MEMORIES OF AKCJA "WISLA"
First-Hand Accounts of the 1947 Forced Relocation of the Ukrainian Minority in Poland
By Diana Helen Howansky
On the morning of March 28, 1947, the famous Polish general and vice-minister of defense Karol Swierczewski traveled to the Bieszczady mountains in southeastern Poland to conduct an inspection of military troops based in the towns of Lesko and Baligród. In Baligród, while speaking with a group of officers, the General learned that another military garrison was stationed in Cisna, approximately twenty kilometers further south, and made the decision to pay a visit there as well. He set out in a three-car caravan, riding in the middle car positioned between a front vehicle filled with security guards and a rear vehicle carrying a number of local lieutenants. However, not far from Baligród, the front vehicle suddenly experienced problems with its motor and broke down. The General, not willing to wait because of his busy schedule, decided that the two remaining cars would continue the trip as planned and that the broken vehicle would catch up to them once repaired. They proceeded to drive south, traveling on a road which narrowed and wound through the mountains. Empty clearings and tall hills covered with trees flanked them on both sides. The party then approached a bridge that crossed over the Jabłonka River, bending in front of them, when, all of a sudden, gunshots rang out from above. The General's caravan, under attack, could not drive any further. The Polish officers attempted to defend themselves and tried to escape on foot towards the river, but they were caught in a disadvantaged position between the mountains. By the time that the gunfire subsided and the snipers dispersed, General Swierczewski, as well as a few other men from his group, lay dead.
The official announcement from the Polish Ministry of National Defense that evening declared that squadrons of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) were responsible for the attack and had shot General Swierczewski. The UPA had remained active in Poland after WWII, attempting to gain control of the areas where Ukrainians constituted a majority, with the ultimate goal of establishing an independent Ukrainian state. Blaming the General's assassination on the UPA, the Polish leadership issued a protocol one day later, on March 29, 1947, which called for repressive actions against the Ukrainian population. The protocol resolved to, "with a rapid tempo, relocate the Ukrainians and mixed families to the recovered territories, not creating compact groups and not closer than 100 kilometers from the border." The "recovered territories," called the "Ziemie Odzyskane" in Polish, referred to the northern and western parts of Poland which had been acquired from Germany after its World War II defeat. This resolution meant not only that Ukrainians would be removed from their ancestral lands in southeastern Poland, but also that Ukrainian families would be spread widely throughout these newly-acquired northern and western territories in order to prevent them from forming large communities. As the Polish communist leadership explained, the resettlement and dispersal of the Ukrainian population was being carried out quickly, in order to destroy the UPA and to prevent its resurgence by cutting off the Ukrainian partisans from local civilian aid and support. The relocation plan was given the codename "Akcja 'Wisła'" ("Operation 'Vistula'.")
Despite the Polish government's claim that Akcja "Wisła" was a necessary step in liquidating the UPA, evidence has been brought to light since the fall of communism in Poland showing that the General's death was simply a convenient pretext and that Akcja "Wisła" was part of the Polish government's greater goal to dissolve the Ukrainian minority. Doubts exist as to whether the UPA was even responsible for the assassination of General Swierczewski and the theory that his murder was actually orchestrated by the communists themselves has been given serious consideration by both Ukrainian and Polish historians. Furthermore, it is now known that plans for what became Akcja "Wisła" were discussed months before the General was killed. For example, on February 20, 1947, General-Major Stefan Mossor submitted a strictly confidential proposal to the Ministry of National Defense stating that if Poland could not deport its Ukrainian minority to the Ukrainian S.S.R., as had been taken place between 1944 and 1946, the Ukrainians should be resettled "by individual families, scattered across all of the Recovered Territories, where they will quickly assimilate." The Polish government wished to both pacify and "Polonize" the Ukrainians by uprooting and dispersing them, as can be seen in the secret document which the Politburo created on April 16, 1947 outlining the relocation plan. The document calls for the complete evacuation and maximum separation of all Ukrainians in southeastern Poland, without regard for their professional, social, or party affiliation, and begins with the words, "To definitively solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland . . . ."
On April 28, 1947, exactly one month after the death of General Swierczewski, the first of the Ukrainian villages were surrounded by divisions of the Polish Army. Within a few hours, the Ukrainian inhabitants were taken from their homes to train stations, where they were loaded into cattle cars and shipped across the country. Three months later, when the last transport of Ukrainians arrived in the Ziemie Odzyskane, the number of people who had been forcibly relocated through Akcja "Wisła" reached a total of approximately 140,000. The southeastern portion of the country (covering the Lemko, San River, Chełm, and Podlasie regions) was left practically devoid of Ukrainians.
* * * *
While the international public at the beginning of the 21st century is familiar with the ethnic cleansing and forced migration which occurred recently in such places as Kosovo and Rwanda, relatively few people have heard about Akcja "Wisła." I remember my own surprise upon learning that my parents, both sets of grandparents, and numerous other family members were included among the 140,000 victims relocated in 1947. My paternal and maternal grandparents came from different villages in the Lemko region in southeastern Poland, but after being resettled through Akcja "Wisła," both families separately made the decision to emigrate to the United States in the 1960's. As an American child who had never experienced war or serious dislocation in her country, I found it unbelievable that my immediate family, while living in Poland, had been forced to pack up their belongings within a few hours and to leave behind their homes and land. Although my paternal grandparents had passed away before I was old enough to discuss their past with them, my maternal grandparents described all of the details of Akcja "Wisła" to me in depth. They told me about how they had left behind fields which they had just worked hard to sow, about how they had ridden across the country by train in a cramped and unsanitary cattle car alongside their farm animals, and about how they had been assigned decrepit houses next to hostile Polish neighbors when they first arrived in the Ziemie Odzyskane.
I began to realize that the people who had experienced Akcja "Wisła" as adults and could, thus, best recall the events of 1947 were dying one by one, and that not that many more years remained before all of the first-hand sources completely disappeared. I felt strongly that it was of great importance to document the stories of the remaining survivors, particularly when many of them wished to make their tragic experiences known, but had no way of doing so. My grandparents, for example, had only completed a grammar school education and were, furthermore, too old to write their memoirs by themselves. Thus, I decided to travel around Poland in order to find and interview victims of Akcja "Wisła" and to learn more about the 1947 relocation operation from them directly. This article records only a portion of what I encountered and heard during my search. Nonetheless, it is an attempt to give those who underwent Akcja "Wisła" a voice and to preserve their memories of an event which violated their basic human rights and forever altered their way of life.
Ziemie Odzyskane I began my search in western Poland, considering that only a small percentage of the people who had been relocated under Akcja "Wisla" eventually moved back east to their original lands once they were allowed. The majority simply remained and rebuilt their lives in the Ziemie Odzyskane.
Poland's acquisition of the Ziemie Odzyskane after World War II meant that its borders changed radically. The entire country essentially shifted westward in 1945 as, first, the Allies allowed Stalin to take Poland within the Soviet sphere of influence and to push the border between the Soviet Union and Poland further west. Then, in order to compensate the Polish state for the loss of its eastern regions, including such cities as Lviv (Lwów) and Vilnius (Wilno), the Allies granted Poland parts of eastern Germany. These areas, having been part of Poland in the 10th century under the Piast dynasty, were named the Recovered Territories. Yet, to say that Poland "recovered" its northern and western territories only served to patch up a sore wound, considering that Poland had no say in and no means of objecting to the post-war arrangement. Over fifty years later, many Poles still possess a strong nostalgic sentiment for the "kresy," as they refer to the present-day areas of western Ukraine and western Belarus which had previously belonged to Poland.
The first city that I traveled to in the Ziemie Odzyskane was the city of Legnica, located in the region of Lower Silesia in southwestern Poland. As I walked through the city's center and crossed the main square, I could not help but think about the region's German history. Before the territory had changed hands in 1945, Legnica had been called Liegnitz by the Germans. After the Allies' rearrangement of the borders, the Germans living in the Recovered Territories were repatriated west into Germany. Now, except for one church which was still used by the remaining Protestants, there was not much of a trace left of the German culture which had existed in the city before the war.
Through the Ukrainian community grapevine in Legnica, I had arranged to meet Mr. Ivan Kochansky at his home. As soon as I arrived, he invited me to sit down and we began to talk about how he had been resettled in 1947.
"In 1928, I was born in the village of Muszynka in western Lemkivszczyna," he commenced. "Because Muszynka sits in a little enclave near Poland's border with Slovakia, it is fenced in on three sides by Slovak villages and the only way to travel to other Polish territory is to go west towards the village of Tylicz. Throughout the entire war, things were rather quiet because there were border guards stationed in our village. But, then, on July 1, 1947, a division of the Polish Army came, gathered us into a group at 8:00 in the morning on the square by the church, and said that we had two hours to pack whatever we owned into whatever we had. They said that at 10:00 a.m. we would be departing in the direction of Tylicz."
Curious, I asked Mr. Koczansky, "Didn't they prepare you in any way beforehand? Didn't you, in some way, hear that you were going to be relocated? Without any warning, they just gave you two hours to pack up your life, and that was it?"
"Officially, nothing was said," he responded. "There were only rumors being whispered. But nobody believed the rumors. Nobody thought that we would actually be removed."
"Yet that is exactly what happened," he continued. "All of the Ukrainians had to leave. The Polish Army took the parish register and looked at the 'metryky,' the birth certificates. If you were baptized in a 'tserkva,' go! Baptized in a 'kostel'? Stay." The Ukrainian words which Mr. Koczansky used distinguished the Greek Catholic and Orthodox churches to which Ukrainians belonged, from the Roman Catholic churches of the Poles. Tserkva (like the Polish word "cerkiew") referred clearly to the former, while kostel ("kosciól," in Polish) referred to the latter.
Mr. Koczansky further explained that in his village there were only two Polish families. This meant that these were the only two families who had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. "But they didn't speak any Polish at all," he said. "Everyone in Muszynka spoke the Lemko dialect, you know. Well, one of those families had a lot of problems when the Army came around and asked them why they weren't getting ready to leave. They had a tough time convincing the Polish soldiers that they were Poles when they didn't know how to speak the language!" laughed Mr. Koczansky.
In the end, that Polish family stayed, but the rest of the Ukrainians in the village, with the exception of a rare few, were forced to depart regardless of political orientation or other form of loyalty to the government. As Mr. Koczansky explained, one young Lemko man from Muszynka, having just finished his service in the Polish Army, was shocked upon being told that he and his family had to leave. He showed the Polish officers his discharge papers, but the best answer that he could get was, "Fine. You can stay, but your family must go!" Nationality took precedence in most cases and even loyal communists were known to have been resettled. "Your metryka was what determined whether or not you were relocated," affirmed Mr. Koczansky.
Describing his family's departure from Muszynka, Mr. Koczansky stated, "My family had a cow and a wagon, so we took as much from the house as we could possibly fit into the wagon. Then, from Tylicz, the Polish officers led us through the villages of Mochnaczka, Berest, Polany, and Florynka, all the way to Grybów. Thirty-eight kilometers, they led us. On the way there, there was one moment when my cow couldn't pull the wagon up the hill. So, what did one of the corporals from the Polish Army do? He beat me with his cane! Just because my cow didn't want to pull anymore!
"When we finally reached Grybów, we waited for a few days as the Polish Army loaded everyone into cattle cars so that they could transport us across the country by train. That's when they began to separate us as much as possible. They didn't load one village, in its entirety, into one transport, but instead separated each village into two or three transports. And in one transport, they mixed up people from different villages. So, for example, people from Muszynka, Tylica, and Mochnaczka would all be mixed together in one transport so that they would not know one another."
Divide and conquer, I thought.
Mr. Koczansky noted, "My family was loaded onto a transport which left on July 5. And we arrived in western Poland on July 12th. From the time that we were forced to leave Lemkivszczyna to the time that we arrived in the west, it took twelve days. Twelve days, we had to survive." The man, then, paused and leaned back in his chair as to indicate that this was the end of his story.
"But, what happened during those twelve days?" I asked him. "How exactly did people survive from day to day? Do you remember specific details about the journey across the country?"
Mr. Koczansky responded, "We were all transported in boxcars . . . freight cars or cattle cars or whatever they are called. And in our boxcar, there were four families, plus all of our cattle, plus all of our belongings!"
"Actually," he noted, "all of our wagons were in a different boxcar. Before we were loaded onto the train, our wagons were disassembled and packed into two separate boxcars. When the train finally left the station, it moved in the direction of Nowy Sacz. Well, as you ride to Nowy Sacz, there's a very steep slope and, as the train ascended the slope slowly, the local people had time to get on board and to throw down pieces of the wagons. Whatever they could throw down, they threw down . . . wheels and anything else. Later, they gathered up the pieces to keep for themselves. So, by the time that the train reached Nowy Sacz, half of the boxcars with these wagons had been unloaded, meaning that many people only had half of their wagon when we finally reached the west.
"As I was saying, though," Mr. Kochansky continued, "there were about fifteen people in our boxcar, plus all of our cattle. Half of the boxcar was for us and half of the boxcar was for the cattle. It was not comfortable, but it was good that the cows were nearby so that we could get milk from them at any moment."
As Mr. Koczansky spoke, I thought about traveling for seven days in a boxcar with fourteen other people and a number of farm animals. I remembered how my own grandmother had told me, with a laugh, that the sheep in her particular boxcar would not stop jumping, "because sheep are sheep, and they jump!" In the boxcars, there was not a lot of room and there was no place to bathe. The animals simply excreted onto the floor and their waste had to be dumped outside when the train stopped from time to time at various stations. It was at these stations that the authorities also sprayed the boxcars with disinfectant in order to prevent the spread of fleas.
"How did you feed yourselves?" I asked.
"There are some publications today which say that they gave us food, that they conveyed us humanely," Mr. Koczansky said to me. "But, during the entire trip west, only once did they gave our transport some kind of porridge. We got one portion of porridge and that was the so-called "feeding" that we got. So, each person had to make do with what he had. We had some bread and some dried provisions with us, and we ate that in order to survive.
"The biggest problem was with the cattle because there wasn't any feed for them," Mr. Koczansky stated. He then laughed to himself and added, "I remember one time when the train drove past a big meadow where a lot of haystacks were standing. At that moment, someone apparently pulled a brake to halt the train. By the time that the conductors figured out where the brake had been pulled, the people in the boxcars were able to run out into the field and gather hay for their livestock!
"And there was another episode where, when the train stopped, one woman got out of her boxcar with a bucket in order to get water from some kind of hydrant. By the time that she returned, the transport had left! She walked about a kilometer or two down the tracks before a railroad worker found her. 'Where are you going?' he asked her, and this poor woman who didn't know any Polish told him what had happened. 'Well, you won't catch the train like this,' he said, and brought her to the station personally. He repeated her story to the conductor and they took her in another train, escorting her all the way back to her boxcar."
How did he know that all this had happened, I asked Mr. Kochansky. Was this simply a story that had grown from rumors over the years?
"I know because this woman was part of my family," he answered me.
Mr. Kochansky then turned to the subject of their arrival in western Poland. He explained how his transport was unloaded in the town of Chojnów, where they were met by a "soltys" (a village leader) and were told to which village and to which house each of the resettled families had been assigned.
"The propaganda against us when we arrived in the west was horrible," he stated. "We found out later that, for those first few nights, our new Polish neighbors slept with axes under their pillows because they thought that we were 'UPA bandits.' There was propaganda spread around that the UPA was a bunch of bandits and that these bandits were being brought to their village. Not until we lived there for a while did our neighbors realize that we were peaceful and that the propaganda they had heard was not true. How could we have been 'UPA bandits' when the people of Muszynka never had any contact with the UPA? Do you remember how I told you that Muszynka sits on the border and that there was a branch of the army, of border guards, there? Well, Muszynka was surrounded by Czechoslovakia and, at that time, Czechoslovakia was antagonistic towards the UPA, so how could we have been involved with the Ukrainian partisans when they were not even able to come through our village?"
"So, if you had nothing to do with the UPA, why do you think the Polish Army relocated you then?" I asked Mr. Kochansky.
"The real reason that we were brought to live in the west," he said to me, "was simply to remove us from our land. In other words, they removed us so as not to have a problem with the national minorities in southeastern Poland anymore. From the border belt, people were relocated and spread out. They scattered us, with two to three families per village, so that we would assimilate as soon as possible. They moved us to the Ziemie Odzyskane in order to Polonize us and that was it," ended Mr. Kochansky, leaning back in his chair once again.
* * * *
I quickly learned that one of the easiest ways to meet survivors of Akcja "Wisla" was to locate the local priest and ask him which of the elder members of his parish had been resettled in 1947. I adopted this as my modus operendi when arriving in a village where I knew no one.
In Legnica, the Greek Catholic church had a strong following. On the first Sunday that I could, I went to Mass at the church and saw that it was packed. Before the service began, I approached the priest and asked if he could possibly mention something in his weekly announcements about my search. He helped by pointing out a few people who he thought might be able to lead me in the right direction. I waited until after the service to speak to them and, as I sat through the Mass, I was impressed by how the congregation sang so powerfully that the sound resonated throughout the room. I knew that, during Akcja "Wisla," a few thousand people were scattered throughout Legnica and other Lower Silesian cities like such as Lubin and Wolów, but I had not expected such a high level of participation from the resettled Ukrainian community. This made me think that the Polish government's goal of forcing the Ukrainian minority to assimilate had not been achieved after all.
It was through certain members of the Greek Catholic parish that day that I came into contact with Mrs. Olga Kitczak. Mrs. Kitczak gave me her address and told me that in two days she would have some time to speak with me.
Mrs. Kitczak lived in a small village, in what seemed to me to be the middle of nowhere. Her village, Wilczyce, was a few miles outside of Legnica, so I took a bus there and then proceeded to get lost as I walked around searching for her house. I wandered around the dirt roads of Wilczyce, walking past fields with grazing cows, until a local man helped me to locate the proper street.
Mrs. Kitczak was already outside, holding a bucket and some farm tools. "Oh, I was beginning to think that you weren't going to come. I was going to go outside and do some work," she said to me as I approached. Seeming a bit nervous, she then stated, "I've been thinking about this interview for two days. I'm an old woman and I don't know if can remember everything. Would it be alright if another woman who was resettled with us was also present at the interview? You could talk to both of us at the same time. I've asked her already and she is willing."
"Of course," I answered, and we walked down the road to one of her neighbor's houses. Inside, I was introduced to Mrs. Maria Czuk. A talkative woman, she told me right away that she and Mrs. Kitczak had known each other for a very long time. Until they were relocated in 1947, they had both lived in the village of Wielka Wierzbicain the Chelm region. They were taken in the same transport to western Poland and they lived in the same house once they arrived.
The two women began to talk about Akcja "Wisla" and how they were removed from Wielka Wierzbicain June 1947. They explained that, whereas the neighboring village of Wierzbica had only a few hours to pack, causing many of its inhabitants to be relocated "naked and barefoot," Wielka Wierzbicawas given roughly a week to get ready. "People still had time to go to the mill for flour," Mrs. Czuk stated.
"But, did they tell you why you were being relocated?" I interrupted. "Were you given any reason?"
"They told us that they were resettling us because there were Ukrainian partisans on our territory. They said that as long as we were there, we would support them. We would give them food and other things. And they said that if we were removed, then they would be able to liquidate the partisans. They could not liquidate them as long as we were there," Mrs. Czuk explained.
"And was the UPA actually active in your village?" I asked.
"Yes, the boys were always there," Mrs. Kitczak answered.
"And the people of Wielka Wierzbica helped them?"
"Yes," she stated.
"We helped. We helped," Mrs. Czuk chimed in, "We gave them grain. I gave them a cow. More than once, my mother told me that I had to go bring them grain." She paused for a second and added, "I don't know if I should be telling you these things or not . . . but let them arrest me! If I go to jail or to the grave, it's all the same to me!"
Her statement, which seemed to be half serious and half joking, surprised me because I had not considered that persecution by the Polish authorities would still be an issue for those who had undergone Akcja "Wisla" fifty years earlier. Even if Mrs. Czuk did not truly believe or fear that there would be negative repurcussions from discussing her previous involvement with the UPA, her statement showed, at the very least, that this had crossed her mind.
She continued nevertheless, "We helped our partisans. They had a hiding place in our area and during the day they sat there, when they weren't on patrol. They were free at night, but during the day they had to hide. They slept, because what did the poor boys have to do there in the dark. They were so young! So, I went to the young men and I brought food. I trembled so badly when I took food to that hiding place. The entrance was behind a stable. When they Polish Army raided, they searched for these defenses, but somehow God watched over the partisans and they were not found."
Returning to the topic of relocation, I asked what else the women were able to take with them besides flour from the mill.
"What was there to take?!" Mrs. Czuk exclaimed. "We took our bed because it could be taken apart to fit into the wagon, but we didn't take any other furniture. In addition to the flour, we took some potatoes and some grain. And we also had a small calf, which we slaughtered so that we would have some food later. We took the cow, and a pair of horses, and our two small children, and that was everything!"
She noted, however, that she and her husband did get a second chance to retrieve pots, firewood, and other useful items. For some unknown reason, when the villagers of Wielka Wierzbica departed, they were first led four kilometers east to the town of Uhnow, before spending the night there and then returning in the opposite direction, back through their village, and on to the distant town of Belzec. She and her husband were able to run back to their house, but the consequences were such that Mr. Czuk received a beating from one of the soldiers for taking too long to bring hay back to their wagon. "The soldier beat my husband because we were taking these things," Mrs. Czuk said. "This was all supposed to be left for them! I just wanted to take some firewood, but this is how they made us leave . . . by force!
"Not all of soldiers were the same though," Mrs. Kitczak remarked. "Some of them were lenient, while others treated the Ukrainians cruelly. The Polish Army was all around us and watched us, but the behavior of the soldiers varied." In the same way that Mr. Kochansky was loaded into a boxcar in Grybów, the women, along with the rest of their village, were loaded onto the train once they reached Belzec. They waited there for a day before departing. Mrs Czuk explained, "There wasn't any room in our boxcar because they had shoved about five or six families from our village and from the village of Poddubno into it. We prayed that they would just take us somewhere already. We didn't know where they were taking us.
"When we finally left, we traveled for days before we arrived here in Lower Silesia. They brought us to Legnica, where there were already cars waiting for anyone who didn't have a horse. Anyone who had a horse rode in their own wagon. Then they led us here to this village, to Wilczyce, and dumped us into an area outside. That's where we spent the night." Mrs. Czuk motioned to Mrs. Kitczak and said, "They dumped her family, and our family, and some four or five other families. There were only a few Ukrainian families because they didn't put more than that together in one village."
The soltys arrived the next morning, but only to state that there were no available houses inWilczycefor the newly-resettled Ukrainians. He advised them to walk down the main road until they reached another village on the right-hand side, named Lubiatów, and to inquire as to whether something was available there.
"They brought us and dumped us there, saying 'Do whatever you want!'" Mrs. Czuk said with disgust. "So, some of us went to find houses ourselves. We walked down the main road, farmers and old women and all! Luckily, a man riding a wagon stopped us on the way and asked us where we were going. We told him in our broken Polish -- because none of us knew how to speak Polish well, even though we had learned how to read and write it in school -- that we had just been relocated there and that we were going to Lubiatów. He drove us in his wagon the rest of the way and showed us where the village was."
Mrs. Czuk, Mrs. Kitczak, and the rest of their party were able to find housing in Lubiatów, but they were only allowed to stay there for a short period of time. They lived in Lubiatówfor the rest of the summer, doing field work for their Polish neighbors in return for grain, potatoes, and other products, until one of the local government offices inLegnica finally became aware of their situation. As Mrs. Czuk explained, some of the Ukrainian men from their group went to Legnica to the State Repatriation Office (Panstwowy Urzad Repatriacyjny), known as "PUR"), which was responsible for issues involving the resettlement process. The men went to complain that they did not have any land on which to graze their own horses and cattle, but the PUR, in turn, informed them that they were living in an undesignated area and would have to move.
Switching from Ukrainian to Polish, Mrs. Czuk imitated the voice of the government worker. "'A gdzie jestescie? Where are you located?' the man at PUR asked our men.
They answered, 'Lubiatów.' 'Lubiatów! Wy nie macie tam byc!' You are not supposed to be there! That's a different 'powiat,' a different district!Other people are supposed to be resettled there!'"
Thus, soon thereafter, Mrs. Czuk, Mrs. Kitczak, and the rest of the Ukrainians were forced to move again, back to their originally designated village of Wilczyce.They had unknowingly disrupted the plan of the Polish authorities which assigned a specific number of relocated families to specific areas. Official instructions from the government stated that resettled groups of Ukrainians should not constitute more than ten percent of a total district population. They were in the "wrong" powiat.
Yet, back in the "correct" district, Mrs. Czuk and Mrs. Kitczak continued to encounter problems trying to find housing that was acceptable to them. The first building which they were alloted in Wilczyce was crowded with two other families, not including the family of rats which ran around during the one and only night which they spent there. The two women pointed out this building to me through the window. I saw that the structure had a cross on top of the roof and I thought to myself that it looked more like an abandoned church than a place of residence.
"We didn't unload anything from the wagons when we went there to sleep that night because we knew that we didn't want that house," Mrs. Czuk said. "In the morning, we woke up and said that we were not going to stay there, so they took us to some small workers' houses owned by a widow. They were dirty on the outside and there weren't any windows or anything, but that's where they planted us. Our family was placed downstairs and theirs," she said, pointing to Mrs. Kitczak, 'was placed upstairs. But, once again, before they let us in, the brother of the widow came, and called us bad names, and said that he didn't want us to stay there. The local "burmistrz" (city mayor) had to come and he only barely-barely convinced the widow's brother that he had to. . ."
"It was all a big to-do!" interjected Mrs. Kitczak. "One said that they didn't have any houses and the other said that they didn't want us!"
Pausing for a moment, Mrs. Kitczak then turned towards Mrs. Czuk and said, "Well, at least you already had a husband and children. It was worse for me because I only had one brother here. I remember that I cried for nights and couldn't sleep."
Mrs. Kitczak explained that her family, consisting of her father, mother, and married sister, had been among the ones in neighboring Wierzbica to be quickly loaded up and relocated. They were taken right away to Belzec, a week or so earlier than Wielka Wierzbica, and they were placed in trains which went to Mazuria, the northern part of the Ziemie Odzyskane. "They didn't know anything about us and we didn't know anything about them," she stated. "They were sent to Mazuria and we were sent to Legnica. And no one knew anything about them. There was no address or anything. No one knew. I even heard that my family had been executed in Belzec. Various things were said."
Only in late 1947, did Mrs. Kitczak find out from a man who had been relocated to Mazuria as well that her relations were alive and living in northern Poland. She immediately traveled there and was reunited with them.
Mrs. Kitczak recalled, "When I rode into their village in Mazuria, the other people from Wierzbicawho had also been resettled there began asking me, 'Is my family in the west too? Perhaps mine were relocated near you?!'" They were desperate for information, whether it be about their loved ones or about their old neighbors. Only by word of mouth, such as by running into a familiar face at the local market, were those who were relocated under Akcja "Wisla" able to piece together their old world.
Mrs. Kitczak, who brought her family back with her to Lower Silesia, and Mrs. Czuk also began to slowly rebuild their community. "A lot of Ukrainians were brought here and were spread all around Legnica," stated Mrs. Kitczak. "But, now, all of these people come to our church, so everyone sees one another."
I was reminded of the Mass, crowded with people, that I had attended a few days earlier. The church, I realized, served not only as a place of worship for the Ukrainians in western Poland, but as an important way of holding onto their past, preserving their culture, and maintaining their ties with family and community members.
Jaworzno In Legnica, one of the people I met at the Greek Catholic Church told me, "You should speak with the Tkaczyks. They met in Jaworzno and got married afterwards." By Jaworzno, the person meant the "Central Work Camp in Jaworzno," the official name for the concentration camp where, in 1947, the Polish government imprisoned Ukrainians accused of aiding the UPA. I was familiar with this camp because, from June 1947 until January 1948, my own grandfather, Damian Howansky, had been imprisoned there.
Originally, Jaworzno had been a filial of Hitler's concentration camps in Auschwitz. In 1943, the Nazis established the subsidiary camp in Jaworzno under the name of "Neu-Dachs."Male prisoners were brought there to work in the nearby coalmines of "Dachsgrube." The camp was liberated in January 1945, but not before the Nazis managed to shoot dozens of inmates and send thousands more to Buchenwald. Only 400 sick and emaciated people remained by the time the Red Army soldiers finally arrived.
Near the end of the war, the Polish government decided to preserve the site and to form the Central Work Camp on its territory. In February 1947, after kitchens were rebuilt and barracks were cleaned, the first people to be detained in Jaworzno under the Polish government's orders were, ironically, German prisoners of war. Also placed in Jaworzno during this period were "Volksdeutsche," residents of Poland who had German roots and were thus considered to have been sympathetic to the Germans during the Nazi occupation. However, this is where any connection between Jaworzno and Hitler's death camps ends.
Starting in May 1947, as Akcja "Wisla" was being carried out, the Polish government used Jaworzno primarily as a concentration camp for Ukrainians suspected of conducting subversive activity. Ukrainian clergymen, the Ukrainian intelligentsia, and anyone believed to have helped the UPA in some way were imprisoned and punished there. The Polish Army, under the supervision of the Department of People's Security, carried out the arrests of Ukrainians living in southeastern Poland according to lists of names which had been secretly prepared by local authorities months earlier. Anyone considered suspicious was placed into one of three categories marking them as "hostile elements," and was to be immediately removed to Jaworzno.
However, the criteria for arrest was vague and the lists from which the Polish Army worked were often unreliable. Because the lists were based in large part on private denunciations, a simple statement that a fellow villager worked as the head of the local Ukrainian school, or that one's neighbor was the town priest who taught religion in the Ukrainian language, could lead to the accusation that this person was "spreading Ukrainian nationalist propaganda" or was an "UPA sympathizer." Innocent people could easily be labelled "threats to the Polish state and the Polish people," and the result was that many Ukrainians were sent to the concentration camp without real cause.
Jaworzno constituted one piece of the Polish government's plan to destroy the Ukrainian underground army and pacify what it saw as a "troublesome" Ukrainian population. Ukrainians were arrested and taken to Jaworzno directly from their homes. They were arrested while they sat at gathering points, awaiting relocation under Akcja "Wisla." They were arrested as the trains, in which they were traveling westward against their will, stopped at various stations along the way. Sometimes family members simply did not return to their boxcars after they were summoned at these stations. Usually they were interrogated in a brutal manner before being sent to the concentration camp.
My grandfather was just one among 3,936 Ukrainians who were interned in Jaworzno during the period of May 1947 to March 1949. This total included 823 women, dozens of children, 27 Greek-Catholic and Orthodox priests, as well as practically the entire Ukrainian intelligentsia. Of this number, 162 inmates at Jaworzno died as a result of torture, hunger, disease, and even suicide.
But regardless of the statistics and other information I had collected over the years, I still did not know anything about my grandfather's personal experiences in Jaworzno. My grandfather had passed away when I was four years old, so I had never had the opportunity to ask him anything. My father had also never been able to discuss Jaworzno with my grandfather because, as he puts it, after they immigrated to the United States, there were more pressing things to think about as they attempted to build a new life for themselves. Thus, I had no idea why my grandfather in particular had been imprisoned. While I might not be able to find out the answer to this question, I hoped that those who had been imprisoned in Jaworzno, such as the Tkaczyks, would be able to provide me with some answers regarding their time in the camp.
* * * *
The idea of Mr. and Mrs. Tkaczyk meeting in a concentration camp seemed just amazing to me. "How did this happen?" I politely asked the couple. "Do you remember exactly where in Jaworzno you met each other for the first time?"
"Well, we actually saw each other for the first time in a town named Tomaszów, not Jaworzno," said Mrs. Tkaczyk.
"Let me explain," Mr. Tkaczyk interrupted, as he began to talk about the day that he had been arrested by Polish officers in his village of Poturzyn in the Chelm region. "I remember that it was June 15, 1947, a Sunday. We had already heard that they were going to resettle us. It was such a pretty Sunday and the air practically hummed from the buzzing of insects. Then, around nine or ten in the morning, soldiers drove up. I remember it as if it were today. I saw one of them coming directly towards us with some list and, right away, he asked, 'Name?' 'Tkaczyk,' I answered, and he said, 'Get ready. We're going.' They took me and my brother. My mother was crying. My father was crying. How were these old people going to stay by themselves? This was right before they had to evacuate! The horse-drawn wagons were coming for them. In two hours, it would be time to depart! So, one officer said to another, 'Aaah, why are you going to take two? Let one go.' He saw that these old people were going to be left all alone, so they let my brother go and took me away."
On the way to Jaworzno, overnight stops were made in various towns, including Tomaszów. Mr. Tkaczyk explained that each time that they arrived in a new place, he was locked in the basement of some building. He was only called out for interrogations, during which the Polish officers beat him badly. Mr. Tkaczyk described to me how, for example, the Polish officers had forced him to stretch out on a bench and, then, whipped him with a stack of branches "as straight and hard as iron." He said, "I still have marks if you don't believe me. I had cuts down to the bone."
"But, why did the Polish authorities arrest you and beat you so severly? What was their reason?" I asked Mr. Tkaczyk.
"Because of the partisan army and what I did. But, it was all a denunciation. A false denuncation," he responded.
He continued, saying that as soon as the authorities brought him to Tomaszów he was called into the interrogation room. When he entered, the general and two soldiers who were already sitting there began to ask him, "So, what did you do, 'banderivets?' Tell us how it was in the woods."
"I said that I hadn't been anywhere, that I was a student, and that I didn't think about anything else except my studies," Mr. Tkaczyk explained. "But then the general said, 'Well, we'll give you proof!' and he pulled out an identification card. He looked at me and then at the card, and demanded, 'Then, who is this?!' I saw that the picture somewhat resembled me. The person was wearing glasses just like I did. But I never took passport pictures with my glasses on, so I knew that something was not right! Then, the general showed me another picture. It was the same man, sitting on a horse, dressed in a uniform, with a machine-gun hanging from his shoulder. 'And who is this?!,' the general demanded again. 'That's the same man, but that's not me,' I answered. 'General, Sir,' I said, 'they beat me so badly that, please believe me, I would tell on my own mother right now.'
It was Mrs. Tkaczyk who next spoke up and explained how she had been taken to the same basement in Tomaszów as Mr. Tkaczyk, except that she had been held in the cell reserved for women, while Mr. Tkaczyk had been held in the cell reserved for men. There was a hole in the wall between these two cells and, at one point, when a young man was brought back from interrogation covered in blood and bruises, the women peered through the hole to find out what had happened to him. As they did so, they saw a fight break out. For some reason, one of Mrs. Tkaczyk's neighbors, who was also being kept in Tomaszów at the time, began yelling at and roughing up the already battered young man. Mrs. Tkaczyk's reaction to the situation was to shout at her neighbor through the hole, telling him to stop hurting the boy.
"And that's when I noticed her," interrupted Mr. Tkaczyk, with a soft smile on his face. "I liked her as soon as I saw how she strongly she reacted. She defended that boy when she herself was being unjustly imprisoned there."
When I asked what he meant by this, his wife explained to me that she had never done anything to justify being taken away to Jaworzno. Mrs. Tkaczyk and her family had simply been waiting at one of the gathering points to be loaded into boxcars and relocated to the west as part of Akcja "Wisla," when the Polish officers arrested her. "I remember that I was worried about my father and brother," she recalled, "I thought that the officers wouldn't do anything to me. But they came for me."
As had been the case with her husband, the Polish officers beat Mrs. Tkaczyk during questioning and seemed to know a lot of personal details about her family. They accused her of aiding the UPA and claimed, "You brought food and clothing to the forest." But, Mrs. Tkaczyk maintained that this was all false. She told me, "I didn't do that at all because I didn't belong to the UPA! To be completely honest, I didn't belong to anything!"
When I asked why they had arrested her if she was really innocent, her response was, "Just because I was Ukrainian."
"So, neither of you had ever been associated with the UPA, but the Polish authorities imprisoned you anyway?" I asked the couple.
"Well," Mr. Tkaczyk answered, "not exactly." He explained that the Polish authorities did, indeed, arrest him and his wife without any real proof or reason, but that he himself could not claim to have never helped the UPA. In other words, Mr. Tkaczyk had assisted the UPA, but the authorities didn't, in fact, know this. He admitted, "I studied medicine, and you know that those sorts of people are always needed. So, when someone was wounded, they called me and I dressed the wounds. I even helped one doctor, who was later sent to Siberia, with operations in the hospital. But they didn't arrest me for this because nobody knew. Not even my family knew. I was taken to Jaworzno because, guilty or not guilty, if you were young or someone who even slightly caught their eye, they took you."
The Polish government's attempt to weed out members of the Ukrainian underground army and the local population who supported it, was a tricky and imprecise procedure which surely must have resulted in the unjust imprisonment of many innocent people. For example, many of the Ukrainians who were relocated under Akcja "Wisla," but then tried to return to their houses and native land must have been among the innocent. "There were girls from Lemkivszczyna who had been resettled to Szczecin already, but they returned home to get something and they were sent to Jaworzno right away," confirmed Mrs. Tkaczyk.
According to Order No. 0010, a secret document that was put into motion on July 16, 1947, "Ukrainians and mixed families" who "illegally" returned to their former places of residence, "explaining that their only wish was to gather the crops they had sown," were to be taken to Jaworzno. "The toleration of such behavior makes the potential organization of secret services, the reestablishment of networks, and even the formulation of new bands possible for the Ukrainians," the document stated. Any Ukrainian who returned to southeastern Poland after being relocated, regardless of whether they truly belonged to UPA's network or whether they were simply coming back for the crops or any other necessary item which had been left behind during the rush, soon found himself in the Jaworzno concentration camp.
When Mr. Tkaczyk finally began to talk about Jaworzno itself, he began with the statement, "My first impression was that it was as if I had been sent to hell." He described the barbed wire fence that surrounded the camp and the long barracks which stood inside. His wife then recounted how they were transferred from Tomaszów to Jaworzno in boxcars and were forced to walk the five or so kilometers from the train station to the concentration camp in the middle of the night. "They sent us in freight cars for cattle like the Jews were sent to Auschwitz," Mrs. Tkaczyk stated. "About 80 people were in our boxcar and they didn't let us out, so let's just say that we had to take care of all our 'biological issues' in there. I don't know how many hours we walked from the train station to the camp, but it was the whole night. People were tired and whoever fell needed to be picked up because the soldiers would come and hit people. So we all kept walking. We reached the front gate and on it was written 'Central Work Camp.'"
In the camp, the elderly couple slept in cramped three-storied bunk beds, were given hardly any food, and survived largely on the packages which they eventually received. Mrs. Tkaczyk noted, "We slept in pairs on one bed. When we needed to turn over, we had to do it at the same time because it wouldn't work any other way. By the end of my time at Jaworzno, I was completely skin and bones. But, maybe, it was good that I was the thin one because the woman I shared the bed with 'had a lot to go around'," she joked.
The Tkaczyks also confirmed that people were made to work at Jaworzno. Describing her experience in the sewing workshop, Mrs. Tkaczyk stated, "It was actually better to have some kind of work instead of just sitting there."
Her husband had actually benefited from his post at the "German hospital" within the camp grounds. German POW's and Volksdeutsche were imprisoned in Jaworno along with the Ukrainians, but they resided in a different section of the camp and had a separate hospital. In Mr. Tkaczyk's opinion, "The Germans had it better." Mr. Tkaczyk's work at the hospital, hence, put him in a much more advantageous position than most of his fellow Ukrainian inmates. "The Volksdeutsche took pity on me and gave me food. I was able to gain ten pounds in a month," he told me.
Otherwise, Mr. and Mrs. Tkaczyk often underwent cruel treatment at Jaworzno. "We were forced to do 'zhabky' (a physical exercise that resembles frog-jumps) for any reason at all," Mr. Tkaczyk noted. "For example, we were each given an iron bowl to eat from, and if you allowed that iron bowl to form even the slightest bit of rust on it, you did zhabky later on as punishment. They exhausted us physically and mentally. In order to make everyone nervous, rumors were spread that people were being sent to Siberia. One woman even threw herself against the electric fence because the commander kept telling her various things about her family back home in order to drive her crazy. . . ."
Mrs. Tkaczyk interjected, saying that inmates did what they could to maintain their sanity, as well as their dignity. Explaining how the women who were taken to Jaworzno with her were given uniforms to wear within the camp, she noted that one group, "some artists," tried to make themselves look different or fashionable in some way. They saw this as an act of defiance and declared, "We're going to show them that we are people. They can not destroy us."
"Various theatrics took place there," Mr. Tkaczyk continued. "The officers would conduct a roll-call in the rain for no reason and make everyone stand in line for hours and hours before telling us to fall out and go back to the barracks. Then there was one night when they came and the 150 people in the barrack all had to have their shoes placed, military-style, in rows. Well, they went and threw all the shoes outside! 'Now, go and find yours,' they told us!"
The Tkaczyks were finally both released from Jaworzno sometime around January 1948. They signed the necessary documents and were driven by car to the train station in Jaworzno, as well as from the train station at their place of arrival directly to their families' homes in western Poland. Mr. Tkaczyk was taken to his family in the city of Lubin, while Mrs. Tkaczyk was taken to hers in Legnica.
Still curious, I asked whether they seen each other often at the camp and whether they had gotten to know each other well at Jaworzno. Mrs. Tkaczyk replied that, no, they really hadn't seen one another during their imprisonment. "He escorted me to the hospital once when I was ill, but that was it. Afterwards, when they let us go, we exchanged addresses and started to write," she said. Yet, this was still not the end of their story.
Mrs. Tkaczyk explained further, however, that, after a tear-filled reunion with her mother and a period of adjusting to living in western Poland ("At least, in the camp, I was among my own people, but, in the west, I was among foreigners!"), she was arrested again on July 12, 1950 (". . . for the same thing!"). According to Mrs. Tkaczyk, the authorities continued to watch and follow many Ukrainians in western Poland, and, to this day, she still does not understand why she was persecuted. Without any trial or explanation, they finally released her one night the following December. ("Because everything was done at night.")
"And was that when you finally got married to Mr. Tkaczyk?" I asked.
"After I came back from jail, I wrote to him that I had returned to Legnica," Mrs. Tkaczyk answered. Then, laughing, she concluded the story, saying, "And in my letter, I also told him, 'Let's get married already, because who knows when they will arrest me again!' So, he came and that was it."
Lemkivszczyna In 1956, with Wladyslaw Gomulka's rise to power, a period of political liberalization began in Poland. Various restrictions were removed and the repression of national minorities was relaxed. The Ukrainian population in Poland was designated as an official minority and was allowed by the Polish government to promote its culture under the auspices of the newly-formed Ukrainian Social-Cultural Society (USKT). Furthermore, for the first time in almost ten years since they had been evicted, those who had undergone Akcja "Wisla" were given a chance to move back to southeastern Poland.
This did not mean, however, that the return of the Ukrainians to their native territories was simple. Some villages had been destroyed and no longer existed, whereas others were occupied by new Polish inhabitants from whom the Ukrainians had no choice but to buy back their former homesteads. Ukrainians continued to face legal and administrative barriers which stood in their way and requests for permission to return were often rejected. Both sets of my own grandparents, feeling that they had endured enough discrimination in Poland, decided to try to make a better life for their families in the United States instead of returning to Lemkivszczyna. In total, only approximately 2,000 Lemkos managed to move back to their native land between 1956 and 1958. Wishing to find out what some of these people had encountered upon their return, I traveled from the Ziemie Odyskane to Lemkivszczyna, the area where my ancestors had resided for centuries before being relocated.
I met Mr. Michael Boldys by chance. The Lemko region, located in the lowest part of the Carpathian Mountains in what is specifically the Beskid mountain range, lies on Poland's southern border with Slovakia. I had wanted to cross the border into Slovakia, but was told that I needed particular documentation and would have to first go to the soltys in the village of Konieczna to take care of such administrative matters. Konieczna was the last village before the border station and, walking towards the soltys' house, I was surrounded by nothing more than miles of low rolling hills which are characteristic of the Lemko region. I thought to myself that the village's name, derived from the Polish word "koniec," or "the end," fit quite appropriately. My detour to this remote Lemko village was quite fruitful though, as the soltys of Konieczna, Mr. Michael Boldys, turned out to be a Lemko who had returned to his original village years after being relocated in 1947.
Sitting in his living room, Mr. Boldys told me,"Akcja 'Wisla' was the politics of the communist government. President Bierut was simply the person who carried out what Moscow told him to do. Moscow's politics were to remove people from their own land and to move them around so that they would not feel 'u sebe' ('at home.') They did this in Ukraine, they did this in Russia, and they did this in Poland too. We ended up being the victims in all of this. Today, they tell us that the communist system has ended, but they should still compensate us for the wrong that was committed against us in our country."
Mr. Boldys' statements introduced another debate into the discussion of Akcja "Wisla," namely the debate over who was ultimately responsible for the decision to relocate Poland's Ukrainian population in 1947. Mr. Boldys believed that the relocation plan originated in Moscow and that the communist government in Poland, headed by President Boleslaw Bierut, was simply Moscow's puppet. While there continues to be disagreement over this issue, certain scholars hold that Moscow is ultimately accountable and that Akcja "Wisla" was actually part of Stalin's nationalities policy. An argument is made that Stalin wanted to ensure that the Ukrainian independence movement, which was causing problems for him in Galicia, was destroyed and that he summoned Bierut to Moscow in October 1944 to discuss the battle against all forms of "counter-revolution." Furthermore, this argument claims that the plan of operation for Akcja "Wisla" was actually prepared by the chief of the ministry of security in the Ukrainian S.S.R. with authorization of such Soviet higher-ups as NKVD head Lavrenti Beria.Stalin, a man known for his paranoid attempts to thwart all challenges to his control, commonly used a divide-and-conquer strategy against the national minorities within the communist bloc. In 1939, for example, he evacuated about 650,000 Germans living in Ukraine to Central Asia out of fear that they would cooperate with their invading brethren. In 1944, approximately 200,000 Crimean Tatars, whom Stalin suspected as well of helping the Germans, were also expelled from their homeland. Hence, an argument exists that the relocation of the Ukrainians in 1947 was yet another of Stalin's attempts to weaken the national minorities within his sphere of influence.
Referring to how the Soviet Union and Poland had agreed to exchange the Polish population in the U.S.S.R. for the Ukrainian population in Poland in the years immediately preceding Akcja "Wisla," Mr. Boldys described how a Russian-speaking delegation came from Ukraine to Konieczna at the end of 1945 and told the people that there would be a "repatriation" to Ukraine. "For about half a year, they agitated and forcefully told us that we had to sign up to move east," he explained. "But, later, they said, 'If you don't sign up and go to Ukraine, you will not stay here anyway. If you don't go east, then you'll go west! But, either way, you won't be here."
"You mean, as early as 1945, you were informed that the people of your region would be sent westward?" I asked Mr. Boldys with surprise.
"Yes," he said. "Those were their instructions."
Albeit a minor detail, Mr. Boldys' comment was interesting to me. If the authorities had hinted to the people as early as 1945 that they had no chance of remaining in southeastern Poland, then this showed that Akcja "Wisla" was not just a sudden reaction to General Swierczewski's assassination. It gave additional support to the argument that the plan to relocate the Ukrainian minority to the Ziemie Odzyskane had been coordinated long before the General's death and that Akcja "Wisla" was a preconceived attempt to uproot and destabilize the Ukrainian population. Also, if the threat to relocate the people of Konieczna westward was made by the "Russian-speaking delegation from Ukraine," perhaps the communist government of the U.S.S.R. had indeed played a significant role in the preparation for Akcja "Wisla." "Then, at the end of March, a plane flew over Konieczna and dumped out flyers," said Mr. Boldys. "It was Sunday and, at that moment, Mass was taking place. There were a ton of flyers and the people went outside to pick them up. On them it was written that 'because the Polish General Swierczewski was murdered by UPA bands, the local people must be resettled,' and that 'because it is necessary to liquidate the UPA, relocation is the only way to prevent anyone from feeding or helping these bands,' and that 'there is no other way."
"They officially informed you that you would be relocated by tossing flyers out of an airplane?" I repeated. Most people with whom I had spoken had only heard about their upcoming resettlement by word of mouth.
"Yes. But the people didn't believe it. They walked around thinking that maybe this or that village would be able to stay, because there was propaganda being spread that maybe they wouldn't relocate us and that maybe they would leave us. But, on June 12th, at 8:00 in the morning, a group of soldiers came to the village. They went from house to house, leaving a soldier in each one. The commander came on his horse and said, 'Przygotowujcie sie do wyjazdu.' Get ready to depart. In an hour, everyone has to be on the road, ready to be relocated."
"And how did the people react?" I asked. "How did the people react when the Polish Army suddenly came and told them that they had less than two hours to leave their homes?"
"It was a pity for everyone. Everyone cried, but there was no way out. Some people had even gone earlier to the Roman Catholic priests in the village of Sekowa, wanting to change their religion to Roman Catholicism in an attempt to stay. But the priests said, 'Absolutely not. You are not Roman Catholics. You are Greek Catholics and Orthodox, and we can not accept you now.' There was no way out. It wasn't more than an hour and a half before all of the farmers had their horses attached to their wagons, took their families and their cattle, and left their sowed fields and everything else behind.
"In our village," continued Mr. Boldys, "there was this old man named Yurko Mlynaryk who tried to stay in his house. He said, 'You all go, but I'm staying.' He had bad eyesight and said, 'I'm an old invalid and no one is going to make me go anywhere.'"
"And did they make him leave?" I asked.
"Well, two hours after our entire village was led to Gladyszów, this old man appeared on foot. After the Army drove the people from their houses, a group of soldiers came and checked all of the houses to see if someone was hiding. This old man didn't even try to hide, because what for? So, they found him. Everyone was supposed to be relocated and that was it. No one had the right to stay. From our village, the only people that were left behind were one family of road-workers and some Lemko women who were married to Polish men. There were two Poles who were border guards, and they married Lemko girls, so they stayed in Konieczna when they finished their tour of duty."
"So, mixed families from Konieczna were allowed to remain during Akcja 'Wisla'?" I said.
"Yes. Those people stayed because they were married to Poles. The rest of us were taken to Gladyszów, where we stayed for a week."
"Where did you live during that time?" I asked.
"The people of Gladyszów had already been relocated, so we stayed in their empty houses. The weather was horrible. It rained terribly all week long. Then, one evening before dinner . . . I don't remember what day exactly . . . the Army came and told everyone to load up because we were going to Zagórzany. Right before dinner they drove us all out. It was raining unbelievably hard and our horses were weak, so when we had to climb up Magura, the highest mountain pass in Lemkivszczyna, it was very difficult.
"I was with one of my neighbors leading our cattle and sheep. We led them past Magura to the village of Malastów, and we got there faster than the others because we were on foot. Well, we decided to spend the night in a little house because it was already dark. We were going to go to sleep and continue in the morning. We were tired, so we made a fire in the oven, baked some potatoes, boiled some milk from the cows, and went to bed. The clothes that we had on were all wet, so we put them on the oven to dry. By the time that our families and the rest of the group reached Malastów, it was around midnight. You see, it was difficult to travel because just before Malastów, at the base of Magura, the bridge had been blown up. People said that the partisans blew it up to prevent the Poles from relocating us."
"The Ukrainian partisans?" I interrupted.
"Yes. So, the road was destroyed and the brook was really hard to cross. The brook was so deep that you couldn't pull your things through it. Well, what could the people do? They had to help one another to carry their things, those cages and everything, from wagon to wagon. And it was midnight before they reached Malastów."
"In any case," said Mr. Boldys said, "the soldiers found us in the house where we were sleeping, broke the windows with their rifles, ran into the house, and began to hit us. We grabbed our clothes and whatever else we could, and we quickly led the cows out of the barn. The sheep didn't want to go out into the rain, but we forced them to.
"Well, when we came to the village of Ropica, the second bridge was destroyed and a lot of water was flowing because it had rained the whole week. We had to cross that water, but it was hard because there were also so many rocks. So, again, one person helped the other pull their things through the overflowed river. Finally, before dinner, we arrived in Zagórzany. It took us from before dinner one day to before dinner the following day to get to Zagórzany. There is this big enclosed park by the station in Zagórzany and they led us all there. Unfortunately, it continued to rain. It rained one night and then the next. We laid down in the wagon, but it rained so much that we got completely wet. There wasn't anything to cover ourselves with, but somehow we made do."
"Oh, and in Zagórzany," Mr. Boldys suddenly remembered, "there was a big building where they made soup for the people. When we arrived, the soldiers took me and a neighbor to carry water from the river to the building. The river was not very deep, but it was so dirty. The water was not fit for people to use because of the clay and everything that it had in it. But, we had to take the water and bring it to the building where they made soup out of it. I could have been hungry for a month and I would never have eaten that soup!"
Mr. Boldys and his family waited in Zagórzany for three days and three nights before being loaded onto the train. "We were lucky because we had a boxcar which was covered," he noted. "There were uncovered boxcars called 'coal-carriers,' and they also loaded people into these. We were lucky that it didn't rain on us."
The villagers from Konieczna were separated and placed into two different transports. Mr. Boldys shared his transport with villagers from Zdynia. They rode for approximately four days, surviving on whatever potatoes, bread, or other items they had brought with themselves.
Mr. Boldys' transport arrived in the western Polish city of Szprotawa at night. The next day, he and his family was sent to a farmstead approximately four kilometers from Szprotawa. However, they asked to be moved because of the non-stop noise created by the Russian military airport nearby, and, three days later, they were taken to live on a communal farm, called a "PGR" (Panstwowe Gospodarstwo Rolne).
Mr. Boldys explained, "The majority of our people were taken to a PGR to work on government property. They had no money. They had no food. But, then, after they worked for the PGR for a month or two, they had money with which to go to town to buy something to eat. Some people also went around the village looking for work. You see, there were already Poles who had lived there for two or three years, so some people went and helped them in the fields or during the harvest, and they were either paid or received food. At first, our Polish neighbors thought that we were very dangerous people because they were told that 'UPA bandits' were coming, but after they began talking to us and got to know us, we got along and lived well with them."
"And in what year did your family eventually decide to move back to the Lemko region?" I asked Mr. Boldys.
"1958," he answered. He explained that after 1956 he and his parents returned to Lemkivszczyna for a visit. During this time, the Pole who had moved into their old house told them that he was willing to sell their property back to them. The family decided to accept the Pole's offer, paying him for what had belonged to them before 1947. "Our house in the west was good," said Mr. Boldys, "except that we didn't have a barn and there was no where to keep the cattle. If we had had a place to keep the cattle, I don't know if we would have returned to Konieczna."
"Really?" I responded, surprised that the family would have hesitated to return to their native territory. I had been told by various Lemkos that, long after being relocated, many people did not bother to unpack or to settle into their houses in the west because they were convinced that their situation was temporary and that they would soon be able to go home.
Mr. Boldys responded, "Yes, because it was easier to live in the west. Here, the land is not as fertile. Also, the people here in Lemkivszczyna used to have more opportunities. They had forest land. They could get wood if they wanted to build a house or something. Even though we were allowed to return to our homeland, the government will not return any of our forest land back to us, you see."
Forest land had always been as valuable as gold to the Lemkos. Because the Lemko region had been one of the most remote and poor regions in Poland before World War II, with most villages lacking running water and electricity, wood from the forest was an important form of capital which could always be used for building or be sold to buy necessary items. After the Ukrainian population was removed from southeastern Poland, however, a decree was passed in 1949 stating that all of the land and property of the region which was not in private use would be henceforth transferred into state hands. The Ukrainians, having been relocated, thereby lost all of the rights to their former possessions.Upon their return after 1956, not only were many Lemkos denied restoration of their confiscated properties, but the purchase of the forest land which the state had acquired from them was completely prohibited. The face and make-up of Lemkivszczyna had been changed forever, as the Lemkos had no legal claim to the territory, including cemetaries and churches, which had once been theirs and as only a fraction of the original inhabitants which had been scattered throughout Poland were able to move back. "Are you saying that you regret coming back to Lemkivszczyna, though?" I finally said to Mr. Boldys. "No, I don't regret coming back," he stated. "I am not sorry that I left the west because there is a climate there which is not suited to the people of the mountains. Here, there is good water and a good climate." Turning his head towards the window and looking out at the rolling hills, Mr. Boldys said, "I'm happy that I am home again."
* * * *
Was there anyone else in Konieczna who had lived through Akcja "Wisla" and was old enough to remember it?, I asked Mr. Boldys.
He thought for a moment and then said, "There's Suchowacky, who lives not far down the road. He is ten years older than I am. He was born in 1922. I can take you to him, if you would like me to."
We headed down the one and only road that ran through Konieczna and, when we got to Mr. Suchowacky's house, Mr. Boldys let himself in and hollered, "Pane Suchowacky, I have a guest who would like to speak with you."
Mr. Suchowacky walked out of an adjoining room and grumbled a hello to us. Mr. Boldys explained to him that I was an American with Lemko roots who was writing about Akcja "Wisla," and that I was looking for people who could tell me about their experiences.
Mr. Suchowacky examined me for a second and then, with a gruff laugh, said, "Is it so bad in America that you have to come back here?" He was not particularly interested in talking to me about having been relocated or about his return to Lemkivszczyna, but he begrudgingly agreed and took a seat at the table by the window. "I don't know what good it is going to do to talk about this. It happened, we lived through it, and that's that," he said.
"But, what can you tell me about the day that you were forced to leave your house? What happened?" I began.
"You want to know what happened?" he said. "The Polish Army came to our house, told us to leave, and that was it."
"What did you take with you?" I tried again.
He sighed and said, "We packed everything into one wagon and had two or three cows. We only had one horse because the Germans had taken the rest of them. Besides that, we took some grain to make bread, the icons which you see here, some blankets . . . . People couldn't fit anymore than that."
"Did you have any idea where you were going?"
"Not at all! We didn't know anything."
I then tried to ask Mr. Suchowacky more about the journey from Konieczna to the Ziemie Odzyskane. Like Mr. Boldys, he mentioned the bridges which were destroyed and having to wade through the high water before finally reaching Zagórzany. "But, I don't remember much more than that," he finally said, and sat silent.
"What about the condition of your boxcar? When they loaded you all onto the train in Zagórzany, how many people were in your boxcar and what was it like?" I asked.
"In our wagon, there weren't many people because . . ." began Mr. Suchowacky before suddenly stopping. He then looked at Mr. Boldys, who had been sitting on one of the couches in the corner listening, and said, "I don't know if I should tell her this or not."
Mr. Boldys spoke up next and said that Mr. Suchowacky had had a sister who was crippled by the Polish Army.
"You see," said Mr. Suchowacky, "the Polish Army that was stationed here after the war hired young girls. My sister was seventeen years old and she was one of ten girls who worked for the Army base. They cleaned, washed the floors, peeled potatoes for the Army, and so on. Well, one day, she was cleaning and . . . what the Polish officer wanted from her, I don't know. I wasn't there, so I don't know. Whether he wanted to rape her or what, I don't know. But she told me that he said that if she didn't go with him, he'd shoot her. And that was what happened. He shot her in the hand and through her stomach, into her spine. We went to the doctor with her and he said that she would live, but that she would never stand again. We went with her to Slovakia to another doctor and he said the same thing, that she would live, but that she would never stand again. And, then, we went to Krakow with her and they said the same thing, that she would live, but that she would never stand again. So there weren't a lot of people in our boxcar because she needed room to lay down. Our cows were in a different boxcar, my sister was lying down, and our family was in the boxcar by ourselves. She never walked again. She eventually died in western Poland."
Mr. Suchowacky continued to speak to me for a bit about how, once they arrived in western Poland, his family was sent to work on a PGR in the village of Witków, near Szprotawa. He told me how they worked there for two years, along with about ten other Lemko families. However, then, Mr. Suchowacky again became tired of talking and explaining everything to me.
"Oh, it's a waste of breath to talk about all of this," he stated, laughing sarcastically to himself once again and shaking his head. "It's as good as spitting. It won't get me anywhere. You will go to the United States, but I will still be left here. True?" He rose from his chair by the table and walked over to the couch by Mr. Boldys.
There was silence and, after a moment, I asked, "But don't you want more people to know about what you lived through? You don't think that it's important for the younger generation to know?"
Mr. Suchowacky did not answer my questions. He simply looked at me and, with a serious expression on his face, said, "They wronged us, but why haven't they given us our forest land back? I came back here and I had to buy everything. I should have stayed in the west, where everything grew easily. But, I came back and I had to buy my house and my land. What kind of justice is that? And how are you going to help me? You can't. Will you give me back my forest? No. If you came to Poland and could get me the money that I paid for my field, that would be one thing. But you can't help me at all, so this is all trouble for nothing."
I saw that my talk with Mr. Suchowacky had basically reached its end. I thanked him for his time and began to leave with Mr. Boldys.
"There is no need to thank me," he said, once again laughing. "This won't help anything. Who is interested in this? Who will help me? No one."
Conclusion On May 21, 1997, the Presidents of Poland and Ukraine, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Leonid Kuchma, signed a joint declaration on agreement and reconciliation between their countries. The document declared that the two Presidents, "in an effort to overcome the complex legacy of the Polish-Ukrainian history and prevent shadows of the past from burdening the current friendly and partnership bonds between both countries and nations," acknowledge "the examples of genuine friendship and cooperation between the two nations," but do not ignore "the tragic threads" of their history. Among "the tragic threads" or, in other words, the antagonistic periods of the Polish-Ukrainian relationship, the declaration listed "Akcja Wisla." After signing the declaration, President Kuchma then declared, "Today there are no unsolved problems in Ukrainian-Polish relations." Mr. Suchowacky would probably not agree. He is among the remaining living victims of Akcja "Wisla" who feel that the Polish government committed an incredible injustice in 1947, but has not properly addresed those who suffered. To date, although the Polish Senate has condemned Akcja "Wisla," the larger body of the Polish Parliament (the Sejm) has not. This remains a point of contention for the Ukrainian community in Poland, which continues to wait and to call for this official statement. To his credit, President Kwasiniewki took another step in April 2002 towards acknowledging and overcoming historical barriers between Ukrainians and Poles, when he publically condemned Akcja "Wisla."He stated, "On behalf of the Polish Republic, I would like to express regret to all those who were wronged by [this operation] . . . . It was believed for years that 'Operation Vistula' was the revenge for the slaughter of Poles by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in the east in 1943-44. Such a reasoning is fallacious and ethically inadmissable."
While discussion between top government officials constitutes a start towards Polish-Ukrainian mutual understanding, it is the views of victims, such as Mr. Suchowacky, or Mrs. Kitczak, or Mr. Boldys, that must be listened to and taken into account if a true reconciliation between the two nations is to be reached. These are the people whose land was taken away or whose families were separated or whose communities were destroyed. Ukrainians like President Kuchma underwent a completely different experience in the post-war period than did the Ukrainians on the Polish side of the Carpathian mountains and, thus, do not identify strongly with Akcja "Wisla" or harbor the pain. Given that the Ukrainians in southeastern Poland suffered as they were resettled, these are the people on whom the Polish government needs to focus to truly improve Polish-Ukrainian relations.
Another measure on the part of the Polish government, which would help to heal the "bleeding wounds" of its Ukrainian minority, would be the return of former properties or monetary compensation for the victims of Akcja "Wisla." Such a precedent occured in October 2001, when Poland Supreme Administrative Court passed a landmark verdict that ethnic Lemko Stefan Hladyk be granted ownership of the property (11 hectares of land, including 7.55 hectares of forest) that was confiscated from his grandmother Maria by the Polish state in 1949. (Two years after Akcja "Wisla," the Polish government passed a decree nationalizing the properties that were left by those who were relocated, and Maria Hladyk's wooded territory fell under the control of a Polish state-run forest agency. ) This verdict not only recognizes the illegality of the confiscation of such properties, but also serves as a model for other Lemkos who wish to retrieve their territory and receive some acknowledgement of their past suffering.
It must also be stated, however, that the Ukrainians need to take certain steps as well in order to promote Polish-Ukrainian reconcilation. Heated arguments continue to exist between the two groups and particularly when discussions of Akcja "Wisla" begin, they are often followed by demands by the Polish community for official denunciations of the past behavior of Ukrainian nationalist groups. The Ukrainian community must be mature and willing to open up dialogue about such events and to acknowledge the atrocities which were committed by both sides.
Thus, regardless of official statements of Ukrainian and Polish leaders, the tragedies that occurred during the long history of Polish-Ukrainian conflict have not been forgotten by either nation. The Polish and Ukrainian leadership can take the lead and continue to promote the positive relations that have recently emerged between the two governments; however, as Presidents Kwasniewski and Kuchma attempt to strengthen the economic and political ties between their countries, they must be careful not to bury the historical problems before they are resolved to the satisfaction of the people. After decades of conflict and bloodshed, members of the Polish and Ukrainian communities still need to discuss the past and reach a sincere reconciliation. Only if the Polish and Ukrainian people learn from their tumultuous history, accepting the expression of each other's ideas and culture, will they be able to prevent the cycle of anger and violence from reemerging.