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Ethnic Conflict in the Polish-Ukrainian Borderlands
By Waldemar Lotnik, Julian Preece
Serif BooksCopyright © 2013 Waldemar Lotnik and Julian Preece
All rights reserved.
Caught in the Middle
ON MAKING OUT THE SOUND OF engines, a German armoured column rumbling its way to the River Bug, we waited, spellbound, until the tanks loomed into sight. I dived for cover, sure that they would start shooting.
'They're not interested in you, you ninny!' my aunt shouted with a confidence which hardly seemed appropriate. But she was right and we went home that evening as though we had seen nothing unusual. It was not until the next day that we heard the heavy, regular thud of artillery, repulsed on this occasion by the Poles.
War had been on everyone's lips all through the summer of '39, but no one had an inkling of what war would turn out to mean. Because I would do anything to avoid sitting in lessons, the prospect sounded exciting. It tasted of adventure and escape, while the uncertainty did not make me feel afraid. Towards the end of August my mother telephoned my father at his army base in Kremenets, perched close to the border with the Soviet Union deep in the Polish part of the Ukraine, and asked if we should risk returning. Under no circumstances, came the reply: the base had been put on red alert.
In the year before the secret pact between Poland's two mighty neighbours, Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, ended Poland's brief interlude of independence, collections for national defence at school had heralded the impending conflict. Jewish boys gave enormous sums: they knew what was already happening in Germany. My mother handed me ten zlotys, by any reckoning a large amount of money, and when I asked her why the Jewish boys had donated far more, she just said that in times of adversity we faced common enemies and had no choice but to stick together. As the danger increased by the day, it was Hitler rather than Stalin we feared, even though the Soviets sat right on our doorstep.
Two and a half weeks after the German invasion, the Soviets crossed Poland's eastern border on 17 September, ready to claim the spoils they had been promised. The Polish army proved easy prey. Demoralised by failure elsewhere, co-ordinated resistance all but ceased once the enemy had advanced little more than 30 miles. Only independent battalions continued the fight, but the Soviets still suffered casualties running into tens of thousands before their share of Polish territory became incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. My father's unit in far-away Kremenets surrendered after enemy tanks had encircled the garrison town. While most of his comrades were marched into captivity, he escaped, hiding with Polish families until the invaders had moved further west. As an officer who had served in Pilsudski's legions, they would doubtless have shot him at Katyn had he not slipped away.
Our attitude was fatalistic, self-preservation our priority, but in fact we suffered no untoward hardship over the next few months. The real terror, finally unleashed after Germany turned on Russia in 1941, began slowly for most civilian, non-Jewish Poles. Uncertainty proved to be our principal foe, a demon which gnawed at us and refused to go away. What was happening to my father? Where were my uncles, Kasimir, Joseph, Anthony and Stanislaw? Had my schoolfriends back in Kremenets found safety?
Uncle Stanislaw, the most dissolute of my mother's five brothers, was also trapped in the Soviet zone. We did not see either him or my father until late in the autumn, by which time Poland was well and truly beaten, the Germans there to stay and the Soviets entrenched east of the River Bug. My father's main fear had apparently not been death but that he would end up with a red star rather than a cross over his grave. My cousin Peter, a would-be flying ace who had given me a spin in his machine two summers previously, was the only member of the family to escape abroad and fight with the Free Poles. He flew his plane to Hungary in the hope of reaching France or England, but the Hungarians confiscated it and made him carry on under his own steam. A year later he was flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain before ending up in a German POW camp. Those of us who stayed behind had a harder time of it.
Hrubieszow, the nearest town to my maternal grandfather's farm, which stood between the Ukrainian village of Modryn and its twin Polish settlement of Modryniec and where I had spent the first seven years of my life with my grandparents and five uncles, did not fall without a fight, however. In Modryn itself the whole village watched a Soviet cavalry unit gallop in formation across the crest of a hill only to flee in panic when two Poles, positioned on a narrow bridge with a machine gun, took them by surprise and sprayed them with fire. Just two soldiers and one gun! If that was all the mighty Red Army was capable of, then we reckoned that against the Soviets alone we could have more than held our own, as had happened when they invaded under Trotsky in the Russo-Polish War of 1919-21. But two days later the Russians returned in greater numbers and captured the two soldiers.
As far as fighting was concerned, that - for the time being - was that. Hrubieszow, on the western bank of the Bug 150 miles south-east of Lublin, lay directly on the new border between the Soviet and German zones of occupation and there was confusion over which pieces of territory had been handed to whom. We were invaded first by the Germans, then occupied by the Soviets and finally handed back again to the Germans, all within the space of a fortnight.
The Soviets made a ramshackle army. While they had far more heavy weaponry than the Poles, their strength, as throughout Russian history, lay in sheer numbers rather than discipline or equipment. Recruited from the vast peasantry, their soldiers had been born into hardship. They could survive two or three weeks in the field with the rations they carried with them, mainly large quantities of unpalatable black bread. While each possessed his own wooden spoon and container for collecting rations of gruel, they had no change of clothes in their knapsacks. Instead of socks they wrapped long, filthy rags around their feet, which made their whole bodies stink of cheap industrial boot polish.
One of the dozen Soviet soldiers billeted at our farm held hushed conversations with my grandfather. He confided that most of his family had perished in the famines of the 1930s during Stalin's notorious 'reorganisation of the countryside'. This man had volunteered for that most pressing reason of self-interest: survival. He seemed much older than the others, who were mainly fresh-faced boys, and as we had language and much else in common, it was not always easy to see him, or indeed the others, as an enemy.
All my ancestors come from the eastern part of Poland annexed by the Russians after the great partition at the end of the eighteenth century, when Prussia, Austria and Russia chopped up Poland to share it out among themselves. Before the First World War my grandfather had served in the Imperial Guard in Saint Petersburg. On his bedroom wall hung a large portrait of Nicolas II flanked by his personal Cossacks. My grandfather stood in his sumptuous uniform in the second row, staring intently at the camera.
Most of my family had always spoken Russian, some fluently, and had been educated in Russian, though like most Poles they resented Russian rule and preferred to speak Polish among themselves. If they had attended school, they also knew German. As a boy I learnt three languages in addition to my native Polish: Ukrainian, which I learnt at school, as well as Russian and Byelorussian. I was taught two alphabets, the Roman (for Polish) and the Cyrillic (for Russian), and knew the rituals of the Catholics, the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic Orthodox (or Greek Catholics as we called them), as well as those of the Jews.
What I knew about the Germans I gained from first-hand experience during summer vacation tours of Poland. My school sent us on trips to visit Poland's historic sites, taking us through German settlements, mainly in the west, which always appeared far superior to the Polish, Ukrainian or Czech settlements through which we passed. In Krakow we filed past the embalmed bodies of the Polish kings and listened to the horn-blower at St Mary's Church, who still sounded his horn four times an hour, facing towards each point of the compass in turn. The original horn-blower in the Middle Ages had warned the people of advancing Mongol armies. An arrow had pierced his neck as he gave his third blast.
It was not until I was seven that I was taken from my grandparents' farm to join my parents in Kremenets, just three miles from Bolshevik Russia. These are Ukrainian territories, roiling plains of wheat, marshland and woods broken up by hilly outcrops, which belonged to Poland between the two world wars after Marshal Pilsudski, the Polish national hero, had pushed back the frontiers in 1920. He had seized his moment when the military giants of Russia and Germany both lay exhausted and captured land which the Soviets did not take back until 1945. Perhaps he thereby sowed the seeds of the future Polish-Ukrainian tragedy, as he succeeded while the Ukrainians under Petlura failed. The short-lived Free Ukraine was choked in the revolutionary battles between the Reds and the Whites, then crushed by Trotsky's armies, as most of the Ukraine was turned into a Soviet republic. Instead of helping his Ukrainian neighbours, Pilsudski had invaded on his march to Russia, reaching as far as Kiev and alienating his supposed allies. The Bolsheviks then drove the Poles back to the banks of the Vistula on the very edge of Warsaw, but Pilsudski's outnumbered legions repulsed them and recaptured large tracts of the western Ukraine, which were subsequently incorporated into the new, resurrected post-war Polish state.
The new Polish-Soviet border ran right through the Ukraine and demarcated a national and political boundary, the Iron Curtain of the inter-war years, separating the old from the new order, agrarian capitalism with its peasant smallholdings and seigneurial estates from the emerging world of communism and collectivisation. As a result the Bolsheviks were the bogeymen of my childhood. My teachers in Kremenets cast them in the role of the Mongol invaders who had swept through Poland many centuries before. If I was angry with my little brother or with a playmate at school, there was nothing meaner than to call him 'a dirty Bolshevik'.
In the eyes of the local Ukrainian peasants, the Poles were the new colonisers. They regarded us as successors to the pre-war Tsarists and believed we had collaborated with the foreign occupiers during partition. For the first few years the Polish military struggled to put down marauding units of guerrillas and saboteurs. It was because of that danger and the general insecurity that my parents had originally left me with my mother's family when my father was sent to his new posting. But it was with Ukrainians that I spent most of my childhood, learnt to read and write, skated on frozen lakes in winter and discovered shards of Russian and German ammunition, left over from the First World War, in the forests and fields round about Kremenets. We collected this debris with a passion, searched for it in the undergrowth, swapped treasured pieces with each other, sometimes discovering unexploded shells and even hand-grenades. We could tell at a glance what had come from which side, so great was our interest in weapons and soldiers. At the age of eight I had learnt the names and types of all the rifles, cannons and other military paraphernalia; at twelve I could throw a hand-grenade and dismantle a rifle blindfold, just as the new recruits were trained to do at the base.
Poles treated the locals with a suspicious respect, which was not always unwarranted. No Ukrainians, for instance, were permitted to work in government service, not even as train drivers or minor officials, for fear they might form a fifth column in the event of an invasion. Even our family maid was forced to return home every evening from the base. But the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian history were taught in schools, alongside the Polish language and Polish history. There was freedom in matters of religion. The Orthodox and the Catholics mixed easily, although the difference between Poles and Ukrainians was primarily religious, rather than linguistic or ethnic: if an Orthodox Ukrainian converted to Roman Catholicism then he automatically became Polish and vice versa. Across the border, where the large majority of Ukrainians lived, they suffered some of the worst of Stalin's excesses: their churches were torched, their clergy and intelligentsia deported to Siberia and their land collectivised. They counted their dead in millions. The Ukrainians in Volhynia still resented Polish rule, however.
My initial excitement at the prospect of war had begun to ebb after I had seen the two Polish soldiers captured at Modryn and after two of my uncles, the fearless Anthony and Jack-the-lad Kasimir, who had been involved in the fighting on the River Bug, returned home in late October. They had ditched their uniforms and fled on foot, and their dejection now infected the mood at the farm. Anthony had been eager to join up, convinced he would be back by the New Year with a clutch of medals and a glorious war record. Only heroes would prosper in a victorious post-war Poland, he reasoned. Like his brothers, he was indeed home by Christmas, safe and sound for the moment, but footsore and bedraggled rather than bathed in glory. Three of my uncles, Anthony, Kasimir and Joseph, who was the smallest of the five and perhaps for that reason the most hot-headed, drifted towards the partisans. The other two, Stanislaw, who knew how to keep out of trouble, and Edek, the youngest, who was sent to work in a German factory, would be the only two to survive the war.
Other Polish soldiers arrived on our doorstep through the autumn. They dumped their weapons - bayonets, rifles and pistols - for my grandfather to bury in case of German searches, and continued their journey home after a night's rest. Because the Polish army disbanded in this way and because later, once the fighting began in earnest on the Eastern Front and abandoned Soviet equipment became plentiful, the Polish Resistance never suffered from a severe shortage of arms. Butter, to paraphrase Goebbels, might have been in short supply, but not guns.
At the beginning of the war the Germans recruited workers for their factories as volunteers rather than deported them as slaves. They paid them too, not as much as a German worker but enough to send something home. Many Ukrainians volunteered at first, as well as some of the poorer Poles. A young man from a neighbouring village told me that he had never lived better than when working on a farm in Germany. He was permitted to return home once a year for a holiday, could write letters to relatives and after work was allowed to travel freely or go to the cinema. Home on leave, he might even be saluted by a German soldier checking his papers.
For the Ukrainians, the German presence signified change in a different sense. Initially, in that brief period in mid-September 1939, they had been tempted to help the Soviets, thinking, as disgruntled peoples down the ages have always thought, that their enemy's enemy was their friend. I had recognised some who thought it their duty to round up defeated Polish soldiers and hand them over to the Soviets, but the welcome they extended to the Germans was much more jubilant. They brought them bread and salt, according to a time-honoured greeting. In return, the Germans replaced minor Polish officials with Ukrainians whenever possible. A village church, which in 1921 had been 'polonised', that is converted from the Orthodox to the Catholic faith, was handed back to the Ukrainians. Near Hrubieszow Poles and Ukrainians had lived in mixed communities for centuries: Polish villages bordered on Ukrainian villages and rivalry had rarely given cause for violence. Now suddenly the Ukrainian settlements became enemy territory and Polish villages our safe havens. The Ukrainian priest in Modryn angered my grandparents by inviting the Germans to graze their carthorses in our fields, claiming they were his own. When my grandfather stopped him in the street, he announced that all Polish land in Modryn now belonged to his people. Yet this was an incongruous alliance, for the Master Race could barely disguise its contempt for the uncouth Ukrainian peasantry.
Excerpted from Nine Lives by Waldemar Lotnik, Julian Preece. Copyright © 2013 Waldemar Lotnik and Julian Preece. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPreface to the e-book edition,
Foreword: Neal Ascherson,
1 Caught in the Middle,
3 Capture and Flight,
4 The Ukrainian Massacres,
5 In the Puszcza Solska,
6 Majdanek, April-July 1944,
7 The Road to Freedom,
8 Agent for the NKVD,
9 The Free Cavalry, May-July 1945,
10 Escape To the West, July 1945,
11 The End of the Free Poles,
Afterword: Julian Preece,
Chronology of Polish History, 1918-1945,