Katyń Massacre: Resurfacing

Long denied by the Soviets, the butchery of 22,000 Poles was first acknowledged by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990

News | Daniel Gloeckler | May 2010

Possibly the greatest Shakespearean tragedy of the decade, the recent passing of Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria and most of the Polish cabinet, rekindled an old feeling of dismay all too familiar in Poland. They were trying to land in Smolensk, Russia, to receive an official apology for the Katyń Massacre of 1940 – in which 22,000 government officials, military and police officers, intellectuals, civil servants and even boy scouts were mercilessly slaughtered by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police and predecessor to the KGB – when the presidential plane crashed.

It was as if Stalin’s wrath, from beyond the grave, had manifested itself in the fog above Smolensk; complications arose into the air, sending the plane crashing into the woods below after many failed attempts to land. Reminiscent of the original tragedy that had occurred nearby, the pain of the past replaced the satisfaction of long-awaited closure. The first lady herself was on her way for personal solace; her uncle had been murdered at Katyń.

Katyń is considered one of the single most irrational and senseless acts of Stalin’s Soviet Union, demonstrating a deep and cynical lack of respect for life among the Soviet leadership, to so casually send thousands to a barbaric death, with a few illegible signatures from a tyrant and his posse.

History long denied by the Soviet Union, the incident was publicly acknowledged for the first time in 1990 by Mikhail Gorbachev. The 2007 Polish film Katyn by Andrzej Wajda, based on the novel Post Mortem by Andrzej Mularczyk, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and has helped bring the story to a wider public. In the film, young Polish officers desperately tried to adjust to the commotion around them, in Russian and half understood. Under threat from all sides, Poles fled, first to escape the German Nazis and then the Soviet Russians, only to surrender their country, divided as a result of brewing tensions.

Coming to their senses, they realised that they had been taken prisoner by the Soviet Army, who separated the officers from their inexperienced counterparts, the enlisted conscripts. Much to their rookie luck, the enlisted soldiers were allowed to return home while the officers were left behind, their fate unknown as they attempted to stay calm and collected.

Mothers, children, wives were left in a pool of vulnerability, families left with unanswered questions and a shocked feeling of disbelief, not knowing if they would ever see their loved ones again. Meanwhile, many of those who could have escaped did not, out of loyalty to the Polish military, an oath they were proud of.

Until April 1943, no one in Poland knew what had happened to the missing people – most believed the events at Katyń were just another German atrocity. But the Germans had in fact come later and discovered the first bodies of some 4,500 Polish officers buried in mass graves. And it was another 47 years before Gorbachev’s admission, a confirmation that came as a relief to many. Yet shocking as this was, more disturbing, was the revelation that a single signature had justified the killing of thousands, scribbled by Stalin four months after the Polish surrender – a senseless decision, cruelty that almost seemed planned.

Lack of food supplies, among other things, resulted in soldiers being captured by the Germans and transferred to another location under Soviet control. Although the original plan had been to set all non-ethnic Poles free.

What happened was barbaric. Lavernty Beria, the head of the NKVD, set up camps in western Russia, in monasteries, nunneries, asylums and orphanages, where prisoners starved and froze in pigsties. In fact, so many died in these camps that those who were not ethnically Polish – many from German-occupied Poland – were released after all.

Many who stayed were forced to build highways in the Carpathian Mountains, the new border with the German Reich, while others went to the Ukrainian mines.

Senior Polish officers were at first treated well; those who were above the rank of lieutenant colonel were given their own quarters, enough food, and were addressed with respect. Some were even given a chance to return to German-occupied Poland if they did not speak against the Soviet regime, giving the impression that the arrests were temporary.

Unfortunately, many kept to the military code of defiance, which angered Beria. Letters from the Polish prisoners pointed out that if at war with the USSR, they must be considered POWs, not prisoners.

Tensions increased, arrests were made and privileges were cut; playing-cards and money were taken and chess sets were given to those who were obedient. The sense of respect that had been shown to high level officers vanished as if it had never happened. As requests become more reasonable, the responses just became more absurd; demands for protection from foreign embassies were met with the showing of films that offended Polish honor.

Overwhelmed by the drones of prisoners arriving from Finland the idea to razgruzka, "unloading," the camps was suggested. The old, the sick, and any convincing communists were released.

On Mar. 5, 1940 Beria recommended an ambiguous plan to Stalin. Records show he made up his mind, saying that all the prisoners were "thorough going enemies of Soviet power, saturated with hatred for the Soviet system... [they] should be dealt with by special measures and the highest measure of punishment, shooting, should be applied to them." There were no formal charges; no sentences were issued.

Before the killing began a lucky six-hundred men were released, because their military experience was deemed helpful in the future Polish puppet regime and the war against Germany. Three renowned generals were of the select few; Jerzy Wolkowicki, Wladyslaw Anders, and Zygmunt Berling lived to build the new Polish Army. Western powers managed to salvage fifty Poles of international notoriety, including Josef Czapski, an impressionalist painter. The Nazis worked tirelessly for the life of Waclaw Komarnicki – ironically, he became the London’s minister of justice.

In death camps other than Katyń, people were handcuffed and identified and then shot one by one in the back of the neck in soundproof chambers. Their bodies were then dragged out through the back door, piled into trucks and taken to the countryside at Mednoe. At the end of each day a telegraph was sent to Moscow reporting on the day’s work. The stories of the victims buried in the Katyń forest were even uglier. Standing in open pits, their hands were tied with barbed wire and a noose was placed around their necks, before they were arranged conveniently for optimal piling.

As quickly it happened, the consequences of the Katyń massacre began. Letters from wives, daughters, sisters and mothers to the capital began to pile up, and some managed to find their way abroad. The upcoming war with Hitler made the Soviet leaders look not only barbaric but foolish for killing so many military professionals so early in the war. First the Hungarians and then the Red Cross started asking for information on missing people.

None were given.

In the aftermath of World War II, wives, mothers, sisters and daughters awaited confirmation of their officer’s passing. In some cases, letters, and even diaries were returned. One soldier’s final message was carved in wood and found by the Germans; now, it is at the Katyń memorial.

"They have taken away my rubles, my belt, my penknife."

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