Poland commemorates victims of Volhynia massacre

July 11 marks the National Day of Remembrance of Victims of Genocide perpetrated by Ukrainian nationalists against Poles during World War II.

EXPLAINER: Volhynia massacres and its significance in Polish-Ukrainian relations

The Volhynia massacres consisted of anti-Polish genocidal ethnic cleansings conducted by Ukrainian nationalists.

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The ceremonies on Wednesday were organized by the Institute of National Remembrance and the Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression.

On July 8, Polish President Andrzej Duda took part in ceremonies commemorating victims of the Volhynia massacre in Kolonia Pokuta near Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine. The President said that he was there not to rebuke, but to pray. He added that the Volhynia massacre “triggered acts of retaliation, and many Ukrainians were killed.”

On July 11-12 1943, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) began a co-ordinated action to exterminate Polish civilians in the Volhynia, a region which was part of Poland until 1939. According to a 1921 census, Ukrainians made up 68 percent of the local residents.

Anti-Polish feelings began to rise after the WWII. First with nationalist tendencies emerging in Europe. A failure to regain independence by Ukraine and war lost against Poland in 1919 only boosted hostile attitudes.

UPA was a military branch of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, led by Stepan Bandera.

In 1943-1945, around 100,000 Polish people were murdered in nowadays Western Ukraine. The anti-Polish actions reached their climax on Sunday, July 11, 1943, when Ukrainian nationalists attacked Polish citizens living in around 150 towns and villages. People present at houses of worship at that time were being killed and around 50 Catholic churches were burnt to the ground.

Polish-Ukrainian families, Ukrainians who refused taking part in the genocide as well as families who rescued Polish people were also murdered.

Crimes on Polish citizens were performed with particular cruelty, namely burning alive, dropping into wells, murders with axes and pitchforks and rapes.

Some Polish citizens fled to safety by escaping to areas controlled by the German army. Many of them were later transported to labor camps in the Third Reich.

According to historians, around 100,000 Polish nationals were killed in the massacre, including 40,000-60,000 in Volhynia and 20,000-40,000 in Eastern Galicia, and at least 4,000 on the territory of today's Poland. According to Poland's National Remembrance Institute, some 10,000-12,000 Ukrainians were killed during Polish retaliatory operations by the spring of 1945.

Speaking at the commemoration on Sunday, President Duda hoped that as yet unidentified people who were murdered would regain their names as a result of cooperation between both countries.

The Poles want the Ukrainians to lift the ban on the continued search and excavation for the remains of Polish victims of the slaughter. The ban was enforced by the Ukrainian side in retaliation for the removal of an illegal memorial to Bandera’s army in the east of Poland.

The term “Volhynia massacre” not only concerns mass murders in Volhynia, but also in former Polish provinces of Lviv, Tarnopolskie, Stanisławowskie, Lubelskie and Poleskie. Even though the Volhynia massacre was an act of “ethnic cleansing,” it meets the definition of genocide, because its purpose was to completely eradicate the Polish ethnic group in Volhynia.