PIOTR WŁOCZYK: Why the massacre in Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka deserves special place in the memory of Poles?
LEON POPEK: Because it was one of the greatest crimes during genocide of Poles in Volhynia. On 29-30 August 1943, UPA attacked all the villages in the Lubomelski County, where Poles lived. The banderivtsy [named in this way after their leader Stefan Bandera of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)] killed then approx. 2,500 people in more than 30 villages. Only in Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka, two adjacent, very closely related villages, ca. 1,050 Poles were murdered within a few hours only. In Ostrówki, at least 474 people were killed, and in Wola Ostrowiecka, at least 570 people, respectively. It means that the Ukrainians killed more or less 70 percent of the inhabitants of these villages. More than 100 whole families have been murdered…
Describing the massacre in Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka in detail, as well as finding and burying victims of that crime is not just a goal related to your career…
Yes, I do this work with a sense of duty towards the members of my family who were murdered by the banderivtsi. On 30 August 1943, during the attack on Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka, over 20 members of my family were killed, including Jan Szwed, my mother’s father.
It sounds unbelievable, but on the same day when my 22-years-old mom miraculously survived the massacre in Wola Ostrowiecka, my dad survived the destruction and extermination of his native village Gaj in Kowelski County. Both villages were separated from each other by about 100 km, and today actually no trace of them has been left. In Gaj, Nicholas Popek, my paternal grandfather, and his four daughters, or my aunts, were killed.
From an early age I have listened to stories about the massacre in Volhynia. My relatives who survived the slaughter, often asked the same question: “Why did they kill us? After all, we did nothing wrong to them.” Hence, the choice of historical studies at the Catholic University of Lublin was quite natural for me. While being a student of the university, in 1978, I started to collect testimonies of people who survived the Volhynian slaughter, being encouraged to do so by Professor George Kłoczowski. The stories were not easy to tell and listen, and often these conversations were accompanied by crying and pain. I explained to my interlocutors that the certificate of the past was a very important thing for history and the descendants. For over 30 years I have collected a total of over 2,500 narratives.
How poor were the relations between Poland and Ukraine in that area before the war?
They were not poor! I can even say that they were very good! There were no conflicts with the economic background, because the Poles in both villages were actually as poor as their Ukrainian neighbours from adjacent villages. There was no jealousy because there was nothing to be jealous about. Polish children went to school with Ukrainian children, they played together and together grazed cows. Ukrainians built houses for Poles, and Poles did the same for Ukrainians. The relations between these two nations were perfectly normal.
It is also worth noting that residents of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka had lived there for at least four centuries. They were not colonists who arrived in Volhynia after 1920 and deprived their Ukrainian neighbours of land. Residents of both villages spoke Masurian dialect, because a large portion of their ancestors came from that region. Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka were very closely connected to each other by family bonds, because marriages were concluded almost exclusively within these two villages. Maiden name of my mother is Szwed. In both villages, there were dozens of families having the surname Szwed. In addition, there were many families bearing the name Jesionek, Kuwałek, Trusiuk, Ulewicz. And to make it easier to distinguish people, everyone had his nickname there.
Did they try to protect themselves somehow against that annihilation? They must have been aware that sooner or later their villages would be attacked. Towards the end of August 1943 , almost the entire Volhynia witnessed Polish bloodbath…
People, despite dramatic reports did not believe that their villages could be attacked. Unfortunately, the local community was not well organized. In both villages, there were only a dozen or so young men belonging to the Home Army (AK), who had only a few firearms.
Already several months earlier, Ukrainians wanted to kill the population of Ostrówki with the hands of the Germans. They planted a mine on a bridge in that village just before the passing of a German column. The explosion killed several Germans. Ostrówki were to be burned in revenge. The Germans even started setting fire to the houses and killed several residents, but fortunately, one of the residents who knew German, had a gift of persuasion and explained somehow to the Germans that the mine was planted by the Ukrainians. In this way, Ostrówki was rescued.
How did the last hours before the attack of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) look like?
On 29 August, on Sunday afternoon, during worship in the church in Ostrówki, Father Stanislaw Dobrzański learned from the people from the AK units from Luboml and Jagodzin that Ukrainians were preparing an attack. The members of AK wanted to take the priest and hide him in a safe place. The priest said, however, that he would not leave his flock alone in the face of the gathering wolves, and he decided to organize self-defence. Women and children were to be transported in carts to Jagodzin where Germans and Hungarians stationed, and the men were to defend their villages.
Why this evacuation was not successful?
What they needed was a few more hours. In late August, the day was already short, and the people did not manage to prepare evacuation before the night. Dozens of people from Wola Ostrowiecka decided, however, to go to Jagodzin in spite of gathering dusk. They had to cross Ostrówki village because it was the only way towards Jagodzin. Unfortunately, residents of Ostrówki managed to persuade their neighbours to give up the idea of going there at night … Among those who wanted to get to Jagodzin were my aunt and uncle with her three small children. Miraculously, they survived the massacre. They told me afterwards about these dramatic hours.
Did the residents set guard at night?
Yes, men armed with farming tools kept watch on the outskirts of the village. However, the night passed peacefully. At dawn, the residents of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka began to come out from their hiding places. What they saw was the columns of smoke from the neighbouring villages inhabited by Poles …
In the morning, Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka were surrounded by a tight cordon – approximately 2,500 Ukrainians participated in that slaughter – most of whom were members of UPA, but some of them were just the Ukrainians from the surrounding villages. After the massacre, they also took part in the looting of property of the murdered. UPA forces were commanded by Ivan Kłymczak with a pseudonym „Łysy”. He was the author of a report describing that shocking crime. In the report, Kłymczak wrote: „I liquidated all Poles – from children to the elder. I burnt down all houses, and I took their assets and belongings for the needs of kuren [a military unit of the Ukrainian army]”.
How did the murder begin?
Ukrainians went from house to house and called their hosts for a “meeting”. They explained to some of them that the goal was to create a partisan unit, while the others heard that a joint Polish-Ukrainian army would be set up. After luring the heads of families, assailants entered houses and pulled out – also under the pretext of the meeting – the rest of the family members. Those who could not get out, for example, persons confined to bed, were killed on the spot. Only a few residents managed to hide somewhere in the house or on the farm and survived the slaughter.
First, the men were murdered. In both villages, the scenario was the same. It started with the young and strong. Men from Wola Ostrowiecka were led in groups of 10 people from the school courtyard, where they were gathered, to the barn on the farm owned by Antoni Strażyc at the opposite end of the village. They were told that they would be examined by a medical committee. The butchers ordered them to undress to their underwear and take off gold, watches, and weapons. Afterwards, the men were murdered with axes, maces, hammers used to kill the animals, and their bodies were thrown into a pit.
In 1978, I spoke to Władysław Soroka, who was escorted along with the other men from Wola Ostrowiecka to the barn. The Ukrainians killed his son, who was led before him, with an axe right in front of his eyes. Władysław Soroka had a stocky posture, and he previously served in the Polish Army as a blacksmith. People were laughing that even a horse could not break free from his iron grip. Soroka miraculously escaped Ukrainians and fled. He was not brought to the very place of execution so he was unable to say exactly how the people, who we found at the bottom of the death pit on the farm of Strażyc, were killed.
Professor Roman Mądro from the Department of Forensic Medicine at the Medical University of Lublin believes that the victims killed in that place were brought right to the pit, forced to lie face down on the ground and then killed with the farming tools, without firing a single shot. The pit we found was 12 m long, 2.5 m wide and 70 cm deep. Inside we discovered 243 skeletons, but not all of them belonged to men. On the top, we found women and children – the massacre of the women and children locked in the school began right after all men were killed. My grandfather Jan also died in that pit.
What happened then to your mother?
My mother Helena lived with her family at the very end of Wola Ostrowiecka in the so-called colony. Ukrainians did not manage to pull them out of the house on time. Originally, the brother of my mother named Julian was supposed to go to that “meeting”, but finally, his father, i.e., my grandfather went instead. The uncle saw from the attic how the Ukrainians were digging the death pit on the farm of Strażyc, but at that time, he was not able to imagine what it would be used for.
My mom, along with the rest of the family members, finally decided to run away from home. The grandma only took a cross from the wall, in case someone was to die. It happened so that at the time when my family rushed to flee the village, approximately 50-60 Germans approached the house in trucks and started to exchange fire with the Ukrainians. As a result of that fight, the ring around the village has loosened and my family managed to get out of that hell.
At that time, men in Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka were already dead. Women and children from Wola Ostrowiecka were locked in a school, which was then clad with sheaves and set on fire. Next, grenades were thrown inside, and those who managed to jump outside were instantly shot to death. About 250 people were killed in that school. In 2011, we found the remains of 79 people. They were never buried, and some of them were completely burned, and then, for years there has been a collective farm field in that place. Ploughs pulled out human bones from the earth and scattered them over the surface. For this reason, we found human remains as deep as 40 cm below the surface, and the number of found bones was so small.
However, the most horrible fate awaited women and children locked by the Ukrainians in a church in Ostrówki.
Here, we talk about 300 people. Ukrainians pulled those people out of the church and hid behind them, treating them as human shields in a fight against the Germans. Then, they rushed women and children outside the village. People who survived these Dantesque scenes, said later that in the face of death, women sang religious songs, and everybody apologized God for committed sins. Mothers were telling their children that in a moment they would see God, so they should not be afraid of death. We also know that earlier, the men behaved similarly in the face of death – they fell to their knees, and sang the song “Cordial Mother” … I don’t say it to beautify the death of residents of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka. It is how the last moments of these people actually looked like according to testimonies of those who survived the annihilation of both villages.
Near the cemetery, about 20 elderly women separated from that group of 300 women and children from the church in Ostrówki driven by the members of the Ukrainian military units. They just wanted to die on the consecrated ground … The rest of the victims was escorted 4 kilometres away from Wola Ostrowiecka, to a field located close to an Ukrainian village named Sokół. One of the women asked to spare the life of their children. The commander of the slaughterers from UPA said, however, that all Poles had to die for having lived for so many years on the Ukrainian ground.
Hell was unleashed – bayonet sticking, headshots with guns stuck to the heads of victims. Corpses lay in the field for 10 days. Wild animals scattered human remains. Finally, being afraid of an epidemic, UPA ordered the residents of Sokół to bury the corpses. I spoke to a man whose mother buried the victims of the crime; the man indeed is still alive. He told me that when throwing people down to the pit, braids of the murdered women broke off together with the skin from the skull. He said that he had never seen such a number of birds as in that place. Later, he was afraid to go there. Ukrainians called the place a “cadaverous field”.
How many people survived that massacre?
A dozen or so. These were the people who the Ukrainians did not manage to kill or finish off because of being in a hurry. Alexander Pradun, who was 14-years-old at that time, was one of the survivors. The man died last year. According to his story, first, Ukrainian military units killed his aunt, then her children, and finally his mother. When it was his turn, the ball went past his head. Alexander Pradun did not even have a scratch but he pretended to be dead.
How did your team manage to find the burial site of those victims?
We have been looking for this place for a very long time. Finally, using a metal detector we came across dozens of bullet scales. In this way, we tracked down the death pit. In 2011, we conducted the exhumation of at least 231 people on the cadaverous field. Unfortunately, virtually no bones of small children were preserved. After some victims, only a kind of “negative” reflected on the sand has remained… We are still looking for the victims of that crime. Last year, in Ostrówki we found a death pit in which 33 bodies were buried – 22 men, six children and five women. We keep on searching for the rest of the bodies, as we still have to find the remains of approximately 380 people.
Have any remains of these villages preserved until today?
In fact, the only trace is the cemetery in Ostrówki, which served both villages. It was almost totally devastated, but in the recent years we have put it in order. At the cemetery, there is a memorial, which bears the inscription: “In memory of the residents of Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka, who died on 30 August 1943. May they rest in peace. The Government of the Republic of Poland. Compatriots “. Unfortunately, that was all what we managed to do. There was also an eagle with a crown, but someone has removed it. In the original design of the monument, there were also two plates: on the left side, 570 victims from Wola Ostrowiecka were to be mentioned by name, and on the right side 474 victims from Ostrówki. This concept was, however, blocked by the Ukrainians.
Another reminder of those people was a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary, which stood in front of the church in Ostrówki. For several decades, it has lain smashed in a ditch. In the early 1990s, Ukrainians put it back together. The Holy Mother is standing there today without one hand, without her head, with pieces of the statue broken off. It’s a very symbolic view.
How do you recollect the reactions of the Ukrainians, when you started to visit these areas and look for the victims of that crime?
I first went there in 1990. In general, I have very good memories of contacts with the Ukrainians. None of it would happen – three exhumations, saving the cemetery, the annual pilgrimages, if not for the kindness of the local people. These people came to say farewell to their neighbours, it was a very moving sight. It had to be like this before the war. Nobody forced them to come there, they appeared voluntarily at the funerals on the cemetery, where we relocated the remains of the victims of that crime. Every year, a local Orthodox priest participates in the liturgy. Local authorities have also helped us a lot. I personally guided tours of the Ukrainian students in the cemetery and told them about that difficult history. Unfortunately, along with the growth of the UPA’s cult in Ukraine, this positive attitude begins to change slightly. You can see that some people have become afraid of supporting us in commemorating the victims of those crimes.
Where are we now as far as the actual commemoration of the victims of the slaughter in Volhynia is concerned?
Almost 25 years have passed since the collapse of the Eastern bloc, but we are still at the beginning of this path. Ostrówki and Wola Ostrowiecka are two exceptions because in fact, during the last quarter of the century, few crosses could be raised in places where victims of the Volhynia massacre died. 95 percent of the murdered Poles in approximately 2,000 villages and towns in Volhynia have never been properly buried and commemorated with a cross. We are talking about approximately 60,000 victims from Volhynia itself, but we cannot forget that Poles were also murdered in the Eastern Lesser Poland, and precisely in: Stanisławowskie, Lwowskie and Tarnopolskie provinces. We are talking about several thousands of death pits where the remains of our compatriots were buried. It is a great challenge for the Polish state. We owe it to the victims.
Dr. Leon Popek Ph.D works for the Lublin branch of the Institute of the National Remembrance (IPN), He is the author of the book „Ostrówki. Wołyńskie ludobójstwo” [„Ostrówki. Genocide in Volhynia”].
This interview was published in “Do Rzeczy” magazine in 2016.