In a rural village with less than 500 inhabitants, foreigners stand out. Even Anna Osinska, a 93-year-old villager with failing eyesight, noticed when people she didn’t recognize — refugees from the war in Ukraine — started appearing on the narrow street outside her kitchen window.
A former refugee herself, Ms. Osinska felt compassion for the Ukrainians and was glad that her country was doing all it could to help them.
She also struggled with less benign emotions.
“Thank God, I don’t feel the need for revenge,” Ms. Osinska said, recalling how, in 1943, she fled her childhood home in former Polish lands in western Ukraine after Ukrainian nationalists attacked her family’s village, slaughtering the most of its 160. inhabitants.
The murders in Niemilia, the village where she was born but no longer exists, was part of terrible events that Ukraine calls the Volhynia Tragedy, but that Poland remembers as the Volhynia Genocide. In those ethnic pogroms by Ukrainian nationalists, more than 60,000 Poles, many of them women and children, were murdered.
Bound by a common hostility to Russia’s imperial ambitions and a determination to resist the military assault ordered by President Vladimir V. Putin, Poland and Ukraine also share painfully tangled pasts. The 1943 massacre has been a source of tension for decades, but it is now an episode of urgent import as Poland prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary on July 11.
Poland has come to power over Ukraine’s glorification of wartime nationalists responsible for the slaughter but, wary of giving comfort to Russia’s view of Ukraine as a hotbed of bloodthirsty fascists, it called for “reconciliation and forgiveness”, the theme of a service last week in Warsaw cathedral priests from Poland and Ukraine are present. On Sunday, President Andrzej Duda of Poland and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine visited a church in Lutsk, in western Ukraine, to remember the massacre. Mr. Duda’s office and Mr. Zelensky posted photos on Twitter of the ceremony, using the same language to pay tribute to the victims.
Ms. Osinska, who was resettled as a teenager after World War II in southwestern Poland, along with tens of thousands of other Polish refugees from Ukraine, grew up in a community traumatized by the massacres of 1943 and seething with hatred for Ukrainians.
She continues to resent “that they show no remorse” and has not forgotten the maddened cries of “kill the Poles, kill the Poles” that echoed around her home village when she was 13.
Accompanied in May by her son and elderly Poles who experienced the same trauma, she laid flowers on a marble monument inscribed with the words: “We will not forget our relatives murdered by Ukrainian nationalists” during the war “because they were Poles”.
While Ukrainians “did terrible things to us,” Ms. Osinska said during an interview in her kitchen in the village of Slupice, descendants “cannot be blamed for what their fathers and grandfathers did” and deserve help in their struggle against Russia.
“My views on Ukrainians,” she said, “slowly changed.”
Her change of heart, though limited by personal trauma, highlights how Russia has struggled to defeat Ukraine not only on the battlefield, but on one of its favorite and most advantageous battlefields – memory wars. This is a conflict that it is used to win because of the millions of Russians who died fighting against Nazi Germany.
Moscow began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 with an arsenal well stocked with history, much of it forged by Mr. Putin but some of it is true – including horrific reports of the Volhynia massacres carried out by followers of Stepan Bandera, the leader of a particularly brutal faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
Polish officials and historians have expressed frustration at what they see as Ukraine’s refusal to fully acknowledge and atone for the sins of nationalist activists loyal to Mr. Bandera, who was assassinated by Soviet agents in 1959. He is revered by many Ukrainians today as a national. hero – or happily celebrated as a harmless folkloric curiosity. He is insulted in Poland, and also in Russia, as a fascist and Nazi collaborator.
Lukasz Jasina, the spokesman for Poland’s foreign minister, told a Polish newspaper in May that while Mr Zelensky “has many other things on his mind”, Ukraine needed to apologize for the 1943 massacres, which he described as “thing”. so important that it must be addressed.”
Instead of an apology, Poland received a frightening rebuke from Ukraine’s ambassador in Warsaw, Vasyl Zvarych. In a post on Twitter, which he later deleted, the ambassador rejected what he called “unacceptable and unfortunate” demands, saying that Ukrainians “remember history and demand respect and balance in statements, especially in the difficult reality of genocidal Russian aggression. “
Despite these frictions over the past, Mr. Putin’s efforts to deploy history, or at least a highly selective version of it, to destroy Ukraine in the name of “denazification” have been undermined by rival and often stronger memories of Russia’s own. past actions
Ukrainian nationalists, said Damian Markowski, a Polish historian and author of “The Shadow of Volhynia,” a forthcoming book about the 1943 massacres, committed “terrible crimes” during World War II against Poles living in Ukraine, the scene of a bloody battle between Nazis. and Soviet soldiers.
But, Mr. Markowski added, the 1943 murders of Poles simply for being Polish was a crime already committed on a much larger scale by Moscow’s secret police, which initiated ethnic-based murder during Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 to 1938. , with a campaign of “total liquidation” targeting Poles falsely branded as spies. Some victims were selected from phone books by their first names. More than 120,000 Poles were killed.
Stalin’s killers then murdered more than 20,000 more Poles in 1940, dumping their bodies in Katyn forest, an atrocity that Moscow lied about for decades and only acknowledged in 1990.
Inspired by the Soviet and later Nazi examples of ethnic slaughter, Mr. Markowski said, Ukrainian nationalists in the 1940s “realized that it was possible to eliminate people of other nationalities.”
The effort to liberate Volhynia from ethnic Poles, which Ukrainian nationalists saw as an essential prerequisite for the establishment of an independent state, reached its climax on Sunday, July 11, 1943, when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army launched a coordinated attack on 90 Polish settlements. killing about 11,000 people in a single day. The day was chosen, according to Mr. Markowski, because “they knew that many people would be in the church.”
Ms. Osinska’s village was attacked a few weeks earlier, on May 27. She vividly remembers the moonlit night. Dogs suddenly started barking, and her father, fearing an attack by Ukrainian extremists after the murder and maiming of a friend a few days earlier, rushed the family into a nearby field for shelter.
She remembers tearing her dress as she crawled through the wheat – and neighbors screaming as the Ukrainians attacked. “They wanted to kill us all,” she said, “just because we were Polish.”
When she and her family returned briefly the next day, they found that the village had been burned down and was littered with the bodies of friends and relatives. “I remember an aunt, her head was split open with black insects crawling on her face,” she recalled.
With their home burned down and their village filled with marauding bands of Ukrainians and their Nazi German minions, Mrs. Osinska and her family fled on foot and then by train. They finally reached Warsaw when the war was coming to an end. From there, they were sent to former German territory around the southwestern city of Wroclaw that was given to Poland in compensation for lands it had lost in the east.
“We all longed to go back to Volhynia,” she said. “That was all we thought about for many years.” But her former home, purged of its remaining Polish inhabitants when it fell firmly under Moscow’s grip after the war as part of Soviet Ukraine, was out of reach.
Of her close relatives, only a nephew, Ryszard Marcinkowski, 74, returned. The leader of the Borderlands Association, a group of Poles interested in the vanished culture of lost lands in the east, he has visited western Ukraine many times since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to look after graves in his family’s former village of Niemilia and set up. crosses in memory of the dead.
Although raised by horror stories about Ukrainians told by his aunt and his parents, he traveled there again after the war started last year to show his support against Russia and deliver supplies.
“Living with hate,” he said, “is never healthy.”