A Wartime Dispatch from Poland
Many Poles are blocking out painful historical memories for the sake of supporting Ukraine.
It was a fairly standard European pit stop: 25 minutes to use the bathroom and get whatever you needed from the gas station, though we had only been driving for about an hour on our journey outside of Krakow to Czestochowa. As I killed time inside the gas station, I took a gander at the magazines on sale, inspecting each cover, though I could not read them.
Eventually, one of the Polish faculty members on the trip came up to me and jokingly asked if I was interested in buying a magazine; he knew I couldn't read Polish. I laughed and told him no, but asked him to tell me what some of the covers said and where the magazines fell on the political spectrum. He saw I was looking closely at a magazine cover with a black and white photograph of a group of Poles from around the early to mid 20th century, a white background, and bold, red text. My intuition said this was a right-wing magazine, and the Polish faculty member quickly confirmed my suspicion. “This magazine is a more conservative magazine, and the cover is commemorating Bloody Sunday of the Volhynia massacre, when Ukrainians killed up to 100,000 Poles. It’s asking what this means for Poland’s support for the war.”
He then trifled through the other magazines on the shelf and pulled one from the shelf that I hadn’t seen yet: a kitten with a surgical mask poorly photoshopped on its face. “This is a left-wing magazine,” he said as we both broke out into a laugh.
Between 1943 and 1945 in Nazi-occupied Poland, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed up to 100,000 Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. The massacres were at their bloodiest in July and August of 1943, a consequence of Ukrainian Insurgent Army Commander Dmytro Klyachkivsky’s order for the “general physical liquidation of the entire Polish population” delivered in June of that year.
In this troublesome period, one date sticks out in Poland's national consciousness. On July 11, 1943, thousands of Poles perished in a single day when the Ukrainian Insurgent Army simultaneously attacked about 100 Polish villages. It’s remembered as Bloody Sunday.
The Ukrainian nationalists’ campaign to “liquidate” the Polish population in Volhynia and nearby regions arose from their discontent with the Treaty of Versailles. They believed it prioritized the re-establishment of the Polish state and the independence of other countries in the region over Ukraine, an afterthought left to the Soviet Union. Their resentment only compounded when a ceasefire in the Polish-Ukrainian War led to the incorporation of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic into Polish territory. The Ukrainian nationalists, who had mostly gone underground, weaponized the agreements to continue recruiting members to the cause, especially in Poland’s south eastern territories that had sizable Ukrainian populations. The Soviet Union, too, had their own campaign of Polish genocide, which began in the late ’30s.
When World War II came, the Ukrainian nationalists weren’t going to let another opportunity to achieve independence slip through their fingers. Polish genocide, in the minds of these Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, was a necessary part of achieving national independence.
“We don’t really talk about that since the war in Ukraine began,” another Pole told me when I showed him the magazine cover commemorating the massacre. “The only people who keep talking about that are on the very conservative right.”
Another thing Poles don’t talk about in public anymore since the war began: the belief among a fairly large number of Poles that Lviv is a Polish city, and ought to belong to Poland. Get Poles talking about the war or their nation’s history, and it won’t be long until they express their displeasure with Yalta and Potsdam, which moved Poland’s borders westward and severed Poland’s control over Lviv and a considerable amount of territory we now consider western Ukraine. Churchill, some Poles told me, sold out Poland; their disdain for the British Bulldog was made abundantly clear. “We still believe Lviv is a Polish city, but we don’t say that anymore to support Ukraine in the war.”
Poland’s support for Ukraine is so strong that most Poles, aside from some conservatives, are seemingly willing to disregard beliefs and customs that were fairly commonplace less than two years ago. Thousands of Ukrainians walk the streets of Krakow. I saw one man sporting a shirt that read “I’m Ukrainian” getting high-fives and plaudits as he strolled. The day was July 11, 2023.
Walking around Krakow and other Polish towns, however, you wouldn’t guess Poland’s support for Ukraine is so resolute. In the United States, urban areas are littered with the blue and gold. In the nation’s capital, the Ukrainian flag is about as common a sight as Old Glory. On the avenues that lead up to the capital, one of the American flags on every lamppost has been replaced with a Ukrainian flag—a 1:1 ratio. Such is not the case in Poland. The Ukrainian flag is a rare sight. Once every few days, volunteers wearing blue and gold and Ukrainian flags as capes are out in Krakow’s main square raising money for refugees.
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It appears Poles do not need the constant, subliminal messaging to maintain public support for Ukraine the way Americans do. Most Poles have voluntarily blocked out painful aspects of their history for the sake of Ukraine; maybe an omnipresent reminder of the cost of their commitment would cause a backlash. Maybe the fact that the Ukrainians are fighting the Russians is more than enough for them. Some Poles told me the current war is a good bargain: They get to fight Russia, their “main historic enemy,” as one Pole told me, “with Polish weapons and Ukrainian lives.” In a recent meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham put it differently: “the Russians are dying... best money we’ve ever spent.”
Daily, Poles join Ukrainians outside of the U.S. consulate to implore the Biden administration to provide the kinds of arms that will inflict the most pain on the Russian invaders. “We are appealing to this gentleman, Mr. Biden, in order to end the war,” a protester says into a megaphone, “give us the weapons we need to win this war.” Others hold Ukrainian and Polish flags.
The protester with the megaphone continues: “You understand that the price of this war is the lives of Ukrainians.” For now, that’s a price the West is more than willing to pay.