The forests of Katyń

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Germans discover 4,500 Polish officers buried in mass graves, April 1943

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.

herbertAs 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 hunterreplaced 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


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4 Responses to “The forests of Katyń”

  1. Elena Says:

    When I was hired by the Hoover Archives in 1978, I vividly recall coming to work one morning and being confronted by an imposing, elderly Russian woman, Anna Mikhailovna Bourguina, who confronted me with the question: ” Do you know what today is?” I gave the day’s date, much to her disgust. She explained that it was the day to commemorate the Katyn massacre. She was an anti-Stalinist socialist – it took me a while to figure this one out. She had been the mistress of a Georgian menshevik, and a sworn enemy of Stalin’s regime. Not just for the Poles, but for people like Anna Mikhailovna, Katyn was a key symbol of Stalin’s crimes. To me at the time, Katyn was just one massacre among many, but over time the significance became clearer even to me. The leadership in East Europe was very thin, and such a massacre was a catastrophe for the nation’s future. A kind of genocide. Today the Polish leadership ranks are not as thin as then, but the plane crash will still have a negative impact on the ability of Poland to function as a nation. And it is an eerie reminder of past tragedy.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    It is indeed. And what a story!

    When I was in Krakow, there was a large memorial set up for Katyn, in front of St. Idzi’s, Milosz’s church at the foot of Wawel (where this weekend’s burials will take place). It’s still a large psychological scar down the center of the Polish psyche.

    Do you recall what the date of commemoration was? I don’t know what, exactly, it would commemorate… the murders must have taken place over several days.

  3. Elena Says:

    There was a particular commemoration day, although obviously the actual massacre itself went on for weeks. Probably a day in April, but I do not remember exactly what day it was, perhaps when the graves were discovered. Back then Katyn was an anti-Soviet touchstone, – during the early days of Solidarity, late 1970s and early 1980s. Labor union guys like Jay Lovestone (born in Lithuania, a founder of US communist party, then arch conservative, but always a AFL-CIO labor union guy) and anti-communists like Atherton activist Ginetta Sagan were delivering envelopes of cash to the families of arrested Polish dissidents. So the memory of Katyn 1940 had a very contemporary significance in 1980 during the struggle for independence from Soviet control. It is about more than 1940, but I’m not enough of an expert to get the entire subtext.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Elena, have you thought about writing your memoirs?

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