Volhynia 1943–2023

1. Few places on the map evoke as much emotion as Volhynia.

This land in the east of the Second Polish Republic, picturesque, not rich but unanimously once inhabited by many nationalities, became a symbol of the anti-Polish ethnic purge of 1943. Eighty years ago, nationalists from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) began attacking Polish villagers, first in Volhynia, then also in other regions. The German occupation authorities did nothing to protect civilians, although it was their duty to do so. As a result, tens of thousands of Poles were killed in Volhynia alone. In total, some 100,000 people lost their lives as a result of the nationalists' actions. The Poles retaliated with reprisal actions which, according to historians, cost the lives of several thousand Ukrainians. For eighty years, those events have been an unhealed wound. And the biggest ever recurring historical dispute between our countries. The 80th anniversary of those events seems a good opportunity for us – Poles and Ukrainians – to consider what to do so that the tragedy of Volhynia stops dividing us. For us to learn from it together. And to be able to move forward together toward a future free of hatred and violence.

Beresteczko in Volyn Voivodeship. View of the village from the Styr River. Trinity Church can be seen on the left. 1935. Photo National Digital Archive

2. Before World War II

Pre-war Volhynia was a land inhabited by many nationalities: in the villages and towns you could come across Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Czechs, Armenians and even Tartars. Poles made up only 16% of the population there. The majority were Ukrainians. Similarly, in eastern Galicia, where Poles accounted for around 30% of the population. Those who lived in the villages tended to live just as poorly. Despite the differences, people who remember pre-war Volhynia recall it as an idyllic, peaceful place to live. Although in the stories of the Ukrainians, there is often a sense of grievance that they were discriminated against by the Poles. People with a Ukrainian background had no chance of a career in the state administration. Nor was a university established in pre-war Poland where Ukrainian was the language of teaching. Poland settled colonists in areas inhabited by Ukrainians, whose presence was supposed to change the unfavourable demographic proportions.

A military settler with his family in front of his house. Krechovets settlement in Volhynia. 3–4.08.1924. Photo Narcyz Witczak-Witaczyński/National Digital Archive

3. Ukrainian nationalism

The defeat of the Ukrainians' struggle for their state in 1917-1921 pushed some of them, especially the youth, towards radical nationalism. One of the main organisations founded at the time was the OUN – the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, one of whose leaders was Stepan Bandera. The organisation carried out terrorist attacks in the Second Republic. The Minister of Home Affairs, Bronislaw Pieracki, died at its hands. The assassination was organised by Bandera, who was sentenced to death by a Polish court – later reduced to life imprisonment. Ukrainian nationalists were also planning the assassination of Jozef Pilsudski. The ideologue of this organisation, Mykhailo Kolodzinski, was the first, back in the 1930s, to draw up plans for ethnic cleansing in Volhynia and Galicia. Bandera was released from prison, abandoned by Polish guards, in September 1939. He began to collaborate with the Third Reich. On 30 June 1941, in German-occupied Lviv, the OUN declared Ukrainian independence. The Germans strongly objected and interned Stepan Bandera in response.

Lviv. The view of the city from the town hall tower. Church of the Dominican Friars 1939–1945. Photo National Digital Archive

4. Volyn massacre

When the Germans began to suffer defeat on the Eastern Front, the OUN felt that there would be no better time to fight for independence. The UPA – Ukrainian Insurgent Army – was established. It was led by Roman Shuchevych. And almost on the spur of the moment, he began to implement the plan of ethnic cleansing that had emerged in the 1930s. They started in February 1943 with the village of Parosla, where about 150 people were killed. Subsequently, the UPA attacked more villages inhabited by Poles – often carrying out the attacks in such a way as to make them look like spontaneous peasant actions. These actions were characterised by very high cruelty. This was to make them look like a peasant uprising against the Polish lords. On more than one occasion, local Ukrainian peasants were urged or coerced into complicity. The anti-Polish action culminated on 11 July, the so-called 'Bloody Sunday'. On that day, almost a hundred villages were attacked. In July 1943, several thousand people were killed in Volhynia. In total, more than tens of thousands of Poles were killed in Volhynia alone during the 1943 and 1944 actions. One of the symbols of those events is the ruins of the old, Carmelite church in Kisielin, where the Poles gathered there were attacked.

Church in Kisielin. Photo Marcin Jończyk

5. Righteous neighbours from Volhynia

But while some threw themselves into killing, others rushed in to save. Among the Ukrainians in Volhynia were thousands who risked their lives to help their persecuted Polish neighbours. Despite the threat to their lives from the nationalists, these heroes gave shelter to Poles in their homes, cellars, utility rooms. Others carried food into the forest, where some hid from the torturers. Although we do not know specific figures on the scale of Ukrainian aid, we do know that it was thousands of people. Almost everyone who managed to survive the Volhynian massacre mentions some Ukrainian who contributed to it.

The Ukrainian Skakalski family gave shelter to Maria Pietroniec, Janina Paulus and her four-year-old daughter Alicja in Krzemieniec. In the joint photo, the rescued and the rescuer. From the left Janina Paulus, Alicja Paulus, Hanna Skakalska, Maria Pietroniec. In the back, first from the right, stands Zinaida Samczuk née Skakalska. Photo Private archive of the Król family

6. Hania from Gaj

Little Hania was born into a Polish family in the village of Gaj, which was murdered on 30 August 1943. We do not know her real name. A few days after the massacre, a group of Ukrainians from the neighbouring village of Kashivka were forced to go to the Grove to bury the dead. There they found a little two-year-old girl who had miraculously escaped death. She sat alone, among the dead, hungry and thirsty, with an empty cup in her hand. The UPA ordered the killing of everyone, even small children. But the Ukrainians, risking their lives, decided to save the girl. The whole village took the risk. Little Hania was taken into their home by the couple Fedor and Kateryna Bojmistruk. Ms Hanna was brought up by the Bojmistruks. As she points out – her foster parents treated her very well. She always felt loved by them. She found out about her Polish roots as an adult. She tried several times to find Polish relatives. Sadly, this has never been the case. She is 82 years old now. She has never been to Poland, but she has not lost hope that her Polish family will one day find her.

Kateryna and Fedor Bojmistruk with Hanna. Photo. Family archive of Hanna Bojmistruk
Hanna Bojmistruk. Photo Marcin Jończyk

7. Ołeksandra Wasejko

Ukrainian Łukaszko Kalennyk, father of Mrs Oleksandra Vaseiko, known as Mrs Szura, worked for his Polish neighbours in the harvest before the war. He was also a veteran of the Polish-Bolshevik War. In 1943, the Bandera tried to force him to join them. But Łukaszko did not want to kill his neighbours. And since he had already lost an eye in the course of economic work before the war, he had a plausible excuse to refuse. During those tragic months, he travelled through Polish villages and warned of attacks being prepared by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. And when the attack did happen, he risked his life to help Poles hide in the woods.

Oleksandra Vaseiko, or Mrs Shura. Photo Marcin Jończyk

8. Mrs Szura's crosses

Łukaszko also witnessed the UPA's execution of a Polish family. He was ordered by the Bandera to bury the bodies of those killed in an unnamed grave in the forest. After the war, Łukaszko took his daughter, six-year-old Oleksandra, there and told her to remember the burial place well. In turn, he himself carved three crosses on the pine trees under which the Poles were lying. He told his daughter that sometime in the future, Poles would probably come here again and look for their own. ‘I will be gone by then,‘ he said. ‘But you will show them where they are buried.‘ Łukaszko brought up his children in the spirit of friendship with the Poles. The daughter, Mrs Oleksandra Vaseiko, known as Mrs Szura, has kept the memory of this place alive for sixty years. Thanks to her, the graves of three people were found in the forest. Oleksandra Vaseiko still prays for Polish-Ukrainian friendship and for peace between our peoples. He says the Our Father prayer exclusively in Polish. In 2019, at the request of the Pilecki Institute, she was awarded the Virtus et Fraternitas Medal by the President of the Republic of Poland for caring for the burial sites of Poles and helping to locate the site of the mass graves of Poles murdered in Wola Ostrowiecka and Ostrówki.

A cross at the site of the grave. Photo Marcin Jończyk

9. Not an easy dialogue

Of the tens of thousands of Poles killed in Volhynia, only five thousand have so far been buried. Some still at the time of the massacre, as it was in some localities. The rest – under exhumation. The others still rest where they were killed. The first exhumations were carried out by Dr Leon Popek in Ostrówki Wołyńskie and Wola Ostrowiecka. As he emphasises: ‘Most of our ancestors still lie either where they were killed or in so-called death pits where their bodies were dumped. To this day there are graves in which several hundred people lie, untouched since 1943. All because bilateral talks on exhumations in Volhynia between Poland and Ukraine have never been easy, and have been blocked for several years. Ukrainians treat the Ukrainian Insurgent Army mainly as heroes of the fight against the Soviet Union, and many of them do not know what happened in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. Most Ukrainian historians consider the slaughter to be a mutual struggle between Poles and Ukrainians rather than a planned ethnic cleansing. Some fear that condemning the UPA will mean condemning Ukraine's struggle for independence. Poles, on the other hand, resent Ukraine for naming streets and squares after bandits, including the perpetrators of the massacre, for its inability to acknowledge the UPA's responsibility for the murders and for blocking the exhumation of the victims and their Christian burial. This benefits Russia, which for many years has been trying to exploit the tragedy of Volhynia to divide Poland and Ukraine. This problem has been seen by many, including Pope John Paul II, who called for Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation on several occasions. ‘One feels the need for reconciliation to look at the present and the future in a new spirit,‘ he wrote in a letter to the bishops of Poland and Ukraine on the 60th anniversary of the massacre. In turn, during a visit to Ukraine in 2001, in Lviv, he said to the Ukrainians themselves: ‘it is time to detach ourselves from the painful past. [...] May forgiveness – granted and obtained – spread like a beneficial balm in every heart. May, through the purification of historical memory, all be prepared to place higher the things that unite than those that divide, in order to build together a future based on mutual respect, on fraternity, on fraternal cooperation and on genuine solidarity.‘ Reconciliation understood in this way does not mean forgetting. Instead, it means being able to move on, with respect and understanding of what has happened. It means trying to look into a future that cannot be determined by the past.

Wola Ostrowiecka, Leon Popek at the exhumation work. 1992. Photo: Leon Popek's archive

10. The war in Ukraine and Polish aid

This all changed when Russia launched a multi-front invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Poles thronged to help refugees from Ukraine. Millions of people fleeing the war found refuge around the Vistula. In every Polish city, assistance was organised for Ukrainian visitors. The Poles showed them a solidarity that probably surprised even them. Border crossings, railway stations and aid stations set up in almost all cities were filled with volunteers from all over Poland, who prepared food, provided legal and logistical assistance to refugees, for example in finding accommodation or transport. Poles opened their homes and hearts, which, given the scale of the migration, was unprecedented anywhere in the world. On both sides of the border, people understood that the fight against an enemy that threatens both Poland and Ukraine should unite us. And help overcome the demons of the past.

Provision of Polish humanitarian aid in the village of Posad-Pokrovske in the Kherson region. March 2023. Photo Andrew Yakoniuk, Dobro Czynić Mission Charity OPP.

11. A new atmosphere for dialogue

Ukrainians, in order to thank the attitude of Poles towards refugees from their country, began spontaneously to clean up Polish cemeteries in Volhynia. Not persuaded by anyone, they organised themselves and cleaned the Polish cemeteries in Ostrówki, Rymaczy, Lubomla, Hołoby, Przebraż, Złoczówka, Kisielin, Kowel, Boreml and Skurcz. Many Poles could not hide their tears of emotion. The Ukrainians are announcing another instalment of this action this year. Also, a different message started to come from Ukrainian politicians than before Ruslan Stefanchuk, Chairman of the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, said on 25 May 2023 in the Polish Sejm: ‘We will accept the truth no matter how painful it may be.‘ The unblocking of the exhumation process was also announced. In Ukraine, more and more people see that the dispute with Poland over Volhynia does not serve either side. Poland and Ukraine faced a historic opportunity for reconciliation in the face of Russian aggression against our neighbour.

Cleaning up the Catholic cemetery in Zbarazh in the Tarnopol region. April 2022 Photo Piotr Bajdecki / Polish Cultural and Educational Society ‘Zbaraż‘ / ‘The Volhynia Monitor‘

12. A look to the future

Grassroots Polish-Ukrainian initiatives are emerging to help bring the Volhynia issue closer. Pictured - Karolina Romanowska, whose large part of her family was murdered in Ugły in Volhynia, and Julia Kowalczuk, a Ukrainian from Volhynia whose grandfather was involved in helping Poles during the massacre. Eighteen members of Karolina's family were killed during the UPA's attack on Ugły on 12 May 1943. Among the survivors, the Volhynian slaughter was a taboo subject for many years. Romanowska only went to Volhynia for the first time as an adult to see the place where her loved ones lived. The documentary film Grandfather's Orchard was based on her journey in Volhynia. She returned from Ugiel with the firm conviction that a future cannot be built on trauma. In Poland, she founded the Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation Association. Her friend from Ukraine, Julia Kowalczuk, hearing the stories Karolina told, asked her grandmother what she remembered from 1943. She learned about her grandfather, who had rescued his Polish neighbours in one of the villages. Kowalczuk is one of the first people Romanowska invited to work with her. They both plan to attract as many people as possible from both sides of the border and jointly seek a way to speak the truth about Volhynia. And that the massacre of 1943 would no longer divide us.

Julia Kowalczuk and Karolina Romanowska. Photo Marcin Jończyk


Artur ortenblad: Very nice to know this story

Kazimierz: Moja rodzina pochodzi spod Starego Konstantynowa oraz spod Lwowa. Dlatego tematyka trudnej historii i pojednania polsko-ukraińskiego jest mi szczególnie bliska. Z całego serca dziękuję organizatorom i autorom wystawy za podjętą inicjatywę k gratuluję wyśmienitego efektu!

Joanna: Bardzo ważna i potrzebna inicjatywa. Jak najwięcej takich, z których obie strony mogą się dowiedzieć, jak było, bo tylko na prawdzie można budować prawdziwe pojednanie. Ciekawa jestem czy są planowane, a może już prowadzone, podobne akcje na Ukrainie?

Віктор: Пробачте нас будь ласка. І дякуємо за все.

Dorota: Oprócz wystawy, polecam książkę pana Witolda "Sprawiedliwi zdrajcy. Sąsiedzi z Wołynia"

Gal Anonim: Bardzo fajna wystawa i potrzebna inicjatywa!

Krystyna: Tak,takie inicjatywy są bardzo potrzebne. Za mało się o tym mówi niech ludzie znają prawdę ja ją znam z opowiadań rodziców i jest bardzo okrutna a tym co zostali zamordowani należy pamiętać

Юрій: Дуже важлива,цікава і потрібна виставка, покоління повинно пам'ятати історію свого народу і берегти її.

Wiaczesław: Dziękuję, po prostu dziękuję. Świetny materiał, świetnie napisane, niesamowicie prawdziwie i obiektywnie. Cześć i chwała organizatorom, historykom… i niech relacje polsko-ukraińskie zmieniają się nadal tylko w lepszą stronę.

Karyna: Дуже важлива тема! Важлива для обох народів. Дякую за Ваші матеріали та те, що вони не упереджені і не однобокі.

Wołyń 1943-2023 Exhibition

Curator of the exhibition and author of the text

Witold Szabłowski

Content review

dr Łukasz Adamski, dr hab. Jan Pisuliński


Tubielewicz Studio

Concept and implementation of the exhibition system

Tomasz Sowa-Szenk

Website design and execution

Norbert Nowocin

Conception and coordination of the project on behalf of the Center for Thought of John Paul II

Paweł Bysko

Coordination of the project on behalf of the Depot History Centre

Piotr Jagiełło-Szostak


Katarzyna Lemańska

Center for Thought of John Paul II Team

Grzegorz Kaska, Magdalena Kędziera, Katarzyna Lemańska, Agata Madaj, Bartłomiej Miąsko, Wioletta Milej, Anna Okapiec, Anna Pławecka, Kalina Stufka, Mateusz Toma, Elżbieta Trochimiak-Marek, dr Bartosz Wieczorek, Marzena Zielonka

Director of the Center for the Thoughts of John Paul II

Michał Senk

We want to thank

dr Leon Popek, prof. dr hab. Rafał Motyka, Misja Charytatywna „Dobro Czynić”


John Paul II Thought Center
City of Warsaw

Co-financed by the Polish History Museum in Warsaw as part of the "Patriotism of Tomorrow" program.

Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego
Muzeum Historii Polski
Patriotyzm Jutra


Centrum Historii Zajezdnia


Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Polska