The lost home: post-war forced relocations

ID: 265
The story is a part of the theme The Epoligue of the War, prepared within the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

May 18, 1945, Friday
We are leaving tomorrow. This is our last evening in Lviv. I’m writing in the dining room, on the chest. A storm is approaching, thunder can be heard from afar. For our last walk, we went to the High Castle. It is green and wonderful, there are "candles" on chestnut trees; it’s beautiful May. I love this nook so much, I used to come here almost every day. And today it is the last time that I’m looking at the High Castle. It's impossible for me to never be able to come back here again.

It’s raining and windy behind the window, I can see lightnings. Everyone is asleep, and I’m writing about every little thing. I’ve lived here for 24 years. I was born in the room where my daughter is now asleep. And now I have to get out of here. We are expelled from our native land.
(A fragment from Alma Heczko's diary)

Between 1944 and 1947, 1,300,000 people (about 500,000 Ukrainians and 800,000 Poles) in the Polish-Ukrainian border regions were displaced. As a result of the Soviet policy of forced resettlement, in the first postwar years the percentage of the Polish population in Lviv decreased radically. At the same time, some Poles left even before the Red Army entered the city: fleeing the bloody Ukrainian-Polish conflict and ethnic cleansing, they escaped from villages and towns to Lviv and later to the West. The motivation for leaving was also the fear of possible Soviet repression and deportation. According to various estimates, by June 1944, about 45,000 Poles had left Lviv.

Despite the Soviet leaders’ insistence on Poland's eastern border being established along the Curzon line, the Polish government in exile hoped for a change in the geopolitical situation, support from the allied powers and the restoration of the pre-war borders. Unlike 1939, it was important for the Soviet regime to achieve the legitimization and international recognition of the newly annexed territories as Soviet. Ethnic homogenization of the population was seen by the Soviet authorities as a way to establish a postwar order and peace. The only representatives of the Polish state were the London government in exile (which broke off diplomatic relations with the USSR in 1943) and the Polish National Liberation Committee (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego, PKWN), established in Moscow in mid-1944 with the Soviet leaders’ support. As a result of this legal conflict, the first bilateral evacuation agreements were signed at the national level between the PKWN and the governments of the Ukrainian, Belarusian and Lithuanian Soviet republics, each of which had a large Polish minority. The Polish-Ukrainian, Polish-Belarusian and Polish-Lithuanian agreements were virtually identical. All three agreements were based on the principle of reciprocity. They concerned not only the Polish minorities of the three Soviet republics, but also the Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities in Poland, who were also invited to "return to their homeland".

Thus, according to the Lublin Agreement between the Government of the USSR and the PKWN of September 9, 1944, both sides undertook to begin the "voluntary evacuation of all citizens of Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian and Ruthenian nationalities" living in eastern Poland, and the "evacuation of all Poles and Jews who had Polish citizenship until September 17, 1939, lived in the western regions of the Ukrainian SSR and wished to move to Poland." The agreement stated that the move was to take place voluntarily. The displaced persons were given the opportunity to choose their place of residence and were offered a loan of 5,000 rubles or the equivalent in zlotys, as well as compensation for abandoned property (land, real estate) in the form of farms or urban property. It was allowed to take up to 2 tons of luggage per family: clothes, shoes, food, household items, equipment and appliances, livestock. Specialists (doctors, artists, scientists) could take the items needed for work.

This document used the bureaucratic euphemism of "evacuation" (moving to escape possible danger). As soon as the administrations in charge of resettlement were established in the Ukrainian SSR and Poland, this process began to be called "repatriation" in the documents. The use of this terminology is very controversial. For people who have lived in these territories for several generations, "repatriation" meant the loss of their homes and forced departure from the "small homeland." The main purpose of the new wording was to "normalize" this process and to prove the active cooperation of the Soviet and Polish authorities in the implementation of the postwar new order. In modern Polish and Ukrainian historiography we can also find the terms "expatriation" and "deportation", used to emphasize the forced nature of the postwar population movements. According to American historian Theodore Weeks, these events fit into the concept of "ethnic cleansing" as a policy of ousting minorities and traces of their presence from a certain territory.

The resettlement operation was scheduled to end on February 1, 1945. This date turned out to be unrealistic and was postponed to June 1946. Initially, the vast majority of the border regions residents did not support the call for "voluntary evacuation." Thus, as of December 5, 1944, out of 87.7 thousand Poles registered for resettlement from Lviv, only 946 people left. On the one hand, they hoped for a change in the geopolitical situation; on the other hand, especially among the intelligentsia, the desire to prevent Russification and ensure the preservation of the Polish character of the border areas prevailed. The Roman Catholic Church, led by Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, was an important center of passive resistance to eviction.

In January-February 1945, as the Red Army approached Berlin, the pressure on the Poles gradually escalated into repression. Members of the Polish administration responsible for the evacuation were accused of subversive activities and sabotage of the resettlement process. A wave of mass arrests coincided with the Yalta Conference, which ended on February 10, 1945 with unsuccessful attempts by the Polish diplomacy to preserve Lviv for Poland. To persuade the city's residents to leave, a mission was sent to Lviv by Stanisław Grabski, an influential Polish politician and vice president of the National People's Council. In 1945, he visited Lviv three times and met with Soviet officials, Polish academics, and ordinary Lviv residents. More and more Polish residents of Lviv and Galicia started registering to leave. In addition to their reluctance to live in the Soviet Union, the incentives to leave were arrests, deportations, and professional and educational discrimination against Poles. A popular saying at the time was "if we don't leave for Poland, we will be made to leave for Siberia."

The dynamics of resettlement was different in urban and rural areas: while the departure of Polish residents of Vilnius or Lviv was organized as quickly as possible, the relocation of peasants was delayed for fear of a sharp reduction in agricultural production. According to eyewitnesses, even peasants registered for "repatriation" were allowed to leave only after they sowed their lands.

The Polish Evacuation Commission operated in Lviv from May 1945 to December 1946 and was located in the former Krakowski Hotel on the corner of pl. Bernardyński (now pl. Soborna) and ul. Pekarska. Zofia Lewartowska, a commission employee, recalls its work as follows:

The bilateral commission in the epicentre of the events: what was it and what were conditions it worked in?

It was indeed a very interesting phenomenon. An ephemeral organization, with a simplest structure, with no fixed assets, no departments, no offices, even no telephone, that is, with nothing at all. (...) There were 12 persons on the Polish side and as many on the Soviet side, shoulder to shoulder, in a shared office... In the lower hierarchy, there were four Polish and Soviet employees responsible for the evacuation from the city districts. Their task was to write out cards on the basis of birth certificates (German Kennkarte were declared invalid), to make descriptions of the property, to check transports and be on duty at night. These jobs were pretty good, it was quiet upstairs, you could move around freely, sometimes go out to the people. The ground floor, especially during the commission sessions, was a real hell. Here, evacuation cards were issued and departure conditions were set. Here the commission clerks were exposed to the strongest pressure of a desperate crowd fighting for everything: transport, seats in the car, convenient dates and destinations...
(Zofia Lewartowska, Polskie przesiedlenia — historia nieznana)

Zofia Lewartowska left Lviv immediately after the Commission's work was finished in early December 1946. Like other resettlers, she recalls very tough conditions of traveling that could last for several weeks. Often migrants had to wait for their trains at the stations for a long time, commonly without the possibility of cooking, without shelter from rain or cold, at risk of robbery. Some people died from illness while moving, especially in the cold months.

The transition of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus to the USSR was officially fixed by the Soviet-Polish treaty of August 16, 1945. Poland's new borders included territories formerly owned by Germany, the "Recovered Territories" (Ziemie Odzyskane), home to several million Germans who were also subject to forced resettlement. By the end of 1946, about eight hundred thousand people had left for Poland, the vast majority of whom were Poles and about thirty thousand Polish Jews. About a quarter of them came from the Lviv region, including almost 105,000 from Lviv itself. The majority of migrants from the border areas settled in the ex-German lands: according to the State Administration for Repatriation (Państwowy Urząd Repatriacyjny, PUR), 37.9% of migrants from Volhynia and Eastern Galicia ended up in the Silesian Voivodeship and 35.4% in the Wroclaw Voivodeship. Arriving at the destination did not necessarily mean the end of the problems. Displaced people often had to wait for a new apartment or house for weeks. In the spring of 1947, the Soviet authorities announced the completion of the "evacuation" of the Poles. In 1948, the only Polish-language communist newspaper, Czerwony Sztandard, was closed in Lviv. Soviet policy was aimed at expelling Poles from pre-war Polish territories; however, those who lived in the USSR before the war avoided it. As a result, in the late 1940s, the Zhytomyr region became the largest Polish center of the USSR.

Simultaneously with the eviction of Poles, there was a mass forced relocation of Ukrainians from eastern Poland. Despite initial Soviet plans to relocate them to the southeastern regions of Ukraine, most of them — about 323,000 people — moved to the western regions. However, only a few were allowed to live in large cities. As of October 1946, only 7% of Ukrainians who had moved from Poland to the Lviv region had been allowed to settle in Lviv, while others lived mainly in rural areas. After the Soviet-Polish border was closed in mid-1946, the Polish authorities launched the Operation Vistula, when 120,000 to 150,000 Ukrainians from the eastern regions were deported and resettled in the newly annexed western regions to limit support for the Ukrainian nationalist underground.

Thus, in the postwar years, Lviv was a place where constant forced displacements continued, blurring the line between peace and war. Despite significant ideological differences, ethnic homogenization became a common denominator of the activities of nationalist forces and the Soviet regime.


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Cover photo: Polish Evacuation Committee building, pl. Soborna 7, April 2019. Photo by Olha Zarechniuk. Source: Lviv Interactive, Center for Urban History
Anna Chebotariova
Translated by Andriy Masliukh



Pl. Soborna, 7 – Lviv Forensic Research Institute and Court of Appeal of Lviv Oblast

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