The 1946 pacification of villages by PAS NZW in the area of Bielsk County, north-eastern Poland, in the aftermath of World War II, was the subject of official investigation by the government-affiliated Institute of National Remembrance since 1995. The inquiry resulted in the publication of a final report in June 2005, summarizing the case. The Commission interviewed a total of 169 persons, and analysed all documents and testimonies dating back to the 1949 show trial of Polish Cursed soldiers: Captain Romuald Rajs of the PAS Special Forces, and his co-conspirator and deputy, Lieutenant Kazimierz Chmielowski from NZW.
Among the individuals questioned by IPN were families of victims as well as former soldiers of the 3rd Brigade of NZW responsible for the death of 79 Polish nationals of Belarusian ethnicity from several villages in the Bielsk County. The IPN closed its official investigation without additional charges filed, due to already carried out sentences in the Stalinist period coupled with extrajudicial killings by governmental authorities during the Polish anti-Communist insurrection. No living perpetrators of atrocities committed in early 1946 have been identified.
In January and February 1946, units of the PAS Special Forces (Pogotowie Akcji Specjalnej) from the National Military Union (Narodowe Zjednoczenie Wojskowe) burned down the villages of Zaleszany, Wólka Wygonowska, Zanie, Szpaki, and Końcowizna. They also executed 30 coachmen on 30 January 1945 near Puchały Stare, and a similar number of armed resistors in Zanie on 2 February 1946. The atrocities continue to receive considerable press coverage by the Belarusian media who routinely identify the victims as Belarusians even though they have never been the citizens of that country, and considered themselves to be Poles.
During the Soviet advance across occupied Poland, in November 1944 the Home Army split up when faced with the prospect of fighting two wartime enemies, Germany and the USSR. As a result, the National Military Union (Narodowe Zjednoczenie Wojskowe) was formed. The Home Army was disbanded entirely by the order of Gen. Leopold Okulicki on 18 January 1945, due to Soviet takeover of Poland. Thousands of underground soldiers were arrested by the NKVD and sent to the Soviet Gulag. Okulicki was murdered in Moscow. The annexation of eastern half of the Second Polish Republic by Joseph Stalin was ratified by the new communist authorities in postwar Poland on 16 August 1945, which was followed by mass expulsions of Poles and Belarusians across the new borders.
Mayor Zygmunt Szendzielarz refused to surrender; and recreated the already disassembled Polish 5th Wilno Brigade of Armia Krajowa in order to oppose the Soviet occupation of Podlachia (Podlasie) and the Białystok region. Equipped with machine guns and machine pistols, his brigade fought a successful battle with the advancing Red Army and the pro-Soviet Polish People's Army around Miodusy-Dworaki village in Siemiatycze County on 18 August 1945. The brigade was joined by Captain Romuald Rajs (codename "Bury") with 29 soldiers of the State Forest Defence Battalion in September 1945. However, faced with overwhelming concentration of the enemy forces, Major Szendzielarz ordered the dissolution of the 5th Brigade in the same month.
Captain Rajs ("Bury") was active in the area of Wilno during the German occupation of Poland. Since 1943, he led the 1st Company of the 3rd Wilno Brigade of Armia Krajowa with the rank of Second Lieutenant. After the dissolution of the 5th Brigade Rajs made contact with Commandant of the National Military Union Okręg III Białystok, Major Jan Szklarek, and moved his LWP platoon under his command. He was promoted to the rank of Captain and became leader of the PAS Special Forces (Pogotowie Akcji Specjalnej) within NZW Białystok. The process of unification of smaller underground units in the area of Wysokie Mazowieckie County, commanded by Kazimierz Chmielowski ("Rekin"; meaning "Shark", in Polish) until December 1945, resulted in the gathering of the largest anti-Soviet partisan group in the region.
By the end of 1945 the NZW III Białystok consolidated most of the local anticommunist underground by absorbing into its own command scattered units of NSZ and NOW. Many former members of resistance left the forest to begin a new life, although for some of them the return to civilian life was not possible, because both, MO and the NKVD have compiled hit lists of anticommunist conspirators from local sources. By early 1946 the NZW was the only underground organization still capable of active resistance. The assaults included destruction of MO outposts and Communist Party bureaus, ambushes on special units of UBP, KBW, WP and NKWD, as well as various retaliatory actions. A few local towns were taken over by PAS NZW temporarily. Some police stations were destroyed repeatedly.
In early January 1946 NZW headquarters called a meeting of local commanders. Rajs was given leadership of partisans enrolled by Chmielowski ("Rekin"). His unit, consisting of 228 soldiers, was renamed as the 3rd Wilno Brigade of the NZW PAS. A decision was made to move the entire force to an area around Bielsk Podlaski for further military training.
On 27 January 1946 the battalion entered Łozice village and approached a gathering of horse-drawn vehicles organized by the local authorities in need of conscripted labour. The partisans requisitioned around 40 carriages and ordered their drivers to go along. Some coachmen mistakenly believed that the uniformed soldiers have belonged to the communist forces. The battalion boarded the carriages and in the same evening rode to the County of Hajnówka. Rajs ordered the attack on Hajnówka where the Polish communist militia as well as some Red Army soldiers returning to the USSR, were stationing. The takeover of Hajnówka was unsuccessful. The farmers with horse-drawn carriages remained with the battalion throughout January as means of transportation even though several failed attempts were made by PAS NZW to replace them with new carriers.
Contrary to opinions disseminated by politicized media in today's Belarus, the single criterion used by PAS NZW in the selection of carriages was their durability and strength; it was not the alleged faith of the actual coachmen, nor their purported Belarusian roots, as revealed by research conducted by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. The coachmen came to Łozice from about a dozen neighbouring villages because they were ordered to do so by the communist authorities attempting to transport nationalized wood to Orla village. Meanwhile, the relocation of the NZW battalion was planned well ahead.
On 29 January 1946 the battalion arrived in Zaleszany, Hajnówka County, to feed the horses. During a routine document check by the partisans, a Red Army soldier and NKVD informer, Aleksander Zielinko was identified, serving as Communist Party secretary in nearby Suchowolce. All inhabitants were ordered to report to a big house of Dymitr Sacharczuk where they were taken hostage. They were questioned on the whereabouts of suspected collaborator, and Sołtys of Zaleszany, Łukasz Demianiuk who vanished. His 16-year-old son Piotr (already a PPR member) was identified and executed together with Zielinko. Not a single hostage was killed from the gathering at Sacharczuk's house. According to official report released in 2005 by the Institute of National Remembrance, all hostages kept in Sacharczuk's house run out to safety and survived; they were not persecuted, but the PAS NZW set a number of buildings on fire, and 16 people died in Zaleszany while attempting to hide from the soldiers. The final IPN investigation revealed that the later description of what happened there was falsified by the Stalinist functionaries.
The unit led by Rajs ("Bury") departed for the neighbouring village of Wólka Wygonowska. Some farm buildings were set ablaze for refusal to provide assistance. Two local men were shot dead while they were running away from the soldiers: Jan Zinkiewicz i Stefan Babulewicz. Many year later, Zinkiewicz's daughter rationalized that her father run to save his farm equipment from burning, and that he was not fleeing from them.
On the following day of 30 January 1945 the command of NZW PAS Brigade arrived in Krasna Wieś village where they arranged the exchange of horse-drawn carriers. Eye-witness Włodzimierz K. from Jagodniki later testified that they arrived in Krasna Wieś ahead of others. Most of the partisan group fell behind. The new coachmen were ordered to wait for them but instead, took their horse-drawn carriages and run away. They were chased through the forest by the platoon led by "Modrzew", caught around Puchały Stare village, arrested, taken away in two groups, and executed as traitors. Years later, the exhumations conducted by the authorities in Puchały on 27 April 1951 revealed that 27 farmers have been killed there and buried in two shallow graves. In 1997 the number was raised to 30. The subsequent 2005 investigation by IPN revealed – based on new evidence – that purported eye-witness of the massacre, Prokop Iwacik, lied in his postwar testimonies, because he could not have possibly been there. Officer "Modrzew" ("Larch" in English) was killed on 16 February 1946; and his true identity remains unknown.
At the end of January 1946 the soldiers of the 3rd Brigade came to Zanie, Podlaskie Voivodeship, to requisition food. One of the partisans, Kazimierz Borkowski, was struck with an axe to the head by a farmer who refused to give in. Rajs, who had already received information in Hajnówka, that ethnic Belarusians who lived in Szpaki–Zanie served as Volksdeutsche under Nazi Germany, gave an order for the pacification of the two villages. During his postwar interrogations Rajs informed that the actual order of burning down Zanie, Szpaki and Końcowizna in retaliation for hostile attitude towards NZW, came from his superior Florian Lewicki nom de guerre "Lis" ("Kotwicz"), regional commandant of NZW (real name, Jan Szklarek). The NZW PAS unit consisting of three platoons of about 30 men led by "Rekin" (Chmielowski), "Wiarus", and "Bitny" (J. Boguszewski), was sent to Szpaki–Zanie on 2 February 1946. Rajs was not present. He went with his command to Końcowizna village, where no-one was killed. According to postwar interrogation of Kazimierz Chmielowski ("Rekin"), the NZW troops were fired upon by the locals in Zanie. Later report by the Special Commission from Bielsk Podlaski confirmed that a submachine gun with ammunition was found in one of the burned out buildings. A dozen farmhouses were set on fire and 36 men singled out for collaboration with the enemy were executed by the platoon led by "Rekin". The names of the men to be shot have been secretly obtained by the Armia Krajowa Obywatelska from Bielsk County. Subsequently, both "Wiarus" and "Bitny" (along with "Modrzew") were killed in action on 12 February 1946 in Gmina Ełk.
Chmielowski ("Rekin") is said to have attacked other villages in gmina Kleszczele as well, where some farmhouses where burned. According to Rajs, Chmielowski did it on his own accord, although Chmielowski himself insisted during questioning by the communist interrogators that bullets were fired up into the air. Notably, as many as five alleged pacification actions by "Rekin" were fabricated by the UB interrogators, since the village of Mostek never existed in the Bielsk County as revealed by the IPN investigation.
On 17 November 1948, Romuald Rajs was captured in Karpacz by Urząd Bezpieczeństwa while on vacation. A month later, his co-conspirator Chmielowski was arrested on 13 December 1948. They were tried in a show trial held at the Białystok movie theatre "Ton", and charged with membership in AK and NZW aiming to overthrow the communist government of Poland, coupled with armed assaults on the Polish Army and the Red Army, the assassination of MO functionaries, attacks on the UB security outposts, the railway guard, as well as assassination of civilians during forced requisitions of property, and possession of assault weapons. Individually, Romuald Rajs was also charged with desertion from the Polish Army. They were executed on 30 December 1949 without material evidence of alleged civilian atrocities, which were obtained by the communist authorities well over a year later, in the spring of 1951. Rajs denied his guilt of the massacres. He was executed on 30 December 1949 in the Białystok prison at the age of 36 along with Lieutenant Kazimierz Chmielowski.
In 1970, a memorial plate was installed in Zanie to commemorate the victims of the massacre. The burial place of most of the victims were not confirmed until the 1951 exhumations. Three more bodies were identified by the IPN pathologists in 1997. After the fall of communism, a Committee of the murdered coachmen family members was created, the victims' remains were reburied in Bielsk Podlaski.
Official commemoration ceremonies are being held at anniversaries of the tragedy in Zaleszczany and Bielsk Podlaski. Leaders of the Belarusian minority in Poland view the 1946 massacre as an important traumatic event in post-war history. According to Oleg Latyszonek, a Polish historian of Belarusian ancestry, the massacre led to the Belarusian minority growing more loyal to the Polish communist regime of that time. Some Belarusian journalists have commented that Polish nationalists attempt to rehabilitate Romuald Rajs because of him being member of the postwar struggle against the communist occupation of Poland. In 1995, the Military Court of Warsaw nullified the 1948 death penalty given to Rajs based on new Polish law ordering formal cancellation of Stalinist judgements against defendants sentenced for their fight for freedom. His family received a compensation from the Polish state. On February 2, 2012, on the anniversary of the 1946 massacre, the Polish Sejm has introduced a Day of Commemoration of the Cursed soldiers on 1 March. The families of the victims of the massacre have not received any compensations according to Belarusian sources.
A thriller by Polish novelist, Katarzyna Bonda (pl) – who has Belarusian roots – titled Okularnik (Glasses-Wearer), part of her detective series about a fictional profiler Sasza Załuska in today's Poland, is inspired by the 1946 pacifications of villages in Podlachia. The book received considerable coverage by the media in Belarus without being translated into Belarusian.
In 2012, the Monument to Orthodox inhabitants of Białystok who were killed and went missing in the years 1939–1956 was erected in Białystok to commemorate Orthodox Christians of the Białystok region who perished during the anticommunist insurrection in 1946.