Friday, April 6, 2018

The Evolution of Ethnic Cleansing in Poland and Its Impact on the Lemko

Part II: Akcja “Wisła”: Resettlement to Poland’s “Recovered Territories”
(Spring – Summer, 1947)

By Corinna Caudill, Richard Garbera, and Maryann Sivak

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a two-part article describing the resettlement and deportation operations that affected Poland’s Lemkos between 1944-1947. “Part I: The Resettlements to Ukraine (1944-1946)” was published in the Spring 2016 issue of the New Rusyn Times, Volume 23, Number 1. In their description, the authors have included excerpts of oral history interviews they conducted with ethnic Lemkos who experienced the events firsthand.

The Soviet-Polish population exchange agreement of September 9, 1944 was enacted as a means to relocate Poland’s “Ukrainian” population to Soviet Ukraine, as well as “repatriating” Ukraine’s Polish population to Poland. As we mentioned in the previous installment, the targeted population included the Lemkos, who were classified as “Ukrainian” regardless of the fact that many identified themselves as Rusyn. The successful execution of the agreement would justify Soviet post-war territorial claims along ethnic lines, and provided the Polish communist government with a method to provide for the security and continuity of the Polish state since territories in southeastern Poland were also claimed by Ukrainian nationalists. The agreement contained the requirement that the resettlements must be “voluntary” and required that all volunteers would sign the official relocation documents expressing their consent.

Most people who were targeted for relocation (including Lemkos) ultimately resisted, prompting Polish authorities to become increasingly aggressive in their attempts to carry out the resettlement plan. Between 1944-1946, Polish and Soviet officials used coercive and sometimes violent measures to encourage people to sign resettlement documents, which incited UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army) to increase their assaults on resettlement authorities and infrastructure. Between the fall of 1945 and the spring of 1946, Polish-Ukrainian relations steadily deteriorated into ethnic warfare, and civilians (including Lemkos) were frequently targeted in Polish reprisals since they were viewed as providing a support base for UPA.[1] Soon, neither the Polish authorities nor the public made any distinctions between UPA and the Ukrainian civilian population, and civilians became the targets of Polish raids and massacres. The situation prompted some people to relocate in order to escape the violence. During Operation Rzeszów in 1946, the Polish army began systematically deporting entire villages. Despite these perilous conditions, approximately 200,000 people still managed to evade deportation, and UPA also remained in tact although the casualties of warfare had decreased their numbers.[2] 

By early 1947, many high-ranking Polish military officials, including General Stefan Mossor, supported the idea of relocating the remaining people to territories that Poland had acquired from Germany after the war. In a February 20, 1947 memorandum to Defense Minister Michał Rola-Zymierski, Mossor stated that another round of deportations would be necessary to deprive UPA of civilian support and prevent future irredentist movements in Poland.[3] His plan gained momentum on March 28, 1947 when General Karol Świerczewski (Vice Minister of Defense) was ambushed by an UPA unit near Baligród.  Świerczewski’s death provided a pretext for forcibly deporting and resettling the remaining population. On March 29, 1947, the final decision was made using the General’s death as justification, despite the fact that the Polish army had actually been preparing the final phase for months.[4]

On April 24, 1947, the Polish Army officially launched Akcja “Wisła” (Operation Vistula.) The mission had two key components: (1.) the deportation of the remaining Ukrainian minority to former German territories to the north and west of Poland; and (2.) the annihilation of the Ukrainian underground. Having learned the lessons of the past few years, the Polish army understood not only the strengths and weaknesses of UPA, but also the evasion tactics of the civilian population.[5] Between 1944-1946, the army had focused on deporting the non-Polish population and only a small number of troops had been assigned to actually seek out and engage the partisans. During “Wisła,” however, the emphasis was reversed and fighting UPA became the priority. Secondly, the earlier deportation actions had been carried out simultaneously along the expanse of the Polish-Ukrainian border, whereas in 1947, the deportations were confined to limited areas where troops were concentrated. The Czechoslovak government assisted Polish efforts by fortifying its border with troops, and the Soviet Union assigned two regiments to assist along the Polish-Soviet border.[6]  This more comprehensive strategy enabled the Polish army to vastly overwhelm any possible UPA resistance and prevent civilians from escaping. The soldiers typically surrounded villages in the pre-dawn hours, burst into homes, and gave residents a short time (usually two hours or less) to pack their belongings. Since a significant number of Lemkos still remained in southeastern Poland by the onset of the operation, authorities kept them off balance about the question of whether or not they would be deported as part of the Ukrainian population.  Łukasz Wozniak from Binczarowa (Bilcareva, Nowy Sącz county) described how the process unfolded:

There was a lot of uncertainty. We knew that villages in Krosno, Rzeszów and Lublin had already been deported, but since we had no representatives in government, it was difficult to determine what would happen to us. The only information we had came from speaking with Poles in the marketplace. Initially we heard that Nowy Sącz povit’ (county) would not be deported… because there was no revolt there, but then we heard otherwise and didn’t want to believe it. They came to our Kraków province at the very end, and we were deported on the 29th and 30th of June, 1947. Everything had been planned in advance. The authorities kept people off balance so that there would be no resistance.[7]

Because the Polish army had grossly underestimated the number of people who had evaded earlier relocation roundups (and also due to logistical issues with transportation), it was a waiting process that often took several days. Men, women, and children (including the very old and very young) were dispatched to staging areas (usually railroad depots) at gunpoint, and were forced to wait outdoors in the elements. Many villagers had scarcely finished vacating when local Poles came to claim belongings that had been left behind. Mr. Wozniak recalled the mood at the rail station in Gorlice as the soon-to-be-deported Lemkos waited at the rail station, some deciding to briefly return to their homes to retrieve forgotten items:

People were screaming, “We left this, we left that! We have to go back!” My sister­­­­­­­–memory eternal–returned to the house for something and when she got there, the doors were already open and people were going through things.[8] 

Many of the transports made a stop at Central Labor Camp Jaworzno (Centralny Obóz Pracy Jaworzno), which had been a satellite camp of Auschwitz during the war.[9] Polish authorities selected and detained some individuals (and sometimes entire families) suspected of being enemies of the state, as well as people who had attempted to resist resettlement. The identification of “enemies” frequently had no evidentiary basis nor were investigations conducted through any due process of law. Decisions about who was detained and/or imprisoned were frequently made by low-level officials on the basis of dubious information. Approximately 3,873 people were detained at Jaworzno, including some 700 women and children. Of the total number, 162 died as the result of insufficient food, poor hygienic conditions, a lack of medical treatment facilities, torture and hard labor.[10]

Petro Szafran, originally from Piorunka (Perunka, Nowy Sącz county), discussed the nature of the selection process at Jaworzno, and mentioned that even prior service in the Soviet Red Army did not exempt anyone from being detained. His testimony illustrates the tremendous power given to the local police and security service officials who conducted the investigations, and the arbitrary nature of how authorities determined who was an “enemy”:

It took us eight days to get to the west (western Poland). On the way, we stopped at Auschwitz (Jaworzno) and members of the Polish secret service were investigating us… they already had a list of people and went from one wagon to another, calling out names. They called my brother’s name. He was eighteen years old at the time and had fought earlier with the Red Army, and yet they were still ready to send him to Jaworzno. There was a Russian soldier who liked the dialect my brother spoke, so he told his comrades not to imprison him and he was released.[11]

Andrzej Pidlipczak, originally from the village of Pętna (Pantna, Gorlice county), described his family’s experience during relocation to the west and discussed his father’s arrest and imprisonment at Jaworzno:

First, on Sunday, June 6, 1947, the Security Police (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa, UB) came to the church looking for my uncle, my father’s brother, who had been a worker in Germany. Apparently, someone had accused him of giving aid to the UPA. While looking for my uncle, they came upon my father and took both my uncle and my father to Jaworzno, part of German Auschwitz, but neither my uncle nor my father was provided a trial. They arrested my father on Sunday, June 6, 1947 and did not release him until January of 1948.  We couldn't even write to him during his imprisonment. My mother went there once and tried to make contact with him, but she never got to see him. When he returned, he was simply skin and bones. During his time there, for a period of about three months, they would often take him for interrogation and beat him. This I know from him.[12]

Petro Czuchta from Zdynia (Gorlice county) recounted what he witnessed concerning the treatment of people selected for interrogation:
There they were taking people for interrogation. They called it “The Department of Safety.”  Some people bound for the train were arrested and beaten as well. I was 13 years old at the time, so I remember that people were coming back covered with blood.  A lot of men and women were arrested there and placed in a wagon marked “Work Camp.”  These camps had originally been built and run by the Germans.[13]
Investigations and harassment of the deportees did not end at Jaworzno or even at the completion of Akcja“Wisła.”  The Polish security service kept tabs on the resettled families and their activities and pressured some people to inform on others. Teodor Grecon from Bartne (Bortne, Gorlice county) related a story about his father’s and brother’s experiences: 

They asked my father Michał for information on people from Bortne who had served in the German army. They were actually looking for information about a Teodor Szkurat who had been forced by the Germans to transport things such as cigarettes to German troops at the battle of Dukla. My father replied that no one from Bortne had been in the German army, and he was beaten because he denied knowing anything. He served seven months in Jaworzno…while we lived there (in the resettlement territories in Poland), my eldest brother Dmytro, who was eighteen years old, befriended other Lemkos and was soon pressured to inform on their activities. He refused, and in so doing, he was labeled an enemy of the Polish state. For that, he was sent away to work in the coalmines in the Katowice-Silesia region, where he remained for three years.[14]
In addition to harassment by Polish authorities, Akcja “Wisła” deportees encountered difficult living conditions in their new environment due to the haphazard nature of the resettlement process as well as negative reception by local Poles from Volyn and Galicia (now western Ukraine) who had been resettled there in 1945. Individuals who were suspected of being more nationalistic were often relocated far away from other resettled families and isolated. Anna Sekelik, originally from Płonna (Polonna, Sanok county) discussed her experiences in transit to the Pomerania province in northern Poland and described how her family was split up by the resettlement assignments:

My mother, father, one brother and I…we were on the same train. They took us to the former German territory, let us off outside, and everybody was supposed to go to different places. You didn’t know where the Poles were taking you. There were Polish soldiers on the train, watching us all the time. It took two weeks to get there although it was not far, but you know why? Because the train was so long and if another train (was crossing) or something, they would allow the other train to pass and we had to stay.  They brought us there (to Gdynia) and people got off the train wondering, “Where we will go now?” People were talking to each other and nobody knew where to go. They resettled people far away from each other. My father lived about twenty miles from where they placed me.  It took me about four or five weeks to find my parents.[15] 

Seman Madzelan from Binczarowa (Bilcareva, Nowy Sącz county) spoke of his family’s experience on their arrival to Sobin in Lower Silesia. He mentioned an incident of a young child who was dying, which underscores the ill treatment of Lemkos and Ukrainians and in the political climate of postwar communist Poland:

When we got to Sobin, my God! They treated us like bandits. Twenty soldiers guarded us every night. There was no more room in the village so we had to find places outside the village. There was no pasture land for us, and nowhere to graze our cows. The Poles didn't treat us like people. They treated us like livestock, even worse! One of the Halaburda children, only three days old, was dying. They took him to the doctor in Chocianów. The doctor asked if he had been baptized and his parents said, “No, not yet.” The priest said, “Take him to have him baptized because there is nothing I can do.” When the priest found out that the family was Orthodox he refused to absolve the child or to baptize him. The baby died on the way back home and the family baptized him and gave him a name. The priest also refused to bury the child there at the Roman Catholic cemetery. His mother asked the priest where she should bury the baby and he told her to bury him on a nearby hill.[16]

Jarosław Adam from Małastów (Malastiv, Gorlice county) related a similar story.  After his family was resettled to Grębocice county in Lower Silesia, they eventually found shelter in a damaged house in Guzice, near Polkowice. He described how the new settlers were left to fend for themselves in the absence of a coordinated effort to humanely resettle the “Wisła” deportees.  His testimony also reveals the suspicions of local Poles toward the new Lemko settlers, and how the mutual fear and animosity eroded as both groups were forced to co-exist in the new landscape:
… It was difficult. The house had no doors or windows. (The Poles) had already taken the brick homes that were in better condition, and had already married and started families. What remained for us were the worst homes and the worst land. So we had to look for our own places. We arrived on the 16th, so it was the second part of June and it was difficult to live. Everything at home had been plowed and seeded, but where we arrived, we had nothing. We had a cow, and maybe there were a few chickens. There were a few days when we just lived on milk and cheese. Also, the (Polish) people there were afraid of us. They called us bandits and ran away from us. Later on, after they got to know us, we laughed about it together. They confessed that they had slept with axes in case they had to defend themselves from us. After a few days, they saw that we were normal people, and we started to work together and help each other. A neighbor also helped us. The Germans had left behind things like machinery and furniture that was being taken to central Poland, but the local Poles helped us to obtain some of these things before they could be hauled away. There was very little food. A couple in a neighboring village hired me and my brother to work for them, and we were grateful for the work so that we could get potatoes and grain. Later, many of us began to work on the collective farm when the harvest season began. The collective had a crop that already required harvesting and we also sowed grain in the autumn.[17]

As more and more transports headed to northern and western Poland, UPA’s support base began to rapidly erode. The constant pursuit by Polish troops caused many of the larger units to splinter and their communication networks broke down. As troops flooded the area, UPA desertion rates also increased. In the spring of 1947, OUN[18] instructed some units to make their way to the west (to the American occupied zone in Germany), others were instructed to cross the Soviet border to join the fight in Ukraine, and the remainder were told to blend into the population in the countryside.  Many UPA personnel who attempted to flee through Czechoslovakia on their way to Germany were captured or killed, with only a small fraction actually making it through to Germany. By the conclusion of Akcja “Wisła” in August 1947, the insurgency in Poland had come to an end and approximately 140,662 Lemkos, Ukranians and families of mixed Ukrainian-Polish ethnicity had been resettled in the northern and western provinces of Poland. During the resettlement, they were dispersed in order to encourage assimilation into Polish culture as well as to prevent concentrations of Ukrainians who could form an organized resistance. Table 1 contains data compiled by Ukrainian historian Roman Drozd which reflects the approximate number of Ukrainians who were resettled in each province by August 15, 1947. Counting the people who were detained at Jaworzno (3,873), those who perished along the way, and the fact that 919 people were resettled after this date, Drozd also estimated that closer to 150,000 people were deported in 1947. Of the total number resettled during “Wisła,” individuals from counties containing Lemko settlements constituted approximately 64,207 people, or roughly 46% of the total number of deportees.

Table 1: Distribution of Resettlement in Northern and Western Poland[19]

Number of Individuals
Total by 8/15/1947

Table 2 shows the number of people deported from the Lemko counties in 1947. The actual number of people removed is understated since many Lemkos lived outside these counties and some deportations continued after the official ending of Akcja “Wisła.  In Nowy Targ County, for example, 103 people from three villages were deported in April 1950.[20]

Table 2: Individuals Resettled from Lemko Counties in 1947[21]

Powiat (County)
Resettled "Ukrainians", 1947
Poles not resettled
Ukrainians and mixed families not resettled

Nowy Sącz
Nowy Targ

Without a doubt, Akcja “Wisła” was the event that brought about the nearly complete de-population of Lemkos and Ukrainians from their centuries-old ancestral lands in southeastern Poland, where they had co-existed for centuries with Poles, Jews, Roma (Tsigani), Germans and other groups. However, a far more nuanced understanding of Polish and Soviet motivations and actions can only be achieved by placing this event into context with the entire series of resettlement actions that occurred between 1944-1947. Between 1944-1946, approximately two-thirds of the pre-war population had already been resettled to Soviet Ukraine. Thus, it is important to understand the “Wisłaaction as the finale of a series of post-war ethnic cleansing operations in Poland. Classifying or examining Akcja “Wisła” as a separate event provides an incomplete picture of the motivations and actions of the Polish government, neglects to show the total impact on the population, and obscures the cause-and-effect process of how “voluntary” resettlements ultimately evolved into ethnic cleansing.

Disclaimer:  All interviews with participants were respectfully conducted with written permission from the participants.  All rights reserved.  Please do not cite or republish without the authors’ permission.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the C-RS, its Board of Directors, or its members.


[1] See Subtelny's article in Ther, Phillip and Siljak, Anna. Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944-1948. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001. pp. 212-213.  In some places (particularly in eastern counties region where UPA operated) there was significant support for UPA and in others, civilians had little to no contact with the insurgency. Polish policies against Ukrainians (including Lemkos) engendered a political climate where banditry and violence could be perpetrated with impunity, a condition that further fueled resistance among the population.

[2] Ibid, p. 214

[3] Misiło, E. (1996), Repatriacja Czy Deportacja; Przesieldlenie Ukraincow Z Polski Do USSR, 1944-1946, 2 vols. Warszawa: Archiwum Ukrainskie, pp. 57-58

[4] See Drozd, R. in T. Hunczak (Ed.), Zakerzonnia: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Ukrainian Minority in Poland, 1944-1947, pp. 39-40. Clifton, NJ: Organization for the Defense of Lemko Western Ukraine and the Lemko Research Foundation.

[5] In previous years, civilians had fled to nearby forests on the approach of troops and frequently crossed the border into Czechoslovakia for temporary safe haven.

[6] See Bilas, I. Represyvno-Karalna Systema V Ukraini 1917-1953: Suspilno-Politychnyi Ta Istoryko-Pravovyi Analiz: U Dvokh Knyhakh, 1994. p. 524

[7] Łukasz Wozniak [Interview by R. Garbera] (2012, July)

[8] Ibid.

[9] See Horbal, B. Lemko Studies: A Handbook. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, p. 432: “Over two hundred labor camps were created on the territory of Poland by Communist authorities.”

[10] See Ther and Siljak (ed.) p. 240 and Misiło in Akcja “Wisła,” p. 172

[11] Petro Szafran [Interview by Corinna Caudil and Maryann Sivak] (Sept. 2011)

[12] Andrzej Pidlipczak [Interview by Richard Garbera] (July 2012)

[13] Petro Czuchta [Interview by Corinna Caudill and Maryann Sivak] (Sept. 2011)

[14] Teodor Grecon [Interview by Corinna Caudill and Maryann Sivak] (Sept. 2011)

[15] Anna Staroszczak Sekelik [Interview by Corinna Caudill] (May 2012)

[16] Seman Madzelan [Interview by Richard Garbera] (July 2012)

[17] Jarosław Adam [Interview by Richard Garbera] (July 2012)

[18] Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which had auspices over UPA.

[19] See Drozd in Hunczak (Ed.), p. 44. Drozd also noted that additional deportations unrelated to Wisła” occurred through 1952, including deportations from the Lublin province as the result of a Soviet-Polish border adjustment in 1951.

[20] See Misiło, Eugeniusz. Akcja "Wisła" 1947: Dokumenty i Materiały. Warszawa: Archiwum Ukraińskie & Management Academy Group, 2012, p. 977.
[21] Figures were derived from Misiło (2012) pp. 1013-1014 (Nowy Sącz); pp. 1014 (Nowy Targ); pp. 1030-1031 (Gorlice); p. 1037 (Jasło); pp. 1038 (Krosno; pp. 1038-1041 (Lesko); pp. 1048-1050 (Sanok). The regional Lemko and Boyko ethnographic groups began to blend in Sanok and Lesko counties. (See Horbal’s essay in Best/Moklak. pp. 171-177.) Although the table suggests that Lemkos constituted a significant portion of deported population, this data was not stratified by regional ethnic identity and it is therefore not possible to determine what percentage from the Sanok and Lesko counties considered themselves to be ethnic Lemkos.