Recovering the Memories of a 1943 Massacre in Eastern Europe

Recovering the Memories of a 1943 Massacre in Eastern Europe

A wispy cloud hovers over a meadow in western Ukraine. A bare tree stands below it, and what lies below that — what we can’t see — is at the heart of the image.

The Polish photographer Maksymilian Rigamonti took the picture after multiple visits to the area, formerly a Polish village known as Trupie Pole (“The Field of Death”). At first, he didn’t know how to portray the unspeakable: He was standing near where Ukrainian nationalists murdered some 300 people, mostly women and children, in August 1943.

The cloud was his way of marking the location of the mass grave.

Between 1943 and 1945, members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred thousands of Poles throughout Volhynia, a region that was in Nazi-occupied Poland and is part of present-day Ukraine. Polish historians say the death toll could be as high as 100,000, while Ukrainians say it’s between 20,000 to 30,000. In 2016, Poland’s Parliament recognized the killings as genocide, a term that Ukraine rejects.

For several years, Mr. Rigamonti and his wife, Magdalena Rigamonti, a journalist, visited the sites of former Polish villages that were wiped out during the conflict. The result is the chilling book, “Echo,” which won the Photography Book of the Year award in the 2019 Pictures of the Year International Competition.

“We knew that this is an unusual story,” Ms. Rigamonti said, “and we looked for unusual language.”

Each page of “Echo” centers on a long-vanished Polish village and lists the number of people who were killed there in a given month or day in 1943. The pages also fold out to show three black-and-white images each, all of which include a horizon line. That continuity seamlessly ties the book together; the idea is that the line — like the story of the massacre and all other tragedies — is unending.

Ms. Rigamonti says “Echo” comes from a journalistic duty to tell the story of the massacre. But it also has a universal message, a warning of what can happen between neighbors. “It’s not about the relation between Poles and Ukrainians,” she added. “It’s about how easy it is to kill each other in a few months.”

The couple emphasized that they’re not trying to point fingers at Ukraine. “When you accuse someone, you end the discussion,” Mr. Rigamonti said. “We wanted to open the discussion.”

After World War II, the Soviet Union incorporated the region into its territory. Up until its collapse, Communist censorship had suppressed public discourse surrounding the Volhynia massacre. Ukraine was to be seen as a friendly Soviet nation, and any mention of Polish-Ukrainian conflicts or the lost Polish territories was deemed anti-Soviet.

The Rigamontis reopened that chapter of history when the Polish Press Club invited journalists to the region on the massacre’s 70th anniversary in 2013. The couple had known of Volhynia, but couldn’t pinpoint its location. They drove about five hours from Warsaw toward the border until they reached vast, fallow fields.

“Our first trip was very difficult for us,” Ms. Rigamonti said. “We realized that we touched death. We touched remembrance. We touched ghosts without graves, without cemeteries.”

After that, they knew they had to come back. And they did, 15 times.

Throughout their journey, the couple had the help of a local historian and an archaeologist who recounted how and where killings took place. They also spoke to residents who remembered or heard stories about Volhynia.

One woman they met in Majdan said her mother had told her about Polish villages that once existed nearby. She then recalled a sobering childhood memory: She and some friends had been playing in the area and stumbled on what she thought was a pile of branches. They were human remains.

The woman cried and hugged Ms. Rigamonti, since it was the first time she had ever shared that story. Ms. Rigamonti realized that revisiting the conflict is a therapy of sorts for the Ukrainians who had lived in the region since the massacre.

It’s almost as if every bush, leaf and blade of grass has its own story, Mr. Rigamonti said. And, sadly, they’re all about death.

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