Giving voice to the voiceless: Katyń — Massacre, Politics, Morality


“Both my grandfathers were Polish officers,” said Nicholas Siekierski. As I stroll through the new exhibition at Hoover Institution with the personable young archivist, he adds, “They were lucky to be taken prisoner by the Nazis rather than by the Soviets.”

What happened to those not so lucky is Katyń.

Nick is the assistant archivist for exhibits and outreach at Hoover Institution; his father, Maciej Siekierski, is the curator of the East European Collection at the Hoover Library and Archives.  Father and son worked together on the current exhibition at Hoover:  a grim, impressive, dignified reprise of an atrocity, Katyń: Massacre, Politics, Morality.

We’ve written about Katyń before — here and here.  It’s hard to write much about Poland in the 20th century without running head-on into Katyń, either as a symbol or as a reality. It was the central, inescapable monstrosity in Polish life, but a silent one; they were not allowed to speak of it openly for decades. When the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Poland in September 1939 tens of thousands of Polish professional military officers and reservists, policemen, landowners, lawyers, doctors, educators, and civil servants were arrested.  In short, Poland’s political, social and intellectual elite were made prisoners. The following spring, the Soviet Communist Party Politburo ordered the execution of about 22,000 of them.

The Germans investigated in 1943 (Photo: Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation records, Hoover Institution Archives)

The mass shootings carried out in the spring of 1940, some of them in the Katyń forest near the Russian city of Smolensk, are remembered as the Katyń Forest Massacre.  For the next half-century, Communist leaders lied, evaded, and attempted to pin this crime against humanity on the Nazis. The touring exhibition, produced by Poland’s Council for the Protection of the Memory of Struggle and Martyrdom, documents the murder of Poland’s elites carried out by the Soviet security service.  The exhibition was launched at the EU headquarters in Brussels and then moved to the Library of Congress, but its most extended stay will be here, at Stanford, from Nov. 30 to January 29, 2011 (it’s closed during winter break, Dec. 18-Jan. 3, but otherwise open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.).  The exhibition is augmented by documents and photographs from Hoover Archives.

An unknown Katyń victim, probably from an identification card

If the Polish army coats at the entrance of the exhibit look familiar to those who have seen Andrzej Wajda’s acclaimed film, Katyń, it’s more than coincidence.  These two coats were recreated for the film, says Nick. “I saw them in the Warsaw Uprising Museum while I was a volunteer there in September, after they had been used in their exhibit on Katyń,” said Nick. “They offered to loan the uniforms to us for free once they heard about our exhibit.”  The grave, gray coats, like the exhibit, are impressive:  a softer look than you’d expect for an army uniform, yet relinquishing none of the impression of strength. As we all know, Katyń was followed by another horror this year, 70 years later — the airplane crash, en route to a memorial, that killed 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.  At the entrance to the exhibit, I am handed a flier, a speech titled “Freedom and Truth,” dated April 10, 2010.  Perhaps the words Kaczyński never had a chance to speak are also a fitting memorial:


It happened 70 years ago. They were tied up and killed with a shot to the back of the head, so there would be little blood. Later, the bodies – still with the buttons of their uniforms depicting eagles on – were placed in deep ditches. Here, in Katyn, 4,400 people died this way. In Katyń, Kharkiv, Tver, Kiev, Kherson, and Minsk a total of 21,768 people died.

"Tied up and killed" (Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation records, Hoover Institution Archives)

The murdered were Polish citizens, people of various denominations and professions; military men, policemen, and civilians. There were generals and regular officers, professors and village teachers. There were military chaplains of different denominations: Catholic, the main Rabbi of the Polish Army, the main Greek Catholic chaplain, and the main Orthodox chaplain. …

These people were killed without trials or court decisions, murdered in violation of the laws and conventions of the civilised world.

What can one call the death of tens of thousands of people – of Polish citizens – without trial? What else can one call it than genocide? If that was not genocide, then what is genocide? …

The crime was a key constituent of a plan aimed at destroying free Poland: a country which – ever since 1920 – had stood in the communist regime’s way to conquering Europe.

This is why the NKVD tried to re-educate the prisoners: they were to support the plans of conquest. Officers of Kozielsk and Starobielsk chose honour and remained faithful to their Fatherland.

Stalin and the Politburo wreaked vengeance upon those who would not yield: they ordered them killed. The murdered were buried in ditches in Katyń, near Kharkiv, and in Mednoye. These hollows were intended to be the grave of Poland, the free Republic of Poland. …

Let us recall some facts: it was we Poles who first opposed Hitler by force of arms. It was we who fought Nazi Germany from the beginning of the war until its end and, by the end of the war, ours was the fourth most numerous army of the anti-Nazi alliance.

Memorial outside St. Idzi's in Kraków (Photo: C. Haven)

Poles fought and died on all fronts: at Westerplatte and near Kock, in the Battle of Britain and at Monte Cassino, near Lenino and in Berlin, and also as guerrillas and in the Warsaw Uprising. Among our soldiers, there were brothers and children of the victims of Katyń. …

The world was never supposed to know the truth – families of the victims could not mourn them in public, could not grieve them or pay them a decent last tribute. The lies were supported by the power of the totalitarian empire and by Polish communist authorities. People telling the truth about Katyń, even students, paid for it dearly. In 1949, Józef Bałka, a twenty-year-old student from Chełm, was sentenced to three years in prison by a military court for daring to speak the truth about Katyń during a class. It seemed that – as the poet said – the only witnesses of the crime would be “the unyielding buttons” found at the Katyń graves. There are, however, also people who would not yield and – after four decades – the totalitarian Goliath was defeated. Truth – the ultimate weapon against violence – triumphed. The People’s Republic of Poland was based on lies about Katyń and now the truth about Katyń constitutes the foundation of a free Poland. This is a great achievement of the Katyń Families and their struggle for the memory of their beloved dead – this was also a struggle for the memory and identity of Poland at large. This is also an achievement of the youth, of students such as Józef Bałka, and of teachers who – in spite of being forbidden to do so – told children the truth. We should also be thankful to priests, including Prelate Zdzisław Peszkowski and Rev. Stefan Niedzielak who proposed that a cross in memory of the Katyń victims be placed in the Powązki Cemetery and who was murdered in January 1989. We should be thankful to publishers of underground publications and we also owe much to independent initiatives, the Solidarity movement and to millions of parents telling their children about the real history of Poland.

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