.

For Poles, there are 151 persons employed by the provincial government and 250 in the city working to promote Polish culture. There are about 9,000 children in public schools in the city and 58,000 in Peremyshl region. And they are afraid of Ukrainianization! It was Stalin who said that "if the facts don't agree, too bad...for the facts!"

But there are unexpected breakthroughs. At the end of January, through the efforts of a young Peremyshlianyn, Mariusha-Petro Sydor, an interesting concert was organized in the city. As part of a Polish tour, three rock groups played in Peremyshl - Polish, Finnish and British. The British group was The Ukrainians, known for its use of Ukrainian folklore.

The concert proved useful for fighting stereotyping among Polish youth. How important this is for Ukrainian-Polish relations can be seen in the fact that it was young people who threw the firebombs and tore down posters at the festival. It is to the young that the "Peremyshl patriots" direct their slogans and it is for them that they organize propaganda meetings in schools to inform them about "the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian threat."

As a result of the concert and the initiative of young people who do not want to live in a world of intolerance and animosity, a club has been formed in Peremyshl - the "O.K." It has been set up as an independent establishment to protect itself from the sham Polish-Ukrainian friendship and pro forma gestures so beloved by bureaucrats.

The face of Peremyshl will depend on how things continue to evolve in the city. Besides such positive initiatives, there are others that are threatening, such as the attempts to erase the traces of Peremyshl's Ukrainian past. In spite of appeals and protests, the cupola on the ancient Greek-Catholic cathedral is being dismantled. Which variant will emerge victorious, only time will tell. It is an interesting battle. Unfortunately, we can all become its victims.

Petro Tyma works for the Organization of Ukrainians in Poland in Warsaw. He was one of the organizers of the Festival of Ukrainian Culture in Peremyshl last summer. (This article was translated and edited by Oksana Zakydalsky.)

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, July 21, 1996, No. 29, Vol. LXIV

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