Volhynian Poles Massacres

Submitted to ABC-CLIO encyclopedia Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia, 2013.

Volhynian Poles, Massacres of (1943) 

The region of Volhynia, currently Volyn in Western Ukraine, is the site of the 1943 massacre of tens of thousands of Volhynian Poles by Ukrainians. This is best explained in the context of the interwar period, even though Poles and Ukrainians fought over Volhynia for centuries. After World War I and the establishment of the Second Polish Republic, regional disputes led to the 1923 granting of Volhynia and Eastern Galicia to Poland and the Soviet annexation of Ukraine. President Józef Piłsudski initiated policies of religious and cultural freedom for Jews and Ukrainians living in Poland. With his death in 1935, the Polish state forced the conversion of Orthodox Christians to Catholicism and limited Ukrainian freedoms. This led to Ukrainian terrorist activities and the strengthening of the extremist faction of the Organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), led by Stepan Bandera and referred to as OUN-B. Polish repression of the Ukrainians in Poland left non-terrorists dead and exacerbated tensions.

The 1939 German and Soviet invasion into Poland left Volhynia under Soviet control. Soviets deported hundreds of thousands of Poles to Siberia, including Polish Jews. Ukrainian political parties were banned, which forced the extremist OUN-B underground. In 1941 the Germans invaded Volhynia, pushing the Soviets eastward. To avoid slave labor in the German Reich, many Ukrainians enlisted as police or in positions in the German civilian administration, the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. Between 1941 and 1942 thousands of Ukrainian police assisted the Germans murder approximately 200,000 Volhynian Jews, thereby learning Nazi methods of well-planned, wide-scale murder.

In 1942 the OUN-B formed paramilitary groups, secured its command in Volhynia, and instituted extensive propaganda against Poles. Germans and Poles terrorized Ukrainians who joined the nationalists, but the nationalists, well-armed and well-trained police or administrators, prevailed. With the German defeat at Stalingrad, the situation escalated in March 1943 when the OUN-B formed the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and called for a full-scale liquidation of the Poles to ensure a Pole-free Ukrainian Volhynia. Ukrainians surrounded villages across the region, murdered unsuspecting civilians, then destroyed their villages. The UPA gave Ukrainian civilians the choice to join their efforts or risk arrest or death. Nevertheless, some Ukrainians sheltered Poles. Mixed families often lost both Poles and Ukrainians. The Poles counterattacked, murdering thousands of Ukrainians, many of whom were innocent of bloodshed.

The UPA killed some seven thousand unarmed civilians in late March and early April 1943. In July 1943 alone, the UPA attacked 167 towns and villages, slaying an estimated ten thousand Poles (Snyder 2003). Evidence of wide-scale torture, rape, disembowelment, and murder of the Polish minority population originate from eyewitness accounts, German and Soviet documents, and more recently, from mass grave excavations. The final attack in Volhynia occurred on Christmas of 1943 when hundreds of Poles were burned alive in their churches. The ethnic cleansing then spread south to Eastern Galicia, where it continued into 1945.

Estimates of the numbers of Volhynian Poles the UPA murdered range from 35,000 to 60,000, with several thousand Ukrainians also slaughtered by either Poles or the UPA. Historians and activists debate the numbers. Although the Polish government issued a statement concerning the guilt of individuals rather than of the Ukrainian nation, the Ukrainian government has not apologized.

Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen

See also: Organization of the Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B); Poland during World War II; Polish-Ukrainian Conflicts; Ukraine during World War II; Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA).


Berkhoff, Karel. Harvest of Despair: Life and Death in Ukraine under Nazi Rule. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

Kamanetsky, Ihor. Hitler’s Occupation of Ukraine, 1941-1944: A Study of Totalitarian Imperialism. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1956.

Rudling, Pers Anders. “Historical Representation of the Wartime Accounts of the Activities of the OUN-UPA (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – Ukrainian Insurgent Army.” East European Jewish Affairs 36:2 (2006): 163-189.

Snyder, Timothy. “The Causes of Ukrainian–Polish Ethnic Cleansing: 1943.” Past and Present 179 (2003): 197-234.