Life in the Borderlands of Poland, 1921-1939

In her notebooks my grandmother never mentioned what life was like in Rzesniowka before the deportation to Siberia. Even though she sometimes mentioned Russia, Iran and Africa, my mother does not remember her ever mentioning the village she lived in until the age of nineteen. Thus the majority of the information I have is compiled from the oral testimonies and written correspondence from my great aunts, Lutka and Julia.

Home, as they remember it, was a white washed house with a thatched roof and a vegetable garden out front where they grew potatoes, onions, turnips, cabbage, carrots and beets. It was set off a road that led to a wooden bridge that crossed a creek which divided Rzesniowka into the Polish settlement of Piłsudy and the original Ukrainian village. Lutka remembers that the neighbours to the left of them whose land abutted the creek were called Laszczak and the neighbours to their right were the Szarek family.

Attached to one side of the house were a barn and a stable, behind which was a pigsty. To the back of the barn was a root cellar dug six feet into the ground where vegetables and milk were stored through the bitterly cold winter months and away from the heat of the summer. To the other side, there were orchards of apple, plum, pear and cherry trees. And out beyond the back of the house were acres of rye, barley, buckwheat, oats and hemp fields. Lutka remembers that in the late summer they would harvest the hemp and make ropes and thread for sewing.

They remember my great grandfather, Michał, being a very hardworking man. He had transformed the plot of land he had received from the Polish state into a working fruit and grain farm and in the late 1930s he was elected village mayor (sołtys). His position as mayor had him conducting village meetings and traveling to the town of Zaruddia, 6 km away, for official meetings as the village representative. His daily routine however, revolved around the farm. The running of the farm was entirely a family affair but during the harvest seasons the whole village came together to help the farmers bring in the crops.


Above: A Sołtys Badge worn by the elected representative/mayors of villages and cities such as my great grandfather Michał Oko. 1918-1939.


Above: The 1921 Decree proclaiming Polish as state language in the Voyvodeship of Volhynia.

Their life may seem idyllic but in reality there were tensions brewing. The Ukrainians resented the population transfers of ethnic Poles onto their land and saw Polish sovereignty as illegitimate, boycotting the 1921 Census and the 1922 elections.

In the early 1920s the Second Polish Republic was in its embryonic stages, attempting to emerge onto the world stage following the First World War. However, the Global Depression of the 1920s meant that Poland came up against substantial economic difficulties. Polish politicians sought scapegoats and pointed the finger of blame towards the Jewish and Ukrainian communities, accusing them of “blocking ‘the Polish nation’.”[1]

Rzesniowka lay in the Voyvodeship of Volhynia (Wołyn in Polish) and from 1926 the province was the stage for a series of policies that aimed to politically assimilate the Ukrainians into the Polish state. Known as the ‘Volhynia Experiment’, the hope was that by giving the Ukrainians in the region the right to preserve their distinct language and culture it would cultivate amongst them an allegiance and loyalty to Poland.

However, less than a decade later in 1935 Polish nationalists with strong anti-Ukrainian sentiments took charge. Ukrainians were relieved of their governmental posts and replaced with ethnic Poles. Orthodox churches were destroyed or converted into Catholic churches and large numbers of Ukrainian language schools were shut down. This systematic discrimination faced by the Ukrainians added to the injustice the majority felt with regards to being governed by a foreign power, leaving them “seething with discontent”[2].

In all honesty, the idea of my family being settler colonialists does not sit well with me. The historian in me, however, is very aware that the lived experiences and realities are much more complex. I don’t know whether Michał had returned from war to nothing and saw an opportunity for his young family by becoming an osadnik; whether he was fully aware of the Polish states policy of using people like him to effectively colonise land which was inhabited by Ukrainians and thus legitimise its control over them; or whether he fully supported the policy and saw it as legitimate. Neither am I sure of what stance my great grandfather took with regards to the disintegrating situation in Volhynia and the policies of blatant discrimination implemented by the Polish state.

When asked whether Michał had been elected sołtys by the Polish settlers of Rzesniowka alone, Lutka said that he had in fact been elected as a representative by both the osadniks and the Ukrainians. Was he then one of the Poles who still hoped and stood for a Poland that was pluralistic and united regardless of ethnicity and religion? I hope so.


[1] Robert W. Thurston, ‘Life and Terror in Stalin’s Russia: 1934-1 941.’ (NY: Yale University Press, 1996) p. 217.

[2] Jan T. Gross, ‘Revolution From Abroad.’ (Princeton. NJ: Princeton University Press. 1988) p. 27.

4 thoughts on “Life in the Borderlands of Poland, 1921-1939

  1. I adore the description of the family farm and I commend you for being honest about your feelings toward your great grandfathers decision to move to the Kresy. I look forward to reading more.


  2. My mother came from Reszniowka. Her name was Anna Jankowa. When the Germans came, she was taken to Germany for forced labor, she was the eldest in the family. When the war broke out, all men were mobilized. Her father was a medic in the Polish army. They were overwhelmed by the Russians and his column was retreating to Romania. Passing by his home as they retreated, he wanted to let his wife know he was OK. An advance Russian patrol spotted him and shot him. He lay wounded, his neighbors found him and summoned his wife to come pick him up. According to my mother, he died the next day. My mother had five sisters. When in Germany, her mother sent a picture of the family. I have that photo. When the Russians invaded, all mail ceased and she never regained contact with her family. After the war, she ended up in Belgium and wanted to find her family. She never found out what happened to her sisters. At one point she believed they were killed by the Ukrainian OUN who committed atrocities in the Wollyn area against Poles. My father was Ukrainian, she met him in the DP camps in Germany. It was a strange relationship to say the least. My mother spoke Ukrainian and Polish. The family was roman catholic, not sure if they actually were Polish. Her father’s name was Stephan Jankovij, a derivative of the name Jankovic which is prevalent in Sovakia and the Czech republic. Needless to say, I was rather amazed to spot your website.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Walter, apologies for such a late reply. Your mother’s story sounds fascinating and heartbreaking. I’m so sorry that she wasn’t able to find her sisters. Thank you so much for sharing her story.


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