Kyiv, February 25, 2016. Nearly 6,000 Ukrainians, mostly Galicians, were fighting in the ranks of the French Foreign Legion during World War II. “Ukrainians who fought on the side of France, as part of the Foreign Legion, are the only foreigners whose participation is officially recognized and honored in France,” said Annik Bilobran-Karmazyn, President of the “Association Advule”, at a press briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. Most of them, she said, went to France to work on temporary contracts in the 30s, planning to work for several years and then return. Soon the World War II began, and many of the Ukrainian workers became Foreign Legion volunteers. “My father always told me that he considered it right to defend the country that had sheltered him,” said Annik Bilobran-Karmazyn.
The situation with Ukrainians was complicated: the Galicians, who left for work, had the Polish passports, so on the orders of their government they were enlisted in the Polish Legion, based in Brittany. “Of course, when you are Ukrainian and your land is occupied by Poland, it is easy to understand that the 6,000 Ukrainian volunteers refused to fight under the Polish flag. They wanted to defend France but under the French flag,” says Ms. Bilobran-Karmazyn. According to her, there was a long and emotional debate between the Ukrainians and the government about what to do in this situation. Some volunteers even ended up in prison, because their refusal to fight under the Polish flag was actually a refusal to obey orders.
Ukrainian volunteers in the French army participated in the battles of the Somme, most were involved in the defense of Lyon, among them were many dead and wounded. When Lyon fell under the German attack, they continued their retreat to Marseilles. At that time, Marshal Pétain signed the infamous capitulation. “Halfway, near Grenoble, Ukrainians stopped at a small village, awaiting demobilization. They had to stay there for 2-3 months. There, in the woods, was a large rock. They carved a trident on it and wrote “900 Ukrainian”, on the other hand carved a map of Ukraine,” said Ms. Bilobran-Karmazyn. Then the legionnaires’ paths diverged – some returned to civilian life, some joined the Resistance Movement, while others were in camps for prisoners of war.
Ms. Bilobran-Karmazyn had known history since her childhood, but after retirement she decided to explore the topic more thoroughly. She found a rock from her father’s stories and came into contact with the Foreign Legion veterans. “I conducted a search and found information on some 100 Ukrainians who had fought shoulder-to-shoulder with my father. I have documents, photographs and other evidence,” she noted. In the Legion they confirmed, in particular, that Ukrainian volunteers had come to France directly from Ukraine and in no way collaborated with Germany. Annik Bilobran-Karmazyn added that they commemorate Foreign Legion volunteers each year on November 2. Ukrainian diaspora is also involved in these activities.
Ms. Bilobran-Karmazyn also informed that currently relations between Russian and Ukrainian communities in France have not got along against the backdrop of disputes over the ceremony of commemorating Soviet soldiers and prisoners of war who died in France. There are two such places of memory in France. The first one of them is Ban San Jean (Lorraine). “There was the largest camp, where the Nazis held 22,000 Soviet prisoners of war. Only Ukrainian community kept the memory of them and took care of the place, because most of them were Ukrainians,” said Ms. Bilobran-Karmazyn. Recently, in 2011, after 15 years of efforts of the Ukrainian community a memorial to those who fell in the concentration camp was erected at the camp site. “Unfortunately, we could not find the descendants of the fallen Ukrainian soldiers and invite them. However, Russians, who until then did nothing for this place, found several generations of Russians from Russia, and it was just Russians who arrived then to visit the memorial opening,” explained Annick Bilobran-Karmazyn.
Even hotter disputes were stirred up about Nuaye Saint-Martin cemetery 100 km from Paris. After the war a place for the burial of the Soviet military was assigned there. Because the fallen military were few in number, the victims of the concentration camp from Ban San Jean were reburied there as well – a total of 2,879 people of different nationalities from all over the Soviet Union. Among them were 78 Ukrainian women. “Every year only Russia raised its flag next to the French one at the memorial during the Victory Day celebration […]. I have always demanded that there should be 15 flags because the USSR consisted of 15 republics that are now independent states,” said Ms. Bilobran-Karmazyn. The French community adheres to prudent neutrality in this issue, as their only purpose is to prevent any conflicts.
In 2014, after the armed aggression against Ukraine, the problem worsened as never before. “I stated that Ukrainians will not visit the cemetery together with the Russian Federation delegation,” said Annick Bilobran-Karmazyn. The dispute was accompanied by reciprocal ultimatums and even talks at the Foreign Ministry. The Russian party then stated that they would agree not to raise their flag if Ukrainian procession agrees to go into the cemetery together with them. Since no compromise was found as to playing the Russian national anthem, the delegations went into the cemetery separately. “In 2015, a military attaché at the Russian embassy offered to raise the Soviet flag over the cemetery – to resolve all conflicts,” said Ms. Bilobran. The Ukrainian community strongly objected. The President of the association also noted that raising the flag of the defunct state would be inappropriate, Laurent Fabius, then Minister of the French Foreign Ministry, also gave negative answer.
Now only the French flag is raised over the cemetery, and we always go into it as separate processions,” summed up Annick Bilobran-Karmazyn. She added that the Ukrainian community will also try to resolve the issue of tombstones on the graves of 78 Ukrainian women. Although all of them have been identified, the tombstones are still inscribed with “To memory of an unknown Soviet citizen”.