Representatives of borderland communities met with Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki. You discussed the issue of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. How do you think it should go? Because the Polish side has already reached out for reconciliation, accepting refugees from war-torn Ukraine to their homes.
Dr. Michał Siekierka, President of Stowarzyszenie Upamiętnienia Ofiar Zbrodni Ukraińskich Nacjonalistów in Wrocław: Of course, accepting refugees was a very big gesture towards Ukraine. From the very beginning, our Association had no doubts that in this difficult situation Ukraine should be helped, that violating borders in Europe, violating the post-Yalta order is something unacceptable in the 21st century and here our state rose to the challenge.
However, it should be mentioned that there have been many gestures of goodwill on the part of the Polish state over the years, while we read the behavior of the Ukrainian state – and I am not just talking about the current Ukraine, but about previous Ukrainian governments – as behavior that makes true reconciliation extremely difficult. For example, I am thinking of the still unresolved issue of the exhumation of Polish victims who rest in the territory of today’s Ukraine in nameless death pits. The foundation of every civilization, including European civilization, is – it has been obvious since the time of Antigone – that every murdered person has the right to a dignified burial.
While, the Ukrainian state did not allow such exhumations in the past period and still has a very big problem with it. It also hurts us that many streets and stadiums in Ukraine have patrons of war criminals, such as Stepan Bandera or Roman Shukhevych. These are people who not only created ideology and organizations that committed genocide against the Polish nation, but also against other citizens of the Second Polish Republic, primarily Jews, Armenians, but also Czechs who lived in Volhynia before World War II.
In our opinion, war criminals in no way, practically in the center of Europe, should be put on a pedestal, and unfortunately this is what is happening in Ukraine. We also do not agree with the relativization of crime. In 2016, the Polish parliament, in accordance with the historical truth and in accordance with all historical research, ruled that it was a crime of genocide. Therefore, we demand that such a term be used when talking about this crime. Such relativization, which consists in using terms such as “fratricidal struggle”, “Polish-Ukrainian war”, “Volhynia events”, or any such euphemisms, are falsifying history and inflicting pain on the survivors of the pogroms.
It is simply impossible to build good and honest relations on which we all care on this type of relativization. Our environment has always emphasized that if Ukraine had duly settled its accounts with its history, if the Polish state had supported Ukraine in settling this difficult history, and not supported sweeping the matter under the carpet, today we would have neither this conversation nor this discussion – reconciliation would be behind us I think it would have been in the mid 90’s.
I would like to point out here that in the social discourse there is a misconception, in our opinion, that today is not a good time for Ukraine to face its difficult history. However, we, as the borderland community, have heard this excuse basically from the very beginning. We could not demand that Ukraine account for its war crimes in the 1990s, because the Polish state supported the young, independent Ukrainian statehood that was being formed. It was impossible to talk about it later, because the reconstruction and re-opening of the Cemetery of the Defenders of Lviv was at stake. After that, you couldn’t talk about it because it was the Orange Revolution. Then it was impossible to talk about it, because there was the organization of Euro 2012. Later, there was an attempt by Ukraine to sign the accession treaty, and this topic was also inconvenient for politicians. Then there was Euromaidan, then there was the annexation of Crimea and finally we have a war. That is why we are of the opinion that it is not like a “golden period” will come, an exceptionally good time when these matters will be discussed. There’s never a good time to settle, but there’s always a good time to put off a problem.
The further this issue goes on, the more these problems are censored, the more taboo it is, the worse it gets, because we are constantly building on a foundation that is unstable. It is impossible to build any good relations on the basis of lies, and we believe that we will manage to built only through these elementary matters, such as calling the crimes committed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists genocide, by unblocking exhumation and enabling the victims to be buried with dignity, and by admitting that what the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army had done was evil. Otherwise, we cannot think of any close cooperation, of any partnership, because all this is simply fiction, even if it is well-intentioned.
In order to build this “golden period”, you have to build on the truth. Ukrainians, after all, have something to build their past on. The list of righteous Ukrainians who saved Poles from Ukrainian nationalists is in the Institute of National Remembrance. Why, then, do they still largely honor torturers?
For our community, this is an open question. We can’t answer that for ourselves, because it’s amazing. Of course, Ukraine has its heroes. They are wonderful people, as you mentioned, righteous Ukrainians who, sometimes paying the highest price, i.e. the life of themselves and their loved ones, decided to save their Polish neighbors. There are people in our Association who would never have been born, who would not have survived the Second World War if not for such help. Righteous Ukrainians for our environment were, are and will remain true heroes of Ukraine. These are people who were guided by Christian values, but also by universal human values, the values of Western civilization. These are people who opposed the criminal ideology, and the most important thing for them was to save human lives. We believe that this is a point of contact, a platform on which we may build an agreement with Ukraine. We are all extremely sorry that Ukraine does not want this foundation, and it is still trying to build it on the ideology of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
What happened in Volhynia and Eastern Lesser Poland is referred to by historians as genocidum atrox. These monstrous crimes committed by Ukrainians against defenseless Poles are shocking with their brutality, and yet there are still circles that try to minimize their dimension, which you mentioned when you talked about a Polish-Ukrainian war that never happened. What do you think could be the far-reaching consequences of such whitewashing of the perpetrators?
We see these consequences all the time. Our Association has existed since 1989. From the beginning, we emphasized that if this matter is not dealt with at the very beginning, things will go in the wrong direction. Hence, we have the numerous monuments of Stepan Bandera (in Lviv, in Mosty Wielkie and in many other places), we have the Roman Shukhevych stadium in Ternopil. It has come very far. To tell the truth, as borderland communities, we have no idea how to undo it now, but on the other hand, we are not politicians, and politicians should be wondering how to settle this matter, not how to sweep it under the rug, and we have the impression that that’s what they mainly do.
If we also think about the Europeanization of Ukraine, or Ukraine’s accession to Western structures, then we must realize that this topic will not be swept under the carpet either, because partners in Western Europe will certainly be interested in who this Roman Shukhevych was and who this Stepan Bandera, and I think these characters are completely at odds with European values.
Undoubtedly, this will be an obstacle to Ukraine’s further integration with the Western world. An obstacle that Ukraine itself is building. We, as Poland, are indirectly to blame, because we should sensitize and pay attention to it from the very beginning.
In this context, it is worth recalling that Ukrainian nationalists murdered Poles not only in Volhynia and Eastern Lesser Poland. There is quite an unknown story from the Warsaw Uprising, where Ukrainians grouped in German, collaborationist units carried out, for example, the Wola massacre. Norman Davies writes about it, and this story was also passed down to me by my grandmother, who managed to escape. It seems that these events can only be settled on the basis of truth, because only truth can overcome emotions. Am I wrong?
Absolutely not. Only on the foundation of truth are we able to build future relationships. This is also how German-French reconciliation took place, which is in a way an exemplary form of reconciliation. Of course, history is not black and white. It just so happened that even before World War II, Ukrainians saw the Third Reich as a partner, a factor that would help them win some form of autonomy. That is why so many Ukrainians willingly joined the ranks of the machine of the Third Reich. One can mention here the SS Galizien division or the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in the service of Nazi Germany. The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police was of great importance when it comes to the course of the Holocaust in the South-Eastern Borderlands of the Second Polish Republic. Let us remember that these policemen were usually the people who guarded the ghettos, pacified them, but also later, when they deserted from the ranks of the police and joined the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, they caught Jewish fugitives in hiding from the ghettos or from transports to the death camps. It should also be remembered that these are organizations that are extremely anti-Semitic in nature and took an active part in the Holocaust machine in Borderland (Kresy), but, as you mentioned, also in other parts of Poland, because the Third Reich eagerly used this Ukrainian base, cynically using some Ukrainians to pursuing its criminal occupation policy.
I would say that borderland circles never blamed the Ukrainian nation for what happened during World War II, they were never anti-Ukrainian. However, they have always believed that the inalienable responsibility for the genocides lies with specific organizations that should be held accountable.
We also blame specific organizations for what happened, such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the SS Galizien and the already mentioned Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in the service of Nazi Germany. These are the organizations that Ukraine should settle accounts with, and in our opinion, if it does, it will have a much easier way in strengthening its sovereignty, in rapprochement with Europe, and it will be easier for Ukrainians, Poles and all other nations to build one, great, a common European family based on condemning the criminals and standing up for the truth. Of course, I am talking here about a symbolic settlement, because too many years have passed since World War II to prosecute specific people. Constantly pushing the topic of genocide away only works to the advantage of those who want to divide us permanently.
Interview by Anna Wiejak