Karolina Romanowska is the chairwoman of the Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation Association. Kyiv Post met and spoke with her about a grassroots initiative that connects Poles and Ukrainians through activities such as organizing joint workshops in Ukraine.

Michał Kujawski: The "Volhynia Massacre," which is being commemorated in Poland on July 11,  has been the subject of Polish-Ukrainian disputes for years and is is a personal thing for you. Many of your relatives were murdered in 1943. When did you visit Volhynia for the first time?

Karolina Romanowska: I crossed the Polish-Ukrainian border and went to Volhynia for the first time in 2021. It was during the filming of “Sad Dziadka” (“Grandfather's Orchard”). It was an incredible experience for me. I’ve lived in many places all around the world and I’m well-traveled, but I had never been to Volhynia. I know it may sound irrational, but Volhynia seemed to me like the most distant place in the world. I knew that sooner or later I would visit it and confront my family’s history. Finally, I took the opportunity to go there and meet the Ukrainians who saved Poles.

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MK: How did your private, inner need to go to Volhynia turn into social activity and the founding of the Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation Association?

KR: When I went there for the first time, I walked on my feet through the Volhynia region within its historical borders. I reached the village of Ugly, the place where my grandfather and my mother’s family came from. I met the residents and confronted the history I had overheard in my childhood through “slightly open doors.” What does it mean? The adults didn’t talk about the events of 1943 with children. At most, you could sometimes hear something by accident, but I never brought up the topic myself. These were terrible stories about the murder of children and other innocent people. Eighteen members of my family were killed. Some of my relatives born in Volhynia who survived are still alive.

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I got involved in the work on the film “Grandfather’s Orchard,” which depicts the history of the Volhynia Massacre. Interestingly, it is the result of cooperation between Poles and Ukrainians. It was funded by the Polish Film Institute and the Ukrainian State Film Agency. The screenplay writers consulted with historians, and its historical accuracy was confirmed by both Polish and Ukrainian researchers. It was a significant event – we approached the topic of the Volhynia Massacre differently than had been done before. We depicted Ukrainians who, at the cost of their own lives, saved Poles. Sometimes, they and their families and children paid the ultimate price – the price of their lives. We wanted to show that this painful history is not black and white, but it has many shades of gray. We rejected the collective responsibility of portraying Ukrainians as murderers – there were many good people there who are true heroes to me. After completing the work on “Grandfather’s Orchard” film, I had an inner feeling that there was still much to be done on both sides. On the Ukrainian side as well as on the Polish side. This is how the Polish-Ukrainian Reconciliation Association was brought to life, it includes both Polish and Ukrainian members.

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MK: What challenges do Poles and Ukrainians face?

KR: First of all, we need to jointly deal with the trauma, the conspiracy of silence, and the mutual stereotypes that exist. That’s the idea which guided the organization of the first edition of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation workshops. We invited Poles and Ukrainians representing many different communities. There were Polish families from Volhynia, Ukrainian families and also those who had lost their loved ones on both sides.

Professor Daquing Yang from Washington University, a world authority on historical reconciliation who has advised the Dalai Lama, among others, also participated as did a British person too. We also have the support of clergy with one of the priests hosting us. In such a delicate area, spiritual support is very important for participants. The dialogue has begun, but we realized that it’s not enough. We invited historians, but we didn’t want to reduce it to a debate among scholars. We wanted to focus on mutual emotions.

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Grzegorz Krowicki, a therapist specializing in the Feldenkrais method, which aims to heal traumas, participated in the workshops. Symbolically, Feldenkrais, the creator of this method, comes from Volhynia. Last year, we organized a Polish-Ukrainian theater. A play was created about a love that faced challenges – a Pole and a Ukrainian woman who were in love had grandparents serving in the Home Army (AK) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which prevented them from understanding each other. It may sound trivial, but such small things really bring people closer together. Everything we did was one big experiment. In the workshops, everyone can speak freely. There are no taboo topics – we discuss everything. Getting out what we are hiding deep in our hearts, whether it’s anger or sorrow, helps.

MK: How did the workshops conclude, what was achieved?

KR: The effects were noticeable right from the beginning of our work. Open conversation about emotions is cathartic. Participants who approached it very emotionally last year, felt the need to share their truth with everyone and this year, becoming observers and even supporting those who participated for the first time. Similarly, representatives of Polish Volhynian communities who initially approached the Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation initiative with skepticism and distance also reacted positively by the end of the workshops. On the last day, they enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to get to know Ukrainians. Polish communities connected with Volhynia now describe Ukrainians as their friends. Many Ukrainians, upon learning about our initiative, initially showed reservation and caution. However, each passing day brought more openness, leading to tears of emotion and mutual gratitude by the end. Many Ukrainians heard for the first time how Poles truly feel. Personally, I am learning and understanding more each day. It’s tremendous progress! By the end of the workshops, we reached a common conclusion – there should be opportunities for exhumation and dignified commemoration of the victims. Every Ukrainian I met agrees with it.

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MK: What’s the most important for Polish side on this matter?

KR: Definitely it’s about exhumations and establishing memorial sites. I can say with full conviction that the current absence of it doesn’t stem from a lack of willingness on the part of Ukrainian society, which considers it inhumane due to the cultural imperative of ensuring proper burials and respect for the deceased. Even Russian soldiers have burials. There are also exhumations of fallen German soldiers from World War II. So why can’t Polish civilians have graves and commemoration? Personally, I don't know any Ukrainian who is opposing it. It’s a crucial point for Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. This issue could be resolved by a political decision from the authorities in Kyiv.

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MK: Speaking of the workshops – can they be seen as reaching out to each other by Ukrainians and Poles?

KR: Yes. There are shared tears and apologies. Importantly, these are not just apologies from Ukrainians to Poles. People are apologizing to each other mutually. It all carries a lot of strong emotions. Participants are beginning to realize that on a human level, nothing separates them. We’re nations that are very close to each other. Many things connect us. Many individuals, including historians and experts, remind us of the history before World War II when our nations peacefully coexisted. Our history isn’t just about conflicts.

MK: That’s true, but it cannot be denied that mutual prejudice exists.

KR: Unfortunately, there’s a lack of genuine and open dialogue. Everything that has been happening around Volhynia in recent years has been marked by disputes and mutual provocations. Moreover, especially now during the war, we must be aware that Russia is using this issue to sow discord between Poles and Ukrainians. It’s a fact. Ukraine needs support, but more and more Ukrainians are realizing that issues like Volhynia also need to be addressed. Confronting this will allow both sides to move forward and build genuine brotherhood.

MK: However, some argue that war isn’t the right time to resolve such matters.

KR: Our association’s members believe that the right time is always now. However, we understand that there are many difficulties. The day after our workshops ended, a Russian missile struck the Ohmatdyt children’s hospital in Kyiv. It was the day when participants from our workshops returned to their homes in Kyiv. This made Polish participants aware of how much Ukrainians sacrificed to meet with them and work towards reconciliation. Ukrainians face daily challenges such as power outages and shelling. These are their everyday existential struggles. However, they chose to participate in our event, meet with Poles and discuss historical issues. I deeply appreciate this gesture. I know it costs some of them a lot.

MK: We’re discussing what divides Ukrainians and Poles, especially those from the regions of western Ukraine. However, the world doesn’t revolve solely around conflicts. Could you point out the positive aspects that exist between Poles and Ukrainians?

KR: Of course! Volhynia isn’t just about pain. During this year’s workshops, Olena Kotseruba gave a lecture on love and famous Polish-Ukrainian relationships dating back to the early 19th century. She talked about how people of our two nationalities formed families and simply loved each other. All of this happened right here in Volhynia. Many Ukrainians, while exploring their family trees, discover Polish ancestors. Besides blood ties, we are also connected by culture. During our workshops, it turned out that older generations of Poles are familiar with Ukrainian songs, even in the Ukrainian language. It was moving to sing together, including the song “Hej, sokoły / Гей, соколи.” We sang alternating verses, one in Polish and the next in Ukrainian. Polish white borscht and żurek (sour rye soup) were a hit among Ukrainians. Our love for good food also brings us together!

MK: What do Poles and Ukrainians need speaking of mutual reconciliation?

KR: Looking at this from the outside, I see that people need to be given time and space to get to know each other, to build trust. I believe that it’s crucial to share our stories and experiences with each other and observe each other’s reactions. If we see understanding and empathy in the other person’s eyes, we’re on the best path to full mutual understanding. I don’t just mean historical events here. Poles recognize the current pain of Ukrainians and hearing about their suffering evokes great sympathy. Some even say they suffer alongside them. They see that Ukrainians are currently experiencing the trauma they themselves endured. On an individual level, we share a similar wartime experience. This similarity brings us very close and creates a thread of understanding.

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