“In total, we are talking about 120 to 150 thousand victims of the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, murdered in about four thousand localities. Meanwhile, over the course of thirty years of search and exhumation, we have found some 800 victims…” – says dr Leon Popek, a historian from the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) searching for the remains of the victims of massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, in today’s western Ukraine and southeastern Poland.
PIOTR WŁOCZYK: How many death pits with Polish victims of Ukrainian nationalists have been found so far?
LEON POPEK: Unfortunately, very few. In total, we are talking about just over a dozen uncovered death pits. We found nine in Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka, where one of the largest massacres of the Polish population took place during the Volhynia extermination. One pit has been discovered in Gaj, and several in Poryck. That’s all.
How many such death pits are there in total?
There are no definite statistics, but estimates provide an understanding of the scale of the task ahead. In total, we can talk of about 10,000 death pits into which our compatriots were thrown by their murderers. These people are still waiting for a dignified burial.
This means that, despite 80 years having passed since the Volhynia massacres, the Polish state has not yet truly begun to look for the victims of that genocide…
That is true. There are localities where the murderers dug one large mass death pit, but there are also places such as Kąty in the district of Luboml (Liuboml) where the murdered were thrown into wells or burning houses. Every farm there is itself a death pit.
The task before us is gigantic, because the scale of the genocide there was also enormous. In Volhynia, some 60,000 Poles were murdered in some 2,500 villages. The wave of crimes then moved to eastern Lesser Poland, i.e. the provinces of Lwów (Lviv), Stanisławów and Tarnopol (Ternopil). But Poles also perished at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists in Polesia and in lands now within Poland’s borders – in the provinces of Tomaszów, Chełm and Przemyśl. In total, we are talking about 120 to 150 thousand victims of the massacres of Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia, murdered in about four thousand localities. Meanwhile, over the course of thirty years of search and exhumation, we have found some 800 victims…
Of the 60,000 Poles murdered in Volhynia, fewer than 3,000 had a Christian burial. These were exceptional situations when a family was able to bury loved ones and the funeral was attended by a priest. That is, only five percent of the Volhynia victims have had a dignified burial… Currently, in only 200 of the attacked localities are there any signs of the commemoration of Polish victims. However, these are not always located where the murdered lie. Sometimes they are symbolic crosses by the side of a road near a village that was irretrievably destroyed and has no trace left.
You have, however, managed to bury members of your family who were murdered by Ukrainian nationalists.
Yes, in a mass grave in Ostrówki, where we discovered the skeletons of 243 people, mostly men, I found the cross of my grandfather Jan Szwed. When my mother saw that small cross, she immediately confirmed with certainty that it belonged to her father. And in 2011, we managed to find a death pit in the so-called Corpse Field, where my aunt and her little sons, Bolesław and Janek, were most likely buried. It was a gruesome crime. Only days later did the UPA order the corpses to be buried. Human remains were dispersed by animals, and then for years plows spread the bones of the murdered across the field. After the war, there was first a kolkhoz field there, and then a forest was planted. The remains of the murdered that we found were in very poor condition, with practically nothing left of the youngest children, except for silhouettes reflected, like negatives, in the sand. When trying to extract these childlike shapes, they crumbled before our eyes…
A very unpleasant situation then occurred. The Ukrainian side accused the Polish researchers of breaking bones to increase the number of victims… And yet, as I have already mentioned, the bones of the victims from the “Corpse Field” were in a very bad condition and we pulled them broken from the ground. Unfortunately, these were not unique situations. We heard more than once from Ukrainian historians and journalists we encountered along the way that there couldn’t have been that many victims, or that the Soviet NKVD, not the Ukrainian UPA, was responsible. There were even claims that Poles had unnecessarily settled there…
How many more Polish victims from Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka are waiting to be exhumed?
We are still looking for 380 murdered people. So far, three exhumations have unearthed 680 people from the death pits there. We still have about 30 sites to search that have been mentioned by witnesses. In Edward Balanda’s forge alone there may be about 25 victims.
Why does the extermination in Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka deserve a special place in the memory of Poles?
Because it was one of the worst crimes during the genocide of Poles in Volhynia. On August 29–30, 1943, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) attacked all villages in Luboml district where Poles lived. At the time, the Banderites killed some 2,500 people in more than 30 villages. In Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka alone, two neighboring villages with very close ties, some 1,050 Poles were slaughtered in just a few hours. At least 474 people were murdered in Ostrówki and at least 570 in Wola Ostrowiecka. The Ukrainians thus exterminated about 70 percent of the inhabitants of these villages. More than 100 families were slaughtered in their entirety…
For you, as we have already mentioned, giving an accurate account of the extermination of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka, as well as finding and burying the victims of those crimes, is not only a professional goal…
That is true. I do this work out of a sense of duty to my family members who were murdered by the Banderites. On August 30, 1943, during the attack on Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka, more than 20 people from my family were murdered, including my grandfather on my mother’s side, Jan Szwed.
It sounds unbelievable, but on the same day that my 22-year-old mother miraculously survived the Wola Ostrowiecka massacre, my father survived the annihilation of his home village of Gaj in the Kowel (Kovel) district. The two villages were about 100 kilometers apart, and today there is no trace left of them. My grandfather on my father’s side, Mikołaj Popek, was killed in Gaj alongside his four daughters, my aunts.
From an early age, I listened to stories about the Volhynia extermination. My relatives who survived the slaughter often asked the same question: “Why were they killing us? We had not done them any wrong.” So it was only natural for me to choose to study history at the Catholic University of Lublin. While still at the university, in 1978, at the urging of Professor Jerzy Kloczowski, I began to collect accounts of people who had survived the Volhynia massacres. These were not easy stories, and often these conversations were accompanied by crying and pain. However, I explained to my interlocutors that these testimonies are something very important for history and posterity.
How bad, then, were Polish–Ukrainian relations in that area before the war?
They were not bad at all! I would even say that they were very good! There were no economic conflicts, as the Poles in those two villages were actually as poor as their Ukrainian neighbors in the surrounding villages. There was no envy, because there was nothing to envy. Polish children went to school with Ukrainian children; they played and grazed cows together. Ukrainians built houses for Poles, and Poles for Ukrainians. Relations between the two peoples were completely normal.
It is also worth noting that the inhabitants of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka had been there for at least four centuries. These were not colonists who might have come to Volhynia after 1920 and could, therefore, have been perceived by their Ukrainian neighbors as depriving them of their land.
Residents of both villages spoke the Masurian dialect, as many of their ancestors originated from Masuria, in today’s northeastern Poland. Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka were very interconnected family-wise, as people married almost exclusively within the two villages. My mother’s maiden name is Szwed. There were dozens of families with the name Szwed in both localities. There were also a very large number with the names Jesionek, Kuwałek, Trusiuk, and Ulewicz. To make it easier to distinguish between people, everyone there had a nickname.
By the end of August 1943, almost all of Volhynia was already dripping with the blood of Poles. Did the residents of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka try to protect themselves from extermination somehow? Surely, they must have realized that sooner or later their villages would be attacked.
Despite the dramatic-sounding reports, people did not believe there could be an attack on their own villages. Unfortunately, local residents were not well organized. In both villages there were only about a dozen young men belonging to the Polish Home Army, the AK, and they only had a few firearms.
The Ukrainians had already tried to have Ostrówki annihilated by the Germans a few months earlier. They planted a mine on the bridge in the village just before a German column was to pass. Several Germans were killed in the explosion. Ostrówki was to be burned down in retaliation. The Germans even began to burn some houses and killed several locals, but luckily enough, one of the locals knew German and had a gift for persuasion. He somehow explained to the Germans that it was the Ukrainians who had planted the mine. In that way, Ostrówki was saved.
What did the last hours before the UPA attack look like?
On Sunday afternoon, August 29, during a service at the church in Ostrówki, Father Stanisław Dobrzański learned from AK people from Luboml and Jagodzin that the Ukrainians were preparing to attack. The AK men wanted to transport the priest to safety, but the clergyman said he would not leave his sheep alone in the face of the gathering wolves. The priest then decided to organize self-defense. The women and children were to be taken in wagons to Jagodzin, where the Germans and Hungarians were stationed, and the men were to defend their villages.
Why did nothing come of this evacuation?
For lack of a few more hours. By the end of August, the day was already short, and there was no time to prepare an evacuation before dusk. However, several dozen people from Wola Ostrowiecka decided to go to Jagodzin despite the dusk. They had to pass through Ostrówki, as it lay on the only road towards Jagodzin. Unfortunately, the residents of Ostrówki managed to persuade their neighbors not to go further at night…
Among those who wanted to get to Jagodzin were my aunt and uncle with three small children. They miraculously survived the annihilation of their village and later told me about those dramatic hours.
Did locals put up guards for the night?
Yes, men armed with farm tools kept vigil on the outskirts of the village. The night, however, passed peacefully. At dawn, the residents of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka began to emerge from their hiding places. They could see columns of smoke over neighboring villages inhabited by Poles….
In the morning, Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka found themselves surrounded by a tight cordon. About 2,500 Ukrainians took part in the slaughter. Most of them were UPA members, but some were Ukrainians from neighboring villages. After the slaughter, the latter took part in looting of the property of the murdered.
The UPA forces were commanded by Ivan Klymchak, pseudonym “Baldy.” He was the author of the report documenting the crime. Klymchak wrote: “I liquidated all Poles from young to old. I burned down all the buildings. Property and the modest belongings were taken for the use of the kurin [UPA unit].”
How did the murder begin?
The Ukrainians went from house to house and called the men out for a “meeting.” To some, they explained that it was about creating a partisan division, while to others they said that a joint Polish–Ukrainian army was to be established. After luring out the heads of the families, the attackers would enter the houses and drag the rest of the household out, also under the pretext of a meeting. Those who could not leave their home, such as bedridden people, were killed on the spot. Only a few locals managed to hide somewhere in a house or farm and survive the carnage.
Men were murdered first. In both villages, the scenario was identical. They started with the young and strong. The men from Wola Ostrowiecka were led in groups of ten from the school yard, where they were first gathered, to a barn on the farm of Antoni Strażyc at the other end of the village. It was explained to them that they were going for a medical examination. There, the executioners ordered them to strip down to their underwear and hand over their gold, watches, and weapons. They were then murdered with axes, clubs, and hammers used for animal slaughter, and their bodies were thrown into a pit.
In 1978, I spoke to Władysław Soroka, who was led to that barn with other men from Wola Ostrowiecka. Before his eyes, the Ukrainians killed his son, who was being led before him, with an ax blow. Władysław Soroka was stocky and had previously served in the Polish army as a blacksmith. People would joke that a horse had no chance of escaping his iron grip. Soroka, by some miracle, broke away from the Ukrainians and escaped. He was not led over to the execution site itself, so he was unable to say exactly how the people we found in the death pit at the Strażyc farm were killed.
Professor Roman Mądro of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Medical University of Lublin believes that the victims who were exterminated at that site were led to a pit and forced to lie face down on the ground, and only then were they killed with farm tools, without a single shot being fired.
The pit we found was 12 meters long, 2.5 meters wide and 70 cm deep. We discovered 243 skeletons there, but not all of them belonged to men. We found children and women on the top: after the men had been killed, the Ukrainians went on to murder the women and children locked in the school. My grandfather Jan also lay in that pit.
What was happening with your mother at that time?
My mother Helena lived with her family at the very end of Wola Ostrowiecka. The Ukrainians did not manage to get them out of the house in time. Initially, my mother’s brother Julian was supposed to go to the “meeting,” but eventually his father, that is, my grandfather, went. My uncle saw from the attic of the house how the Ukrainians were digging the death pit on the Strażyc farm, although at the time he could not imagine what it would be used for.
Mom, along with the rest of the household, finally decided to flee from the house. Grandma just took a cross from the wall in case someone was going to die. It so happened that at the moment my family began to flee, some 50–60 Germans drove up to the village and there was an exchange of fire with the Ukrainians. As a result of the fighting, the ring around the village loosened and my family managed to get out of that hell.
By that time, the men in Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka had already been slaughtered. The women and children of Wola Ostrowiecka, meanwhile, were confined to the school, which was then surrounded with sheaves and set on fire. Grenades were thrown inside, and those who managed to jump outside were shot at. About 250 people were killed at the school. In 2011, we found the remains of 79 people there. They were never buried, some were completely burned, and then for years there was a kolkhoz field there. Plows would pull the bones to the top, which is why we discovered human remains only 40 cm below the surface, and why there was such a small number of bones found.
What remains of those villages today?
The only trace left is the cemetery in Ostrówki, which served both villages. It was greatly devastated, but over the past few years we have managed to restore it to order.
A monument has been erected in the cemetery with an inscription: “To the memory of the residents of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka who perished on August 30, 1943. May they rest in peace. The government of Poland. Their compatriots.”
Unfortunately, that’s all we were able to obtain. There was also a crowned eagle, but someone has removed it. In the original design, there were also plaques: on the left side were to be listed by name the 570 murdered from Wola Ostrowiecka, and on the right the 474 victims from Ostrówki. This, however, was blocked by the Ukrainian side.
Leon Popek, Ph.D., is a historian, deputy director of the Institute of National Remembrance’s Office for Commemorating the Struggle and Martyrdom, and author of many works on the Volhynian massacres, including “Ostrówki. Wołyńskie ludobójstwo” (Ostrówki. A Volhynian Genocide). For more than 30 years he has been searching for the remains of victims of the genocide committed against Poles by Ukrainian nationalists.
This article was published in June 2023 in “Historia Do Rzeczy” magazine.