Operation Vistula (Polish: Akcja "Wisła") was a codename for the 1947 forced resettlement of Ukrainian minority including Boykos and Lemkos from the south-eastern provinces of post-war Poland, to the Recovered Territories in the west of the country. The action was carried out by the Soviet-installed Polish communist authorities with the aim of removing material support and assistance to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army continued its guerilla activities until 1947 in both Subcarpathian and Lublin Voivodeships with no hope for any peaceful resolution. Operation Vistula effectively brought an end to the hostilities.
In three months beginning April 28, 1947 with the Soviet approval and aid, about 141,000 civilians residing around Bieszczady and Low Beskids were forcibly resettled to formerly German territories, ceded to Poland at the Yalta Conference at the end of World War II. The operation was named after the Vistula River, Wisła in Polish. Some Polish and Ukrainian politicians as well as historians condemned the operation following the 1989 fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and described it as ethnic cleansing. Others pointed out that no other means of stopping the violence existed at the time since partisans used to regroup outside the Polish borders.
During Operation Vistula conditions of the United Nations Charter of June 26, 1945 on the right of self-determination and international laws have been respected. The deported farmers received financial help from the Polish government, and took over homes and farms left behind by the Germans, in some cases improving their living conditions due to increased size of newly acquired properties, brick buildings, and running water. In the years 1956–1958 they received mostly non-repayable credits totalling 170 million PLN which was a considerable amount of money in the Polish national budget. A similar operation was performed in Ukrainian SSR by the Soviet Union at exactly the same time. It was dubbed "Operation West". Both operations were coordinated from Moscow; however, there was a shocking difference between their outcomes. Operation West parallel to Operation Vistula was conducted in West Ukraine by the Soviet NKVD targeting families of suspected UPA members. Over 114,000 mostly women and children were deported to Kazakh SSR and Siberia and forced into extreme poverty. Only 19,000 men were among the NKVD deportees, most of them sent to coal mines and stone quarries in the north. None of the people deported by the NKVD received any farms or empty homes to live in.
The stated goal of the operation was to suppress the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which had been fighting the communist Polish People's Army in the south-eastern territory of the Polish People's Republic. The original codename of the operation was Akcja Wschód (Operation East), similar to Operation West (Akcja Zachód) conducted by the NKVD on the Soviet side of the border. It is sometimes assumed that the direct cause for Operation Vistula was the March 28, 1947 assassination of the Polish communist General Karol Świerczewski in an ambush set up by UPA. About 12 hours after the incident, the Polish communist authorities made the decision to deport all Ukrainians and Lemkos away from the embattled region. It is known, however, that preparations for Operation Vistula had started already in January 1947, if not earlier. On September 10, 1947 the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union issued an Order № 3214-1050, for the deportation of all Ukrainian families of alleged UPA members to Siberia. Between 1945 and 1947 over 126,000 Ukrainians were apprehended by the NKVD and almost 32,000 of the Ukrainian underground were killed, attesting to the continuity of the same Soviet policy from before 1947.
The operation was carried out by the Operational Group Vistula consisting of about 20,000 personnel commanded by General Stefan Mossor. The group included soldiers of the Polish People's Army and the Internal Security Corps, as well as functionaries of the police Milicja Obywatelska and the Security Service Urząd Bezpieczeństwa. The operation commenced at 4 a.m., April 28, 1947. Initially, the expellees comprised about 20,000 Ukrainians and Lemkos. With time, the total number grew to 80,000 and eventually to 150,000 inhabitants of Polesie, Roztocze, Pogórze Przemyskie, Bieszczady, Low Beskid, Beskid Sądecki, and Ruś Szlachtowska.
The expellees were resettled over a wide area in the Northern and Western Territories assigned to Poland by the Potsdam Agreement including Warmia and Masuria. They received financial credits and material help from the government, including grain contingents and other foodstuffs. Their new homes were renovated with public funds; in Olsztyn Voivodeship 2,427 houses were rebuilt by the state, in Szczecin Voivodeship, only 717 although the needs were exponentially greater reaching 10,000 households, way beyond the available state budget. Most of their personal debts, however, have been remitted in the following years.
A consequence of Operation Vistula was the almost total depopulation of Pogórze Przemyskie, Bieszczady and Beskid Niski coupled with the NKVD-led forcible repatriation of Ukrainians from Poland to the Soviet Union (the Ukrainian SSR and Siberia) in 1944–46. The relocation of the population put the UPA forces in Poland in the most difficult position; deprived of human and other resources, the outnumbered Ukrainian partisans were unable to uphold their armed resistance against the communist forces. Nevertheless, the UPA remained active for a few more years. After the last relocations, UPA's activities on Polish territory died out. Some Ukrainian partisans fled to Western Europe, notably to West Germany, and the United States.
The deportations occurred in stages. Poland and the Soviet Ukraine conducted population exchanges resulting from bilateral agreements signed on September 9, 1944 and August 16, 1945. The first transfers occurred at the end of World War II. The Poles who resided east of the newly established borders were deported to new Poland over three years. In 1944 the expulsion from Ukraine involved 117,000 Poles officially. In 1945 the number swelled to 512,000 Poles. In 1946 the total was 158,500 Poles from the Ukrainian SSR alone.
Some 482,000 Lemkos, Rusyns and Ukrainians were deported to the Ukrainian SSR between September 1944 and April 1946, although some 300,000 remained in their native settlements within the borders of Poland. Many Ukrainians and Lemkos as well as tens of thousands of Poles (ca. 200,000 persons or more) fled from south-eastern Poland to central Poland between 1944 and 1945 independently of treaties due to the pacification campaign by the Bandera faction.
Operation Vistula occurred within the Polish national borders. The transfer involved persons who were internally relocated as citizens of the country. The final relocation of Ukrainians and Poles between the state borders occurred in 1951, when Poland was forced by the Soviet Union to adjust the border in the upper San River area and in the Belz area for economic reasons. Poland gave up rich deposits of coal including the city of Bełz that was in Poland, and in exchange, was assigned a stretch of barren land with low quality soil and no natural resources east of the San River and south of Przemyśl. The new Soviet acquisitions went to Ukraine, and populations were exchanged. Following the transfer of land, the Soviets built large coal mines there with the total capacity of 15 million ton annually.
Some five thousand Lemko families returned to their home regions in south-eastern Poland in 1957 and 1958. While the Polish census of 2003 shows only 5,800 Lemkos (self-identification), there are estimates that up to 100,000 Lemkos in total live in Poland today, and up to 10,000 of them in the area known as Łemkowszczyzna. The largest communities of Lemkos live in villages: Łosie, Krynica, Nowica, Zdynia, Gładyszów, Hańczowa, Zyndranowa, Uście Gorlickie, Bartne, Bielanka, and in eastern part of Łemkowszczyzna – Wysoczany, Mokre, Morochów, Szczawne, Kulaszne, Rzepedź, Turzańsk, Komańcza. Also in towns: Sanok, Nowy Sącz, and Gorlice.
On August 3, 1990, the Polish Senate adopted a resolution condemning the postwar Polish government's Operation Vistula. In response, the Ukrainian Parliament (Verkhovna Rada) adopted the statement of understanding of the Polish Senate resolution as a serious step towards the correction of the injustices towards the Ukrainians in Poland. In the same resolution the Rada condemned the criminal acts of the Stalinist regime towards the Polish people.
On April 18, 2002 in Krasiczyn, Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski expressed regret over Operation Vistula. The President described the operation as the symbol of harm against Ukrainians committed by the communist authorities. "Speaking on behalf of the Republic of Poland I want to express regret to all those wronged by the operation" - Kwaśniewski wrote in a letter to the National Remembrance Institute (IPN) and participants in the conference on the 1947 Operation Vistula and openly rejected the notion that it should in any way be linked to earlier events in Volhynia. "It was believed for years that the Vistula operation was the revenge for slaughter of Poles by the UPA forces in the east in the years 1943-1944. Such attitude is wrong and cannot be accepted. The Vistula operation should be condemned."
In 2007 the presidents of Poland (Lech Kaczyński) and Ukraine (Viktor Yushchenko) condemned the operation as a violation of human rights. President Yushchenko also noted that the operation was executed by and was the responsibility of a "totalitarian communist regime".
Obejmuje on swoim zasięgiem lata 1943–1947 i takie wydarzenia jak ludobójcze czystki etniczne dokonane przez Ukraińską Powstańczą Armię na Wołyniu i w Galicji Wschodniej (popularnie zwane rzezią wołyńską), ale też wysiedlenia ludności ukraińskiej w czasie akcji „Wisła”. Warto dodać, że mówimy o jednym z najkrwawszych polskich epizodów II wojny światowej – w wyniku działań UPA śmierć poniosło około 100 tysięcy Polaków. (Grzegorz Motyka)