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Ethnic Cleansing in Volhynia

Image: Nursery school, Wilno, 1920s

Between the two world wars the region of Volhynia was under Polish administration but in fact ethnically Ukrainian. After World War I, when Poland regained independence, the Polish government strongly supported the idea of an independent Ukraine (Ukrainian People's Republic). At the end of the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921, under the Peace of Riga, overt Polish support for Ukraine's independence was ruled out. Poland initially promised local autonomy to her newly acquired and predominantly Ukrainian-populated territories. However with the rise of Polish nationalism, Polish policy reversed; the Ukrainian language and culture were suppressed. Between 100,000 and 300,000 Polish colonists were settled in these predominantly Ukrainian lands, and Poles were appointed to virtually all posts (including local police). Orthodox churches were destroyed or forcibly transformed into Roman Catholic ones (as opposed to Ukrainian Catholic). Ukrainian libraries were burned down by Polish mobs who went unpunished by the Polish police. Local Polish youths were organized into armed paramilitary militias, further terrorising the Ukrainian population under the pretext of maintaining law and order. Few civilians were actually killed.

In September 1939, following the outbreak of World War II and in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was occupied in the west by Nazi Germany and in the east by the Soviet Union. Volhynia fell within the Soviet zone of occupation. Within two years, in June 1941, with Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union, Volhynia was occupied by Nazi Germany. Each change of ruler brought upheavals and arrests. Local Ukrainians formed resistance groups that grew into a full-fledged guerrilla army.

In February 1944 in coordinated and widespread actions, local elements of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) [1] attacked the Polish minority population, killing many, in an effort to drive the Poles out of Volhynia. Two delegates of the Polish Government-in-Exile, J. Z. Rumel and K. Markiewicz, together with a group of representatives from the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa), attempted to negotiate with UIA leaders. They were found murdered on 8 July 1943. On 11 July, a series of massacres began, with many reports of UIA units marching from village to village, killing Polish civilians. The massacres lasted five days. UIA units continued the ethnic cleansing, particularly in rural areas, until most Poles had been deported, killed or expelled. After 1944, the scale of such actions was limited.


1. Ukrayinska Povstanska Armia, a Ukrainian nationalist partisan organization during and after World War II. Also referred to as Ukrainian Insurgent Army, UIA.

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