Poland's president expresses regret over 1947 Akcja Wisla

by Jan Maksymiuk
RFE/RL Poland, Belarus and Ukraine Report

PRAGUE - Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski expressed regret over Operation Vistula, or Akcja Wisla, a forced expulsion by the Communist authorities in 1947 of some 140,000 Ukrainians from their native areas in the southeastern part of the country to Poland's newly acquired northern and western territories, the so-called "Recovered Lands," Polish media reported on April 18.

In a letter to the National Remembrance Institute (IPN) and participants in the IPN-organized conference on Akcja Wisla held in Krasiczyn near Przemysl (Peremyshl), President Kwasniewski wrote:

"On behalf of the Polish Republic, I would like to express regret to all those who were wronged by [this operation]. ... The infamous Operation Vistula is a symbol of the abominable deeds perpetrated by the Communist authorities against Polish citizens of Ukrainian origin. ...

"It was believed for years that Operation Vistula was the revenge for the slaughter of Poles by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in the east in 1943-1944. Such reasoning is fallacious and ethically inadmissible. It [invokes] a principle of group accountability, with which we cannot agree. The slaughter of Poles cannot serve as an excuse for the brutal pacification of Ukrainian villages and the expulsion of populace. Operation Vistula should be condemned."

Prof. Eugeniusz Mironowicz from Bialystok University, a historian specializing in the Polish Communist authorities' policies vis-à-vis the country's ethnic minorities, presented the political background to Akcja Wisla at the conference in Krasiczyn. Prof. Mironowicz argued that the Polish authorities were determined to solve the problem of the Ukrainian minority by resettlement immediately after the liberation of Poland from the Nazis.

In September 1944, the Polish Committee of National Liberation (an interim governing body) signed accords with the governments of the Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania on repatriation and exchange of population. In theory, the repatriation process should have been voluntary, but in practice forcible and violent methods were applied to Ukrainians, who were decidedly unenthusiastic about resettling in the Ukrainian SSR, the scholar noted.

In 1944 the government tried to prompt Ukrainians to leave their villages in the Bieszczady Mountains by increasing taxes and quotas of compulsory supplies of agricultural products to the state. This policy proved to be only partly successful: in 1944 some 80,000 Ukrainians of the estimated community of 600,000 left Poland for the Soviet Union.

In 1945 the government sent considerable armed forces to the southeastern part of the country. In the autumn of 1945, these troops joined police, security service forces, and border guards in the compulsory relocation of Ukrainians to the Soviet Union. There were many fights between Polish troops and UPA guerrillas who wanted to prevent the resettlement. The peak of the deportation of Ukrainians to the Soviet Union occurred in the autumn of 1946, when some 200,000 people were relocated within four months. In total, according to official data, some 490,000 Ukrainians were expelled from Poland to the Ukrainian SSR.

According to Prof. Mironowicz, in November 1946 the General Staff of the Polish army proposed to the government to dispose by way of "internal deportation" of the remaining Ukrainians and Lemkos who inhabited the adjacent Beskid Niski region but remained fairly reserved about defining themselves as Ukrainians and supporting UPA fighters. "Internal deportation" meant a compulsory dissipated resettlement of some 140,000 people in Poland's Recovered Lands. The government made a formal decision on the deportation of Ukrainians in the spring of 1947.

Polish textbooks of history assert that the official go-ahead for Operation Vistula was given a day after the assassination of Gen. Karol Swierczewski, Poland's deputy defense minister, by the UPA in an ambush in the Bieszczady Mountains on March 28, 1947. Prof. Mironowicz said the killing of Swierczewski served as a convenient pretext for the Communist authorities to launch a drastic resettlement operation, but in fact it had nothing to do with the chain of political decisions that were made earlier on the deportation. "Operation Vistula" began on April 28, 1947.

The newly appointed Ukrainian ambassador to Poland, Oleksander Nykonenko, also sent a letter to last week's conference in Krasiczyn. Ambassador Nykonenko wrote that Mr. Kwasniewski's apology is an important step in assessing the Polish Communist regime's crimes against ethnic Ukrainians. "There is a lot being done to overcome 'ghosts of the past' in Poland and in Ukraine," PAP quoted from Mr. Nykonenko's letter.

Some Polish media noted, however, that while Poland is really doing a lot to look at its past from a new perspective in a bid to overcome historical barriers to friendly Polish-Ukrainian relations, Ukraine is doing decidedly too little. The private TVN Television, while praising President Kwasniewski's statement on Operation Vistula, commented simultaneously that Warsaw is still waiting for Kyiv's official apology for massacres of the Polish population in Ukraine's Volhynia region in 1943. According to Polish historians, the UPA brutally murdered between 60,000 and 70,000 Polish civilians in Volhynia in 1943. In connection with these massacres, the IPN branch in Lublin has launched an investigation of crimes allegedly committed by Ukrainian nationalists.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 28, 2002, No. 17, Vol. LXX

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