WARSAW, Poland (AP) — The Polish Prime Minister and leaders of the Catholic Church opened days of celebrations on Friday to honor the victims of the massacres of tens of thousands of Poles by Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, which have marred the closer strategic relations between neighboring nations.
“We can say that for many years this has been an unhealed wound in Polish-Ukrainian relations,” said spokesman for Poland’s right-wing ruling party, Rafal Bochenek.
“We would expect the truth to be told and things to be called by their proper name,” Bochenek said.
Poland has declared the massacre of some 100,000 Poles by Ukrainian nationalists in 1943-44 to be genocide. The killings took place in Volhynia and other parts of what was then eastern Poland under Nazi and then Soviet German occupation, and which is now in western Ukraine.
Warsaw is one of Kiev’s staunchest supporters in its war against Russian aggression, and the ever-closer ties seem to offer the two nations an opportunity to come to terms with a hurtful and divisive past. Many Poles still hold grudges against their family members who were brutally killed in the massacres. In retaliation, some 15,000 Ukrainians then lost their lives.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki traveled to Ukraine early on Friday to visit massacre sites, where entire villages of Ostrowki and Puzniki had been wiped out by units of Ukrainian nationalist forces. He installed memorial crosses there and visited local cemeteries where some of the victims were buried. Not all burial places are known.
“I will not rest until the last victim of this terrible massacre in Volhynia is found and buried with respect,” Morawiecki said.
Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, and Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church held a reconciliation service on Friday in Warsaw.
These were the first days of observances which will culminate on Tuesday, marking the 80th anniversary of the escalation of violence.
Whole villages were burned down and all their inhabitants killed by nationalists and their allies who sought to establish an independent Ukrainian state.
Poland has long sought permission from Kyiv for the search for burial sites, exhumations, identification and commemoration of Polish victims.
Some of the Ukrainian nationalist leaders responsible for instigating the massacres are praised in Ukraine for fighting for the nation’s independence during World War II, which led to strained relations with Poland. But Ukrainian authorities have recently signaled a more open approach to Poland’s expectations.
Polish leaders have insisted that telling the full truth will strengthen bilateral relations with Ukraine and neutralize vulnerabilities that could be exploited by third countries seeking to undermine those ties.
“We must be aware, Poles and Ukrainians, that without full clarification and a complete dossier on the crimes of Volhynia, Russia will always use this map to drive a wedge between Poles and Ukrainians,” Morawiecki said.