Ghosts of Volhynia

L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani. … We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.

Massimo d’Azeglio, Memoirs (1867).

When the Kingdom of Savoy created the modern Italian state in 1861, it also began the work of creating an Italian identity. Not since the fall of the Roman Empire had the whole peninsula been ruled as a single state — and its inhabitants saw themselves as Milanese, Neapolitans,  Romans, Tuscans and so forth. It took a world war and Mussolini to solidify an Italian identity.

National identity has not been a problem East of the Danube. A Pole has long identified himself as a Pole. While there may be regional dialects and traditional customs, a Pole knew what he was not —  a German or Ukrainian or Lithuanian or Russian or a Jew.

The 20th Century was not kind to this corner of the world crushed between Hitler and Stalin. The Jews are gone — killed by the Nazis. The Germans are gone — driven West at the close of the Second World War — and the borderlands emptied of Poles, pushed West into former German lands by the Russians. This bloody history returned to center stage this weekend when Polish and Ukrainian church leaders issued a joint statement of apology and forgiveness commemorating the 1943-47 massacres in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.

A comparison of the reporting from Warsaw and Kiev on this issue indicates the passions of the past remain alive. Religion and nationalism remain intertwined in the conscience of Eastern Europe. And, like the dog in the night, this story is all the more significant because of who is not barking — Moscow.

On 28 June 2013 the front page of Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, had traveled to Warsaw to seek forgiveness from:

every Polish family who lost relatives from the hands of my compatriots.

Archbishop Józef Michalik of Przemysl, the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, was quoted by the Warsaw daily as saying in response, the Ukrainian statement was a:

a sign of sound and brave patriotism, free of nationalist or backward thinking.

Radio Poland provided some background:

The appeal accompanies the 70th anniversary of the Volhynia massacres, which took place in a Nazi-occupied region that had been divided between Poland and the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War. After sporadic killings, a concerted action was launched on 11 July 1943, and from 1943 to 1945, it is estimated that 100,000 ethnic Poles were killed in the Volhynia area. Units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a guerilla force of Ukrainian nationalists, carried out the actions.

“We are aware that only the truth can set us free, the truth, which does not beautify and does not omit, which does not pass over in silence, but leads to forgiveness,” today’s statement reads.

Besides citing “the evil” that was done against ethnic Poles, the resolution also refers to Polish counter-attacks, and the partisan war that unfolded. It is estimated that about 2000-3000 Ukrainians were killed in Volhynia, and about 20,000 more when the fighting spread to other areas of south east Poland (1944-1947).

The agreed statement from the church leaders follows upon motion adopted last week by the Polish Senate calling the Volhynia massacres an “ethnic cleansing bearing the hallmarks of genocide,” Radio Poland reported.

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