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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Operation Wisla: the Bloody River of Memory

21 May, 2002 - 00:00


This broad and eventually tragic resettlement was carried out by the USSR leadership and the then pro- Communist government of Poland. As Polish-Ukrainian resettlements also occurred in 1944-1946, before Operation Wisla it would seem worthwhile to dwell at least briefly on the history of the question.

In the winter of 1943-1944, the Polish underground, mainly the Armia Krajowa (AK), seized these territories. All patriotically-minded Ukrainians and their families were subjected to physical terror. The rest of the population was forced to declare unconditional loyalty. In the summer of 1944, Nikita Khrushchev tried to have Pidliashshia, Kholmshchyna and Nadsiannia annexed by the Ukrainian SSR. The Kremlin rejected these proposals and offered, instead, a strategy of its own. On Stalin’s approval, the Ukrainian SSR government and the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PCNL) concluded on September 9, 1944 in Lublin an agreement to evacuate the Ukrainian population from the territory of Poland and the Polish citizens from the Ukrainian SSR. The document was signed by Nikita Khrushchev, Chairman of the Ukrainian SSR Council of People’s Commissars, on behalf of the Ukrainian SSR government and J. Osubka-Morawski, PCNL Chairman, on behalf of his committee.

The agreement set out that all Ukrainians residing in Chelm, Grubesz, Tomasz, Lubacziw, Jaroslav, Przemysl, Leskow, Zamostiew, Krasnostaw, Bilgoraj, and Wlodaw districts were to be resettled to the Ukrainian SSR. This document also allowed the resettlement of Ukrainians living in other areas and desiring to move from Poland to Ukraine, as well as evacuation to Poland of all Poles and Jews who had been Polish citizens before September 17, 1939, lived in the Ukrainian SSR, and wished to move to the territory of Poland. The agreement announced that the resettlement was voluntary.

The first transports of Ukrainians arrived from Poland in the Ukrainian SSR in early November 1944, while the first transports of Poles came from the Ukrainian SSR territory to Poland in December of the same year. As the winter came, the number of those wishing to move dropped considerably on both sides. The main reason was that both the Ukrainian and Polish populations were not exactly enraptured over the Lublin Agreement. This is why the authorities had to repeatedly revise and postpone the resettlement campaign deadline and finally, in the late summer and early fall of 1945, to resort exclusively to coercive methods. The whole resettlement operation had been threatened by mid- 1945: only 22,123 Ukrainians, fewer than 50% of the target figure, had been expelled from Poland by September 3, 1945.

On July 6, 1945, the USSR Government and the Provisional Government of National Unity of the Polish Republic signed an agreement in Moscow, whereby the Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian population living outside the territories specified by the agreement of September 9, 1944, were subject to evacuation from Polish territory to the USSR. A year later it was decided to resettle to Poland not only the Polish population of western Ukrainian regions but also former Polish citizens who had come to Ukraine from eastern Russian regions in conformity with the USSR Council of People’s Commissars resolutions of April 5 and July 11, 1944.


On May 7, 1947, the governments of Poland and the Ukrainian SSR officially announced that the resettlement was over. The announcement noted, among other things, “Now that the evacuation campaign is over the two governments consider that the evacuation of Polish citizens from the Ukrainian SSR and of the Ukrainian population from Poland is a factor important for both sides because it serves the cause of further strengthening the friendship, mutual understanding, and cooperation between our fraternal peoples.”

Naturally, that was pompous rhetoric. To what extent the accomplished action really served the cause of strengthening friendship, mutual understanding, and cooperation between the Ukrainians and the Poles is manifested by the reaction to the resettlement by the Ukrainian and Polish anticommunist underground, namely, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN-UPA) on the one side, and the Armia Krajowa (AK), Narodowe Sily Zbrojne (NSZ), Freedom and Independence (WiN), and National Military Association (NWO) on the other. The two armed anticommunist underground groupings acted on the territory of both the Ukrainian SSR and Poland. The Polish military organizations offered stiff resistance to the resettlement campaign on Ukrainian territory, while UPA experienced the same on Polish land.

The resistance of the Poles to resettlement at the end of 1944 through the first six months of 1945 was caused especially by their unwillingness to abandon areas they had long inhabited and the hope Western Ukraine might again become part of Poland. At first, the local underground AK shared the view of the Lublin Government, responsible for evacuating the Polish population from the Ukrainian SSR, that the deadline should be postponed. Among other things that caused resistance to the evacuation were the coercive methods the NKVD and NKGB (People’s Commissariat for State Security — Ed.) employed to transport Poles from Western Ukraine to Poland.

After the Soviet Union and Poland had signed a border treaty on August 16, 1945, and the Stalinist regime accordingly tightened the resettlement procedure, the Polish armed underground lessened its resistance. AK underground units had in fact ceased to exist in Western Ukraine by the end of 1945, although documents show that arrests of Polish underground fighters continued well into 1946.

The signing of the Soviet-Polish state border treaty had an entirely different effect on the way OUN- UPA resisted the resettlement. What greatly intensified this resistance was the coercive mass expulsion of Ukrainians from Poland to the Ukrainian SSR begun by the official Polish Army (Wojsko Polskie) in September 1945. I will emphasize that this resistance was not conceived overnight nor did it arise from the personal wishes of OUN- UPA leaders. The point is that the leaders of what was then People’s Poland allowed police and certain armed groups of the Polish civilian population to “stimulate” the resettlement of Ukrainians to the USSR. “In the beginning,” Polish historian Z. Kowalewski noted, “resettlement to the USSR was in a way voluntary. Those who were going were unpatriotic (“Muscophile”) and procommunist elements. However, very soon Ukrainian peasants were forced to emigrate by means of brutal terror.”

It is this situation that actually forced UPA leaders to take the Ukrainian population under their protection. In late March 1945 the OUN supreme command singled out Zakerzonia as a separate administrative area to be governed by Y. Starukh (Stiah), with V. Halas (Orlan) serving as his deputy, P. Fedoriv (Dalnych) as Security Service (SB) chief, and M. Onyshkevych (Orest) as UPA commander. Among the best known UPA commanders were Y. Kotselka (Krylach), P. Mykolenko (Baida), M. Duda (Hromenko), R. Hrubelsky (Brodych), V. Shyshkanets (Bir), and V. Shchyhelsky (Burlaka).

UPA was unfolding its actions in Zakerzonia just when the Polish communist regime began to repress its political adversaries, i.e., anticommunist and anti-Russian figures and organizations. In particular, the authorities began to persecute AK fighters, which in turn prompted the formation of an AK-led underground organization Freedom and Independence (WiN). This situation gave the Polish and Ukrainian anticommunist forces a chance to forge an alliance. In June 1945 the Polish underground leadership sent the Zakerzonia OUN a letter saying, “...We are not going to discuss today who is to blame for our being in the opposite camps... We must forget it today... We call on you to join and join forces with us for the common struggle.” Yet, the two anticommunist underground groups failed to reach a full-fledged accord. The Polish underground and UPA only managed to achieve a kind of mutual understanding at the unit level in Pidliashshia, RzeszЧw, and southeastern Lublin region. These contacts were never confirmed at the highest level, which in fact brought about bloody excesses in the confrontation between Polish and Ukrainian underground forces.

UPA actions encouraged the Polish authorities to be cruel to potential “nationalists,” a label that could now be attached to the residents of almost any Ukrainian village. This triggered a new bitter Polish-Ukrainian confrontation. Considering Lemkivshchyna, Nadsiania, Kholmshchyna, and Pidliashshia — all officially part of the Polish state — as Ukrainian ethnic territory from time immemorial, UPA came out in defense of the rights and life of the local Ukrainian original population. First of all, its detachments began to destroy resettlement commissions and Polish military servicemen as well as burn down the villages now free of Ukrainians and full of newly resettled Poles (UPA documents refer to these as formerly Ukrainian villages). The Moscow-sponsored Polish authorities took, of course, a diametrically opposed stand, considering their own violence as quite a logical step against UPA’s “bandit actions.”

However, all the measures taken by Polish and Soviet punitive bodies and regular troops against UPA failed to yield the results expected in 1945-1946. After suffering several defeats, UPA units would regain strength, supported and helped by the sympathetic rural population. Even the involvement of troops in the resettlement operation failed to deport all the Ukrainians. Approximate data indicate that about 200,000 ethnic Ukrainians still resided in Poland’s eastern territories at the end of 1946. This meant for the government that the Ukrainian problem was not solved.


What set the final solution in motion was the January 1947 governmental order that the military departments of southeastern districts draw up lists of Ukrainian families that had not resettled in 1944-1946. A month later, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Stefan Mossor, offered a plan to evacuate the Ukrainians to the western lands — the so-called “zeme odziskane” (regained lands), i.e., Southern Prussia and Silesia — which, under a Potsdam Conference decision, Germany had ceded to Poland. It is on these lands that the Ukrainians were to be assimilated with the Poles.

Who was the true author of the resettlement plan announced by S. Mossor? A tendency has been discernible lately to put most of the blame on the Kremlin, describing the Poles as just the implementers of its will. For example, Ryszard Torzecki from the Institute of History, Polish Academy of Sciences, claims in one of his publications that the decision to launch Operation Wisla was made in Moscow in February 1947, with the operation having been drawn up — on the instructions of Lavrenty Beriya and Georgi Malenkov — by none other than People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR Savchenko. After this, in March 1947, a relevant decision was made by the Polish Workers’ Party Politburo and still later, on April 12, by the Public Security Committee of the Polish Republic. See how smooth everything is: the Kremlin is to blame, and the Ukrainians also had a finger in the pie, contributing to the deportation of their compatriots... Unfortunately, Torzecki cites not a single document to confirm his version of the Moscow origins of the operation. However, this version, if accepted, would essentially change previous viewpoints about what in fact caused the Polish state to resort to anti-Ukrainian activities. For instance, this would mean that the assassination of Polish Vice Minister of Defense General Karol Swierczewski on March 28, 1947 by UPA soldiers was not of such crucial importance to the unfolding of Operation R. as hitherto believed. Moreover, word has it that certain circles in the Polish leadership deliberately leaked to UPA information about the route of the general who had discredited himself with his behavior and was thus chosen to be sacrificed, and UPA insurgents only made good use of the leaked information. This means still more efforts should be made to finally establish the causes of the action.

Operation Wisla was conducted by five infantry divisions, one Internal Security Corps division, and three additional — infantry, motorized, and combat-engineer — regiments, i.e., a total seven divisions. The troops were assisted by Milicja Obywatelska (Civil Police) and Security Department Voluntary Reserves. This action involved a total 20,000 Polish soldiers, excluding local police and border security units. Overall control was exercised by General Stefan Mossor.

The Soviet command relocated one armored division and some special purpose anti-guerrilla units from Lviv oblast and sealed the Ukrainian-Polish border with border security troops. The Czechs assigned a special operative group and supplied the Polish units with badly- needed transport. Consider how a Polish army document described the situation on the territory where Operational Group (OG) Wisla was deployed, “The operational area is inhabited by a mixed Polish-Ukrainian population, with the Ukrainians having a larger percentage in the eastern and southeastern areas of this territory. The Poles, who live in a remote frontier area far away from cultural centers, are of low political awareness and have in addition been intimidated by the terror of the Ukrainian fascist bands. The predominantly hostile Ukrainian population takes active part in the actions of or cooperates with the bands; the bands enjoy great prestige among the Ukrainian population... In the Ukrainian understanding, UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) bands are fighting for the so-called ‘independent Ukraine.’ The Ukrainian populace replenishes the bands with manpower and supplies, cooperates with them during their operations, carries out reconnaissance on a broad scale by means of a highly developed network of civilian informers, etc.”

Thus the Polish authorities regarded almost every Ukrainian as an UPA adherent, a “nationalist.” This freed the hands of Polish soldiers. Peasants had only 2-3 hours to pack up, were kept for a long time at transshipment points, and given, as a rule, the worst land in their new places of residence. Neighbors also usually assumed a hostile attitude toward the deportees, considering and calling them Ukrainian bandits. The resettlement depopulated Bezkydy district and destroyed the Polish-Ukrainian frontier culture. As early as April 1947 the Polish Workers’ Party Politburo decided to set up a prison camp in Jawoszno to intimidate the recalcitrant. There were 3870 inmates in the camp, including 700 women and 27 Greek Catholic and Orthodox priests. While the camp existed from May 1947 until January 1949, it claimed the lives of over 160 prisoners.

Operation Wisla formally ended in July 1947. Yet, the resettlement continued in August, September, and even October. Some individuals, temporarily detained or separated from their families, would arrive at their new place of residence as late as in January 1948. The last group of evacuees consisted of 32 families resettled between January and April 1950 from Nowy Torg district to Szczecin wojewЧdztwa. These were mainly mixed families that had been denied permission to stay in the border region.

Let us now turn to the military aspect of the Wisla Action. While there are ample reasons to consider UPA an army without a state, this operation also made it an army without any prospects in Zakerzonia. To quote the Wisla Operational Group (OG) Headquarters’ order No. 0011 of July 22, 1947, “what formed the nucleus and the most combat-ready part of the UPA bands were the Baida and Rena regiments consisting of the Burlaka, Krylach, Lastivka, Hromenko, Bir, Khrin, Stakh and Roman companies. These forest-covered and very effective companies consisted of the most zealous commanders and bandits who had the largest number of murders, arsons, and robberies on their conscience. Both regiments have been fully routed, losing 80% of their combatants. The remnants have infiltrated in small groups into the territory of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, where they are being finally liquidated by the allied troops.” From April until July 1947, the OG carried out 357 combat actions, killed 1509 insurgents, and destroyed 1178 bunkers and hideouts. Simultaneously, Polish authorities arrested almost 2800 OUN- UPA civilian agents in Zakerzonia.

One can add to this that deportation of the Ukrainian population deprived UPA of the main goal of its armed struggle in Zakerzonia, i.e., armed protection of this population. This is why UPA Commander-in- Chief Roman Shukhevych (Taras Chuprynka) issued an order to cease fighting in there.


On August 3, 1990, the Senate of the Republic of Poland passed a special resolution containing the political and moral appraisal of the Wisla Action as one typical of totalitarian regimes. Everything seems to be clear. However, as a popular movie character once noted, “clarity is one of the forms of a thick fog.” If everything is clear, then why what I call “political local studies” are still rife? The Poles collect name-by- name information about the victims of “Ukrainian bandits,” while the Ukrainians do the same about those killed by “Polish chauvinists.” It is easy to guess that at some stage the quantity of this information will turn into quality, and both sides can raise claims against the other.

I do not think this is a constructive road, and we should make reciprocal efforts to put the record straight. Obviously, the Kremlin did have a finger in the preparation of the action. But it was not the Kremlin, let alone Peoples’ Commissar Savchenko (fully subordinated to the Kremlin), that created the situation in which Poland’s Ukrainians found themselves in 1947. Indeed, Stalin announced at the Potsdam Conference that Poland should be a state without ethnic minorities, but was it really a new line for Poland? This line had been consistently followed since the times of Jozef Pilsudski (incidentally, a much-venerated figure in today’s Poland, with two monuments in Warsaw). Can we also forget the Pacification carried out by the Pilsudski leadership in the fall of 1930? At that time, the Polish government applied the principle of collective responsibility to the Ukrainians, which the new regime only repeated in 1947.

Clearly, this line called forth the resistance, of which the OUN- UPA activity was the living embodiment. Of course, as an historian, I do not at all idealize or “embellish” the activities of these units. Still, consider that in early 1947, about 2000 UPA fighters faced in Zakerzonia 20,000 Polish soldiers from the Wisla OG. It is quite obvious that they could have overpowered the Ukrainian insurgents even without this terrible deportation of the peaceful inhabitants. They could have if they had wished to, but their strategy was different. In reality, the point was the de-Ukrainization of Poland. And we must say this frankly. And instead of digging up grudges against each other, we must admit those things without which we will not be able to reach the historical truth or build a true mutual understanding between our peoples.

By Yury SHAPOVAL, Professor, Ph.D. in history