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Akcja Wisla: the event, its origins and context

Originally Published in The Ukrainian Weekly April 29, 2007

“Purpose: To finally solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland towards the following end: a) … to evacuate from the southern and eastern border region all individuals of Ukrainian nationality and resettle them on the northwestern lands … b) The evacuation must include all elements of the Ukrainian nationality, including Lemkos and those of mixed Ukrainian-Polish marriages. …”

– secret document dated April 16, 1947, on details of Akcja Wisla.

Akcja Wisla

This month marks the 60th anniversary of Akcja Wisla, or Operation Vistula, the military operation that forcibly resettled nearly 150,000 Ukrainians living in Poland – an act whose goal was the final solution of “the Ukrainian problem in Poland.” The operation began on April 28, 1947, and was carried out by a special military task forced called Operation Group Wisla, with support from Polish police and other official entities, as well as Soviet and Czechoslovak units. Its aim was twofold: to disperse the Ukrainians among the Polish population and to conduct ethnic cleansing of Ukrainian territories in eastern and southeastern Poland. Its intent: to destroy the Ukrainian community in Poland. Akcja Wisla’s ethnic cleansing followed an earlier “exchange” of populations that in 1944 expelled Ukrainians from ethnically Ukrainian lands that became part of eastern Polish territory to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Ukrainians resettled in 1947 were taken to the so-called Ziemie Odzyskane, or “Recovered Lands,” in the north and northwest, which Poland acquired from Germany after World War II. For decades, what was left of the Ukrainian community in Poland was deeply scarred. For many years Poland argued that the Akcja Wisla was necessary as it was part of a campaign against the nationalist resistance (read Ukrainian Insurgent Army and Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) and that it was a reprisal set off by the killing on March 28, 1947, of Polish Deputy Defense Minister General Karol Swierczewski. However, evidence was unearthed to prove that discussions of the deportations were under way since the fall of 1946. Thus, Akcja Wisla was a meticulously planned operation conceived well in advance. A 2002 statement by the Ukrainian World Congress underscored that: “The deportations were carried out without regard for the rights of the deported population as citizens of Poland, whose Constitution guaranteed their right of property and choice of place of residence. Many Ukrainians, particularly leading members of the community, priests of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and even women and children, were imprisoned in the Jaworzno concentration camp (formerly a Nazi concentration camp of the Auschwitz complex). Many died there as a result of intolerable conditions and ill treatment.” That same year, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland expressed regret over the 1947 operation, penning a letter to the National Remembrance Institute and a conference on Akcja Wisla. “On behalf of the Polish Republic, I would like to express regret to all those who were wronged by [this operation]. … The infamous Operation Vistula is a symbol of the abominable deeds perpetrated by the Communist authorities against Polish citizens of Ukrainian origin,” he wrote. As we mark the 60th anniversary of the heinous Akcja Wisla, with many memorial events slated to take place this weekend around the globe, we bow our heads and pray for the victims of Akcja Wisla and their progeny. They will forever be remembered.


Over the post-Communist period, our knowledge of Akcja Wisla has increased very substantially. Research and scholarship have developed very well, acknowledging painful, as well as shameful issues, while at the same time striving for objectivity and precision. Yet, while we now know more about Akcja Wisla, we are also reaching a point at which the evidence, even when accessible, turns out genuinely incomplete – as, for instance, in matters of precise numbers or some important questions of decisionmaking. Thus, it is unlikely that we will ever know the exact number of Akcja Wisla’s victims. In fact, it is unlikely that anybody ever has. Nevertheless, most basic statistics are good enough for a fairly precise picture of what happened and to how many, while, regarding how decisions were made, we can at least discard some older explanations as clearly insufficient. Akcja Wisla was the name given by the postwar Communist-dominated Polish authorities to the forced, rapid and often brutal removal of more than 140,660 people – with estimates reaching as high as 150,000 – or 33,154 families, categorized as ethnically Ukrainian, although they also included substantial numbers of those self-identifying as Lemkos, or living in mixed families with the latter, from areas in postwar southeastern Poland to areas in northern and western Poland, where they were deliberately dispersed. This operation, under close control of the Polish Politburo, also included the screening and labeling of the deportees by criteria of purported political reliability and internal security, as well as an offensive in the counter-insurgency campaign against the Ukrainian nationalist resistance, organized in the closely linked OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. On the ground, Akcja Wisla’s implementation began on April 28, 1947. It was carried out mainly by a specially assembled task force of about 17,500 members under the command of Gen. Stefan Mossor, called Operation Group Wisla, and additional forces uniting military, police and political police elements with indirect support from Soviet and Czechoslovak units. At the same time, Akcja Wisla was supported by various other bureaucracies of the postwar Polish state. On the whole, Akcja Wisla was brutal and repressive – with deportations imposed at short notice, transport crowded and under harsh conditions, with long delays for some – but mostly not lethal. Yet considerable numbers of its victims were killed. A minimum of 27 deportees died from the severe transport conditions.

Of the at least 3,873 people – again estimates range higher – who were subjected to the abuses of the filtration camp of Jaworzno, a former branch camp of Auschwitz designated for Akcja Wisla by the Politburo in April 1947, between 150 and 161 died as a consequence of, according to Igor Halagida, “hunger, torture, beatings and exhausting physical work.” According to official statistics, the offensive in the counter-insurgency war against the UPA produced at least another 543 UPA fighters killed in action and 173 underground fighters and purported sympathizers sentenced to death and mostly executed after military court proceedings that were deeply flawed by any standards. In general, 1947 was the single postwar year with by far the largest number of Ukrainians sentenced to death by the Polish authorities for alleged resistance activities. Of the 573 such sentences found by Eugeniusz Misilo by 1992, 372 were passed in 1947. When did Akcja Wisla end? Soldiers were decorated for their participation on July 28, 1947, the staff of Operation Group Wisla was dissolved on the following day, and the Polish official statistics registering the number of Wisla deportees as above 140,000 (cited above) cover the period to mid-August 1947. Yet, some of Wisla’s immediate victims reached their new settlement areas as late as January 1948 or even April 1950. Small-scale deportations – and not only of those Wisla victims who tried to return to their homes – did continue at least for several years. They also continued to be managed under the code word “Wisla.” The troops, which had formed the Operation Group, did not simply leave either. Some of them remained under the new name of Military District Operation Group Nr. V, still charged with removing Ukrainians and fighting the UPA. A key decree, sealing the expropriation of the deportees and the prohibition to return to their former homes, was passed in the summer of 1949. On the whole, however, the term “Akcja Wisla” generally refers to the deportations of spring and summer 1947. Regarding Akcja Wisla’s causes, recent evidence has principally weakened a traditional apologetic explanation, focusing on the resistance of the UPA and especially its killing of Polish deputy Defense Minister Gen. Karol Swierczewski on March 28, 1947. While the latter may have accelerated official plans of comprehensive deportation as a response to the so-called “Ukrainian question” – with Swierczewski quickly receiving propagandistic martyrdom in works with titles such as “The Man Who Didn’t Bow Before a Bullet” – specific deportation discussions were well under way before his death at high decision-making levels from the fall of 1946. The Polish military was charged with drawing up lists of all Ukrainians still in Poland. In February 1947, Gen. Stefan Mossor, deputy head of the Polish General Staff, suggested complete deportation to Poland’s new western territories – predicting that, once dispersed, the deported would “quickly assimilate” – and presented a plan for what was to become Akcja Wisla on March 27, 1947, i.e., exactly one day before the killing of Swierczewski. At any rate, the key Polish Communist Party Politburo decision to “resettle speedily Ukrainians and mixed families to the regained territories [i.e. northern and western postwar Polish territories acquired from Germany] within the context of a repressive operation against the Ukrainian population” followed Swierczewski’s killing within less than 24 hours, indicating that prior planning had advanced far. Thus, Tadeusz Olszanski’s hypothesis, made public 20 years ago, that Akcja Wisla was motivated by some drive for the forced Polonization of Ukrainians and not by however much misunderstood or exaggerated military necessity, has been confirmed by recent evidence. The Swierczewski killing has to be regarded as a pretext. We should, however, also rule out the hypothesis that it concealed merely the larger counter-insurgency plan. While (Continued from page 6) Akcja Wisla… Akcja Wisla was indeed combined with a fresh offensive against the OUN and UPA, by 1947 the latter were so weakened that it is hard to believe that they drove the Polish party-state to extreme measures. By that time, Ukrainian underground fighters still in the field in Poland numbered between 2,000 and 3,000, and they were exhausted and far less active than in 1945. Moreover, as Grzegorz Motyka has pointed out, if the deportations’ main aim had really been to deprive these fighters of popular support, then far fewer people would have had to be deported from a more limited area. There is, in addition, archival evidence showing that the Polish military understood how exhausted the enemy was, and an important plan for Akcja Wisla was absolutely clear about the fact that its purpose was to “finally solve the Ukrainian problem in Poland” and listed counter-insurgency merely as an additional advantage. Thus, explaining Akcja Wisla obviously demands a wider context. Its first element is the Polish-Soviet population exchange, again de facto compelled, initiated by agreements between Moscow’s Polish Lublin clients and Soviet Ukraine in September 1944. The most important outcome of these expulsions with respect to the later Akcja Wisla was that, even at their end between late 1946 and early 1947, postwar Poland still had a substantial and locally concentrated minority of Ukrainians as well as Lemkos. Thus, Poland’s westward shift, the combined result of Soviet, Nazi and Allied decisions, had reduced the number of Ukrainians and Lemkos on Polish territory from about 5.5 million before the war to about 650,000 to 700,000 in 1944. The Polish-Soviet population exchange then added the expulsion of nearly half a million, still leaving more than 140,000 in postwar Poland. Even while Polish authorities initially underestimated the remaining numbers and had to revise them upwards, once Akcja Wisla had already begun, this result disappointed them since they had assumed that virtually all non-Poles would be gone. This and the Soviet side’s refusal to prolong the population exchange were the immediate triggers of plans to uproot and disperse the remaining Ukrainians inside Poland. Even after Swierczewski’s killing and the decision to deport Ukrainians westward, the Polish authorities were still asking Moscow for an added option for them to leave for Soviet Ukraine, which was, however, refused. Thus, Akcja Wisla was the opportunistically adapted end of an inter-state population exchange turning, as it were, inwards. The precondition for this was, of course, also a result of Poland’s westward shift, which deprived it of territories in the east but added the so-called Regained Territories in the west. The latter were largely emptied of their German population and became a kind of internal settlement frontier for postwar Sovietized Poland, producing material and propaganda opportunities, as well as a politically mobilizable fear of a return of the Germans. They also provided the space for dispersing Akcja Wisla’s victims. Poland’s and Ukraine’s Sovietization, respectively re-Sovietization, certainly played a role. The Polish army played an important role but the key decisions were made or controlled by the Politburo, i.e., the same leaders whose single most important aim at the time was the Sovietization of Poland. It is, moreover, not conceivable that Akcja Wisla could have been carried out without at least Moscow’s tacit or explicit consent. The hypothesis that it was planned there in detail, advanced by Polish historian Ryszard Torzecki in 1997, has not yet been confirmed. An early code word for Akcja Wisla was “Wschód,” i.e., East. In October 1947, i.e., just after Akcja Wisla’s peak, the Soviet authorities deported 76,000 Ukrainians, accused of nationalist resistance, eastwards and called this operation “Zakhid” or “Zapad,” i.e., West – which, in turn, was only the postwar peak of Soviet deportations from western Ukraine. While the possibility of a direct coordination of Akcja Wisla and “Zakhid” is obvious, there is no evidence yet to confirm it. At any rate, the context of Sovietization, on both sides of the new Polish-Soviet Ukrainian border was important, as were Soviet officers directly supervising tactical and larger formations of the Polish army. However, if we can reconstruct how the planners and perpetrators of Akcja Wisla thought, we also need to ask how it was possible to think in this manner. The answer to this question leads back at least to the interwar period. The end of the second world war witnessed a new combination of Communism and nationalism, with Polish Communist leaders Jakub Berman and Wladyslaw Gomulka – one representing the most Moscow-oriented and the other a more local variant of Polish Communism – agreeing that Poland needed a national-ethnic state [panstwo narodowe]. The Communists’ vital dependence on Soviet support to impose their Soviet dominance on a deeply reluctant society helped in this adoption of parts of the ethos of Polish interwar nationalism as represented by the integrally nationalist National Democrat party, aiming at an ethnically homogeneously Polish Poland. This convergence of Sovietization, communism and ethnic nationalism was reflected in the history of the Polish State Security Commission, Panstwowa Komisja Bezpieczenstwa. It played an important role in the preparation of the rigged 1946 referendum, constituting a milestone in Poland’s subjection to Communist rule and Soviet influence, as well as in Akcja Wisla. It was before the commission that Mossor presented his plans one day before Swierczewski’s killing. Thus, there were no simple continuities. Yet, it remains true that Akcja Wisla can also be plausibly understood as an outcome of a steady Polish shift away from, for want of better terms, civic or state nationalism to ethnic nationalism, which had already marked the 1930s. With respect to Akcja Wisla, this turn was most publicly advertised at a conference called by the Polish government in July 1945 to make representatives of Poland’s Ukrainians express support for leaving for Soviet Ukraine. While the Ukrainian representatives instead declared their wish to remain in Poland and become its loyal citizens, such an option was not considered. Gen. Mossor, a major planner and organizer of Akcja Wisla, epitomized this continuity, marked by odd twists of loyalties and fate. Born in 1896 in a Krakow intelligentsia family, he was a fighter for Polish independence in the first world war as well as against Ukrainians and Bolsheviks, a very successful career officer and respected military theoretician in the interwar period. Mossor also led punitive expeditions against Volynian Ukrainians in the late 1930s. In German captivity between September 1939 and January 1945, he at first made proposals to the Germans about how to create a more positive attitude toward them among Poles in exchange for ending repressions but refused later German offers to set up Polish units to fight against the Soviets. Joining the Communist-dominated side in postwar Poland, Mossor’s main task was the fight against the Polish underground. His general war plan, at the same time, was not made official doctrine because it put too much emphasis on independent Polish operations against western forces. After Wisla his career began to fray in 1949, and from 1950 to 1955 he was subjected to persecution and imprisonment under allegations of “right-wing nationalist deviation,” supporting the London Polish government, “fascistizing” interwar Poland, and of having too much contact with the Germans during the war, all of which he kept denying. He died in September 1957, shortly after his release from prison and appointment as planning chief for the Ministry of Defense. The second world war itself, which turned Central and Eastern Europe into the site of unprecedentedly brutal, if still different, occupations by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – which prominently included deportations and did not simply end in 1945, as well as some vicious ethnic conflicts among the occupied – furthered this trend decisively. A first, largely unsuccessful resettlement attempt in the area, affected so massively again between 1944 and 1947, was made by the German and Soviet allies in 1940. In general, the terrible example of the Holocaust, carried out amidst gentile populations, some of whose members also participated in it to different degrees, indicated extreme and unprecedented limits as to what was possible. In particular, between Poles and Ukrainians, World War II led to the mass killing and expulsion of Poles by the UPA in Volyn as well as Polish killings of Ukrainians on a substantially smaller scale and fighting and mutual expulsions in other areas, especially eastern Galicia. In fact, as Paul Best has pointed out, one can see the area of postwar southeastern Poland, affected by the fighting and resettlement of 1944 and 1947, as the southern edge of a PolishUkrainian conflict zone stretching to 3Volyn in the east. Not only temporally but spatially, too, Akcja Wisla marked a limit of these conflicts. By the time of the Polish-Soviet population exchange and on the territory of postwar Poland, Ukrainians and Lemkos were the main – though, again, not the only – victims, with several thousand of them dying in spring 1945 alone and several massacres and destructions of villages only restricted when Polish and Ukrainian underground fighters called a local truce in summer 1945. At the same time, Polish government forces kept increasing their pressure on the Ukrainian underground and population. The case of the village of Pawlokoma was perhaps the most drastic illustration of this sequence and convergence of Polish underground and Polish state pressure to expel Ukrainians: while a Home Army unit massacred hundreds of its inhabitants in March 1945, six months later regular troops finally drove the survivors from Poland. Put differently, there was no real let-up between the multiple brutalizations of World War II, the continuity of inter-ethnic fighting beyond it and Akcja Wisla. The latter, although also a prolongation of a major ethnicizing trend in interwar Poland, would have been impossible without the massive escalation of ethnic conflict during a war brought by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Finally, Akcja Wisla also belongs within a larger context of modern international practices of population exchanges, deportations and resettlements, which were not employed exclusively by totalitarian regimes. Thus, the expulsions of the German minorities in Central Europe at the end of the second world war combined a beginning not yet sanctioned by the Western Allies with a continuation, which was. Flight and expulsions together removed above 10 million Germans from postwar Poland alone, with a combined casualty rate of about 1 million. Expulsions, more strictly defined, removed about 3.5 million Germans. One set of figures as well as the other indicate a major international, not merely Soviet, immediate and virtually simultaneous context of Akcja Wisla. In addition, the Polish-Soviet population exchange of 1944 to 1946-1947 would, of course, also have made no sense without the westward shift of Poland, sanctioned by the western Allies.

Tarik Cyril Amar, Ph.D., who is a Eugene and Daymel Shklar Research Fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI), wrote his dissertation at Princeton University on the history of the city of Lviv between 1939 and the 1960s. (He lived in Lviv for tw27o years.) He is currently preparing the dissertation for publication with the support of fellowships at the Harriman Institute Ukrainian Studies Program (last fall), at HURI (currently) and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington (this summer). The paper above is the basis for a presentation by Dr. Amar at the conference on Akcja Wisla organized by the Ukrainian Studies Program of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University on April 26. The conference theme was “Post-World War II PolishUkrainian Relations: Remembering the 1947 Forced Relocation Campaign ‘Akcja Wisla.’ ” 

I am a historian of the twentieth century,
writing about the World War Two and
postwar periods. After finishing my work on
the city of Lviv, I have set out on a new
project about spy thrillers in Cold War
Russia and Eastern Europe. I have lived,
studied, done research, and worked in the
United States, Great Britain, Ukraine,
Russia, Poland, and Germany and am now
teaching at the Department of History of
Columbia University in New York.

Tarik Cyril Amar


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