DR. JACEK CZARNECKI
Introduction to Festival Opening Gala Screening
Good evening ladies and gentlemen it is a great pleasure to be among you this evening and to partake in tonight’s presentation about one of the most sensitive, yet important topics in Polish history: that of Katyn Massacre. For the last few decades, Katyn has become more than just a historical event for the Polish nation; it became a sacred symbol of national suffering, sacrifice, and patriotism.
The roots go back to the tragic events surrounding Polish defensive war in the beginning of the Second World War. Following the German invasion on September 1, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked less than 3 weeks later from the east on September 17th. Once the campaign came to a close in the early days of October, about 240,000 Polish soldiers, including 12 generals, found themselves in the hands of the Red Army. 1 From all the prisoners captured, about 15,000 were picked and deported to ‘special camps’ at Kozielsk, Starobielsk, and Ostashkov. All 3 camps were former monasteries which were now run by the NKVD, internal ministry of the Soviet Union.
Among the Polish soldiers there were also many intellectuals. In Kozielsk, for example, there were 21 professors and lecturers from universities, as well as doctors, engineers, lawyers, and a single female found among the Katyn victims – Janina Lewandowska, who was a pilot in the Polish air force. 2 The conditions under which the prisoners stayed in were quite miserable: sanitation was poor, food portions were usually inadequate, moldy and old; many times there was a lack of coats and mattresses to sleep on and flees along with numerous diseases was another obstacle for survival. However one thing that did exist in large amount was intense indoctrination into Soviet and communist ideology through such things as newspapers, books, and radio which, for example, in Starobielsk camp was constantly on from 6am to 11 pm. 3 Interrogations were standard to infiltrate the knowledge and state of mind of the prisoners, as well as test who could be broken and put to use for the Soviet side.
However no matter what tactics were used (many of which you will see in a moment) and how much psychologically fear and hopelessness set in, it became almost impossible to break the prisoners. One way that the resistance can be seen is in the spiritual life of the camps. Even though the celebration of the mass was forbidden, religious life remained strong and the priests gave the prisoners a sense of hope. I would like to quote two sentences from a diary entry from December 22, 1939 (I apologize for maybe inappropriate language however I believe these 2 simple sentences sum up the fighting spirit in the camps) “In today’s orders, our authorities forbade us to sing Christmas carols. Well, let them kiss our ass, we will sing throughout the whole night.” 4 Unfortunately, on the night of December 24, all priests, but one, were taken away from the camps never to be heard of again.
In early 1940, orders came through from Stalin that all prisoners in the camps were to be liquidated. Only about 400 prisoners were deemed good enough to spare by the Soviet authorities, which means not even 0.5% percent. And this number included prisoners who were spared on specific requests from German and Lithuanian diplomats. The remaining number eventually proved to be poor collaborators anyway. The rest perished.
The prisoners were deported from the camps starting April 3, 1940 through May 13, 1940. 5 Those from the Ostashkov camp were shot in the cellar of the NKVD jail in a soundproof cell. After a short inspection, they were led to the execution chamber where two men held the victim’s hands, while the third fired a pistol to the back of the head at close range; the same method was used on those from the Starobielsk camp. The prisoners from the Kozielsk camp were transported to the Katyn Forest by trains.
Once they arrived, black trucks pulled up to the train station and took the prisoners in small groups to a house for a short inspection. Inside, some had their hands tied behind their backs, probably because of their struggling; those who resisted the most had a coat put on their head, which was tied around the neck and back. Some were led back onto trucks and released one at a time in the forest, led to the edge of the mass grave where shot in the back of the head. Some were shot in the house itself just like in the other 2 camps.
Roughly 15,000 prisoners were executed from these 3 camps this way, however the total amount of prisoners executed was about 22,000 due to the fact that there were other smaller camps through out Ukraine and Byelorussia which received the same orders for liquidation at the same time. 6 Some of the locations of the graves we still do not know till this day, that is why Katyn became a symbol and a memory of all those who were killed in this operation.
The West officially learned about this from Germans in April of 1943. Immediately the Soviet Union tried to place the blame on the Nazi regime. And further inquiry by the Poles ultimately led to an excuse by the Soviet side to break diplomatic ties between the Polish government in Britain and the Soviet government.
Afterwards any information about Katyn was suppressed to the best extent possible. In Britain, Winston Churchill spoke harshly against Polish press mentioning it and the British War Cabinet took strong steps in censorship. In America, the Roosevelt administration took strong stance against it as well. George Howard Earle, who was Roosevelt’s special envoy to the Balkans sent a letter to Roosevelt in March 1945 stating he planned to publish a statement on Katyn unless the president instructed him not to. Roosevelt said: “I not only do not wish it, but I specifically forbid you.” 7 Soviet contribution to war effort was too great. At the end of the war, Nuremberg Trials brought no justice to the matter, either.
Till the 1990s the topic was sensitive. Even though small monuments were built here and there, for example in Detroit in 1950 or in Stockholm in 1975, they were not numerous, and many times met with strong resistance, as in Britain or Scotland due to strong Soviet diplomatic pressure not to mention the year 1940 and hence suppressing the truth.
In Poland, families demanded to know the truth as well and for many years lived in hope that one day their loved ones will come back. The list of names of those found in the graves did not include everyone and many times the bodies were mislabeled or had an incorrect spelling of the name, giving hope for their families that it was someone else. However the topic was off-limits and anyone who pushed too hard was sentenced to prison or even deported to places like Siberia. As late as 1984, the Polish Communist Government erected their own monument to the victims of Katyn, however stating they died at the hands of Germans. Therefore in Poland the fight for truth was more than knowing what happened; it was a form of resistance against the communist authorities. Those killed in Katyn were seen as being sacrificed on the alter of freedom and even those who were not connected personally with Katyn, the word came to mean something personally emotional to them. 8
Even though since the Fall of Communism important steps were taken in correcting the decades of cover-up. The whole picture is still not known. Many questions remain. Exactly why Stalin ordered this. Many agree to have no opposition to Soviet takeover, but only a theory. What exactly happened to the priests that were taken in winter 1939, or where are the many grave sites still unknown from those in smaller camps in Ukraine and Byelorussia. These are just some inquiries which historians fully do not know the answers to.
These questions will remain and it does not seem that people are losing interest in them, especially with recent developments surrounding Katyn. On April 10, 2010 a plane carrying Polish president, Lech Kaczynski and dozens of the country’s top political and military leaders to Katyn to remember the victims on the 70th Anniversary of the shootings, crashed killing everyone on board. Once again a large portion of the Polish elite has been wiped out near the same place.
Until we have all the evidence presented, in what exactly happened and each name of the murdered person is known it is a moral obligation of those who remained behind to find the truth and those responsible for it, even if they may be long dead. It is at least an honorable action towards those killed, their families, and all those who fought defending Poland and its people. At the same time, healthy relations are built on truth, not lies, therefore it will be hard to build positive Polish-Russian relationship until such wounds are healed.
1.Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, and Wojciech Materski. Katyn: a crime without punishment, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 10-11.
2.Komorowski, K., Jasinski, G., Markert, W., Paduszek, K., Rawski, W., Nowik, G., Katyn: Zbrodnia Nieukarana, (Warszawa: ZP Wydawnictwo, 2009), 29-32.
4. Ibid., 40.
5. Paul Allen, Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth, (DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2010), 103.
6. Tadeusz A. Kisielewski, Katyn: Zbrodnia i Klamstwo, (Poznan: Dom Wydawniczy REBIS, 2008), 108.
7. Allen, 317-318.
8. Ibid., 113.
Jacek Czarnecki received his doctorate degree from St. John’s University in 2014, specializing in Modern World History. He is an assistant professor of history at Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York since 2014, where he teaches courses in European, Middle Eastern, and American history. He serves on board of directors for Jozef Pilsudski Institute of America and is a member of The Polish Institute of Arts & Sciences of America. He researches topics on Polish 20th century history, especially the Interwar Years. His forthcoming article “The Rebirth and Progress of the Polish Military during the Interwar Years.” will be published in Journal of Military History in July 2019.