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Nine Lives: Ethnic Conflict in the Polish–Ukrainian Borderlands

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The Ukrainian Massacres

In the forests where Baron had dug his hide-out I had a friend named Karina, a poet and an idealist, who organised a few local youngsters to attack German buildings after dark. He put me in touch with the local Peasants' Battalion, who at first told me that I was too young to fight with them. Had I had my own weapon, the story might have been different, and I cursed my aunt for refusing to tell me where the arms were buried. Instead I joined Karina's small group in order to prove what I could do. Armed with five rifles and a couple of dozen hand-grenades, we attacked a German storage depot, scaring off the sentry with a few pot-shots. We blasted off the locks and then tossed in the grenades but, although we damaged the stores of food and equipment, we failed to open a heavy safe we came across inside. That was my first taste of real action. It had been easy and I wanted more.

The next month Karina again proposed me to the local unit and they reacted more positively, quizzing me on military tactics and equipment. During the summer they sent me back to the technical college so that I would have a cover for collecting information on German troop movements in Hrubieszow. My student ID still served as a passe-partout and, despite my height, I still managed to look younger than my age. Yet I was still furious that they would not let me fight with them and took the rebuff as a personal slight. A sergeant heard me complaining and took me aside.

'Look, young fellow,' he said, 'we need every available man, also on the inside, working in the towns. You have the perfect documentation, the perfect cover. You can walk the streets without fear of arrest. That's why we're sending you to Hrubieszow. It's a vitally important job.'

His comments made me feel slightly better.

They wanted to know everything: the number of military trains passing through the station; their cargo; what insignia were painted on the military vehicles they unloaded; the nationality of the troops (German, Ukrainian, Lithuanian or Latvian) and whether they belonged to the Wehrmacht or the SS. I identified Lithuanian and Ukrainian troops by the colour of their shoulder flashes. The skull and crossbones on the SS uniforms made them unmistakable.

If I could get within earshot without arousing suspicion, I attempted to understand what the soldiers were saying to each other. The Slav languages presented me with no problems and I memorised all the details by repeating them over and over to myself. Only when there was something I did not understand, German lettering or symbols, for instance, did I make a note to show to someone afterwards. In these cases I always scribbled in the back of a school exercise book and, if stopped and questioned, planned to say that it was homework. It was imperative never to jot anything on a separate piece of paper and always to write in a rough code. If I had anything urgent to report, I jumped on a bicycle to reach the unit fifteen miles away in Laskuv. If there was a danger of running into a convoy, I did the journey on foot, weaving my way through the woods past Ukrainian villages.

I joined the Peasants' Battalion from necessity and conviction: from necessity because they were the only Polish partisans under arms in the immediate area and from conviction because my grandfather had supported the Peasants' Party before the war. My unit had up to 350 men under the command of a pre-war NCO, a small man with narrow, steely yes who insisted on strict military discipline and adherence to the correct military codes of conduct. Both the size and composition of the unit fluctuated with our casualty rate, which soared in the New Year of 1944, but generally speaking, in the time I fought with it, new men joined just as quickly as others were killed.

The CO trained us on the hoof, sometimes giving lectures on such basics as the correct performance of guard duty or the right formation to adopt when moving through potentially hostile territory. Some of the men continued to work on their farms by day and joined the unit for actions at night, while the rest, including myself from the autumn onwards, lived permanently in the field, sleeping in barns, forests and deserted houses, where we were crowded twenty to a room for warmth and security. We had a mixture of arms and ammunition, most of it captured from the enemy: about a dozen heavy machine guns, a handful of ancient cannons and three or four dozen sub-machine guns in addition to rifles, pistols and hand-grenades. All manner of other bits and pieces passed through our hands, as we were grateful for whatever we could find or loot from the enemy. Like our numbers and personnel, our weaponry changed constantly. If there was no dispute over who had killed a particular German or Ukrainian, then that man had the pickings of clothes, boots (always especially treasured items), helmet and other paraphernalia, though generally not the weapons, which became communal property.

At one point we were joined by two platoons of Polish police, originally sent by the Germans to fight on the eastern side of the Bug, who had deserted en masse once faced with what was happening to their compatriots at the hands of the Ukrainian militia. The Germans had told them that Russian and Ukrainian bandits were burning Polish villages, but when they got there and discovered the Germans themselves had in fact armed the Ukrainian gangs, they beat a path to fight with the partisans. We had some Russians with us at one time too, including a sergeant who sang in a deep, powerful voice about Brazilian beaches. The Russians had a happy-go-lucky attitude to life and kissed their dead comrades goodbye, knowing that they themselves had not long to live. A couple of Kalmuk deserters from General Vlasov's renegade army even teamed up with us for a while. They said that two of their soldiers had been killed by Ukrainians and that they wanted to fight with us instead of with the Germans.

Vlasov had deserted from the Red Army and led a couple of divisions of disaffected Soviet soldiers, mainly from the Asian and Caucasian republics. We called them Kalmuks. When they came for us in the forests they would sing, shout and cavort through the undergrowth to keep up their own spirits and deceive us into thinking they outnumbered us. The Germans avoided sending their own soldiers after partisans; they held the yes of the Kalmuks to be cheaper.

I was left behind one day with half the Polish police after the the others had left to get food. Thinking ourselves too far from Nazi strongholds for the Ukrainian bands, we waited calmly for their return and when figures emerged in the distance, we assumed they were ours and went forward to greet them. But they responded to our welcome by opening up with machine guns and in a few minutes had killed twelve of our number, mainly from the police platoon. They captured a Tokarov, a valuable Russian-made machine gun, and several rifles before hurrying back over the hill from where they had come. They then regrouped to attack our flank after the main unit, hearing the firing, had given chase in the deep snow.

These were Bandera's troops, Ukrainian nationalists who operated east of the Bug and were identifiable by their green uniforms and distinctive hats.

One of the police had been shot trying to run forward to hide behind a tree and reload his gun. I remember his death because I had never before seen bullets enter a man's body in freezing weather. They disappeared into his legs, his chest, his head, making tiny holes and drawing only a small amount of blood, which froze instantly on contact with the air. He lay in his uniform without an overcoat, still twitching slightly when his elder brother approached his body and bent down. There was not a tear in his eye. It was better for me not to say anything to him straightaway, even though I was standing a few feet away, but to wait until later to tell him I was sorry. He pulled out a pocket-watch, a gift from his dead brother, and held it in his hand while he declaimed his revenge to the silent forest.

'They'll pay for your death. I'll make them pay. You and I fought like civilised people, we didn't stoop to their level, we never killed children or women or unarmed men. We fired when they fired at us. From now on I'll make every Nazi and every Ukrainian pay for your death.' He kept his bloodthirsty promise.

For six months from June 1943 we roamed through the county of Lublin and took the fight to the Germans by attacking small convoys and throwing whatever sand we could into the Nazi war machine. We once blew up a whole train after capturing some explosives, but usually we lacked the munitions which would have enabled us to concentrate on the railways. Compared with the Communist cells of the Polish People's Army, which received arms from Soviet parachute drops, we were under-equipped, and compared with the Home Army, under the command of the Government in Exile in London, which by this time was organised throughout Poland, our numbers were insignificant. But we co-operated with both the Communists and the nationalists, while they refused to come to each other's aid in battle. Our aim was to liberate Poland from the Nazis with whatever means we had at our disposal.

Copyright © Waldemar Lotnik, 2007

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