Yuriy Poliansky: the problem of a biography

ID: 222
Story of Poliansky — burgomaster of Lviv during the Nazi occupation period — ellaborates on complicated issues of the role of civic administration in the new order development.

This story relates to the theme Collaboration, that was prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

In early August 1941, Hans Frank, the head of the General Government, arrived in Lviv on an official visit to declare Lviv the capital of the District of Galicia. This visit of the governor is carefully documented, with a lot of photographic documents available.

In one of the photos, the delegation of the Lviv City Hall, where the Lviv City Administration headed by Yuriy Poliansky was located, greets the governor general with bread and salt. This is how these events were described in the Nova Doba newspaper of August 24, 1941, published in Berlin:

According to the orders of Führer Adolf Hitler of July 17 and 22, the administration of Galicia passed from the German military to the civilian authorities and was taken over by the Governor General Frank at 12 p.m. on August 1. The Governor General arrived with his suite in the city of Lviv, where, at the city border, the German dignitary was showered with flowers by many children under the triumphal arch on Horodotska street. From there, the Governor General and his suite left for the building of the former Galician Diet, where he passed in front of the honorary hundred of the police. At the entrance to the Diet a delegation of the Ukrainian population was waiting led by the mayor of Lviv Dr. Y. Poliansky, who accompanied by two girls in beautiful national costumes greeted the worthy guest with bread and salt.

Poliansky was elected chairman of the Lviv City Administration, along with the government of Yaroslav Stetsko, after the creation of an independent Ukrainian state was proclaimed on June 30, 1941. Nevertheless, unlike Yaroslav Stetsko, Yuriy Poliansky was not arrested and remained in office for several months. From the first half of July 1941, the Lviv City Administration was subordinated to the German military administration and was gradually transformed into the City Starostwo, Ukrainians eventually replaced in senior positions by officials arriving from the Reich.

In August 1941, in honour of Hans Frank's visit, Yuriy Poliansky, as head of the Lviv City Administration, delivered a speech congratulating Hans Frank, thanking the Nazis for liberating the city from the Soviet rule and, on behalf of the Ukrainian community, promising the governor "obedience and loyalty":

Mr. Governor General!

As a representative of the Ukrainian people, in particular the city of Lviv, I have the great honour to greet in your person the representative of our liberator, the Führer of Great Germany.

After a many-century-long enslavement, our people are now able to meet a better future under your leadership.

We, the Ukrainians of Galicia, have long-standing and deep friendly relations with the great German people, and we have shed blood for our appreciation of German culture. If we now express our gratitude for our deliverance, Mr. Governor General, that gratitude is coming from our hearts.

We want to show our feelings through action and loyal and joyful cooperation in the German cause of reconstruction, which should also shape Ukraine's future.

On behalf of my fellow citizens, I swear obedience and loyalty to you, Mr. Governor General, as a representative of the Führer.

Yuri Poliansky did not last long as mayor: from June 30 to September 15, 1941, when Hans Kujat took over. The head of the Lviv City Administration was gradually stripped of his real powers, although his formal position remained. Poliansky's signature can be seen on many documents, including the July 22 resolution establishing a Judenrat (Jewish Council) in Lviv. However, Yuriy Poliansky, given his direct subordination to the Nazi authorities and a very limited range of opportunities, as mayor, did not initiate or execute criminal orders.

Yuriy Poliansky was educated as a geographer, geologist and archaeologist, but in addition to studying at the Universities of Vienna and Lviv he served in the Ukrainian Galician Army, was a member of the Ukrainian Military Organization and taught at the Ukrainian Secret University. His scientific and teaching activities were connected with the Taras Shevchenko Scientific Society, the Academic Gymnasium with Ukrainian as the language of instruction and the Greek Catholic Theological Academy.

When the Soviet occupation began, Poliansky took an active part in university life as director of the Institute of Geography and secretary of the University’s Academic Council, appointed to these positions by the new government in opposition to the Polish professors. Unlike other Ukrainian colleagues, who were brought into scientific life by the Soviet authorities and who, due to their political convictions, belonged to Ukrainian nationalist circles, one can find neutral to positive opinions on Yuriy Poliansky in Polish-language memoirs. Here is how Alfred Jan, his junior colleague at the Institute, writes about him:

The new head of the institute was friendly to the Poles. He hated the new order and the newcomers just as much as we did, but he had to hide it more than the Poles. In a moment of frankness, he told us that it was very difficult for him to play the role of a defender of an almost exclusively Polish institution (we were given only one Ukrainian assistant, Levytsky, who also was, in the end, friendly to us, and a Russian Jew from Kyiv named Zilber with whom we were getting on well).

According to Tadeusz Tomaszewski, a professor of psychology, Yuriy Poliansky was friendly to Poles during both the Soviet and Nazi occupations, prompting him to be called a "very decent nationalist."

With the beginning of the German occupation and the proclamation of independent Ukraine by the government of Yaroslav Stetsko and the OUN-B, Poliansky was appointed head of the Lviv City Administration.

He was then appointed director of the Natural History Museum, a position he held until the end of the Nazi occupation. With the approach of Soviet troops, Poliansky went first to Krakow and then to Vienna, where he worked in the structure of the Ukrainian Central Committee. After World War II he emigrated to Argentina, where he lived and taught at the University of Buenos Aires for the rest of his life.

No matter what position Yuriy Poliansky held, he is remembered as a man who tried to help everyone. As director of the Museum of Natural History, Poliansky tried to support the professors during the occupation, his signatures are under variuos papers, official letters and appeals, including those in support of Maksymilian Goldstein and his collection.

If we consider Poliansky's activity as a burgomaster in terms of political cooperation of a representative of the Ukrainian community’s political elite, this activity falls under the term of ideological collaboration, i.e. collaboration with the occupying regime for the sake of the future state. However, if we consider Poliansky's biography and actions beyond his activity as the head of the Lviv City Administration, the use of the term "collaboration" will no longer be so unambiguous.

If we look at history only from the point of view of struggle for the nation, the pre-war and post-war biography of Yuriy Poliansky with his participation in the liberation struggle, his scientific legacy and active public work fits perfectly into the image of a hero whose main goal was the struggle for independence. The problems begin with Poliansky's activities during the war, because the nationalist narrative treats collaboration only in terms of betrayal, which leads either to suppressing and denying the fact of collaboration, or to the justification of political collaboration by historical necessity for a noble cause. This conflict in the biography of the former head of the Lviv City Administration can be traced taking as an example the photo document mentioned at the beginning of the text. The photo, which depicts Yuriy Poliansky as mayor, exists and is used as the main photo of Poliansky on the information portal Wikipedia. The problem is that the photo is presented there in a cropped version, where Poliansky himself is clearly visible, but there are neither bread and salt, nor girls in embroidered costumes, nor Governor General Hans Frank. That is, Yuriy Poliansky as a scientist, military and nationalist is all right, while his greeting the occupying regime with bread and salt is not  as this kind of behaviour does not fit into the ideal image of a hero.

In fact, the story of Yuriy Poliansky is difficult to understand in terms of "hero vs. enemy". Poliansky is a convenient person. For the Soviet authorities, he is convenient as a Ukrainian professor for the "Ukrainization" of higher education. For the Nazis, he is convenient as an obedient man of non-radical actions. It is interesting to look at Poliansky's biography from the point of view of the place and role of one person, who can become an element of a whole system working for destruction, but by his decisions and actions in his position tries to help others.

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Pl. Rynok, 01 – The City Hall building

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1. У Ратуші міста Львова… Від бурмістрів до міських голів: Довідник, упорядники Ірина Мацевко, Марʼян Мудрий (Львів: Центр міської історії, Галицька видавнича спілка, 2016), 84.
2. Оля Гнатюк, Відвага і страх (Київ: Дух і Літера, 2015), 496.
3. "Генерал-губернатор Ганс Франк у Галичині", Самбірські вісті, 1941, 26 жовтня, № 24, 3.
4. "Промова представника українського громадянства, посадника міста Львова доктора Юрія Полянського", Вільне слово, 1941, 6 серпня, № 13, 2.

Inna Zolotar
Translated by Andriy Masliukh