I attended a Lemko Vatra (literally a campfire of people from the Lemkivshchyna region of today’s Poland), an annual celebration of Ukrainian Lemko heritage with song and dance and a few serious moments. One of those was a discussion titled “The Ukrainian-Polish Civil War and the Expulsion of Ukrainians after the Second World War.”
In 1944, the USSR and the newly formed Communist puppet government of the Polish People’s Republic entered into an agreement delimiting their borders and “allowing” for the repatriation of Ukrainians from the Polish side to relocate to the Ukrainian SSR and similarly for Poles on the Ukrainian side to relocate to Poland. This was Joseph Stalin’s idea and the propaganda went that Stalin was intent on the reunification of Ukrainians within the Ukrainian SSR and the Polish side was intent on a similar reunification involving Poles. There were some 700,000 Ukrainians in Poland at that time – most of them from the Lemkivshchyna region, a large part of which had been Ukraine and was now Poland.
What was represented as a voluntary relocation quickly became a manifestly police operation. Soviet forces were used. People at first were compelled to sign a form expressing agreement, but this process quickly deteriorated, the forms all but ignored and the farce dispelled. As a result some 500,000 Ukrainians were deported to the Ukrainian SSR. This appeared to satisfy Stalin.
By 1947, the Poles estimated that here were maybe 20,000 Ukrainians left in Poland and that the Ukrainian military insurgency, predominantly the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), had been largely subdued. In any event, the Poles felt that any remaining insurgents would not be able to persevere without local support. However, the Polish estimates were incorrect. In fact, some 200,000 Ukrainians remained, and this soon became apparent to the Polish Communist government.
It was then that the Polish government without any further encouragement from Stalin decided to take matters into its own hands and deal with the “Ukrainian problem” within Poland. The result was the notorious “Akcja Wisla” during which some 140,000 Ukrainians were deported not to the USSR but to western Polish lands with specific directives that they were not to be resettled in concentrated groups. Additionally, many Ukrainians died and many, in particular, intellectuals and clergy, were incarcerated in the Jaworzno concentration camp.
The above facts are fairly well known and generally accepted by contemporary Ukrainian, Polish and Western scholars, as well as Polish and Ukrainian government officials. Some Polish contemporaries have argued as justification that this was the work of a Communist regime and not the Poles. Others have argued that Akcja Wisla was payback for the killings of Polish civilians in Volyn by Ukrainians during 1943-1944.
Whatever the argument, the fact remains that the cleansing of Poland from Ukrainians was conducted by the government of the Polish People’s Republic. Collaborators in this effort were the Polish population and even the Polish Roman Catholic Church. Ukrainian churches were taken over by the Polish Church. This condition in most instances persists to this day. There is little doubt that what happened with the Ukrainians in Poland was an attempted genocide as clearly defined by the subsequent convention on this subject at the United Nations.
Today, Ukraine and Poland are allies by necessity. Many Ukrainians and Poles are genuine friends by choice. For a long time there has been much inter-marriage. I myself am a Ukrainian American of both Ukrainian and Polish ancestry. Most Ukrainians, even the Lemkos, have learned to move on – although not necessarily to forget. The Lemko Ukrainians are a special people in this regard. No one has suffered more at the hands of the Poles. Most Lemkos consider today’s Ukraine their country despite the fact that it does not include their ancestral lands. Lemkivshchyna is within Poland’s borders.
The president of the Organization for the Defense of Lemkivshchyna, the organizer of the Lemko Vatra, told me:
“We Lemkos are very hurt by the Soviet/Polish actions after World War II, but we are a peaceful people with Christian principles. So, we have found a way to move on and survive. We are proud of our heritage, and we are proud to be a part of the Ukrainian nation. And we will defend the Lemko-Ukrainian position, but we prefer to do it without hate. The Lemko Vatra will burn eternal.”
Still there remain shameless Polish voices that speak of being aggrieved by Ukrainian aggression, singularly citing the Volyn mutual tragedy when, in the midst of World War II, Volyn was a battlefield for the Nazi regular forces, Soviet forces, the Polish Armija Krajova, the UPA, and various partisan groups. Perhaps they should take a page from the Lemkos to whom they have never apologized. There is a lesson to be learned here.
For the people who trace their roots to Lemkivshchyna, their country today is the independent and democratic Ukraine, which is simultaneously celebrating the 25th anniversary of its renewed independence and fighting a war on behalf of Europe and the global civilized community against Russian aggression. I suspect that it was very difficult for any Lemko to forgive the Poles. But many have, even as they recall and honor their many victims.
Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney based in New York City. He is a former president of the Ukrainian World Congress.