It is a miracle that I am alive
My grandparents were murdered in the Volyn massacre and my parents barely survived it, recalls Krzesimir Dębski, a jazz musician and composer.
Can you forgive what happened?
Krzesimir Dębski: How can one forgive when those who ask for forgiveness do so in an insincere and twisted manner?
Ukrainian clergymen, politicians and intellectuals made an appeal to Poles, in which they asked for forgiveness for the crimes and harm inflicted by their nation, such as the Volyn massacre. The signatories of the appeal included two former presidents. What is insincere and twisted about that?
Some people are comparing the act to the letter sent by Polish bishops to German bishops in 1966. This is not an accurate analogy, the historical context is completely different. At the end of their declaration, the Ukrainians write that they will continue to honour their heroes and expect us not to criticize them for doing so. Formulating this in diplomatic language, of course, they state that: “Poland should fully recognize the distinct nature of Ukrainian traditions and its respect-worthy fight for nationhood and independence”.
And what is wrong about that?
The fact that their fight for nationhood constituted a Ukrainian massacre carried out by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) on the Polish population. It was genocide, a methodological cleansing of Poles from the territories of Volyn and Eastern Galicia. My grandparents were killed in Volyn and my parents barely survived. It is a miracle that I am alive. That is why I cannot forgive those who make heroes out of the perpetrators. For a while now, various parts of Ukrainian society have called for mutual forgiveness, but what is actually happening is a muddling of facts. The criminals of the UPA are called heroes and statues are built in their honour –the day that the UPA was created is celebrated as a national holiday. When Volyn is mentioned it is not within the context of the massacre but in reference to fraternal battles that took place between Poles and Ukrainians. The history of Volyn, as recorded by Polish historians Ewa and Wladyslaw Siemaszkow – and as told to me by my father – makes it clear that it was not a proportional battle. Poles only constituted 15 per cent of Volyn. Moreover, this was 1943 so there were hardly any men in their prime because many of them went to war 1939 and later joined the armed forces in the West. Others were deported to gulags in Siberia by the Soviets and others yet were sent to labour camps by the Germans. Those who remained were mainly children, women, the elderly and a small number of men who managed to evade deportation. It was only in 1944 that this rag-tag group formed the 27 Volyn Division of the Home Army (AK). The truth is that the Polish minority in Volyn ceased to exist as a result of the murders committed by the UPA, which had previously taken part in the genocide of Jews.
There were revenge acts by the AK…
There were indeed, but in 1944 and these took place within fighting between the AK (4,000 soldiers) and the UPA (40,000 soldiers). Their aim was not to eliminate a whole national group but to prevent further murders and to seek revenge.
What did you mean when you said that your parents barely survived the Volyn massacre?
On 11 July 1943 my parents went to mass at a church in Kisielin. They were young, my mother was 18 and my father was 21 – they hadn’t married yet. The UPA militants surrounded the church and when the mass ended and the Poles left the church they started attacking them with rifles, spades, axes and whatever they could find. People retreated back into the church but the UPA attackers started banging down the door. Some people tried to hide, others didn’t think that the attackers wanted to kill everyone so they stood still and others yet tried to escape. The insurgents forced their way into the church and started dragging out people. They tore off the blouse of one girl before shooting her, so that her clothes didn’t have any traces of bullets. They murdered 90 people: pregnant women, children, elderly people, they had no qualms. Along with a dozen other people, my parents barricaded themselves in the presbytery. For 11 hours they stood their ground. They were shot at through the windows, the doors were set on fire, attempts were made to set the roof on fire and the next-door barn was torched. The bandits also pulled up a ladder and tried to enter through the windows, throwing in grenades. My father and other men took it on themselves to defend the people in the building. They extinguished the fire from under the door using urine, because they didn’t have any water. They threw back grenades that came flying in through the windows. The priest was injured while trying to block incoming grenades using a pillow to block a window. One of the grenades tore a piece of my father’s leg off. It had to be amputated later on. My parents, not knowing if they would survive, got engaged under the hail of bullets. During the night, as it started to rain, the attackers pulled back. My parents survived but only barely.
Your father also knew a lot about the massacres taking place in other parts of Volyn. How did your father come across this information, which he would later pass on to you?
He collected first-hand accounts from survivors. 11 July 1943 became known as Bloody Sunday in Volyn. On this day, UPA nationalists attacked 99 Polish locations, including some churches. My father collected testimonies from people who survived the attack on the church in Kisielin and surrounding areas, around one hundred people, and he created a monograph titled “There was a town – the story of Volyn”. Therefore, it is not just his subjective account of the events that took place. Of course, he included his own recollections as well.
He chronicled everything in a cool, objective style, free of emotion. The sober, emotion-free language makes it even more difficult to read because it describes the barbarity in detail. Witnesses depict what happened on July 11 and later, in the following months. They describe how children were murdered, thrown down wells or hacked down with axes; how people were burned alive in barns, stabbed to death by pitchforks and how men had their throats cut.
How were your grandparents killed?
I only know that in August the UPA led them out to the woods. They were the parents of my father, Leopold and Anisja Debsky. My grandmother was a nurse and was a Cossack by origin. My grandfather was a doctor who treated everyone, even Ukrainians, often free of charge. He would repeat that he was needed by people, he believed that he would not be killed, which is why he didn’t run away. My grandmother stayed with him. We didn’t find out how exactly they were killed. In the 1980s and 1990s, my father led a private investigation to find out. He was helped by a school friend of his, who still lived in Kisielin. Even after the death of my father, he continued to follow my mother’s lead, following up on traces of the crime, witness accounts – he used to repeat that my father was a friend of his and he only took money from us to finance the investigations. When I was there last, with a film crew making a documentary about the massacre, a gang war broke out in the village. A policeman was murdered, his body so badly disfigured that he could only be identified through a DNA test. Still in shock, the parents of the murdered policeman came to me and my mother and told us that my grandparents were killed by none other than the friend who was helping us identify the murderers. They broke the silence that had taken hold of the village for many years.
How can you be sure that the people there know what the UPA did?
The older people know, because many of them took part. I travelled to Kisielin on many occasions and talked to people. At first they refused to say anything. We were met with a wall of ambivalence. Then something changed and they started talking. They started telling us stories about my grandparents and helped us tend their graves next to the church. Unfortunately, in the last few years things have moved backwards. Nationalist sentiment has increased to the point that people are once again afraid to talk. The majority repeat that the events took place during a war, with savage fighting taking place on both sides. At one point a journalist came to the village to write an article about the UPA heroes who defended the village against marauding Poles. One of these Poles was supposed to be my uncle who, it was claimed, ran around with a knife trying to stab everyone. The thing is that my uncle was handicapped all of his life because he had tuberculosis of the bones and could barely walk. We used to call him “bedridden Uncle Jerzy”. On the other hand, the hero who defended people was my father’s “friend”. I wrote a rectification but it didn’t amount to much. It is a good example of how Ukraine treats its history. The example of Kisielin is not unique.
In Kisielin, is there anything left to remember the events by?
On the initiative of my father, plaques bearing the names of the victims have been put up at the cemetery next to the church. However, this was during Soviet times and he had to agree for them to state that the murders were carried out by bourgeois groups, as one couldn’t say that they were nationalists. Nowadays, motorbike riders from Kazimierz Dolny come to Kisielin. They don’t have any family ties to region but they feel the need to look after this place. Doctors of Polish origin in Ukraine organize a so-called White Sunday in Kisielin, where they provide residents with medical check-ups free of charge – the town does not provide any medical services of its own. This initiative takes place under the patronage of my grandparents – Anisja and Leopold Debski. As a result, the ancestors of the people who orchestrated the massacre are now being treated under the patronage of my grandparents. The doctors also take of the church ruins. It doesn’t have a roof or flooring so weeds started to grow on the inside. They cut out all the weeds but the soil is very fertile so they grow back very fast.
What needs to happen for you to feel that Ukraine is holding itself accountable for the massacre? An apology by the national authorities for what happened in Volyn?
I don’t want any apologies. I want for the truth not to be falsified. I want Ukrainian textbooks to describe what the UPA did on these territories. The Ukrainians should finally become acquainted with Bandera’s documentation and learn that these were nationalist groups fashioned on Germany’s Nazis. In Germany there was the NSDAP, in Ukraine there was the OUN, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, who had a military wing, the UPA, which in turn was divided into two fractions like the SS and SA. I also want Ukrainians to understand that there was a political will to eliminate all foreign elements, in particular Poles and Jews, from Ukrainian territory. And that is why the massacre took place.
Why is this so important for you?
I grew up in a home in which Volyn was ever present. On one hand, my parents looked back nostalgically at the time they spent in the Borderlands and they had many friends from there. On the other hand, they both remained traumatised all of their lives. My father initially used to paint, from memory, panoramic views of Kisielin and surroundings area – places that no longer existed. He also used to paint the church in Kisielin, in the form that he remembered it in. Later he started working on that book. There was a very difficult atmosphere at home at the time, memories started to creep back. I also felt it, because as escapees from the Borderlands and new settlers my parents were very foreign wherever they went. And, as a direct consequence of this, so was I. In Kielce, for example, they called us “Ukrainians” because we had come from the East. Pretty ironic, right? We were different, strange and stuck to our own, so we were deemed suspicious. And it was forbidden to talk about what had happened in Volyn. In Communist Poland this was a taboo topic, because Volyn was in the Soviet Union and one could, after all, only talk positively about the USSR. When freedom came, the taboo remained in the name of maintaining good relations with the newly created Ukrainian state. After that, one could still not talk about it due to what was described as Polish national interest. Nowadays, it is said that the issue of UPA crimes will only serve to stoke Russian propaganda. In our country there is also a large of group Ukrainophiles who cannot accept that their romanticized Ukrainian nation would ever commit such a crime. After all, they sing so beautifully! These are simplistic, emotional arguments.
So you disagree with the notion that we should stay true to the Polish national interest and seek to preserve good relations with Ukraine?
What national interest? If the Ukrainians feel that they are European then they need to live up to European norms, that is not falsify facts and glorify nationalists.
In the letter I mentioned earlier one reads: “we call on our allies, the Polish government and parliamentarians, not to make any rash political declarations, they will not reduce the pain but will instead benefit our common enemies”.
What is that supposed to mean, rash declarations? These are historical facts that have been recorded in documents and chronicles, albeit in Polish ones. What is rash however, are the continued attempts to muddle the truth by the Ukrainians, who don’t believe that the nationalists committed a crime of such magnitude. This is an outright lie, rather than building a credible Ukrainian identity based on truth.
Do you support the demands made by Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski and Borderland communities who want to make 11 July a day of remembrance for the victims of the massacre that the UPA carried out in Volyn and Eastern Galicia?
The 11 July date was suggested by my father, because his amateur research endeavours led him to believe that this was the date on which several dozen locations where attacked. He came across 60 cases, but since then researchers have discovered 99. Yes, I believe that 11 July should be marked as the day of remembrance for the victims of the Volyn massacre. Such a single date is something people can relate to – the day can be used to boost remembrance, memory and awareness.
Do you think there is enough discussion on the issue in Poland?
Yes, in terms of historical books there are enough of them around. However, Poland’s leading newspapers rightly talk about the massacre in Srebrenica, which started on 11 July, the pogrom in Jedwabne, initiated on 10 July, but usually stay silent when its comes to the Bloody Sunday in Volyn.
Do think that now is the right time for Ukraine to discuss the UPA’s crimes, given the hybrid warfare that is being carried out by Russia on Ukrainian territory?
Yes, while the last witnesses of the event are still alive. As well as those Ukrainians who helped Poles and Jews, and there were a lot of them too. After all, only a minority of the nation was swept by the UPA vicious fervour.
Interviewed by Katarzyna Skrzydłowska-Kalukin