About the further fate of the heroes of the Volhynian Saga , the lives of Ukrainians in the Recovered Territories and Wrocław in the late 1940s with Joanna Jax,
author of the book On a Foreign Land. A new life , talks to Marek Teler.
Marek Teler: New life is the first part of your new saga On a foreign land , and at the same time the further fate of the heroes from the Volhynian saga . From the beginning, did you plan to describe the fate of Vissarion, Nadia, Marcel and Marta in more than three volumes, or did this idea only appear after the success of Saga Wołyńska ?
Joanna Jax: Actually, it was the other way around. First, there was the idea to describe life in the Recovered Territories after World War II. Later, however, I came to the conclusion that I need to go back in time for this story to be complete and to better understand the presence of Kresy or Ukrainians in these areas.
MT: The action of New Life begins in Wrocław in 1947, i.e
in the year of the commencement of Operation Vistula, mass resettlements of the Ukrainian population. At what point in life do we find the heroes of the series?
JJ: My heroes move to Wrocław, but each of them has a different reason. The Lemańskis and Andrzej Osadkowski are forced to leave Lwów after the Soviets seized it, Vissarion and Stepan are resettled as part of Operation Vistula, and Nadia goes there with her husband, who is delegated to Wrocław as a so-called sovietnik.
MT: In Nowy Życie , you describe how the heroes of the Volhynia Saga try to arrange their lives anew after the turmoil of war, and above all after the Volhynia massacre of 1943. Does the memory of the events in Volhynia have a big impact on their further existence?
JJ: Of course it does. At least for those who lost a loved one during the slaughter. Ukrainians also do not have an easy life, because they are under the scrutiny of the new authorities, while people from the Southern Borderlands remember about the crimes of the UPA and Ukrainian peasants, which is why they treat people of this nationality with reluctance. What's more interesting,
due to their melodious accent and vocabulary, Poles were also often considered Ukrainians.
MT: In Poland, during the Stalinist era, not only the Polish independence underground was fought against, but also the OUN-UPA activists remaining in the country - the fight against them was the official goal of Operation Vistula. How many of them remained on Polish lands and did they actually pose a real threat to Poles?
JJ: As far as I know, the UPA didn't have much chance to be reborn on such a scale as in the area of the former Kresy. About 150,000 people were resettled as part of Operation Vistula. Many of them were first sent to filtration camps, including the largest and infamous one in Jaworzno. It is estimated that among this huge number of people, the authorities managed to detain only a few hundred people who could have some connection with the Ukrainian underground. People of Ukrainian origin or from mixed families were dispersed and forbidden to change their place of residence if they had no merit in cooperation with the Polish or Soviet authorities, and they were constantly under surveillance by the Security Office.
In 1947, the ranks of the UPA were already heavily depleted - let us remember that the Istriebitiel Battalions, after the death of General Nikolai Vatutin, caused real havoc in this environment. Ordinary, innocent Ukrainians also suffered at that time. Of course, there were UPA soldiers who managed to get through Operation Vistula dry or to get from Western Ukraine to Poland, but most of them thought rather of escaping to the American sphere of influence. Preferably to Munich, because Stepan Bandera, released from the concentration camp, stayed there. The members of the UPA were also not covered by the amnesty, as were the activists of the Polish underground, due to the cooperation of Ukrainian nationalists with the Third Reich. It is true that the remnants of the UPA hoped that they would be able to renew their activities in the Olsztyn voivodship, where many displaced persons from the "Wisła" operation were sent, but they did not succeed. They hoped for the support of the Ukrainian population, but they were tired of the partisans and constant harassment and did not intend to help their countrymen.
Poles also reported to the authorities when "strangers" appeared in their area.
In the years 1947-1949 in the Olsztyn voivodeship, over two hundred people suspected
about activities in the Ukrainian underground. How many actually posed a threat is difficult to estimate, because we all know how the courts operated at that time. A dozen or so people received the death penalty, while the rest received heavy prison sentences. Of course,
Former members of the UPA were tracked down all over Poland, most often successfully.
MT: The crimes committed by the OUN-UPA caused Poles to treat the Ukrainian minority with great reluctance or even contempt. What was the life of Ukrainians like in the Recovered Territories and what kind of discrimination did they have to face?
JJ: They certainly had their hands looked at
and were often suspected of conspiracies, which resulted in denunciations to the Security Office. They also had a problem with cultivating their faith, which, as you know, was not Catholic. They were given the worst farms and lands, and sometimes several families were allocated the same land or house. The buildings were most often devastated, with leaky roofs, sometimes in complete ruin. It was the most conscious action, an alleged punishment for supporting the Ukrainian underground, which had little to do with reality. The directive of the head of the Settlement Department from the Szczecin voivodeship has been preserved, in which it was added that the displaced persons from the "Wisła" operation should be placed in destroyed individual farms . Not to mention the ordinances to place Ukrainians at a minimum distance of fifty kilometers from land borders, thirty from sea borders and the same from large cities. Large centers were only for meritorious Ukrainians, for example those cooperating with the UB or earlier with the NKVD. In a given town their number could not exceed ten percent of the population. Ordinary people had a really hard life in Poland, the smart ones got to our country on false documents because they thought it was better to live in Poland than in the Soviet Union, even though it became Stalin's footstool.
MT: New life is not only a story about Vissarion, Nadia, Marcel
and Marta, but also about post-war Wrocław, to which Poles from various parts of the country and displaced inhabitants of Kresy come in large numbers. How do you paint the image of this city in the years 1947–1948 on the pages of your novel?
JJ: In the first years after the war, Lower Silesia was called "Mexico", "Dojny Śląskie" or "Wild West". After the siege, Wrocław was destroyed in seventy percent. What was left was plundered by the Soviets from the trophy brigades, the rest was taken care of by looters and the Polish authorities. It was a time when all forces were focused on rebuilding the capital. Thus demolition bricks, stucco work, window frames, historic doors, and even printing machines were transported to Warsaw. Immediately after the war, there was a bazaar on Grunwaldzki Square called the Szaberplace, where found or stolen things were exchanged for other, more necessary ones. Barter was king. Many of the displaced people came from the countryside and when they got to the big city, they tried to live as before. They raised poultry in apartments, pigs in sheds, and organized picnics in the squares. Those who came here from ruined Warsaw could not get used to it, as well as to the borderland language. Everything bore the hallmarks of a makeshift – the city received more funds only on the occasion of the Exhibition of the Regained Territories.
MT: Just like in The Volhynian Saga and your other novels, you care about a credible representation of the realities of the era and the atmosphere of that period. What sources did you use
at work on the novel A New Life ?
JJ: Books, articles, memoirs, doctoral dissertations, bulletins of the National Council and issues of the "Sobótka" newspaper. In fact, I expected to find a lot of literature on the subject, but it wasn't that easy.
MT: What, in your opinion, is the reason for such a great popularity of historical novels with history in the background, and do you willingly reach for this type of literature as a reader?
JJ: When I started my adventure with writing, such novels were not very popular at all. I don't know why we now have a real flood of similar books. By the way, many of them should never have been made or should have been put on a shelf
with the word "fantasy". Yes, I reach for such novels, but definitely more often for documentaries, biographies or memoirs. I still remember the novel Gracious . The plot was unacceptable to me for various reasons, but historically it was a masterpiece. And that's why I remember it very well, because this factual layer was the most important to me.
MT: You are the author of almost forty best-selling novels, you publish several books a year, and at the same time you are actively involved in, among others, volunteering at the Foundation for a Countryman. What are your favorite activities and ways to spend your free time when you are not writing?
JJ: In my free time I love to travel behind the wheel, I also like computer graphics and good cinema.
MT: As I mentioned at the beginning, A New Life is the first volume of your new saga In a Strange Land . So, could you give us a sneak peek about your future publishing plans?
JJ: Two more volumes of On Foreign Land and this "secret" must suffice for now.