In the latter part of the 1930’s a group of Polish soldiers were patrolling in the village of Susk. This small, rural community was located in Volhynia, a province in the eastern reaches of Poland. Volhynia, along with Galicia, was where the majority of the Second Republic of Poland’s Ukrainian citizens lived. Poles were a distinct minority in the province despite a concerted effort by the Polish government that resettled tens of thousands of ethnic Poles in the region during the 1920’s and 30’s. The Polish government was deeply insecure about their control over the region. They had good reason to be. Ukrainian nationalists and the Polish provincial administration had been involved in a simmering conflict throughout most of the inter-war period. The government became increasingly suspicious of all Ukrainians. This suspicion was passed on to the army. The soldiers were on edge. Many of them took out their fear and anger on the local population.
A Volhynian Memory – Through The Eyes Of A Child
The repression that occurred in the late 1930’s across the remote border province was a precursor for much worse that was to come in Volhynia during World War II, when the Ukrainians and Poles would fight a war within a war. This bit of history is largely absent from the European historical conscious and the historiography of the Second World War. It has been overshadowed by the all-consuming violence of the Eastern Front. How can someone learn what happened between Poles and Ukrainians in Volhynia? The answer is to ask. An elderly woman who grew up in Susk was asked what she remembered from that time. Instead of talking about the Soviet and German occupations, she instead discussed, likely for the first time in decades, what she saw and experienced as a child when Polish soldiers came to her family’s small home in the late 1930’s. Her story was as follows:
“A group of Polish soldiers showed up at their home. They began to harass the family with questions. An impromptu and intimidating interrogation ensued. One of the soldiers began shouting at her older sister, who was only a teenager. Meanwhile, the younger sister and other family members watched helplessly as the soldier ordered the teenage girl to lie down on her stomach. He then began to violently whip her across the back. She was soon in tears from the violent thrashing. All the while her child sister looked on fearfully. Would she be next? What other horrors were to come? Finally the soldier stopped. He ordered the girl to stand up and told her to say “Thank you sir.” She repeated those words. The soldiers left.”
Imagination Faces Reality – A Memory Recovered
Hearing this story I could sense the sinister, menacing shadow of violence that fell over Volhynia before the outbreak of full scale war. The story was shockingly real. Here were the roots of the genocidal fight between Ukrainians and Poles that would engulf the area. The same incident was likely repeated thousands of times over, as soldiers and police traveled through the countryside looking for weapons and suspicious activities. They would often tear up the villager’s corn stalks or take the roofs off dwellings during searches. These actions were made worse due to the fact that most Ukrainians in Volhyn were badly impoverished. Threats, seizures, beatings and imprisonment were used to intimidate them. No matter their age, everyone was worthy of suspicion. There may have not been an official war going on at the time, but make no mistake, this was the true nature of war, with all of its ugly, insidious violence. The Ukrainians would eventually retaliate with deadly ferocity. This was a case of an eye for an eye leaving tens of thousands blind.
War leaves many scars. The ones on the land or buildings eventually disappear. When it comes to people it is not quite that simple. Physical scars on the body may eventually heal, the mental ones never do. I assume that the woman told this story for a very simple reason. It was time. This story was too important not to be passed on to another generation. By telling the story, she made the incident real. This was the experience of war for her and her family. Her sister was not the only one beaten that day, so was she, not physically, but mentally. The moment seared into her memory forever. What else did she see and feel after that day? Were there moments, days, weeks, months, years later when her older sister cried uncontrollably at the thought of what she had suffered? What was it like for the younger sister to see the bloody bruises on her older sisters back? Did the older sister cry herself to sleep at night for months afterwards? Was she permanently traumatized? There is so much more to be known, but the day is fast approaching when it will be too late. The moment when the last of those who still carry these experiences within their living memory will die out is upon us. There is so much that has been left unspoken. If only someone has the courage to ask and the time to listen.
Behind The Numbers – The Human Toll
War in the popular imagination has become little more than a series of grand maneuvers carried out by all knowing generals and politicians. The truth about Ukrainian- Polish conflict in the 1930’s and 40’s can still be discovered in Susk and hundreds of other small villages like it. The deep roots of a conflict such as this are often overlooked, perhaps because they are so frightening. The deeper one digs into the details of human conflict the more personalized and disturbing the stories become. When such phrases as “5,000 were arrested or 600 killed” are recited, they become mere numbers. This information quantifies human experience, but says little about it. Conversely, when a story is personalized it becomes real. It is within the realm of human experience. It could have been our experience, given different circumstances. The story recounted above is just one person’s experience, but there were thousands of similar ones, on both sides. Humanity and inhumanity lurks somewhere behind the numbers. Just ask.