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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

“Unification through hard memories. Volhynia, 1943”

Ukrainian and Polish youth gather recollections of the tragedy witnesses
9 October, 2012 - 00:00

Genre of oral history is one of the most important tools of historical cognition, since it gives an opportunity to concretize and define certain scientific statements by looking at the problem from the witnesses’ point of view. Researchers can rise above the well-established general truths and see the macro processes on the level of the fate of a certain individual by documenting evidence of direct witnesses of events.

This summer, on the initiative of “Panorama Kultur” and “Brama Grodzka – Teatr NN,” the two Polish organizations that have experience in realization of historical and cultural projects on the territory of Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, one of the most contradictive and complicated pages of Ukrainian and Polish history, Volhynian tragedy of 1943, was reviewed. Despite the good relations that let the two countries be optimistic about their common future, events in Volhynia still need to be re-interpreted on the level of public thought (and especially, historiography). Collective and individual traumas that were caused to both nations 69 years ago need to be healed.

A large-scale project “Unification through hard memories. Volhynia, 1943” was carried out thanks to joint Ukrainian and Polish efforts aimed at the speeding up of the healing processes. Its main goal was the documentary affirmation of the fact that Ukrainians and Polish in Volhynia did not fight only, but cooperated, helped and saved each other during the World War II. Therefore, the main part of the project in a form of discovery and registering of the facts of oral history was carried out by about two dozens of volunteers from the two countries. They went through theoretical training in May and June in Lublin, where they deepened their understanding of the preconditions and circumstances of the conflict, and then spent more than two weeks traveling through Volhynian villages and talking to elderly people who witnessed those events. As a result of this field work, an extensive collection of audio and video records of memories was created. As soon as these materials are processed, they will be posted on the project’s website and published. Besides, project masterminds plan to release a corresponding film.

Besides the organizations mentioned above, the project was also greatly assisted by the Polish Consulate General in Lutsk. And from Ukrainian side, Lesia Ukrainka Volyn National University was the main partner of the project; various NGOs and individual activists provided substantial help as well.

The Day talked to coordinators and volunteers of the event about the details of the project and its meaning for Polish and Ukrainian societies.

Leonid SAMOFALOV, project volunteer, historian, public figure (Donetsk):

“It should be mentioned that the practical part of the project was preceded by a theoretical training of the volunteers, aimed to give them a better understanding of the events of the mid-1940s in Volhynia, connections between them, and consequences of those events. Unfortunately, I could not take part in this conference due to my working schedule. However, I think that the main point of our field research was not to base ourselves upon thoughts and conclusions given by the books. Our task was to talk to eyewitnesses directly. Often researchers suffer from the generalization problem, they look at events on a very large scale, without concretization. Instead, we observed a striking difference between the villages in Volyn and Rivne oblasts, for example. This difference was not purely geographical, but it was also a difference in lifestyles and the population’s attitude towards the problem. Polish diaspora’s living conditions differed too. Because in some villages they used to live from the remotest times, for 300 or even 500 years, while the first Polish people to move to the other villages were colonists in the 1920s. And besides being treated as outsiders by the locals, the latter did not consider those lands to be their homeland. The attitude towards UPA differed as well. That is why the problem should be studied in detail, because generalization is the easiest way a researcher can choose.”

What did you remember the most from recollections gathered by your group?

“We went to a large number of villages, talked to people who were direct witnesses of those tragic events. At that time, they were seven years old, some were 10 or 12. The oldest person I got a chance to talk to was born in 1920. They told us what the conflicts started with, how Ukrainians and Polish were getting along before the war, what were the relationships between them during the conflict. There were a lot of interesting stories. When you listen to such things, you understand how complicated life can be. Some stories resembled dramatic plots of soap operas, you would never believe such things could happen in real life.

“If you speak of specific stories, I remembered one we heard during a conference in Volodymyr-Volynsky. The man, who told this, was of a wealthy Ukrainian family, which was hiding a family of Jews, two adults and two children during the war (from fall 1942 to summer 1944). And also, at approximately the same time, they gave shelter to two Ukrainians who escaped from German captivity. Besides, they were frequented by Ukrainian insurgents, since, as I have mentioned above, the family was rich and it could provide them with food. So, constantly, during a year and a half, somebody was hiding in their homestead. They built a dugout in their yard and installed electricity there. But it was interesting that the father of this boy (he was a boy at that time) was recruited to the Soviet Army; he was severely wounded during the last months of the war, came back home only in December 1945, and was arrested for helping Bandera followers almost immediately. When he was questioned in the prison, he said: “How come you arrested me? I fought for Soviet government and was hiding a Jewish family at my house.” This information was verified, and after the Jewish family confirmed his words, he was released. It was interesting that the Jewish family later secreted a wounded Ukrainian insurgent, perhaps, it was a way to thank the fate for their salvation. So, that is how the destinies were intertwined.”

Aleksandra ZINCZUK, initiator and coordinator of the project (Brama Grodzka, Poland):

“Perhaps, not everyone has yet come to the realization that this project is exceptional and unique. Its idea is very simple, but the implementation required much work (two years ago, I already tried to carry out this project, addressed various specialists and institutions, but there always were some excuses). But in the end, very simple decisions determined the successful realization of this task: firstly, Polish and Ukrainians got down to it together, and secondly, young generation met the last witnesses. In this way, through the very meeting of the youth with the elderly, a symbolic dialog on the intercultural and intergenerational levels occurred.

“The next important moment was that it was the Polish side who invited Ukrainians to participate in the project, though, according to the statistics data and facts, Polish were hurt more. For the Polish, it was always a painful matter that cast a shadow on their relations with Ukrainians. That is why, if we want to achieve genuine understanding, we need to talk about things that hurt both sides (like requital actions, Operation Vistula, etc.). But we also need to concentrate on good, positive things, especially on the courage of civilian residents, who helped each other on both sides: warned the other side in case of danger, or even provided shelter. By emphasizing such acts of bravery (because Ukrainians were also killed by Ukrainians for helping Polish), we truly immortalize the history of both nations and victims of the both sides, express solidarity of the nations that still existed, despite hard times and circumstances of the war.

“The time we live in, dooms the fight for truth to non-existence, or to swift oblivion in the best case. Let us leave the ascertainment of the number of victims to historians and scientists. And if there is only one story of help for each thousand of victims, we want to remember this story. Thanks to the data collected in Volhynia, we learned that both sides constantly helped each other, and dwellers of almost every village told that before the war, Polish and Ukrainians lived in harmony and helped each other during the war. We, the young people, who cannot remember these events, have an alternative left: an opportunity to fight for good. That is my personal vision of this project: a fight for common good of Poland and Ukraine, and also a fight for the need of memory.”

By Serhii STUKANOV, Donetsk