Poland’s leaders have marked the anniversary of a World War II-era Ukrainian massacre of Poles by stressing that only the full truth about the violence that Poland describes as a genocide can strengthen bilateral ties with its neighbour in the future.
Polish President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said on Monday – during an observance of the Day of Memory of the Victims of Genocide – that the anniversary was the best time to condemn the murder of Polish civilians by Ukrainians during and just after World War II and to build proper graves for the victims.
“Let this truth in fact serve as a foundation … for new relations between our nations and societies,” Duda said.
Duda said that the truth about the wartime massacres between 1942 and 1945 had to be “firmly and clearly stated” regardless, and called on Kyiv to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of Poles by Ukrainian nationalist militias.
“It was not about and is not about revenge, about any retaliation. There is no better proof of this than the time we have now,” Duda said, referring to the two countries’ current cooperation against Russia.
Poland is among the staunchest allies of Ukraine in its defence against Russian aggression and is providing political support, weapons, and routes for Ukraine’s exports, especially grain. Millions of Ukrainian refugees have also found shelter in Poland since Russia’s invasion in February.
The violence that occurred between the two countries during World War II remains a point of contention, however.
The issue was complex for Ukrainians, Duda said, since some regarded the same militias as heroes for the resistance they mounted against the Soviet Union and as symbols of Kyiv’s painful struggle for independence from Moscow.
“Those who we know were murderers were also heroes for Ukraine, at other times and with a different enemy, and often died at the hands of the Soviets, fighting with deep faith for an independent, free Ukraine,” he said.
For decades, under Moscow’s control, the incident was a taboo topic and it still remains hard to discuss between the neighbours.
Historians say that more than 100,000 Poles, including women and even the smallest children, perished at the hands of their Ukrainian neighbours in a nationalist drive in areas that were then in southeastern Poland and are mostly in Ukraine now.
July 11, 1943, marked the peak of the violence, known as “Bloody Sunday,” when the fighters of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists carried out coordinated attacks on Poles praying in or leaving churches in more than 100 villages, chiefly in the Volhynia region.
Poland established the day of memory in 2016 and insists that the events constituted a genocide – a word that both Duda and Morawiecki used in their speeches on Monday.
Ukraine, however, describes the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists as independence fighters. Ukraine’s identity as a sovereign state was also built around this organisation.
There was no immediate reaction from Ukraine to Duda’s comments.
The remarks are likely to be seen as ill-timed in some Ukrainian circles who view attempts to discuss such events now as part of a Russian-inspired attempt to falsely cast Ukraine as a country in need of de-Nazifying, one of the stated aims of what Russia calls its “special military operation”.
The two Polish leaders also said that allowing this historical wound to continue festering would only divide the neighbours at a trying time and that would ultimately serve Moscow’s purposes.