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A Tangled Past Complicates Poland’s Welcome to Ukrainian Refugees

In a rural village with fewer than 500 residents, strangers stand out. Even Anna Osinska, a 93-year-old villager with failing eyesight, noticed when people she did not recognize — refugees from the war in Ukraine — started appearing on the narrow street outside her kitchen window.

A former refugee herself, Ms. Osinska felt pity for the Ukrainians and was glad that her country was doing what it could to help them.

She has also wrestled with less charitable emotions.

“Thank God I don’t feel any need for vengeance,” Ms. Osinska said, recalling how, in 1943, she fled her childhood home in former Polish lands in western Ukraine after Ukrainian nationalists attacked her family’s village, slaughtering most of its 160 inhabitants.

The murders in Niemilia, the village where she was born but no longer exists, were part of horrific events that Ukraine calls the Volhynia Tragedy, but that Poland remembers as the Volhynia Genocide. In those ethnic pogroms by Ukrainian nationalists, more than 60,000 Poles, many of them women and children, were murdered.

Bound by shared hostility toward Russia’s imperial ambitions and determination to resist the military onslaught ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin, Poland and Ukraine also share painfully entangled pasts. The carnage of 1943 has been a source of tension for decades, but it is now an episode of pressing import as Poland prepares to commemorate its 80th anniversary on July 11.

Poland bristles at Ukraine’s glorification of wartime nationalists responsible for the slaughter but, wary of giving comfort to Russia’s view of Ukraine as a nest of bloodthirsty fascists, it has called for “reconciliation and forgiveness,” the theme of a service this past week in a Warsaw cathedral attended by priests from Poland and Ukraine. On Sunday, President Andrzej Duda of Poland and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine visited a church in Lutsk, in western Ukraine, to remember the massacre. Mr. Duda’s office and Mr. Zelensky posted photographs on Twitter from the ceremony, using the same language to pay tribute to the victims.

Ms. Osinska, who was resettled as a teenager after World War II in southwestern Poland, along with tens of thousands of other Polish refugees from Ukraine, grew up in a community traumatized by the massacres of 1943 and seething with hatred toward Ukrainians.

She still resents “that they show no remorse” and has not forgotten the frenzied cries of “kill the Polacks, kill the Polacks” that echoed around her home village when she was 13.

Accompanied in May by her son and aging Poles who lived through the same trauma, she laid flowers on a marble memorial inscribed with the words, “We will not forget our relatives murdered by Ukrainian nationalists” during the war “because they were Poles.”

While Ukrainians “did terrible things to us,” Ms. Osinska said during an interview in her kitchen in Slupice village, descendants “cannot be blamed for what their fathers and grandfathers did” and deserve help in their struggle against Russia.

“My views on Ukrainians,” she said, “have slowly changed.”

Her change of heart, though limited by personal trauma, highlights how Russia has struggled to defeat Ukraine not only on the battlefield, but on one of its favorite and most advantageous fields of combat — memory wars. That is a conflict it is accustomed to winning because of the millions of Russians who died fighting Nazi Germany.

Moscow began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with an armory well stocked with history, much of it falsified by Mr. Putin but some of it true — including gruesome accounts of the Volhynia massacres carried out by followers of Stepan Bandera, the leader of a particularly brutal faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

Polish officials and historians have expressed frustration at what they see as Ukraine’s refusal to fully acknowledge and atone for the sins of nationalist militants loyal to Mr. Bandera, who was assassinated by Soviet agents in 1959. He is revered by many Ukrainians today as a national hero — or blithely feted as a harmless folkloric curiosity. He is reviled in Poland, and also in Russia, as a fascist and Nazi collaborator.

Lukasz Jasina, the spokesman for Poland’s foreign minister, told a Polish newspaper in May that while Mr. Zelensky “has many other things on his mind at the moment,” Ukraine needed to apologize for the 1943 massacres, which he described as “a matter so important that it must be dealt with.”

Instead of an apology, Poland received a testy rebuke from Ukraine’s ambassador in Warsaw, Vasyl Zvarych. In a post on Twitter that he later deleted, the ambassador rejected what he called “unacceptable and unfortunate” demands, saying that Ukrainians “remember history and call for respect and balance in statements, especially in the difficult reality of genocidal Russian aggression.”

Despite these frictions over the past, efforts by Mr. Putin to deploy history, or at least a highly selective version of it, to destroy Ukraine in the name of “de-Nazification” have been undermined by rival and often stronger memories of Russia’s own past actions.

Ukrainian nationalists, said Damian Markowski, a Polish historian and author of “The Shadow of Volhynia,” a forthcoming book on the 1943 massacres, committed “horrible crimes” during World War II against Poles living in Ukraine, the scene of bloody fighting between Nazi and Soviet soldiers.

But, Mr. Markowski added, the 1943 murders of Poles simply for being Polish was a crime already committed on a far bigger scale by Moscow’s secret police, which pioneered ethnicity-based murder during Stalin’s Great Terror from 1937 to 1938, with a campaign of “total liquidation” targeting Poles branded falsely as spies. Some victims were selected from phone books because of their Polish-sounding names. More than 120,000 Poles were killed.

Stalin’s killers then murdered more than 20,000 more Poles in 1940, dumping their bodies in Katyn Forest, an atrocity that Moscow lied about for decades and acknowledged only in 1990.

Inspired by the Soviet and later Nazi examples of ethnic slaughter, Mr. Markowski said, Ukrainian nationalists in the 1940s “realized it was possible to eliminate people of other nationalities.”

The drive to clear Volhynia of ethnic Poles, which Ukrainian nationalists saw as an essential precondition for the establishment of an independent state, reached its pitch on Sunday, July 11, 1943, when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army launched a coordinated attack on 90 Polish settlements, killing about 11,000 people in a single day. The day was chosen, according to Mr. Markowski, because “they knew many people would be at church.”

Ms. Osinska’s village was attacked a few weeks earlier, on May 27. She vividly remembers the moonlit night. Dogs suddenly started barking, and her father, fearing an attack by Ukrainian militants after the murder and mutilation a few days earlier of a friend, rushed the family into a nearby field for shelter.

She recalls tearing her dress as she crawled through the wheat — and neighbors screaming as the Ukrainians attacked. “They wanted to kill all of us,” she said, “just because we were Polish.”

When she and her family returned briefly the next day, they found that the village had been burned down and was littered with the bodies of friends and relatives. “I remember an aunt, her head split open with black insects crawling on her face,” she recalled.

With their home incinerated and their village filled with marauding bands of Ukrainians and their Nazi German helpers, Ms. Osinska and her family fled by foot and then by train. They eventually reached Warsaw as the war was coming to an end. From there, they were sent to former German territory around the southwestern city of Wroclaw that had been given to Poland in compensation for lands it lost in the east.

“We all longed to go back to Volhynia,” she said. “That was all we thought about for many years.” But her former home, purged of its remaining Polish residents as it fell firmly under Moscow’s grip after the war as part of Soviet Ukraine, was beyond reach.

Of her close relatives, only a nephew, Ryszard Marcinkowski, 74, has been back. The leader of the Borderlands Association, a group of Poles interested in the vanished culture of lost lands in the east, he has visited western Ukraine many times since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union to tend graves in his family’s former village of Niemilia and erect crosses in memory of the dead.

Though raised on horror stories about Ukrainians told by his aunt and his parents, he traveled there again after the war started last year to show his support against Russia and deliver supplies.

“Living with hatred,” he said, “is never healthy.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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