Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

70 Years Ago – Operation “Vistula”

Attempted Genocide – “To solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland once and for all”
70th Anniversary of criminal “Action Vistula”. Design by Andriy Khomyk

After the establishment of new borders between the USSR and its new satellite the Polish Peoples’ Republic as a  consequence of World War II, only 700,000 Ukrainians remained on the territory of Poland.  Between the two world wars on the territory of the Second Polish Republic the Ukrainian population was over 5 million. With the establishment of new borders a Soviet-Polish joint action of “voluntary resettlement” was initiated. Soon the voluntary facade was dropped in favor of “forcible repatriation.” Yet in January 1947 when the joint action had been completed seemingly, the Polish government realized that more than 150,000 indigenous Ukrainians remained in Poland.

And so in January 1947, the General Staff of the Polish Army began to prepare a plan for the relocation of the rest of the Ukrainian population, this time within Polish borders. On March 27, 1947 a concrete resettlement action plan was submitted by Brigadier General Stefan Mossor  at a meeting of the State Security Commission. The next day a Ukrainian Insurgent Army ambush killed Polish General Karol Swierczewski. Not coincidentally, only a dozen hours later at a special meeting of the Political Bureau it was decided to expedite the operation intended to relocate all Ukrainian and mixed Ukrainian families to Northwestern Poland, making certain that settlements would not be concentrated and no closer than 100 kilometers from the border. This eviction plan was consented to by the governments of the USSR and Czechoslovakia.

On April 16, 1947 the Civil Security Minister Brigadier General Radkevych and the Minister of National Defense Marshal Zhymerski issued a top secret organizational plan of a special operation entitled “Wschod” later renamed “Vistula”.   The goal of the operation was articulated very clearly in the document itself –  “To solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland once and for all”. The mechanism for achieving this goal was also clearly spelled out: “Conduct evacuation from the southern and eastern border region of all the people of Ukrainian descent…and settle them in the north-western territories of Poland in the highest possible degree of scattering…”

On April 28, 1947 at 4 am, six divisions of the Polish Army surrounded the villages of Southeastern Poland, inhabited by Ukrainians. Simultaneously, Soviet internal security units and Czechoslovak border guards blocked the eastern and southern borders of Poland. Thus commenced the eviction of the remaining 150,000 Ukrainians from their ancestral lands and their resettlement in the provinces of northern and western Poland.

The operation lasted over 4 months, in fact almost to September 1947. By July 31, 1947 according to Polish data, 140,575 persons were relocated, 3,800 persons imprisoned in the concentration camp of Jaworzno (formerly Auschwitz), 655 people killed and 1466 members of the Ukrainian resistance movement arrested.

To deal with the remaining population on August 1, 1947 the State Safety Commission ordered the commanders of Cracow and Lublin province to uproot and evict any Ukrainians remaining on their territory without regard for their loyalty to the state or party affiliation and organized control teams to verify the success of the operation. By the end of 1947, in place of the evicted Ukrainians some 14 thousand people of Polish ethnic nationality were settled.

This operation was carried out with extreme violence. The Polish police even enlisted Polish farmers to kill Ukrainian women and children. Any arrested Ukrainians were judged immediately and summarily executed.

On August 29, 1949 by decree Poland confiscated all Ukrainian property that was left behind.

I participated in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Operation “Vistula” in Warsaw in 1997. The commemorative program included a meeting between representatives of the Ukrainian community in Poland and worldwide and then Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. The meeting was formal and courteous, but ended without any representations or commitments from the Polish side. For me the commemoration was significant not so much because of the meeting with Poland’s president, but rather it gave me the opportunity to converse with Ukrainian university students in Poland, in particular a Ukrainian student who at that time was studying in Warsaw, but had come from the resettlement area in the northwest. She pointed out to me that most of her brief life she had been and continued to cover up her Ukrainian background even in relations with her fellow students as being Ukrainian was  not conducive to studies, career or friendship.

In April of 2000 as president of the Ukrainian World Congress, I had personal meetings with Polish President Kwasniewski and representatives of the Polish government and the parliament which I considered quite fruitful at that time. The president expressed particular sympathy for the Ukrainian national minority and its persecution. There were assurances that albeit in a symbolic way, some redress would be forthcoming, perhaps the return of religious and cultural property with specific assurances on the Ukrainian National Home in Przemysl (the former Ukrainian city of Peremyshl) and some real estate formerly belonging to the Ukrainian Catholic Church. Also discussed was the proposal of granting pensions to surviving victims of the camp in Jaworzno.

2007 marked the 60th anniversary of Operation “Vistula”. In December 2006 the Ukrainian World Congress issued an appeal for global commemoration which included demands upon Poland similar to those which had been discussed with President Kwasniewski in 2000. The demands generated great interest in Poland and Ukraine. Memoranda with these demands were transmitted to the new President, Prime Minister and Chairman of the Polish parliament. Copies were sent  to the Council of Europe, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the United Nations. At the end of March 2007 a separate letter was remitted to Poland’s right wing Prime Minister Kaczynski requesting a meeting, but the prime minister declined.

The observances in Przemysl on April 27-29, 2007 included a trip to the village of Pavlokoma, some 40 kilometers from Przemysl where at dawn on March 3,1945, the Polish non-communist Home Army attacked and killed 366 Ukrainians. The killings were intended to send a message “Now this will be Polish territory.” Today Pavlokoma is an ethnically homogeneous village – Polish. The program also included a conference of Polish and Ukrainian scholars. One representative of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance tried to link Operation “Vistula” to the Volyn events of 1943 in Ukraine where many Poles were killed. On Sunday morning, participants celebrated the Liturgy at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and went in procession to the military cemetery in Pikulice, the site of interment of the remains of some 2,000 soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army (prisoners of war and interned in a Polish camp who died in consequence of epidemic dysentery and typhus in 1920-21) and 47 UPA members  (who perished in battle with the Poles or were executed by the Poles back in 1946 and had initially been interred in the villages of Lyshni and Birchi but exhumed and re-interred in 2000 in Pikulice’s military cemetery). Incidentally, in December 2003 by order of the director of the State Administration of the Subcarpathian province, informational plaques had been removed from their graves because their inscriptions had indicated that these soldiers fought against Poland and this “insulted the honor and national feeling of the Poles”. These inscriptions had been agreed upon between the Association of Ukrainians in Poland and the Polish Public Council of memory, struggle and martyrdom.

The 60th anniversary program concluded with a requiem held at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. It should be noted that the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral is located at the foot of the former Ukrainian church which had been designated for Greek Catholics in accordance with a Concordat between Poland and the Vatican in 1925. Since 1946 that church, now renamed the church of St. Teresa, belongs to the Polish Carmelite order. The Carmelites have refused to return the church to the Ukrainians. A few days earlier I visited that church and was overwhelmed with images of plaques on the walls instead of icons with inscriptions memorializing those Poles who were “killed by bands of the UPA”. Throughout my time at the Ukrainian cathedral and as I addressed the participants, I could not get over the image of the once Ukrainian church, and now a Carmelite Polish political monument towering over the supplicant heads of the grieving Ukrainians in the Cathedral.

On May 15, 2007 I sent a letter to the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI regarding both the anti-Ukrainian inscriptions and the breached Concordat. Copies of the letter went to Polish Cardinal Joseph Glemb, Ukrainian Patriarch Lubomyr Huzar, and Ukrainian Metropolitan in Poland John Martyniak. His Beatitude Patriarch Lubomyr concurred with my assessment. There was no response from the Holy Father.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted and proposed for signature, ratification and accession by the United Nations` General Assembly resolution on December 9, 1948. This date was after Operation “Vistula” had been pretty much effectuated,  but still before the decree confiscating assets. It has no reverse effect, however, it does apply in part to Operation “Vistula” and, more importantly, defines what constitutes genocide. It is my considered opinion that each and all of the above mentioned events constitute separate acts of attempted genocide from forceful repatriation to brutal eviction and resettlement within Poland, killings, internments, etc. The Convention defines genocide thus:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;”

Intent is one of the main constituent elements of a crime. Of the world’s various genocides of the twentieth century, intent was almost never clearly defined in any documentation. There is no document from Stalin specifically directing the starving of the Ukrainian population in 1932-22. Neither is there a document from Hitler to effect a final solution against in Jews in the 1940s. The manifestation of intent is so much clearer in relation to Operation “Vistula”. The Poles issued a document, albeit of a top secret nature, expressing their goal to “solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland once and for all”.

As for the element of killing, causing serious bodily or mental disorder, deliberate creation of conditions of life calculated to total or partial physical destruction, the data supplied by the Poles themselves on July 31, 1947 is overwhelming: more that 140,000 evicted from their homes, etc.  As for “causing serious bodily injury” there exists ample witness testimony:

“We were being shipped to Jaworzno. There were 75 people in the transport. After the identification some of us were separated, and the others were told to go to the baths. There we fainted as they poured cold and hot water in turns. And what beating we got as we left the baths. Unspeakable! Older people among us fell after the first blows with thick sticks. We were also beaten on the way to the barracks. ”

Despite much pleading from the Ukrainian community and promises from Polish authorities,  the wrongs of Operation “Vistula” have not been redressed except perhaps for the return of a deteriorated Ukrainian National Home in Przemyśl.

What is the climate of Polish-Ukrainian relations in Poland today? It is not getting better.

As recently as June 26,  2016 a dozen Polish young men in black T-shirts with the inscription “Bandera out” and a red stop sign over a photo of Stepan Bandera attacked a procession from St. John’s Cathedral in Przemysl to the Pikulice cemetery.  With cries of “Przemysl always Polish” multiple attackers broke through the police and tried to stop the procession. The police were not responding and one attacker tore a Ukrainian embroidered shirt worn by a member of the procession organizing committee. Then the police tried to separate the atta­ckers from the procession. Order was finally restored with the arri­val of a heavily armed police unit.

On December 10, 2016, a march of Polish right wing organizations which took place under the patronage of the Mayor Robert Khoma passed by the Ukrainian National Home in Przemysl shouting “death to Ukrainians”.

Ukrainians mostly forgive the Poles for Operation “Vistula” because it is their Christian duty. However, at the same time Ukrainians, in particular Lemko Ukrainians must never forget the victims or their ancestral homeland. They should continue to demand the return of their spiritual and cultural remnants, churches and community centers, as well as compensation for forced labor, injury and loss of property, their homesteads, forests, and so on.

The Lemko region is tragic, in particular, because even after the spring of nations,  the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellites, Lemkivschyna today is not within Ukraine but in Poland and Poles will never love her. Lemkos do not lay claim to the sovereignty or borders of Poland, but must at every opportunity remind Poles that Lemkivschyna is their land, their tragic homeland.  Operation “Vistula” was an attempt at genocide –  “to finally solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland.” May the guilty be punished by the highest Judge. The Ukrainian Lemko people have survived and will continue to do so, forgiving but never forgetting.

On this 70th anniversary let us recall and continue to study the events.  Let us pay respects to the victims.

   Askold S. Lozynskyj, New York. April 28, 2017 


Leave a comment