Ceremony in Poland recalls massacre of Ukrainians

by Zenon Zawada
Kyiv Press Bureau

PAWLOKOMA, Poland - In the days leading up to the Pawlokoma massacre, Father Volodymyr Lemtsio was advised to take his wife and children and flee. He declined.

Andrii Lemtsio, 67, recalled his father's words: "Where my people are, that's where I'll be."

For his courageous leadership, the Greek-Catholic priest joined the ranks of 366 Ukrainians systematically murdered by Polish soldiers between March 1 and 3, 1945, in the village of Pawlokoma, situated 25 miles west of Peremyshl in the Nadsiannia region that is now the Podkarpackie province of Poland.

On the very same soil where blood was spilled more than six decades ago, the presidents of the two nations opened a memorial on May 13 honoring those who perished, urging reconciliation and declaring a new era in Polish-Ukrainian relations embodied by the Orange Revolution.

"I can only imagine what a difficult road has been traveled by tens of thousands of people to this act of reconciliation which we are witnessing today," said Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.

"But I am convinced of one thing: that only the strong are capable of forgiving. I am convinced that the memory of one's own history, historical memory, is an imperative for contemporary times."

Polish President Lech Kaczynski acknowledged that the massacre was covered up for decades by past Polish and Soviet governments, which forbid crosses and prayers for those who perished.

"The time has now come to not hide the truth and to speak of the wrongs that have not been righted," Mr. Kaczynski said.

Attending the day's prayers and ceremonies were more than 1,000 Ukrainians who arrived from the Lviv Oblast of Ukraine and the Nadsiannia region of Poland that includes Peremyshl and Jaroslaw, cities once heavily populated by Ukrainians.

A handful of them were survivors of the Pawlokoma massacre, who remain as living eyewitnesses to the brutality humans are capable of in an atmosphere of war.

"With my mother, they took us to the church," said Omelian Fedak, 69, recalling what had happened leading up to the massacre. "We had spent the night in the church because we thought nobody would go there."

On Saturday, March 3, 1945, Polish soldiers of the Armia Krajowa seized the church, sending the women and small children to one side, and the rest to the other. "And, one by one, we were taken out," he said. "No one knew why or where."

Mr. Fedak and his older brother were also led out, along with other children who were 8 or 9 years old.

"With my eyes, I saw how they held someone, undressed them to their underwear and shot them," Mr. Fedak said. "He fell in one pit."

Polish soldiers had dug three graves, placed undressed Ukrainians in front of each one and shot them so they'd fall in, survivors said. Some of those shot were still alive and would cry out from the pits, particularly if they landed in freezing water.

"Nothing can be done or will be done," replied a Polish soldier, as Mr. Fedak recalled. "Drink up the water and die."

To escape, Mr. Fedak and his brother told the soldiers their mother was Ukrainian but their father was Polish, though he had died years earlier.

The Armia Krajowa soldiers chose to believe the boys, largely because they themselves couldn't speak Polish and couldn't verify whether the boys were truly Polish, Mr. Fedak said.

Only city dwellers spoke Polish, he said, not villagers.

Despite their lack of Polish fluency, soldiers used various methods to determine whether someone was Ukrainian, either observing how they crossed themselves (right-to-left instead of left-to-right), as well as what they said when they crossed themselves, said Bohdan Horbovyi, the assistant chair of the Petro Mohyla Academic Association in Lviv.

Most others in attendance were Ukrainians forcibly resettled from Nadsiannia to Ukraine, either by the Polish or Soviet governments.

Though many of them had never been to Pawlokoma before, the Nadsiannia descendants expressed an equally strong desire to stand alongside its survivors and commemorate a tragedy that befell hundreds of Ukrainian villages that either no longer exist or are now Polish.

"Regardless that my relatives aren't buried here - they lie in another village," said Yaroslava Shulska, 58, whose parents were from the village of Lipkovychi near Jaroslaw, which had its entire Ukrainian population relocated by the Soviets.

"But if we don't remember those buried here, then our relatives won't be remembered. They must be remembered, all the more so because they were murdered in a terrifying manner."

Hundreds from the Nadsiannia Association in Lviv arrived for the event.

Maria Vavrychyn, born in the village outside of Dukla in the Lemkivschyna region, held back her tears during the day's ceremonies.

The villages of the Nadsiannia region were almost exclusively Ukrainian before the war, she said, and her ancestors date back to the beginning of the 19th century.

When asked to describe why she joined the trek to Pawlokoma from Lviv, she began to weep.

"She came to pay her respects to those who perished not only here, but in other towns where her brothers and sisters lie," her husband said, speaking on her behalf. "These incidents aren't forgotten."

While the massacre has been remembered, just what triggered the Pawlokoma terror remains a mystery to this very day.

A band of soldiers, either Ukrainians or persons posing as Ukrainians, murdered between three and 11 Poles in the region of Pawlokoma. The murders occurred in the vicinity of the nearby town of Dynow, Mr. Fedak said.

Poles widely suspect the Ukrainian attackers were Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) troops, though Mr. Fedak said he's confident that the UPA had no presence in the region at the time.

The revenge for these murders was carried out by a local division of the Armia Krajowa, Poland's main resistance army to the Nazi occupation, which was led by Jozef Bissa.

Though prayer and peaceful remembrance marked the morning's commemoration, the Pawlokoma monument has its own controversy that registered subtle disappointment among the Ukrainians in attendance.

The main monument at Pawlokoma is a granite cross, flanked by black granite stones bearing the names of all 366 victims and their years of birth, engraved in gold lettering.

It bears the message, "Eternal memory for the 366 victims who tragically died March 1-3, 1945, in the village of Pawlokoma."

Stone monuments mark two of the three pits that collected the bodies as soldiers shot them dead.

Three large metal crosses stand in the middle of the memorial.

Before the memorial was established, the land was a rundown cemetery covered with garbage and shrubs. This is common at many Ukrainian cemeteries in the Nadsiannia region, the visitors said.

To clear the land for the Pawlokoma memorial, most of the gravestones were removed, but four scattered stones remained at the insistence of relatives.

The Ukrainian Catholic Church was destroyed in the village, and a Polish church has taken its place.

In an apparent response to the Ukrainian monuments, Poles erected their own memorial just a few meters away, which conveyed a decidedly sharper and politicized tone.

"Those who were taken to their deaths at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists in the years 1939 to 1945, and also who died on 'non-national lands,' tragically perished," the inscription reads, followed by the names of 20 victims.

Though the Ukrainian monument refers to the victims of a single historical incident in a specific village, the Polish monument lumps together the wartime Polish victims of Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet Communists, without distinguishing where they died and in what circumstances.

A second list of victims of the Soviets, similar in the length, is also engraved.

The Polish monument drew the ire of most Ukrainians, including Zenon Potoczny, chair of the Canada-based Pawlokoma Foundation that raised funds and held talks with the Poles, which he described as problematic.

"Things worked out because the opening occurred," Mr. Potoczny said. "But why are they betraying history? It's written that the victims of Pawlokoma 'died tragically.' They should have written that they died at the hands of Poles! We will try to do everything to change the inscription."

The Pawlokoma ceremony was the latest in a series of gestures between the Polish and Ukrainian governments to reconcile their people's painful histories.

Last year, Presidents Yushchenko and Alexander Kwasniewski opened the Orliata Memorial at Lviv's Lychakiv Cemetery, which honors 2,500 Polish soldiers who died in the first world war.

Then, too, Ukrainians felt they got a raw deal from the Poles, who managed to place a "mech scherbets" plaque in the middle of the cemetery, widely perceived as a symbol of Polish military might over Ukraine.

Underneath the sword is an inscription in Polish, "Here lie Polish soldiers who died for the homeland." Many Lviv residents opposed that inscription because they feel it implies that their city was Polish land for which the Orliata soldiers fought.

Some Polish television reports, in covering the Pawlokoma event, ignored the hundreds of Ukrainians who could have offered eyewitness accounts of Polish brutality in Pawlokoma and other villages.

Polsat, a major Polish network, reported in its newscast as fact that it was Ukrainian nationalists who murdered the Poles, thereby triggering the massacre.

Other Polish networks and newspapers followed suit, ignoring the skepticism surrounding that version and the possibility that NKVD agents had dressed up as Ukrainian nationalists, a common Soviet tactic used during the second world war to stir up antagonism against the UPA.

"The thing is we ran into Polish fighters and captured them," said UPA veteran Hryhorii Slobodeniuk. "That's no secret. And their commanders were Russian Communists. They specifically joined Polish armies to beat Ukrainians, take their places and sow discord. So it's still a question as to who committed those murders."

Leading the divine liturgy at Pavlokoma was Patriarch Lubomyr Husar of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church and Roman Catholic Archbishop Jozef Michalik of Peremyshl.

The Polish archbishop issued an apology and asked for forgiveness.

Beseeching the audience for reconciliation, Patriarch Husar recalled Jesus Christ's words when confronting a crowd ready to stone a woman to death for adultery: "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her."

He applied that biblical lesson to the history between the Polish and Ukrainian people. "There isn't a people that has not done wrong against another," Patriarch Husar said.

The Nadsiannia massacres

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 21, 2006, No. 21, Vol. LXXIV

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