Personal memoir: My family in the Polish-Ukrainian borderlands killing zone

During “Operation Vistula,” Ukrainians were expelled from their homes, being allowed to take minimal belongings. 

History, Ukraine

Article by: Andrew Fesiak

“This is the first time the memoirs of my father, mother and family have been put to paper and I took this step not to seek vengeance or out of anger but to honour my relatives who died at that time. My father’s family suffered from repeated Polish attacks in 1945-1946 when he saw his parents killed in front of him. My mother’s family were deported to Soviet Ukraine and covertly returned to communist Poland only to be ethnically cleansed in 1947 to former German, now Polish “Recovered Territories.” Meanwhile, my uncles ended up in the notorious Auschwitz and Buchenwald Nazi concentration camps,” Andrew Fesiak, researcher.

My Family History in Context

In 1944-1947, the entire region along the current Polish-Ukrainian border known as the Zakerzone (lands beyond the Curzon line), from the Biesczady mountains in south-eastern Poland to Przemyśl and the Chełm and Podlachie region east of Lublin and bordering north western Ukraine, was in turmoil. Retreating Nazi’s created a vacuum into which the arrival of Soviet and Polish communist forces imposed new administrations. In 1944-1946, the communist authorities deported Ukrainians to Soviet Ukraine and Poles in Soviet Ukraine to the new communist Polish People’s Republic. Poles from Lviv came to live in the former German city of Breslau (henceforth Wrocław).

Besides Soviet and Polish communist forces, there were other combatants in this region. These included the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) which began to be created in the region quite late in 1944 and together with OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) numbered between 3-4,000, Polish partisan groups AK (Home Army), NSZ (National Armed Forces) and Peasant Battalions. In many cases, Polish and Ukrainian civilians participated in massacres throughout the eastern borderlands for the purposes of revenge or with the promise of booty. Sadly, this was true in my family’s case as well.

Stephen Rapawy writes that Polish forces “inflicted horrendous casualties on Ukrainians.” The worst atrocities were committed in 1945 by AK in Pawlokoma (365 Ukrainians), National Military Organization (NOW) in Piskorowice (358), Wierchowina (197, including 65 children under the age of 11), Dobra and Dibcha. Rafael Lemkin, author of the term “genocide” based his then new concept on Nazi massacres in 1942 in the Czech village of Liditse and Polish-Soviet communist crimes in 1946 in the Ukrainian village of Zavadka. Polish units (AK, nationalist and communist) reported “UPA bandit losses” far in excess of UPA forces in Zakerzone meaning many of those who were killed had to have been civilians.

In Volhynia (now Volyn and Rivne oblasts) the Polish minority was at a disadvantage and suffered disproportionately from killings by Ukrainian nationalists. But, in the Zakerzone it was the other way around. Ukrainian, North American and some Polish historians provide estimates of the large number of Ukrainians murdered in the Zakerzone with smaller numbers of Poles killed. Timothy Snyder estimates 6,000-7, 000 Ukrainian and 1,000 Polish civilians in Zakerzone and 4,000 Ukrainian civilians in Kholm-Pidlachia were killed, or a total of 10-11,000 Ukrainian civilians killed along the current Polish-Ukrainian borderlands. My family members were among them.

The Zakerzone region became a major killing zone which engulfed my father and mother and their families. Ukrainian peasants looked to the UPA for protection and, in some cases, even to Soviet soldiers to protect them from Polish partisan groups. In many cases the Ukrainian villagers had socialist leanings, their identity was not Ukrainian but regional (i.e. Rusyn, Lemko, etc.,) and some were even Russophile; nevertheless, they felt they had no choice but to seek protection from UPA.

That Ukrainian villagers had close ties to the UPA could be seen by the tenacity of the fighting in 1945-1946 and the inability of Polish communist forces to defeat Ukrainian nationalist partisans – despite the overwhelming odds in favour of Polish communist forces against UPA and OUN. Ukrainians still living in the Zakerzone were those not included in the 482,000 the Soviet authorities had deported in 1944-1946 to Soviet Ukraine. My mother, Anna Geletka, an Orthodox Lemko from the village of Radocyna on the Polish-Slovak border, had been deported to Kirovohrad in Soviet Ukraine but with a famine raging they opted to return to communist Poland.

A map showing the Polish regions to where the Ukrainian population was deported to

Unluckily for them, they were included in spring 1947 in Akcja Wisła (Operation Vistula) when 150,000 Ukrainians, Lemkos and mixed families were ethnically cleansed and scattered throughout the “Recovered Territories.” My mother’s family were given a severely damaged former German family’s home in the village of Urzuty south of Zielona Gora. Snyder writes that “Operation Wisła was the single bloodiest action of the Polish communist regime against its own citizens.”

The Massacres

The Polish-language entry in Wikipedia on Zadzierski („Wołyniak”) says on April 18, 1945 his unit, “pacified the Ukrainian village of Piskorowice, during which the Wołyniak unit murdered over one hundred Ukrainian people who stayed in the local school. Among the victims were also women and children. They were also killed in the village and fields above the San River.” Photo: odeszli-pamietamy.pl

Travelling through this region I have found graves of villagers who died in 1944-1946 but rarely is it stated how. Sadly, there are no monuments to them. In my father’s village of Dobra, which is located 6 km east of Sieniawa and 20 km directly north of Jaroslaw, I noticed how there were no reasons listed on the gravestones as to why and by whom these civilian victims were killed. The gravestones only state very general reasons, such as the victims died an “innocent death”, “tragic death”, or were “murdered”.

My father heard that the main leader of the Polish attackers against his and surrounding villages was Józef Zadzierski („Wołyniak”), the subject of the book Wołyniak, legenda prawdziwa published by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. He was a member of NOW, the military arm of the inter-war National Party (SN) loyal to the National Democratic Endecja. The SN nationalist political force did not view Ukrainians as a bona fide nation and planned their assimilation by dividing them into regional groups (i.e. Hutsuls, Lemkos, Boyky, Rusyny, etc.,). NOW and SN recognised the Polish government in exile. In 1942-1943, NOW split with one wing joining the AK and the other forming the NSZ (National Armed Forces) which remained loyal to the National Democratic Endecja. The latter were especially brutal in their killing of Ukrainian civilians.

The Polish-language entry in Wikipedia on Zadzierski („Wołyniak”) says on April 18, 1945 his unit, “pacified the Ukrainian village of Piskorowice, during which the Wołyniak unit murdered over one hundred Ukrainian people who stayed in the local school. Among the victims were also women and children. They were also killed in the village and fields above the San River.” The Ukrainian villagers could not defend themselves because there was no UPA units in the area and Piskorowice did not have a self-defense unit. The action was allegedly in retaliation for an earlier UPA attack and was described as a “terrorist-cleansing action’.”

Further “pacifications” by Zadzierski („Wołyniak”) were carried out against Dobra, Wołczaste, and Rudka during which many more Ukrainian villagers were murdered. On January 19, 1946, Zadzierski („Wołyniak”) led an attack on the village of Dobra, my father’s village, during which they murdered 33 Ukrainians aged from 1 to 72 years. A further “pacification” took place on May 18, 1946, when Polish villagers in Majdan Sieniawski encouraged Zadzierski („Wołyniak”) to launch a “pacification” of the village of Dobcza during which 18 Ukrainians aged 13 to 68 years were murdered.

Massacres in Dobra, Dobcza, Wiązownica and Piskorowice

The village of Dobra was included in the Soviet Ukraine after the September 1939 Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland. Dobra was located right on the border between the USSR and Nazi Germany and had a joint Nazi-Soviet border post at the end of the village. Following the war, the village was returned to communist Poland. The majority of the population (about 300 families) of the village were ethnic Ukrainians though there were four Jewish and five Polish families. There was one Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the village, which the Polish families also attended. The Jews of Dobra were murdered by the Nazis.

Though interethnic relations in the village had always been good, this did not save Dobra from being attacked by Polish nationalists. According to inscriptions from the villages’ cemetery, the first such massacre took place on March 3, 1945, when at least 5 villagers were killed. On April 10, 1945, another 5 people were killed followed by a much larger massacre on April 12 when 30 villagers were massacred.

On an early Sunday evening at the end of June 1945, the village was attacked again by Polish units. Suspiciously, the Polish families of Dobra had been warned and moved out of the village on the previous day. My father, Mykhaylo Fesiak, who was then 12-years-old, was an eyewitness, to the attack on Dobra by about 300 Polish nationalists from either the Radwan or Wolyniak partisan groups. Many houses in the village were burnt down and about 10 people were shot. The house of my grandparents, Oleh and Agafia Fesiak, was set on fire while my disabled great-grandmother was still in the house. As she tried to move outside, part of the house collapsed on her and she sustained massive burns to her body and head. She lived another two days in terrible pain before dying (her grave, like that of many others, was later desecrated by Poles to such a point that it is no longer evident where she was buried).

My grandmother, Agafia, tried to release the cows and pigs from their pen so as to save them but was shot by the Poles. When my father found his mother’s corpse, part of her head had been shot off.

Mykhailo and his father (Oleh Fesiak) had managed to flee about 300 meters away from the house but his father was shot by Polish bullets. As he fell to the ground, he cried his son’s name. Mykhailo was in front of his father and managed to hide in the wheat field that he had run into while bullets whizzed over his head. He crawled on his hands and knees through the field until he entered a ravine which then lead him to a forest where most of the villagers had been hiding from the attack.

Mykhailo’s uncle who lived in the neighbouring village of Dibcha (Dobcza in Polish) was informed of the massacre and found young Mykhailo in the forest with the other villagers the following day. Mykhailo lived in Dibcha with his uncle and aunt until the Poles attacked the village in May 1946. My father had been tending to the cows in the field when he was approached by a few hundred Poles. They asked him who lived in the village and was then taken hostage by a Polish father and his son who were members of the attacking group. The father told his son to watch Mykhailo as the other Poles started to head towards the village; however, the son left Mykhailo unattended and followed the other Poles. This allowed my father to escape (a second time). 25 Ukrainian villagers were massacred that day, including my father’s uncle, Ivan Fedak.

The village of Dobra, however, suffered more attacks. On July 22, 1945, a further 26 people were killed and on January 19, 1946 another 28 people were brutally tortured and massacred. The ages of those killed and massacred ranged from one years old to 72 years of age. Twenty of the victims were women and two were boys aged 4 and 6.

Three other members of our family were persecuted by the Nazi’s. My two uncles, Dmytro and Kyrylo, were sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald respectively. Dmytro died in Auschwitz at the age of 19. He only lasted for one month. Kyrylo survived and, after marrying Jadwiga, a Polish lady who he met in Buchenwald after the camp was liberated by the British, they emigrated first to the UK and then to Canada.

In March 1942, Maria Kudlak, my father’s aunt, was sent at the age of only seventeen by the Nazi’s to Ortmannsdorf, Germany (10 km southwest of Chemnitz) where she worked as a slave labourer on a farm until July 1945. At some point after this, she returned to Dobra during the period of repeated massacres by Polish nationalists. Whilst returning to her village, she was apprehended by a Polish villager (or nationalist partisan, it remains unclear) who threatened to kill her, but she was saved because she told him that she recognized him as the husband of a friend.

He did not recognize her, but she pleaded with him not to kill her and convinced him to take her to his wife to verify who she was. Luckily, his wife recognized her, and her life was spared. However, they told her to flee the village and never come back and to burn all of her documents which could prove who she was – and especially that she was a Ukrainian. She did just that. But because she destroyed her documents, it was difficult for her to prove that she had been a forced slave labourer in Nazi Germany and was never compensated by the German government. Included among the Ukrainians deported to Soviet Ukraine in 1944-1946, she lived a very poor life and passed away a couple of years ago in Mykolayiv oblast in southern Ukraine.

My father heard of further massacres of Ukrainians in neighbouring villages. Neighbouring villages. In March-April 1946, 26 Ukrainian families, including one medical doctor, were murdered by a Polish nationalist group nearby the church in the village of Wiązownica. The son of the doctor escaped and informed the UPA of what happened. About 300 UPA partisans arrived and in retaliation killed 78 Poles and wounded the Roman Catholic priest. They then destroyed the Polish Roman Catholic church.

In May 1945, in Piskorowice, 38 Soviet soldiers were guarding a large group of Ukrainians at a school who were supposed to be deported to Soviet Ukraine in two days’ time. A 400-strong Polish partisan group attacked the Ukrainians and murdered 1,300 of them and the Soviet soldiers. The number of those murdered could be inflated, as my father was not a witness and heard this second-hand, but the massacre certainly took place. What is baffling is that nobody heard of the Soviet authorities retaliating against Polish nationalist groups or Polish villagers for killing the Soviet soldiers.

Conclusion

Listening to these memoirs by my parents and visiting these villages is not easy. My father’s life in Communist Poland must have been horrendous; he even had to serve in the Polish army. Nevertheless, there is a happy ending. My father and mother emigrated separately to Canada in the late 1950s and mid 1960s where they married in 1967 and brought up their family of three children in Ajax, Ontario. There they were active members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and their children citizens of Canada – and yes, Poland.

Andrew Fesiak. Photo: the author’s private archive

Andrew Fesiak is an independent researcher specialising in the security and international affairs of the countries of Ukraine, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He is also the International Director and co-owner of Final Cut Media. Born in Canada, Andrew has been living for the last two decades in Ukraine.
Since you’re here – we have a favor to ask. Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine is ongoing, but major news agencies have gone away. But we’re here to stay, and will keep on providing quality, independent, open-access information on Ukrainian reforms, Russia’s hybrid war, human rights violations, political prisoners, Ukrainian history, and more. We are a non-profit, don’t have any political sponsors, and never will. If you like what you see, please help keep us online with a donation!

Tags: , ,