Szczepan Siekierka was a teenager in 1943 when irregular Ukrainian nationalist forces entered his village in Volhynia, now part of western Ukraine, and brutally slaughtered 16 members of his family.
His voice still shakes when he describes how the men, members of the Nazi-linked Ukrainian Insurgent Army [UPA], murdered everyone they could find, including women and children. "They weren't fighting for a free Ukraine. The people they killed were civilians, ordinary farmers who often couldn't write their own names and who knew nothing of politics."
These UPA fighters, along with other Ukrainian nationalist factions, waged a little-known wartime ethnic cleansing campaign that sought to eliminate unwanted groups, such as Jews and Poles, from what they deemed to be the territory of a future independent Ukrainian state. As many as 100,000 Poles died at their hands.
And it is they, along with the UPA's fascist founder and leader, Stepan Bandera, who would be enshrined as "fighters for Ukrainian independence" by a controversial raft of legislation passed last month by Ukraine's parliament. While the law has drawn predictable fire from Moscow, and from many in Russified eastern Ukraine, it is also raising hackles in Poland – showing that the debate over Ukrainian fascist history isn't simply a he-said-she-said between Moscow and Kiev, but a deeper problem of how to square Ukraine's sometimes sordid past with its efforts to find a modern identity.
"It's hard to see reconciliation and forgiveness when the Ukrainians treat the UPA criminals and Bandera like national heroes," says Mr. Siekierka, who is president of SUOZUN, a civic organization devoted to the memory of Poles killed by the Ukrainian nationalists. "Accepting one extremism now will lead to the acceptance of other extremisms in future."
An old, deep scar
On the surface, ties between Ukraine and Poland have never been so strong. Poland has been one of the new Kiev government's strongest advocates in its year-old efforts to quell rebellion in eastern Ukraine, break ties with Russia, and move closer to Europe. Last month, shortly before the passage of those controversial laws, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski visited Kiev.
"Poland’s outstretched hand is not just an indication of the current political trend but our understanding of the historic processes turning Ukraine into an equal and extremely important partner and neighbor," he told the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament.
But the new Ukrainian laws – which have yet to be signed by President Petro Poroshenko – are clearly reopening old wounds around the UPA's campaign, known in Poland as the Volhynia or Volyn massacres. "Ukraine is searching for its own historic identity, and we should try to understand that," Polish Foreign Minister Grzergorz Schetyna told Gazeta Wyborcza. "But at the same time we should tell the Ukrainians what is hurting us."
The former Polish prime minister and leader of the opposition Democratic Left Alliance, Leszek Miller, was less circumspect. "[Komorowski] went to Kiev to extend a hand to the Ukrainians, but left with a knife in his back" due to those laws, he told Polish Public radio.
He said his party would introduce a resolution condemning Ukrainian nationalism in the Sejm. In 2013, Poland's lower house of parliament, the Sejm, came within a hair's breadth of declaring the anti-Polish wartime massacres a "genocide" committed by Ukrainians.
Tensions between Ukrainians and one of their traditional oppressors, Poland, go back centuries. But the current acrimony has its roots in the chaotic events of World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists sided with Nazi Germany in hopes that defeat of the Soviet Union could lead to creation of a Ukrainian state. The Nazis had other plans, and Bandera was arrested when he tried to declare independence in 1941.
But thousands of his followers in the UPA continued their battle, often in collaboration with the Nazis, in hopes of achieving that goal. Critics argue that, while they were certainly "fighters for Ukrainian independence," they are in no way presentable as founding father figures due to their fascist ideology, collaboration with the Nazis, and involvement in mass ethnic cleansings of non-Ukrainian ethnic groups.
"Every country in Europe had people who collaborated with the Nazis, but no modern European country names them as heroes," says Iryna Vereschuk, a civil society activist who was mayor of a small Ukrainian town on the Polish border until earlier this year.
She says the Volhynia massacres have always been an issue, but it did not stop cross-border cultural exchanges and growing understanding between Ukrainians and Poles. "This year, the mood is a bit more sour. Our Polish friends are on our side against Putin and Russia, but many of them are asking painful questions about this law. I have no idea why we need this."
Settling the past
Despite efforts by Poland's Institute of National Remembrance to engage Ukrainian historians in dialogue about the Volhynia massacres, consensus seems further away than ever.
One of the key authors of the new laws, historian Volodymyr Viatrovych, director of the official National Memory Institute, recently defended them in a lengthy rebuttal to international critics. Mr. Viatrovych derided claims that Ukrainian nationalists participated in World War II pogroms against Poles and Jews as only "one of the opinions that has the right to exist" and an image that was "masterfully created over the decades by Soviet propaganda."
Most experts in both Ukraine and Poland say the controversy is unwelcome, but unlikely to seriously impact the growing geopolitical alliance between the two countries as they seek to pull Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit.
"If Poroshenko signs this law, it certainly won't do our relations with Poland any good," says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "At least as long as this crisis goes on, Poland will close its eyes to the implications of this law."
Indeed, the shared animosity toward Russia is, for the moment, papering over many cracks in Ukrainian-Polish relations. For example, another law passed by the Ukrainian parliament aims to "de-communize" the country by outlawing communist ideology and symbols. While that may be controversial for Moscow and many in eastern Ukraine, many Poles seem to approve.
"Actions like tearing down monuments of Lenin are good news for Poland, because it signifies that Ukraine doesn't want to be part of the Russian empire any more," says Pawel Kowal, former Polish deputy foreign minister.
Still, Mr. Kowal says, "Polish politicians shouldn't shrink from using the word 'genocide' when talking about the Volhynia massacres, because we need to prod the Ukrainians to be more interested in settling the past. Any Ukraine under the flag of Bandera will never join the European Union. Period."