Ukraine in World War II, The Untold Story

“The whole titanic struggle... was first of all a Ukrainian war... No single European country suffered deeper wounds to its cities, its industry, its farmland and its humanity.” (Edgar Snow, US War correspondent, 1945

“Ukraine’s independence is a very important geopolitical fact of life. It means that Russia can no longer be an imperial state. That transforms the nature of international politics in Europe and even in Eurasia.” (Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security advisor to the President of the United States).


In 1991, there was a sudden crash - the fall of the Soviet Union.

Its final collapse came soon after Ukraine declared its independence on August 24th, 1991. Without Ukraine, the Soviet empire ceased to exist by the end of the year.

After 70 years of brutal Soviet rule, Ukraine won her independence without, it was said, shedding a single drop of blood. But, in fact, the blood of millions was shed through centuries for the freedom of Ukraine.

For hundreds of years, the history of Ukraine had been written by her conquerors - the pages changed by propaganda, chapters missing, or lost.

Now, archives are open - secret documents uncovered, film footage found, and eyewitnesses in Ukraine are free to tell their story. This is the unknown story of those who struggled for independence.


“Almost all textbooks say the war ended in May, 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany. But for people living in Eastern Europe at the time - Poles, Ukrainians and so on - 3it seemed rather strange to hear that the war had finished, because not only was the political situation far from resolved, there was still fierce fighting in parts of Eastern Europe. And it is possible to say, I think, that the real liberation of Eastern Europe didn’t happen until the end of the 1980’s or even the beginning of the 1990’s.” (Norman Davies)

In 1945 American war correspondent, Edgar Snow visited Ukraine and wrote:

“It was not until I went on a sobering journey into this twilight of war that I fully realized the price which 40,000,000 Ukrainians paid for Soviet and Allied Victory. The whole titanic struggle... was first of all a Ukrainian war. No fewer than 10,000,000 people had been lost to... Ukraine since 1941...” A relatively small part of [Russia} was actually invaded, but... Ukraine... was devastated.”

Poland, Belorussia, and, above all, Ukraine were the battlegrounds of the Eastern Front - trampled and terrorized by the armies of two brutal invaders, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

In Eastern Europe, WWII was essentially a war for control of Ukraine’s rich land and resources. For the people it would be a war of annihilation. In turn, their homeland would be laid waste by both Soviets and Nazis. Ukrainians would be forced to submit to occupation rule or perish. But the nation found the courage to fight back. Ukraine became the battlefield, as it had been when it defended its fledgling independent State a generation earlier.



The face of Europe changed dramatically by the end of World War One: the Austro-Hungarian and Tsarist Russian empires disintegrated. A democratic Ukrainian National Republic emerged and declared its independence on January 22, 1918. But after four years of fighting, Ukraine was overrun by the Russian Red Army.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles recognized the principle of national self-determination. However, Ukraine was carved up among four countries: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and communist Russia.

Although Ukraine lost its freedom and its government under Symon Petlura went into exile, the struggle of 1917 to 1921 established the ideal of a sovereign Ukrainian state in the minds of a new generation.

After the death of Lenin in 1924, Joseph Stalin rose to power in the USSR.

He destroyed all opposition beginning with the Ukrainian intelligentsia and the Church. By 1930, almost 3,000 priests and 32 bishops of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church were exiled or executed. No one knew the fate of its Primate, Metropolitan Vasyl Lypkivskii, until a recently found NKVD document revealed the terse sentence: “Executed November 27, 1937, at midnight.”

“As they decapitated the country as a whole by removing the intelligentsia, they also decapitated the peasant class by removing the natural leaders and the best workers.” (Robert Conquest)

In late 1932, Stalin’s regime seized all the grain harvest from Ukrainian villages. By the spring of 1933, seven million Ukrainians had starved to death in the man-made Famine-Genocide. This, however, was only the first act in Ukraine’s 20th century holocaust.

Meanwhile, in the part of Ukraine under Polish rule, five million Ukrainians became the target of Polonization.

“Ukrainians were being discriminated against. And that created an atmosphere in which, we the youth - as youth tends to be - eager for action and full of initiative - began to search for alternatives not knowing precisely what to do. But when the Organization was created, we all rushed to join.” (Karpo Mykytczuk, volunteer freedom fighter)

The Organization was the OUN, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Formed by Colonel Yevhen Konovalets in 1929 to continue the struggle for an independent Ukraine, the OUN stated its mission in a memorandum to the British government in 1935:

“We, the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization, are fighting for complete independence of Ukraine... We shall most vigorously defy all... attempts to... solve the affairs of Eastern Europe without, or against, the will of the Ukrainian people...”

The OUN became the enemy of all occupation powers: first of Poland, then Russia, and finally, Germany. In 1938 OUN leader Konovalets was assassinated in Holland by Soviet agent Pavel Sudoplatov.

Leadership of the OUN was assumed by Andriy Melnyk, but soon a rift developed. The moderate members remained loyal to Andriy Melnyk, while the radical supported Stepan Bandera. However, all the Ukrainian leaders, including the President of the Ukrainian Government in Exile, Andriy Livitsky, who succeeded Petlura, expected that the impending conflict between Germany and the USSR would provide an opportunity for Ukraine’s independence.

But Germany would soon show it was not interested in an independent Ukraine. The dress rehearsal for the Nazi-Soviet cooperation was Carpatho Ukraine.

In late 1938, Czechoslovakia had agreed at last to honor its commitments under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and granted autonomy to its eastermost province inhabited by Ukrainians.

After a democratic election the Carpatho-Ukrainian Parliament declared independence on March 15, 1939. Monsignor Augustyn Voloshyn was elected President. On the same day Hitler and his partners of the moment, Hungary and Poland, invaded various parts of Czechoslovakia. Carpatho-Ukraine offered the first armed resistance in Europe to German designs, but its fledgling armed force was no match for the Hungarian Army, which in a few days advanced to the Polish border. Documents show that Hitler allowed the invasion of Carpatho-Ukraine not only to gain Hungary as an ally, but to show Stalin that Germany would not support Ukrainian independence.

The fall of Carpatho-Ukraine in March helped pave the way for the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov on August 23, 1939.

One week later, on September 1st, Germany invaded Poland, and World War II began.

“The Second World War passed through several phases, three very clear phases: In the first phase, from September ‘39 to ‘41, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were partners. They weren’t formal allies but they were very clear partners... I would say, 'partners in crime.' Not only did they partition Poland - one of the allied powers - between them, they each attacked their neighbours. Germany, I think in those two years attacked eight European countries; the Soviet Union attacked and invaded five...” (Norman Davies)



On September 17, 1939, the Red Army entered Eastern Poland and the German Army withdrew to a partition line, all as part of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

“The situation in Poland at the beginning of the war in 1939 was very complicated. The Nazis occupied the western part of Poland, the Soviets invaded and occupied the eastern parts of the Polish republic, which included, of course, western Ukraine.” (Norman Davies)

The first few days of what the Soviets called the liberation”of Western Ukraine passed in celebration. Thousands were made to assemble in the Lviv Opera Theater where so-called representatives voted unanimously to join the Soviet Union.

“Let the peoples of Western Ukraine join the great family of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics!” (Maryna Perestiuk, village teacher and delegate at the Lviv Opera Theater)

“But it didn’t take long for us to realize that this was becoming an occupation which was much worse than the one before.” (Oleksander Hryn’ko, victim of Soviet occupation)

During less than two years of Western Ukraine’s Soviet occupation, more than ten thousand were imprisoned and executed, and over half a million were deported to concentration camps in Siberia.

“These countries were caught in the grip of an impossible dilemma. There was murder, genocide, oppression on both sides and there was no way to escape. If you fled eastwards, you’re running the gauntlet of Soviet oppression; if you fled westward, you’re running the risk of Nazi oppression.” (Norman Davies)

Ukrainians had learned to survive invasions. In an attempt to protect them in the German occupied portion of Poland, Ukrainians formed the Ukrainian Central Committee with Professor Volodymyr Kubijovych as its head. But the Germans allowed the Committee to perform only humanitarian work. It had no political or governing authority.

In spite of these limitations, Ukrainians followed their own agenda. The OUN and the Government-in-Exile started making preparations for an armed struggle to gain independence.

On April 15, 1940, the Government-in-Exile issued a declaration in Paris supporting the side of “France and England in this war” and called on Ukrainians everywhere to join in the struggle against “both imperialism - Russian and German, Soviet and Nazi...”

But soon the Soviet Union - partner of Nazi Germany - would switch sides and become a partner of the Western Allies, and the hope of Allied support for Ukrainian independence would be dashed.



“In the second phase of the war, the configuration changes. Stalin and Hitler, who had been partners for the first part of the war, become enemies.” (Norman Davies)

Hitler had his own plans for Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe. Germany wanted space to expand, and Ukraine, with its rich soil and mineral resources would become Germany’s new Garden of Eden, to be completely repopulated by the German master race.

“I need Ukraine,” said Hitler, “so no one can starve us out again, as they did in the last war.”

At 3 am on June 22, 1941, Hitler began Operation Barbarossa. Three and a half million German soldiers, aided by Romanian, Italian, and Hungarian units stormed the borders of Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania on the western flank of the USSR. On the very first day, they bombed Lviv, Odessa and Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

Ten days into the invasion, Stalin ordered the “scorched earth” policy that would devastate Ukraine by retreating Soviet forces:

“All valuable property - food, grain and fuel that cannot be withdrawn, must be unconditionally destroyed. In areas occupied by the enemy, guerilla units must... set fire to forests, storehouses and transports.”

Abandoning Ukraine to the Germans, the Soviets shipped eastward whatever they could - grain and livestock, skilled workers and scientists, machinery and factories. What they could not take - they destroyed, blasting railroad bridges, mines and Europe’s largest hydroelectric dam, Dniprohes.

When the Germans occupied Kyiv in September 1941 they found it one vast booby trap. The Soviet military had planted more that 10,000 mines and began detonating remote-controlled explosives placed in hotels, the central post office, broadcasting center - even historic landmarks, including an 11th century church.

But the crowning brutality of the Soviet regime was revealed when the Germans opened up the prisons throughout Ukraine.

“The retreating Soviets, the KGB as we now call it, the NKVD at the time, killed a lot of prisoners whenever they left, and these prisoners included some Zionists, a great many Ukrainian nationalists, and a lot of people who were picked up just for being prominent and not cooperating with the Soviets. The main prison was ankle deep in blood, the Germans reported.” (John Armstrong)

“Anyone who witnessed the sight will never forget it. Those people were truly tortured to death: tongues cut out, noses and ears cut off, women’s bodies with breasts cut off, hands and feet twisted and broken - obviously during interrogations - hands bound with barbed wire. All this was laid out, and people from nearby villages came to see these mutilated bodies and try to recognize their relatives among them.” (Serhii Pushchyk, witness from Volyn)

According to NKVD records a total of 9,706 Ukrainian political prisoners were shot by the Soviet Secret Police in prisons in the first month of the war.

Mykola Kudela was a political prisoner of the Soviets in Lutsk Prison, a 17th century convent that served as a prison under three regimes.  Kudela’s escape from the Soviet execution of 2000 people at the prison was nothing short of a miracle.

“When war broke out on June 22, the next day, Monday the 23rd, the NKVD took all of us out of our cells and herded us into this yard...On those walls were machine guns, camouflaged with branches. Suddenly, they opened fire. From the second floor windows, the NKVD threw grenade after grenade. .. Here in this yard, they massacred everybody. There were more pieces of bodies than whole bodies.” (Mykola Kudela, witness of Soviet executions in prison)

Kudela was saved by the bodies that fell on top of him. When the Soviets retreated, relatives marked the mass graves with crosses and held burial services for the dead.

In Vynnytsia, the Germans uncovered mass graves in what the Soviets had camouflaged as the “Park of Culture and Peace.” To show the brutality of the Soviet regime the Germans called an international commission to witness the opening of 66 graves. They found 12,000 bodies of Ukrainians massacred by the NKVD in 1937-38.

Thousands of skulls uncovered in many locations in Ukraine showed evidence of torture and execution. In 1989, mass burials were uncovered at Damianiv Laz in Western Ukraine, where the remains of 1,509 bodies were exhumed and identified. In July of 1991 survivors of various Soviet prisons came to honor those massacred by the NKVD.

After the Soviet executions in late 1940s, villagers were called to view the bodies. Those who recognized any of the dead were executed in turn.

“Some of those that came to look were also shot. Because some of the women cried. So they said, ‘so you recognize him?’ [She said she knew someone?] No, no, she didn’t say anything. She cried! And because of that they shot her! [And you saw the shootings?] I did. With my own eyes I did.” (Hryhorii Banyk, witness of executions at Damianiv Laz)

Other Soviet atrocities committed during and after World War II continue to be unearthed to this day.

Near Kyiv is [Bykivnia] a deceptively peaceful forest, the site of 225,000 victims of the Soviet NKVD. Bykivnia has become a place of remembrance for the people of Ukraine.

On September 19, 1941, the German army captured Kyiv. Out of a Soviet Army of 677,000 men, a staggering 665,000 surrendered. Many believed they would now be joining the fight against Stalin.

But Hitler ordered Soviet prisoners of war confined in open air camps, where millions died of exposure and starvation during the winter of 1941/42. The harsh treatment of prisoners would eventually discourage desertions and drive Ukrainians in the Red Army to fight against the Nazis.

“We forget that in the 1930’s the real horrors not only in Ukraine but elsewhere in the Soviet Union had been perpetrated by Stalin. Hitler was still largely an unknown quantity.” (Norman Davies)

During the entire period of World War II, Ukraine, unlike most occupied countries, was under direct German rule. There was no pro-Nazi Ukrainian puppet government like Vichy France, or Quisling Norway. By contrast, concerted efforts were made by Ukrainians to establish independent self rule.

On June 30, 1941, as soon as the Soviet forces withdrew from Lviv, Yaroslav Stetsko, on behalf the OUN Bandera organization, proclaimed the establishment of a Ukrainian State. The Germans refused to recognize the proclamation and demanded it be rescinded. When the OUN refused, the Germans arrested most of its leaders. Yaroslav Stesko and Stepan Bandera were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany.

The systematic executions of Ukrainian nationalists by the Nazis began in September 1941.

Yet, in October 1941 in Kyiv, the OUN Melnyk organization was able to establish the Ukrainian National Council and began to govern the city. Within two months, however, the Germans outlawed the Council and imprisoned its members. OUN leader Andrii Melnyk was arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Thousands of OUN members were imprisoned and many died. Oleh Olzhych, Melnyk’s second-in-command, was murdered by the Gestapo in Sachsenhausen; Bandera’s lieutenant Ivan Klymiv was murdered in Lviv; Bandera’s two brothers perished in Auschwitz.

German as well as Soviet documents clearly demonstrate that the OUN was a threat to both dictatorships.

“The OUN is a tool of Jewish Bolshevism” - a leaflet issued by the German government in Ukraine. “The Ukrainian German nationalists are really Hitler’s accomplices...” - signed by the Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Nikita Khrushchev.

A German document at the Nuremberg Trial referred to a November 25, 1941 order to the Einsatzkommando that stated:

“The Bandera organization is preparing an uprising in Reichskommissariat Ukraine with the aim of establishing an independent Ukrainian state. All members of Bandera’s organization must be arrested and, after rigorous interrogation, are to be secretly executed under the pretext of being looters.”



Nazi Germany moved in with a plan: Ukraine would be split 5 ways: the largest territory became Reichskommissariat Ukraine; the eastern edge came under military rule; Western Ukraine became part of the Generalgouvernement; Romania occupied the Odessa region and Hungary continued to occupy Carpatho-Ukraine.

The Germans established 160 major concentration camps in Ukraine alone.

In his inaugural speech in September 1941 Erich Koch, appointed by Hitler to head the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, addressed his staff:

“Gentlemen, I am known as a brutal dog. That is why I was appointed Reichskommissar... Our task is to suck from Ukraine all the goods we can get hold of without consideration for feelings or property. I expect from you the utmost severity toward the native population.”

Koch was responsible for the deaths of millions of people in Ukraine by starvation and execution. Curiously, he was the only major Nazi war criminal captured but not executed.

The German Commandant of Kyiv Major-General Eberhardt ordered four hundred innocent hostages to be shot as a warning to Ukrainians to cease all resistance to the German occupation - a tactic he would repeat again and again.

Babyn Yar, a ravine near Kyiv, became a killing field. In the spring of 1942, the Mayor of Kyiv, along with OUN Melnyk activist, the newspaper editor Ivan Rohach, and the outspoken poet and head of the Writers’ Union Olena Teliha, were arrested and executed there.

A German proclamation issued in 1941 had started the tragic trek to Babyn Yar. There, in two days, the German Einsatzkommando executed 33,771 Jews. In just over two years of the Nazi occupation, more than 100,000 people were executed in Babyn Yar: Jews, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others.

As the German army advanced across Ukraine two killing units, Einsatzgruppen C and D with up to 1,000 men in each, carried out the Fuehrer’s final solution.” As they moved through the country they murdered thousands of Jews.

The Germans organized police units from various ethnic groups and ordered them to assist the Nazis in rounding up Jews. Some former POWs, among them Ukrainians, served as concentration camp guards.

But many Ukrainians risked their lives to save Jews. One of the most prominent was Metropolitan Andry Sheptytsky, Primate of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

David Kahane, Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Air Force had been a prisoner in the Jewish ghetto of Lviv.

“Sheptytsky was known as a friend of the Jews even before the war. For Passover he sent to the poor Jewish families flour, food, gifts to children... In days of great holidays he always came by with an Orthodox priest and a Rabbi. When the Germans came, I ended up in a ghetto. Somehow, I was able to escape in the night. I climbed over a wire fence, and keeping out of sight of the guards, I got into the Jesuit Garden and came to the gates of St. George’s. I knocked and was let in. Metropolitan Sheptytsky hid me in his library. For several weeks, I lived behind the bookcases... Then the Metropolitan led me to the Studite monastery. At that time, I didn’t know they saved Jewish children in the convents, among them my two year old daughter.” (Rabbi David Kahane)

The first rescue operation took place on the night of August 14, 1942 when 140 Jewish children were smuggled out of the ghetto and hidden in Ukrainian Catholic monasteries and convents. Priests, nuns, and monks risked torture and death as they played a deadly game of outwitting the Nazis.

600,000 Ukrainian Jews perished in the Holocaust, but many Jews survived, saved by fellow Ukrainians who risked death if discovered. The Department of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Israel ranks Ukraine fourth out of 33 countries in the number of Righteous who saved Jews from the Holocaust.

In January, 1942, Hitler toured Ukraine. “Ukrainians,” he said “should be given only the crudest kind of education necessary for communication between themselves and their German masters.”

After his Fuehrer’s visit, Erich Koch announced:

“I expect the General Commissars to close all schools and colleges with students over fifteen years of age and send all teachers and students... to Germany to work.”

“Go to beautiful Germany! The first train will leave for Germany January 28, 1942. Hot meals served!” (Kyiv newspaper advertisement)

The first train was full of volunteers, fleeing near-famine conditions in Kyiv. But as the truth got out about the slave labor working conditions in Germany, people stopped coming. The Nazis began rounding them up by force.

“People would come to market in Kovel. Then the soldiers would surround them, and whoever they caught would be shipped off to Germany. My brother was taken and labored in Germany until 1945.” (Serhii Pushchyk, witness from Volyn)

“I was also taken. I was the youngest one of all, fifteen... they performed all kinds of disinfections and took us to Germany, to Karlsruhe-Durlach to a large “Singer” factory. They had turned it into a munitions factory. That’s where I worked... We painted artillery shells. We were all yellow from the paint...” (Olha Petrenko-Kovalevsky, witness from Poltava).

Called Ostarbeiter,” or workers from the East, and wearing the obligatory ”OST” patch marking them as sub-humans, nearly two and one half million young Ukrainians became slave laborers for Germany. Many of them were worked to death. Many of those working in ammunition and weapons factories perished in Allied bombing raids.

Countless Ukrainians were imprisoned at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbruck and other Nazi concentration camps. But they were not allowed to be identified as Ukrainians. They were forced to wear the “R” patch for “Russians or the “P” patch for “Poles.”

Petro Mirchuk survived Auschwitz and recounts his experiences in his book, “In the German Mills of Death”. Another survivor, artist Paladij Osynka, painted the grim picture of daily existence in Auschwitz. According to Osynka, in three months alone 15,000 Ukrainians died in the camp while only 40 survived. In total, 1.4 million people were killed in Auschwitz: 800,000 and 600,000 others including Poles and Ukrainians.



Resistance to all invaders formed quickly. The first units of Ukrainian insurgency, which would soon be called UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, appeared in 1941. They were organized independently by Taras Borovets on behalf of the Government-in-Exile, by the Melnyk wing, and by the Bandera wing of the OUN. As resistance to the Germans intensified, the Bandera forces grew rapidly.

When talks of unification failed, the Bandera wing disarmed and absorbed the competing groups.

From 1943 the new UPA was organized along military lines with General Roman Shukhevych as its commander-in-chief and under the political direction of the Ukrainian Supreme Liberation Council. At the peak of its strength in 1944-45, UPA fielded over 40 thousand combat soldiers organized in four military districts: UPA North, UPA South, UPA West and UPA East. Their area of operation encompassed one quarter of Ukraine and they fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets.

Over the ten year period of active resistance hundreds of thousands of men and women joined the UPA and its well-organized network of civilian self-defense and support units. Every village had a contact person who quartered the soldiers and arranged for supplies.

One of the largest military confrontations of the insurgents with the Germans took place in the district of UPA North and lasted from July to September 1943. The Germans committed some 25,000 troops. After 75 battles and over 3,000 casualties, the Germans failed to reach their objectives.

“Unlike other resistance movements during the German Occupation, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army functioned without any help from abroad. It became a Ukrainian People’s Army and had the support of all the people - men, women and youth.” (Lev Futala, officer of the UPA)

“I went with a nurse to the insurgents, the Khanenko group, named after their commander. I took care of the wounded. Then the commander looks at me and says, ‘You’re so small. You could help us with reconnaissance.” Of course, I was delighted.” (Volodymyra Senyk, teenage volunteer in the UPA)

On December 16, 1942, Hitler ordered that “the most brutal means” be used against all guerillas in Ukraine, “even against women and children.”

“Anyone who aids a partisan - death. Anyone who helps a Jew escape - death. Anyone who listens to a Soviet radio broadcast or reads an anti-German leaflet - death.” Because of such mass executions in Ukraine, just as many civilians as soldiers died during the course of the war.

Still, the people persevered.

Then, in 1943, the German 6th Army surrendered at Stalingrad, and Hitler’s forces began the long retreat.

In September, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler issued a secret order: “When areas of Ukraine are evacuated, the enemy must find a land completely burned out and destroyed.”

Scorched earth Ukraine, again. Caught between Hitler and Stalin, Ukraine was left in rubble - the most devastated European country of the war.

During the German occupation, 459 Ukrainian villages were burned to the ground. When the village of Kortelisy was set afire by German soldiers on September 23, 1942, they murdered everyone - 2,892 men, women, and children.

“It was only after the tide turned in 1943 that you enter the third phase of the war where the Soviet Union becomes militarily and politically dominant in Eastern Europe...” (Norman Davies).



From 1941 military units of foreign volunteers in the German armed forces attached to the “Waffen SS” were formed in Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium and Holland. However, when Germany ran short of cannon fodder, it eased its racial criteria and started to recruit the Untermenschen peoples of Eastern Europe. The largest unit was the 300,000 strong Russian Liberation Army led by captured Soviet General Andrey Vlasov.

Expecting that the Western Allies would eventually turn against Stalin, some Ukrainians took advantage of this situation to form a military unit in the hope that it would fight for an independent Ukraine.

In Western Ukraine a division was recruited by the Germans in 1943. It was understood that it would fight only against Soviet forces, not against the Western Allies. No one wanted to fight “for Hitler,” only against Stalin.

The 14th Grenadier Division Galicia was formed and attached to the Waffen SS. 16,000 volunteers received military training in 1943 and ‘44. The personnel of the Division was Ukrainian; however, all higher ranking officers were German. But it wasn’t until the summer of 1944 that the Division became fully combat ready.” (Myroslaw Maleckyj, officer of the Galicia Division).

“There was, indeed, a clear distinction between the Waffen SS, which was a military wing of the SS, and various other SS formations, which had different sorts of duties.” (Norman Davies)

The Galician Division fought its major battle near the town of Brody in Western Ukraine. On July 18, 1944, it was encircled by an overwhelming Soviet Army. 8.000 were lost to the Division - killed, captured or escaped to join the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

Following the Battle of Brody, the Division was reorganized and saw action against communist forces in Slovakia, Slovenia and Austria. It surrendered in 1945 to the British Army and was interned in Rimini, Italy. After being cleared by the Allied authorities, the soldiers were released in 1947. Some remained in Great Britain, while others settled in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

Among the survivors of the Battle of Brody was Volodymyr Demchuk, who carried a souvenir of the ill-fated encounter in his body for 46 years. Demchuk often wondered if the bullet had been fired by a fellow Ukrainian in the opposing army.

“We all fought against two of the most cruel butchers in the world.” (Volodymyr Demchuk)

In this horrible war... foreign powers forced brother to fight brother.

During World War II seven million Ukrainians served in the Red Army - twice the number of the entire United States Army in Europe and proportionately more than any other nationality of the Soviet Union.

The First Ukrainian Front Army liberated Auschwitz and helped capture Berlin. Not everyone fought for Stalin. Some served because they were forced to; others, to drive away the Nazi invader and defend their homeland.

“All those who fought, whether against the Germans or Soviets, were fighting against imperialism. And we knew that only on the ruins of imperialism could we build our state.” (Volodymyr Demchuk, veteran of the Galicia Division)

But it would take over 40 more years before Ukraine would emerge as an independent state.



On May 8, 1945 the war in Europe was officially over.

While the world celebrated the end of the war in Europe... in Eastern Europe, life returned to Soviet “Normal” - more executions, more exiles to Siberian concentration camps...

“In the camp, we had our own organization. We struggled to keep our soul from dying. Conditions there could lead people to become animals... They tried to kill in us all that is human, so we could think only of food and nothing else. Luckily, they did not succeed.” (Volodymyra Senyk, survivor of the Gulag)

Neither did they succeed in killing their faith. Ukrainian Orthodox believers were forced to join the Russian Orthodox Church controlled by the KGB and the Soviet State. The Ukrainian Catholics were forced to liquidate their Church. But in reality the flame of faith was never extinguished, and the Church went underground.

“I think the post-war history of Ukraine starts with the phase of continuing resistance. Many people in the West don’t realize that Ukrainians, like many of their neighbours, like the Poles, were fighting both against Hitler and against Stalin. And after the Soviet victory in 1945, there was a remnant of the wartime resistance continuing, attempting to resist the Soviet take-over.” (Norman Davies)

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army had been engaged in large-scale operations against the Soviet security forces since March 1944.

In 1945-46 the Soviets sent 585,000 men against the insurgents. This campaign, called The Big Blockade, included 1,500 major engagements in which the Ukrainian freedom fighters faced heavy weapons, tanks, and aircraft - even bacteriological warfare.

Many years later Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs, “Ukrainian nationalists have given us more trouble than anyone else... After the war, we lost thousands of men in a bitter struggle between Ukrainian nationalists and the forces of Soviet power.”

The insurgents knew their struggle was lost, but not their cause. This was the spirit which drove their commander, Roman Shukhevych to the end. His personal messenger Daria Husyak recalls:

“In 1950 I hear him say ‘This fight which we will surely lose, still has tremendous meaning for our history... for our future generations. ‘Because, he said, ‘a new generation will emerge from this heroic struggle and will continue to pursue our goal...” (Daria Husyak)

In that year, when special units of the Soviet Secret Police surrounded his hideout, Shukhevych died in the exchange of fire. The struggle continued a few more years. Even in the Gulag imprisoned members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army organized and took part in the uprisings of 1952-53. As late as 1956 Insurgent fighters sabotaged Soviet troop movements during the Hungarian Revolution.

“Certainly till the early ‘50s, there was active resistance in Ukraine. Then you move into a period of total Soviet domination.” (Norman Davies)

The Soviet Union, throughout its existence, felt so threatened by the Ukrainian independence movement that it systematically eliminated its principal leaders. In 1926, Symon Petlura, Head of the Ukrainian National Republic was assassinated in France. In 1938, Colonel Yevhen Konovalets, founder of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists was killed by a Soviet agent in Holland. In 1945 the President of Carpatho-Ukraine, Augustyn Voloshyn, perished in a Moscow prison. In 1959, OUN leader Stepan Bandera was killed by a Soviet agent using a poison gas pistol in Germany.

Winston Churchill attempted to prevent the total domination of Eastern and Central Europe by the Soviet Union. But his efforts were dashed by President Roosevelt’s support of “Uncle Joe” Stalin’s demands at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. The two Western leaders yielded their humanitarian principles to Stalin’s demand that all citizens of the Soviet Union, including refugees, Ostarbeiters and POWs must be repatriated, even by force if they did not return voluntarily.

The U.S. Armed Forces instructed: “Liberated Soviet citizens... will be returned to the control of the USSR without regard to individual wishes.”

Slave laborers, prisoners of war and anyone who had contact with the West was branded” a traitor to the fatherland” by Stalin. The punishment could be a firing squad or 10 to 25 years in the Gulag, the Soviet concentration camps.

Fittingly, the Allies named the repatriation after an old Navy punishment: “Operation Keelhaul.” Victims were trapped in repatriation camps:

“All over our barracks were portraits of marshals, of Stalin and Kaganovich and posters blaring: THE FATHERLAND IS CALLING... THE FATHERLAND FORGIVES! What is it that they forgive? I wondered. What Fatherland? What sin did I commit against the Fatherland? So the Fatherland let the Germans in, and they took me away, and now I’m guilty because the Fatherland let the Germans take me?” (Petro Sydorenko, Ostarbeiter)

In all, two million Ukrainians were repatriated. But many resisted. Some committed suicide rather than return to the USSR. Eventually, Ukrainian Canadian military officers in England won the support of Eleanor Roosevelt who, with others, intervened, and the forced repatriations were halted.

A quarter of a million Ukrainians remained in Western Europe. Dispersed throughout 300 Displaced Persons camps in Germany and Austria, most eventually settled in the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and South America.

They had few material possessions, but they took with them their culture and heritage, and the words of those who inspired them to seek freedom and justice. The poet Taras Shevchneko had urged his countrymen to learn and absorb other cultures, but never to forget their own. And they didn’t. And wherever they could, they told the story of Ukraine.



“The common slogan ’20 million Russian ward dead’ is, I believe, wrong in each of its constituent parts. It refers for example, not to Russians, but to Soviet citizens. Therefore, it includes large numbers of Ukrainians, of Poles, of Jews, of all the nationalities of the Soviet Union who were victims of one sort or another during the war.” (Norman Davies)

Ukraine suffered the greatest losses of any European country. During the six years of war, Ukraine lost more people than the total military losses of the United States, Canada, the British Commonwealth, France, Germany Japan and Italy all put together. Eight million inhabitants of Ukraine killed, over half in combat. Millions more were lost through deportation, exile and displacement. Thus, as a result of World War II, Ukraine’s population decreased by more than 10 million, a full quarter of its people lost.

Although the armed struggle ended in the 1950’s and renewed Soviet oppression was to last another forty years, the desire for freedom was not lost. In the 1960’s and 70’s dissidents openly defied the oppressive regime. During the 1980’s they took up the struggle for human rights appealed for democratic freedoms and called for independence.

On August 24, 1991, Ukraine declared its independence.

“Ukraine’s independence is a very important geopolitical fact of life. It means that Russia can no longer be an imperial state. That transforms the nature of international politics in Europe, and even in Eurasia... So the blood was not shed in vain. Beyond that, the life of a nation and its commitment to freedom is nurtured by the concept of sacrifice. And that becomes if you will, a mythology that sustains life.” (Zbigniew Brzezinski)

Such is the untold story of Ukrainians in World War II who persevered, fought for freedom and, in spite of Hitler and Stalin, laid the foundation for independent Ukraine.