The airplane crash that killed Poland’s President Lech Kaczyński and first lady Maria Kaczyńska — along with Poland’s deputy foreign minister and a dozen members of parliament, the chiefs of the army and the navy, church leaders, the president of the national bank, and others — dominated the news over the weekend (my interview with European historian Norman Naimark here). The plane was en route to a commemoration for the victims of Katyń.
For many in the West, it was the first time they had heard of the forests that hid the mass graves following the 1940 Soviet massacre of about 22,000 people. Most press accounts describe it as a massacre of Polish officers, but the list of the murdered included doctors, professors, lawmakers, police officers, public servants, and others in the intelligentsia — the kind of people Poland needed to function as a nation.
The Soviets denied the massacre for decades, blaming the Nazis for the atrocity. And the Soviets controlled Poland — hence, it was not possible to speak openly about Katyń. Any mention of the atrocity was dangerous; government censorship suppressed all references to the massacre.
As I wrote elsewhere: ‘Imagine, for a moment, an American equivalent: a world where we were not allowed to speak of 9/11 and could not remember the victims in any public way. A world, moreover, in which our nation was ruled by the terrorists who did the killing. The comparison misses the enormity, still: Poland was a much smaller country with a prewar population of 30 million, and the number of those murdered 5-7 times as great as those who died in the World Trade Center.”
In Year of the Hunter, Nobel laureate Czesław Miłosz, who survived the destruction of Warsaw, wrote: “The Soviet state went to great pains to convince the world of its innocence, and its allies took it at its word, or pretended to, so that the Poles were left to stand alone—with the truth, but with a truth proclaimed by the German enemies. And who would have believed them, since they were known for their anti-Soviet ‘complexes’?” Reading a book by an American correspondent in Moscow, Miłosz wrote, “I found the excerpt that reports on the trip by Western diplomats and journalists to Katyń; I read it and almost threw up.”
In 1981, Solidarność erected a memorial with the simple inscription “Katyń, 1940,” but it was dismantled by the police, to be replaced with an official monument “To the Polish soldiers—victims of Hitler’s fascism—resting in the soil of Katyń.”
Writers found ways to remember it: Zbignew Herbert, still living in Poland with all the constraints that situation implied, made an oblique reference to Katyń in his poem “Mona Lisa,” when he refers to the “executed forests,” and also in his,”Report from a Besieged City,” using the 1981 imposition of martial law to make oblique comparisons to Poland’s recent past:
Wednesday: cease-fire talks the enemy interned our envoys
we don’t know where they are that is where they were shot