Ukrainian Monuments in Poland Vandalized

Iris Sopinka for New Pathway, Toronto.

People build monuments to commemorate a person or an important event. The monument helps future generations remember something that people in the present consider too important to forget. The structure is historically symbolic, artistically attractive and sets off memories and imagination to a community about the event that has helped shape it.

When I first saw the UPA monument in Hrushowice, Poland, I was impressed. The monument consisted of two grandiose half arches made out of cement, meeting a trident in the middle that covered four bronze plaques carrying the names of the UPA battalions that fought in Zakerzonnia (Ukrainian land that became part of Poland after WW1): Rena, Berkut, Konyk and Zalizniak. I was intrigued by their names and after doing some research learned that Rena was based in Lemkivshchyna, the land of my ancestors, led by two famous commanders, Khrin and Didyk. These pseudonyms hid the identity of soldiers and saved their lives on many occasions.

In recent years, this monument has been vandalized by a certain right-wing Polish organization and as a result, has been under scrutiny by the government. There is even a possibility that it may be taken down, as an accord passed in 1997 between the Ukrainian and Polish governments requires that any Ukrainian monument built on Polish soil has to be agreed upon by both governments. This particular monument was built before the accord was signed in 1997, which may serve as a pretext for its removal (as the Ukrainian government at that time had not approved it). Ukrainians in Poland built this monument to remind them of their struggle against the Polish Communist government who forced them out of their ancestral homeland and deported them to Ukraine and to Western and Northern Poland. Nine soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army are buried under this monument. Destroying this monument will not erase the memory of what it represents and will simply reinforce the will to keep the memory alive.

Another monument, which Polish right-wing nationalists have vandalized in recent history, is the double granite cross in a military cemetery in Pikulychi, a village just outside of Peremyshl, Poland. It commemorates the soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army who fought for Western Ukraine in the Polish-Ukrainian War of 1918-19.

In 2000, the graves of the UPA soldiers, who died in the Battle of Bircha, were moved to Pikulici without name plates. Bircha was a stronghold for the Polish Home Army, from where attacks were carried out on Ukrainian villages during periods of ethnic conflict during and after WWII. In the same cemetery lie Ukrainian soldiers who fought in Simon Petliura’s army alongside General Pilsudski’s army in the war against the Bolsheviks in 1919. In 2004, the Ukrainian Catholics of Peremyshl began commemorating the Ukrainian fighters with a mass in the Ukrainian Cathedral and then a procession through the city to the war cemetery in Pikulici. In 2016, the procession was disrupted by hooligans of the extreme right waving flags and chanting anti-UPA slogans. Some of them were arrested. The local police did their job in protecting Ukrainians in Peremyshl from further violence.

The final example of vandalism is the cross that stands at the top of Beskid Mountains, four hours walking from Turynsk. Every year, the Organization of Ukrainians in Poland goes on a pilgrimage, carrying a wooden cross up to the top of the mountain named Khreshchatyk after the street in Kyiv where King Volodymyr the Great led his people to be baptized in the Dnipro River. A requiem is held and then the organization usually leaves the cross there in the cemetery to commemorate the soldiers, nurses and doctors who were killed in an UPA underground hospital in 1947 by the Polish and Soviet security forces. Last year, however, seeing the cross had been desecrated many times, the pilgrims took it back home with them to avoid further vandalism.

Many more Ukrainian memorials have been destroyed in Poland, six from 2015 to 2016 and no one has been apprehended. Yet, the Polish are planning to build another monument to their soldiers who died on Ukrainian soil. The Ukrainian government has acceded to building monuments in Ukraine to validate and commemorate the history of diverse groups of people in the country (it is, however, in “de-communization” process of removing monuments built by and commemorating the Soviet regime; Poland is doing the same).

The Polish government should allow Ukrainians in Poland to honor the memory of important historical events that took place on what is Polish land today. There is a disparity between the monuments the Polish are supporting and the ones Ukrainians are supporting. If a monument is a valid way to commemorate an important historical event such as the ones previously mentioned, then both governments should support both groups of people and recognize their choice for building a monument.