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The Blaze: Reminiscences of Volhynia, 1917-1919 by Sophia Kossak

By Mark Heckman

Related to: Volhynia (Province)Book Reviews

Author: Kossak, Sophia. Publishing information: George Allen & Unwin LTD., London:1927.

Sophia Kossak-Szczucka was a member of the Polish landed gentry that had controlled large estates in Volhynia for hundreds of years. Even after the partition of Poland, and the takover of Volhynia by Russia, these Poles had maintained their position. According to Kossak, the Russians generally settled in the larger towns, but the Poles, "by strength of facts, of tradition, of their possession of the land, and through a common conviction [were] the real owners and masters of the country."

Kossak's recollections of idyllic country life sound disturbingly like those given by American slave-owners in the antebellum South. She describes a situation where everyone knew their place and the peasants didn't resent the Polish feudal rulers. The Poles' privileged position, however, was threatened by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and by the nationalistic currents set loose by WWI. In her book, Kossak recounts the many dangers that threatened her and her family during the time between the revolution and the establishment of a Polish nationalist army after the end of WWI. Kossak vividly describes the dissolution of the Russian army during a time when no government was in control of the huge empire. Army units chose to support the Kerensky government, the Bolsheviks, or different nationalist movements, often dissolving into banditry. The Ukrainian peasantry, goaded by the Bolsheviks or by simple opportunism, took advantage of the upheaval to sack the estates and settle old scores with the landowners. Kossak's family lived in an estate in Novosyelitsa, about 8 miles south of Starokonstantinov, and her account of the attacks, seiges, and eventual plunder of the estate is genuinely gripping.

Eventually forced to flee the estate, and depending on the current political situation and strength of local Polish forces, her family fled at various times to Antoniny (about 16 miles west of Starokonstantinov) and to Starokonstantinov itself. Along the way, her family was at the mercy of a series of governments of varying strengths, led at different times by Bolsheviks, local strongmen, Ukrainian Nationalists or the German Army. The attitude of the different governments toward Poles ranged from the benign to the viciously hostile. Anticipating the situation during WWII that Shmuel Spector describes in his book (also reviewed on this webpage), there was a situation where each ethnic group was at odds with every other group. Kossak mentions Jews only in passing. She describes with some bitterness how many Jews were enthusiastic Bolsheviks early on, but how later Jews were often victims of "Bolshevik" governments, as well as of all the various Ukrainian nationalist governments. In one passage Kossak describes a major pogrom in Starokonstantinov with horror and sympathy for the Jewish victims.

This book will be of interest to readers who want to know more about the relationship between the different ethnic groups in early 20th century Volhynia, a relationship that had probably persisted relatively unchanged for several hundred years. Although Kossak mentions the names of many of the people with whom she came in contact, there is no name or location index and most people will find that the work has little direct genealogical value. Its chief use for genealogists is the historical context it gives to the lives of our ancestors from the area. I obtained this book from the University of California Northern Regional Library Facility (UC NRLF). The call number is DK511 V7K62, and the inventory bar code number is B 3 283 942. -- Mark Heckman

  • Last Modified: 06-08-2012
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