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Tragedy and valor of those who fought to defend Carpatho-Ukraine

    20 January 2021 Wednesday

    Seventy years ago, in March 1939, Ukrainian territories found themselves swept up by the deadly whirlwind of the Second World War. At the time, Ukrainians lived as nationals of various countries: in the Ukrainian SSR as part of the Soviet Union; Transcarpathia (Zakarpattia) in Czechoslovakia, later in Hungary; Bukovyna and Izmailshchyna in Romania, later in the USSR; Western Ukraine in Poland, then in the USSR. A great many Ukrainians lived in other European countries, in America and Asia. Whatever the line the governments of those countries pursued, most [ethnic] Ukrainians would oppose Nazism. Many would serve as officers and men in the Allied forces or as members of their own combat units to fight the aggressor. Together with freedom-loving people they would fight during the Nazi-Fascist invasion of Spain (1936-39), the Japanese invasion of China (1937-45) and Mongolia (1939). War came to the Ukrainian lands in Zakarpattia in March 1939, after Hungary had begun its expansion. These events were getting other countries involved in WW II until they became participants in this planet-wide armed confrontation. In 1936-39 (prior to the Third Reich’s invasion of Poland), hostilities were underway in Europe, Asia, and Africa, involving over 500 million persons, a quarter of the then population of the Earth. These hostilities were brought about by the same aggressive forces, namely the German Nazis, Italian Fascisti, and Japanese militarists. They were opposed by peace-loving people, among them Ukrainians.

    Lasting glory crowns the names of the Ukrainian patriots who fought the Hungarian aggressor in Zakarpattia, in 1939. In fact, defending this ancestral land marked the beginning of the “Great Patriotic War” (1939-45) of the Ukrainian people against the Nazi aggressor. I have expressed this point of view in my contributions to Den‘ (e.g., May 6, 2005; May 5, 2006) and my position appears to be winning increasing public support, as evidenced by President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine who declared on May 9, 2008, that “we have every right to refer to the Second World War as the Great Patriotic War.”


    After the First World War, Zakarpattia was annexed to the Czechoslovak Republic (CzSR) under the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain, under the name of “Subcarpathian Ukraine” and its autonomous status was specified. Regrettably, no timeframe was provided. This allowed official Prague to keep putting off the implementation of this clause. Transcarpathians had been demanding reunification with Ukraine since 1919 and then constantly campaigned for autonomy and fair delimitation of the boundaries within the CzSR.

    In the second half of the 1930s, the international situation was tangibly influenced by Nazi Germany’s Lebensraum political priorities, for the benefit of the Aryans. This spelled seizing territories in neighboring countries, the Slavic ones topping the list. After the Anschluss (March 12, 1938), the Nazis designated their next target, Czechoslovakia. The great powers at the time, particularly Great Britain and France, chose to connive at the Third Reich’s aggression aimed eastward, Ukraine included. In May 1938, Great Britain and then France intimated that they were not going to defend Czechoslovakia. On Sept. 29-30, 1938, the UK, France, Germany, and Italy signed an agreement during a conference in Munich [historically known as the Munich Agreement, Munich Dictate, and Munich Betrayal] whereby the Suddenland was annexed to Nazi Germany. This was perpetrated without any Czechoslovak representative in attendance. It was then Adolf Hitler and the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed a declaration to the effect that their countries would never fight each other. In December 1938, France made a non-aggression-frontier-inviolability agreement with Germany. In early October 938, Poland annexed the Czech Cieczhyn (Teschen) region. In these complicated conditions the government of the remaining part of Czechoslovakia finally complied with the Saint-Germain Treaty’s clause granting autonomy to Zakarpattia. On Oct. 8, 1938, the People’s Council of Carpatho-Ukraine was formed in Uzhhorod and Carpatho-Ukraine proclaimed itself the sole legitimate representative of Ruthenian territories (including the Presov Region, or Priashivshchyna), whose populace was secured self-determination and self-government. Executive power was transferred to the Carpatho-Ukrainian autonomous government. On October 26, August Voloshyn was appointed Prime Minister of Carpatho-Ukraine and the activities of the People’s Committee and government acquired an obvious Ukrainian orientation. On October 27, the People’s Council published a message to the Ukrainians all over the world. It read: “We believe that the great 50-million-strong Ukrainian people will continue to raise its sonorous voice and prevent our age-old enemies from binding us by their shackles and throwing us in jail.” In response, Ukrainians in Galicia (Halychyna) and often in Naddniprianshchyna started crossing the border en masse to help build the new state. In September 1938, Ukrainian National Self-Defense (UNO) was organized in Uzhhorod and headed by Serhii Rosokha. Before long, UNO units emerged in a number of towns and villages.

    Several countries, primarily Hungary and Poland, were angered by the appearance of autonomous Carpatho-Ukraine. Hungary openly sought to annex these territories. The Polish government was opposed to the formation of a Ukrainian state in Zakarpattia, regarding it as a threat to its supremacy in Western Ukraine whose populace might follow in their Transcarpathian brothers’ footsteps.

    Hitler and Mussolini supported their Hungarian ally’s aggressive intentions. On Nov. 2, 1938, their Ministers of Foreign Affairs Ribbentrop and Ciano organized the so-called First Vienna Arbitration and by its Award Hungary received 12 percent of the territory and 97 populated areas of Transcarpathia, including Uzhhorod, Mukachiv, Berehove, and fertile lowland soils. As a result, economic contacts, communications, and human relations were breached in what was originally a single territory. Voloshyn’s cabinet had to move from Uzhhorod to Khust. Members of the UNO, organized on September 4 (among them many OUN members from Halychyna), proved very helpful in setting up administration in the new capital.

    In this complicated domestic and foreign political situation Voloshyn’s government tried to stabilize the economy, consolidate all patriotic Ukrainian forces, build the state, and seek support from other countries. However, the latter’s stand, lack of funds and time, severed economic contacts, and political instability made solving numerous pressing problems impossible. The weak government machine made bad mistakes and miscalculations.

    Despite all ordeals and losses, certain headway was made in the social and cultural sphere of the autonomy — and this was an important factor of the rallying and raising of patriotic forces on a large scale. Thus, an army was organized in conditions of hard ordeals. Schools were functioning and new educational establishments opened. There was the weekly newspaper Nova svoboda (edited by Vasyl Hrendzha-Donskyi), also the weekly Nastup (Serhii Rosokha) meant for the nationally conscious youth and which became the official organ of the UNO and then of the Carpathian Sich. The farmers had their own periodical, Karpatska Ukraina, edited by Yu. Tarkovych. Noted Ukrainian writers Oleksandr Oles and Ulas Samchuk came to Khust, there appeared the literary and artistic Hoverla Society that published a monthly of the same title, edited by Oleh Olzhych-Kandyba. The Russian-speaking writers founded a society of their own. The government-run drama company Nova stsena (New Stage; stage director: Yu. Sherehii) also moved to Khust and in late November 1938 staged A Zaporozhian Cossack beyond the Danube. Kalenyk and Petro Lesiuk from the Ukrainian diaspora founded Zakarpattia’s first film studio and proceeded to make a movie which they later entitled “The Tragedy of Carpatho-Ukraine.” Meanwhile, Carpatho-Ukraine’s international situation continued going from bad to worse with each passing day. Hungary, whose territorial claims were not fully satisfied, kept making diplomatic demarches and sent groups of agent provocateurs to Carpatho-Ukraine. It was supported by readjusted Poland, whose government repeatedly raised the matter of having the northern regions of Transcarpathia, in addition to the Cieczhyn region. Poland would be content even to have Zakarpattia completely under Hungarian control. The Polish regime at the time could not put up with the existence of a sovereign Ukrainian body politic near Halychyna and also sent teams of saboteurs to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorism. Hitler tried to take advantage of the situation for his own objectives. Being increasingly in favor of Hungary taking over all Transcarpathia, he acted step by step in order to bring Hungary even closer to the German interests. And he did it. Hungary’s fascist dictator Miklos Horthy, always eager to please official Berlin, on Feb. 24, 1939, proclaimed Hungary accession to the Axis, a military and political alliance of Germany, Italy, and Japan that was subsequently frankly recognized as the Berlin one.

    Under the circumstances, Moscow qualified the Vienna Award as a breach of international law. It regarded as propaganda stunts the allegations about the possibility of using the Transcarpathian state for annexation purposes in regard to other Ukrainian territories that were being spread by the media and diplomats in the West. In January 1939, the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Hungary as a country that did not have an independent foreign policy while following in Nazi Germany’s footsteps and encroaching on Ukrainian territories. On March 10, 1939, Stalin responded to the information in the Western press and diplomatic circles about [Soviet] planes to annex Carpatho-Ukraine to the Ukrainian SSR. He described this as “a suspicious noise” aimed at provoking a conflict between the USSR and Germany that was obviously ungrounded. The dictator could not help applying a clumsy and rude epithet to Carpatho-Ukraine. Soviet official documents consistently denounced aggressive plans and actions in regard to Carpatho-Ukraine. On March 18, 1939, a note of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, stated in no uncertain words that acts on the part of the German government served as a signal for the blatant invasion of Carpathian Ruthenia by Hungarian troops, and for violating its basic civil rights. Other countries ignored the tragedy in Transcarpathia. Regrettably, not all Ukrainian political and public figures were fully aware of the situation that had developed. The Carpatho-Ukrainian government thought it necessary to defend the native land, but its actions along these lines were not always consistent and effective. On Nov. 9, 1938, a constituent assembly in Khust reorganized Ukrainian National Defense as the Karpatska Sich Organization of National Defense. Dmytro Klympush became its chief commandant with Ivan Roman as his number one. It was declared that “any individual of Ukrainian parentage can become a member of the Sich upon reaching 18 years of age and being a resident of Subcarpathian Ruthenia.” The first and second conventions of the Carpathian Sich took place respectively on Dec. 4, 1938, and Feb. 19, 1939. They deliberated its organization, ideological and military preparations. The Sich demonstrated its strength and discipline during inspections and parades in Khust. Its local branches (choty) united into the district koshy [pl. of kish] that reported to the Chief Command in Khust. Sich garrisons were deployed in especially important [strategic] areas such as Korolevo, Irshava, Torun, Stavne, and Perechyn. The Sich’s workers’ units built and repaired roads, and the women’s units trained nurses. Uniform with proper insignia was instituted and voluntary donations for national defense were being collected everywhere. Within a short period ten district Sich teams were organized and the men took up military training. The press, propaganda, and education department was very active and its Flying Podium toured the whole country. Researchers are divided on the strength of the Sich. Some claim it numbered up to 10,000 officers and men. They were poorly equipped, lacked combat training and experience. There were also more than enough conflicts provoked by the Czech military or by its ill-considered actions.


    However, the men of the Sich were brave patriots. Realizing the impossibility of defeating the Hungarian army of many thousands that was supported by Germany and Italy, they nevertheless rose up in arms to defend their homeland. For the Transcarpathian Ukrainians it was truly a patriotic war; they were defending their land against the foreign aggressor. Mykhailo Kolodzinsky, chief of staff of the Carpathian Sich (he was also known as Colonel Huzar), said: “…when there is no reasonable way out of a difficult situation, you have to know to die a hero’s death, so that your death will serve as a source of strength for the younger generation.”

    The armed struggle of the Sich and Ukrainians who served in the locally deployed Czech army units against the aggressor began in the fall of 1938 as battles with teams of Hungarian fascist saboteurs and Polish guerillas (known as the Carpathian legionnaires). Up to a thousand Hungarian terrorists were operating in Carpatho-Ukraine in the fall of 1938. On October 5 they blew up a bridge near the Borzhava railroad station and the tracks near Bateve, a village in Berehiv district. On October 10, eighty-six Hungarian saboteurs attacked a gendarmerie outpost and the Borzhava station, killing a train conductor, robbing the passengers, and dismantling the tracks. Polish and Hungarian terrorists carried out a number of armed provocations in Velyky Berezny district, demolishing bridges, viaducts, and tunnels. More than 300 foreign guerillas were neutralized in October 1938 alone. Ukrainian patriots died in such battles. On December 6, Ivan Bohdan, a member of a law enforcement detail, resident of the vil. Onokivka, Uzhhorod district, died in an armed confrontation with terrorists. On March 6, 1939, Hitler ordered the final liquidation of the sovereign Czechoslovak Republic. On March 12 he allowed the fascist Regent of Hungary Horthy to invade Carpatho-Ukraine and annex its lands. In response to Voloshyn’s telegrams addressed to Berlin and asking for protection against the aggressor, the German consul in Khust recommended, on behalf of Ribbentrop’s ministry, that Voloshyn “offer no resistance to the Hungarian invasion.”

    Under the circumstances, the Sejm of Carpatho-Ukraine proclaimed national independence on March 15, 1939, and elected Voloshyn president of the newly established state. It declared that Carpatho-Ukraine wishes to live in peace with its neighbors, but that it will rise in arms to defend itself against anyone who will try to violate its freedom and frontiers. For the first time in Europe those who claimed others’ lands met with resistance on the part of the Carpatho-Ukrainian Republic. Ukrainian was proclaimed the official language, its national flag was yellow-blue, its national emblem was a combination of the Transcarpathian coat of arms (a bear in the left red margin and four blue and three yellow stripes in the right one), with Volodymyr the Great’s Trident and a cross on the middle tooth. The national anthem was “Ukraine Is Not Yet Dead.”

    Faced with a threat of foreign aggression, units of the Carpathian Sich were placed on red alert. There was a constant influx of recruits who were eager to defend their Silver Land — the poetic name of Transcarpathia. Lack of weapons had a negative effect on their battle readiness. The reasons behind the sudden departure of certain OUN functionaries, among them Roman Shukhevych, prior to the decisive battles, remain uncertain, considering that they previously actively helped form and develop the Carpathian Sich. Perhaps their attempts to avoid being accused of direct resistance to Nazi Germany’s ally and their hopes for its support in the restoration of the Ukrainian state proved illusory. Hitler wanted to subjugate and mostly destroy the Ukrainians rather than help them restore a sovereign state.

    On March 13-14 the Hungarian fascists once again attacked Carpatho-Ukraine. This time terrorist gangs were reinforced by regular troops. Pitched battles took place in the vicinity of the villages of Dravtsi, Baranyntsi, Chaslivtsi, Korytniany, Velyka Dobron, and Chomony in Uzhhorod district. Hungarian troops launched a general offensive in four directions: (a) Perechyn-Velyky Berezny-Uzhok; (b) Svaliava-Volovets; (c) Irshava-Kushnytsia, and (d) Sevliush-Koroleve-Khust-Solotvyne-Yasinia. They were resisted by the Sich riflemen and units of the Czech army that tried to break through to Slovakia. Organization of the defense was undertook by the headquarters formed on orders from War Minister S. Klochurak. It was made up of Colonel S. Yefremov (chief of staff), Colonels Huzar (Kolodzinsky) and Filonovych; Senior Lieutenants Parchany and Hulianych; Lieutenants Babilia and Chorny; Junior Lieutenants Vaida, Shchuka, and Roman. The main battle unfolded on March 15 on the Krasne pole (Red Field), a plain on the right bank of the Tisza River, near Khust. The Hungarian aggressor faced 2,000 members of the Sich and as many officers and men of the Czech army. Among the defenders were many high school students led by the schoolteacher Ya. Holota. The Hungarians had better positions, launching their offensive from the mountains. They were better equipped and trained, and used tanks, heavy artillery, and aircraft. The men of the Sich were numerically weaker, had less armaments, and positioned themselves on the plain, behind the railroad. The battle raged the whole day. The Ukrainians were defending their positions to the last man. This made it possible to hold a sitting of the Sejm. The enemy lost 160 men, some 400 were wounded, but the aggressor was too strong. The defenders’ losses were 230 men killed, 450 taken prisoners of war, and some 400 were wounded, among them Sich commander Kolodzinsky (Huzar) and his deputy Z. Kosak, who sustained grave wounds. Both were captured by the fascists and killed several days later, near Solotvyn. Sich men I. Kost, I. Rak, I. Halas, O. Blystov, V. Nebola, also Khust high school students I. Bilovar, V. Vaida, teacher’s training seminary students I. Popovych, Yu. Pekar, Y. Shkiriak, I. Andreichyk, Ye. Yuda, M. Kozychev, and many others died the death of a hero. Street fighting in Khust lasted through the night. Pitched battles took part on March 16-18 in the vicinity of Vyshneve, Bushtyna, Solotvyn, Sevliush, Bilka, Dovhe, Verkhnia Veretska, Chynadieve, and Svaliava. By the evening of March 18 the aggressor had occupied the main districts of Transcarpathia, although battles in the mountainous areas lasted until May. All told, Carpatho-Ukraine held back the aggressor longer than France or Poland after the beginning of the onslaught. Not a single shot was fired in defense of Czechoslovakia. As the Hungarian troops approached the Polish border, they were cheered by Polish troops alerted to assist the occupier if need be. People sang out on the northern border of Carpatho-Ukraine: “A Hungarian and a Pole are brothers in arms as much as they are drinking companions.” With Hitler’s blessings the Silver Land of Transcarpathia was trampled by the blood-covered boot of Horthy’s fascist regime assisted by Poland and Romania. The latter deported Sich men who crossed its border to Hungary where they were shot on the spot and their bodies tossed in the Tisza. The Transcarpathian poet V. Husti wrote later:

    One bullet for each man,
    Then a toss in the river,
    Like a stack of hay.
    A splash and then nothing.
    One managed to shout,
    The river was fed enough
    Human tears and suffering,
    Carrying the young brave lads
    On its waves to distant
    eternal lands.
    Just listen and you’ll hear
    The Tisza cry in the night.


    The darkness of occupation, repressions, and misery descended on Carpatho-Ukraine as the enemy set about destroying everybody and everything Ukrainian. The poet Hrendzha-Donsky thus described the situation in his native land under the Hungarian fascist occupation:

    My Carpatho-Ukraine,
    The most beautiful flower on earth,
    Now you’re lying in ruin
    After the Hungarian onslaught.
    Oh my land of sorrow and pain,
    My beloved dear homeland!
    You’re held immobile by pain
    From shackles and whips.
    Accursed Horthy’s bayonets
    Pierced your chest,
    Shedding young blood,
    Your best sons
    Left their bones in your lap.

    Over 5,000 Ukrainians died fighting for the freedom of their homeland in March 1939 alone. The Transcarpathians bravery under fire, their readiness to die for their native land is a heroic page in our history. It was here that the fascist claimants to world supremacy met with decisive resistance from Ukrainians who fought in a deadly battle with the Second World War-mongers, with those who wanted to enslave our native land. Those were the first battles of the Great Patriotic War of 1939-45 of the Ukrainian people against the fascist/Nazi aggressor. These battles never stopped after the invaders enforced a rigid occupation regime in Transcarpathia. It was here that the Ukrainian partisan movement was launched during the Second World War, even though it would move in various ideological directions.

    The aggressor divided Transcarpathia into the three Uzhanska, Berezhska, and Maramoshska ekspozitura occupation areas/districts. The whole country was ruled by the Hungarian administration and Hungarian was now the predominant language. All dissenters and those who fought the regime were sent to the concentration camps at the villages of Kryva (Khust district), Chynadieve, Turii Remety, Perechyn, also in Budapest, Nagykanizsa, Nyiregyhaza, and Kistarcsa. Captives were worked over in special torture chambers of the Kovner Palace in Mukachiv and Schenbron Estate in Chynadieve. All jails were packed, so much as that houses in Uzhhorod, Mukachiv, Khust, Maramorosh, Szeged were sequestered as places of confinement; schools in Velyky Bychkiv, Perechyn, and elsewhere were used likewise.

    All “unreliable elements” were placed under strict police surveillance. These people had no right to step out of their towns or villages, make and receive phone calls, leave their homes after 10 p.m. and until 5 a.m. They had to regularly check with police precincts or gendarmerie stations. Hundreds of Hungarian gendarmes were posted to Transcarpathia, it was an incessant influx. A large counterintelligence network was formed and people representing various social strata were recruited. A special Transcarpathian loyalty oversight commission fired some 2,000 office workers. No one could employ anyone or be employed even at the lowest government office level without its authorization. All power was in the hands of Hungarian commissioners whom Horthy taught to act like viceroys and make the enemy taste their fists.

    The local living standard plummeted. Most of the populace lived in misery, prices soared and ration cards were instituted for food and industrial goods. Meat was forbidden to be sold for three days a week. Peasants failing to fulfill farming supply quotas received up to three years in prison. Forced labor was used on a broad scale. Occupation authorities shipped off trainloads of foodstuffs and raw materials.

    Starting on the first days of occupation, Transcarpathians resisted the aggressor en masse. It was a sequel to the patriotic war waged by Ukrainians. People avoided paying taxes to the hateful Horthy regime, refused to supply food, horses, hay, etc., to the Hungarian army. Young people sabotaged classes at the Levente youth organization established by the Hungarians, although those caught red-handed were fined and received two months in prison. Antifascist underground groups and organizations emerged in the educational establishments of Mukachiv, Uzhhorod, and Khust. In April-October 1939, in Mukachiv, members of a student-and-teacher underground group M. Feger, V. Rusyn, H. Tokar, V. Kampii, V. Reshetar, P. Ivancho, Ye. Shandor, F. Yatsyna, V. Ovsak, M. Holovko, et al., wrote antifascist mottos on the walls of buildings and issued several kinds of leaflets.

    Ukrainian nationalist organizations were also quite active. In 1940, D. Bandusiak, M. Oros, and A Tsuha set up a territorial committee in Khust to supervise this movement. The local underground activists were divided into three districts headed by A. Tsuha from Maly Berezny, D. Bandusiak from Yasyna, and P. Pohoriliak from Shyroky. The territorial committee was supported by Ukrainian organizations that operated in Bratislava, Krakow, and Lviv. They sent instructions, printed matter, and leaflets. The movement organizers conducted propaganda, collected weapons, formed partisan units, and published the periodical Chyn. In March 1941, one of the movement members, I. Romanets, unfurled a yellow-blue flag from the top of the Khust Castle after tearing off the Hungarian flag.

    The underground movement led by Transcarpathian communists acquired a large scope. After the communist organization was banned on Oct. 25, 1938, an underground bureau of the local communist party committee was formed, made up of O. Borkaniuk, S. Vais, D. Popovych, I. Turianytsia, and H. Feier. It moved to Khust where it trained underground personnel, organized safe homes, and established secret contacts. Underground committees and organizations were formed in all districts. M. Rotman, Sh. Burych, A. Malena, H. Bacho, Y. Fihula, Ya. Gedi actively operated in Uzhhorod. I. Shompliak, M. Smutok, O. Dierd did in Mukachiv. Y. Tovt, A. Fodor, Ye. Yabor did in Berehove. Yu. Onufrii and B. Rot did in Vynohradove. Underground organizations actively operated in Velyky Berezyn, Khust, Rakhiv, Perechyn, Tiachiv, Irshava, Svaliava, Volovtsi, and Mizhhiria districts. During the occupation of Transcarpathia local residents, especially young people, crossed the Soviet border. It was another form of protest against the Horthy regime. Occupation authorities ordered border guards to shoot trespassers after the first warning. People who lived in the borderlands were prohibited to turn on the light in their homes and to start campfires. Despite repressions, 5,300 Transcarpathians crossed the Soviet border in 1939-41 (before the German invasion of the USSR). They refused to serve in the Hungarian army, they were looking for a better living, they wanted to study. All those who crossed the border found themselves exposed to repressions by Stalin-Beria authorities. Special meetings and “tribunals of three” sent them to corrective labor camps. More than 20 Soviet concentration camps became the last abode for the miserable defectors. Many died there. The first Czech battalion started being formed in Buzuluk in the summer of 1942. That fall the Transcarpathians with identity papers as Czech nationals were amnestied. A total of 886 Transcarpathians were brought to Buzuluk from various Soviet concentration camps. Many of them fought the Nazis and their allies at the Soviet fronts.

    And so the long and pitched Great Patriotic War of Ukrainians against the fascists/Nazis, for the defense of their land, freedom, and life, began in an ancient sunlit Ukrainian land of Transcarpathia in March 1939.

    Volodymyr Shevchenko holds Ph.D. in History and is a university lecturer

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