During the commemoration of the Day of Memory of the Victims of Genocide, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated that the anniversary marked “the best time to condemn the murder of Polish civilians by Ukrainians” during World War II and to pay tribute by building proper graves for the victims.

The Polish President has highlighted that “only the full truth about the violence that Poland describes as a genocide can strengthen bilateral ties with its neighbor in the future.”

“Let this truth in fact serve as a foundation… for new relations between our nations and societies,” Duda said during last week’s observance.

The truth about the horrifying wartime massacres (between 1942 and 1945) had to be “firmly and stated,” the Polish President added, and has urged the Ukrainian capital to recognize the ethnic cleansing of Poles by the latter’s nationalist militias.

Despite the two countries’ deplorable past, Duda stressed that the nation’s efforts to support Ukraine against the invasion of Russia prove that they have no plan for retaliation.

That Fateful Sunday of July 1943

At the height of the wartime violence, a group of Ukrainian Nationalists carried out a well-orchestrated simultaneous mass killing raid on over 100 Polish settlements within the Volhynia region on July 11, 1943. The death squad mercilessly murdered dozens of civilians who unknowingly attended church mass on that “Bloody Sunday.”

Wehrmacht soldiers showed alleged German victims
Wehrmacht soldiers showed alleged German victims to journalists on Bloody Sunday. One of many photos used by Nazi propaganda. The image bears the editor’s cropping marks, showing a portion of the idea that was intended to be used for publication. (Heinz Fremke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Decades later, Poland established the day of memory in 2016 and has recognized that the events constituted a genocide – a term both Duda and Morawiecki used in their speeches.

The offending country, however, has not accepted that declaration and often refers to the Volhynia events as part of a conflict between Poland and Ukraine, organized by the latter’s independent fighters. These same nationalist fighters later play a significant role in paving the sovereignty of Ukraine.

As a result of the retaliation, both countries lost thousands of lives, including over 100,000 Poles and up to 12,000 Ukrainians.

Pre-existing Tension Between Poland and Ukraine

Before the war, tensions between Poland and Ukraine already existed due to each country’s differing perspectives on religion, culture, and territorial and political disputes.

Ukrainian nationalist activity accelerated toward the end of the 1920s, fueling the group’s repressive measures, which included numerous arrests, widespread brutality and intimidation, and property destruction during the Soviet invasion at the outbreak of World War II.

The matter remains complicated for Ukrainians, Duda conceded, given that the militias responsible for the attacks were also hailed as heroes for their resistance against the Soviet Union and as symbols of Kyiv’s painful struggle for independence from Moscow.

He continued: “those who we know were murderers were also heroes for Ukraine, at other times and with a different enemy, and often died at the hands of the Soviets, fighting with deep faith for an independent, free Ukraine.”

Poland and Ukraine As Allies

Despite becoming one of Ukraine’s most steadfast allies in the face of the Russian invasion, Poland has yet to “forgive and forget” the former for its genocide during World War II. However, Polish leaders clarified that allowing this “historical wound” to fester would only widen the gap between the neighbors, which would be unfavorable at such a difficult time.

Duda at the Stand Up for Ukraine Event in April 2022
Polish President Andrzej Duda pledged an alliance at the Stand Up for Ukraine in Warsaw on April 10, 2022. (Screenshot from Global Citizen/YouTube)

Poland has so far opened its doors to thousands of Ukrainian refugees and even allowed the country to share its logistics hub to sustain the latter country’s supplies as the exhausting war continues.

In a separate report, Duda said that the “dramatically tragic mistakes” from the past “must never be repeated if we are to continue in this part of Europe and of the world as two sovereign, independent nations living in their states.”