On April 28, commemorations began in Ukraine and Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of Operation Vistula, the forced resettlement of the Ukrainian population after World War II. In 1947, over 140,000 Ukrainians, including Boykos and Lemkos, were driven from their homes in southeastern Poland to the so-called Recovered Territories in the west, which belonged to Germany before the war. Operation Vistula was an ethnic cleansing that had disastrous short-term and long-term effects on Ukrainians living in Poland and left deep scars and lasting resentments. The commemorations come at a time of increased diplomatic tensions between Kyiv and Warsaw. Although Poland continues to be Ukraine’s advocate in the European Union, a series of incidents (or provocations) have strained relations between the neighbors, who seem more in tune about their common future than their shared past.
Over the past few months, unidentified vandals have defaced several Polish monuments and cemeteries in the regions near Lviv and Kyiv. Red paint and swastikas were smeared on Polish graves along with profanities. In March, a shot from a RPG-26 grenade launcher came hurling through the window of Poland's Consulate General in the city of Lutsk. Luckily, no one was hurt. Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland, Andriy Deshchytsia, said that Russia was undoubtedly responsible for this provocation. In April, a monument in a cemetery in Hruszowice, Poland, erected in 1994 to honor the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was vandalized and later dismantled. Despite protests from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the monument was disassembled legally, but with the help of members of ultra-right nationalist groups. This came just days before the 70th anniversary of Operation Vistula, an event that has cast a shadow over Polish-Ukrainian relations.
Resolving Poland’s “Ukrainian Problem”
As a result of the Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam conferences during World War II, the borders of Central and Eastern Europe were constructed on the basis of ethno-linguistic membership. In consequence, populations had to adjust — or be adjusted. No less than 18 million individuals had to leave their homes as a result of resettlements. The territories formulated by the Curzon Line, which remained within the postwar borders of Poland — where Ukrainians constituted a substantial ethnic group — were proclaimed as the rightful property of the state. Ukrainian civilians, suspected of nationalistic tendencies, were portrayed as the buttress and reinforcement of the “bestial” UPA bands, which slaughtered thousands of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia between 1943-1944.
The communists decided to benefit and make use of the harm done to the Poles a few years earlier. Anti-Ukrainian propaganda used revenge for the murder of Polish men, women, and children in Volhynia as an argument to justify the forced resettlement as payback. Consequently, the conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians during the war were used to rationalize the postwar mono-ethnic interests of the Polish state. The Polish communists planned and executed the internal displacement of the Ukrainian population to fulfill the objectives set out by the Ministry of National Defense and the Ministry of Public Security in the spring of 1947, entitled, “Mission: To Resolve Once and for All the Ukrainian Problem in Poland.” As aptly noted by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands, “Communist Poland had no Gulag, but in 1947 its rulers did propose a ‘final solution’ to their ‘Ukrainian problem’: by the dispersion of remaining Ukrainians far from home but within the boundaries of Poland.”
The prospect of confiscating the Ukrainian properties in the borderlands — while transferring the human capital to the so-called Recovered Territories — and finally “cleansing” Poland of any foreign national elements through forced assimilation, seemed very appealing to the communists. During the forced repatriation between Poland and the USSR that took place October 1944 to June 1946, both the Soviets and Poles were motivated by economic gains; both sides sought to populate the desolate regions of Ukraine and the newly-acquired Recovered Territories. Between 1944 and 1949, 630,774 Ukrainians were resettled: 77 percent as a result of the population exchanges with the Soviet Union and 23 percent as a result of Operation Vistula.
Eliminating National Minorities
The goal of Operation Vistula was to destroy the Ukrainian identity and culture in Poland. Following the deportation of the Ukrainian population to the USSR, its forced resettlement to the western and northern provinces of Poland had stripped it of the chance to cultivate its traditions. The regime’s purpose was ethnic annihilation not in the physical sense, but through complete assimilation. Instructions pertaining to the resettlement of the Ukrainian population that were given to Polish soldiers commanded them to show the greatest possible assistance in the resettlement, but this was mainly done out of fear that any misconduct would be used in UPA’s anti-communist propaganda. In consequence, despite orders to retain a humanitarian approach toward the resettled and treat them as citizens of the Polish state, the Operation itself was a brutal pacification of the Ukrainian minority. There were fatalities during the transport, and several people were killed in the notorious Jaworzno prison camp.
Following the war, the communists tried to legitimize their rule by eliminating national minorities and annihilating those groups that were portrayed as the enemies of Poland. In the case of Ukrainians, ethnic cleansing was implemented on the ethnic and religious level. The Greek Catholic Church was specifically targeted and persecuted. Military orders given to the Operational Group “Vistula” on 21 April 1947 instructed troops to “immediately begin recording the names of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and begin to crack it, especially the Greek Catholic clergy, which constitutes the core of the Ukrainian underground’s activities.” The confidential instructions regarding the guidelines for Operation Vistula also stipulated: “1. All Ukrainian and so-called mixed families are to be resettled. 2. The right to stay in place is given to only to families that are totally Polish, to which there is not even the smallest suspected trace of cooperation or sympathy toward the [UPA] bands.” If soldiers encountered cases where it was hard to determine ethnic belonging, they were instructed to check pre-war identity cards on which one’s faith was indicated. Greek Catholics were immediately labeled as Ukrainian. As victims of ruthless collective responsibly, citizens of Ukrainian ethnicity were targeted by suspicion and discrimination even years after Operation Vistula.
A Common Future
Despite their turbulent past (or because of it), Poles and Ukrainians know that they need to stick together because Moscow is the only capital that benefits from divisions between Kyiv and Warsaw. Russia’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea has been a wakeup call for the Euro-Atlantic community. It has also changed the Ukrainians’ outlook toward their neighbor. For those Ukrainians seeking employment abroad, the Kremlin’s hostilities have forced them to look for employment outside of Russia. Close to 1 million Ukrainians currently work legally in Poland and, as noted by the International Organization for Migration in the Kyiv Post, in 2006 just 7 percent of Ukrainians said they wanted to work in Poland, whereas in 2015 the number rose to 30 percent. If Poland wants to continue its economic growth, it will need an additional 5 million workers within the next 20 years. Many of these workers are very likely to be Ukrainian, which is why they should feel at home in Poland. That will require the authorities to make greater efforts to address the painful experience of Ukrainians in postwar Poland, especially Operation Vistula. Hopefully, in turn, the Ukrainian government will be more receptive to the suffering inflicted upon Poles in Volhynia.
In order to have a mutually beneficial and prosperous future, Poles and Ukrainians need to be more accommodating to each other’s sensitivities concerning the past. That requires extending an open hand. Paweł Kowal, the former Chairman of the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Cooperation Committee in the European Parliament, recently wrote that the Polish government should unequivocally condemn Operation Vistula, as the late president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, had done. On 27 April 2007, while “hoping to continue building the process of reconciliation between the Polish and Ukrainian nations” and “sharing a common view of communist totalitarianism,” Lech Kaczyński and then-president of Ukraine, Victor Yushchenko, signed a declaration condemning Operation Vistula. The two presidents reaffirmed the 1990 resolution of the Polish parliament and proclaimed that Operation Vistula was unjust and contradictory to basic human rights. It would not hurt to repeat this message in 2017.