They roused them in the prison train truck in the early April morning as the dew still settled on the grass. The day before they had transported them from the monastery prison at Kozhelsk in a prison train. Now still tired, and wearing their winter coats, groups of 25 men were bundled into black prison buses divided into tiny cramped individual cells. After a short drive they arrived in a clearing in the forest. To the officers it looked like a summer vacation spot. As they looked round the barbed wired fence perimeter of the clearing, NKVD officers armed with guns and bayonets subjected each prisoner to a thorough search. All their money and valuables were removed, including watches, rings, pen-knives. Their hands were tied behind their backs with a cord, they were identified individually against their individual file, which none of them had ever seen. Then they were lined up in front of a low wooden fence. Sensing their end they waited for the execution squad to appear in front to them. Suddenly from behind the fence a soldier appeared behind each officer with a German Walther pistol and shot each prisoner in the back of the head. Others who sensed the danger and resisted were bayoneted to death. Their bodies were lifted by assistants and thrown into deep mass graves. The prison buses returned to the prison train for their next victims. Their files were bundled together and taken by train to a hidden NKVD archive in Moscow.
Some 4421 prisoners of war from Kozhelsk were murdered this way and their bodies buried in 8 massive pits in the Katyn Forest between 3rd April and 12th May 1940 not far from Smolensk deep in the heart of European Russia. There they were found 3 years later in April 1943 by German army units who denounced this publicly by German Radio as a Soviet crime. The bodies were badly decomposed but still identifiable, their uniforms tattered but recognizable, the cords that tied their hands still in place and their personal documents and personal photographs intact. Also recoverable were the bullets in the back of the skull. On the basis of thousands of such documents it was possible to identify a large proportion of the bodies and to announce within a few days of discovery the identity of some of the officers, including General Mieczysław Smorawiński.
The announcement of the discovery by German radio of 15,000 dead Polish officers was followed by a Soviet counter-claim that these murders were committed by the Germans themselves in the summer of 1941 after Hitler’s invasion of Russia. The Polish government in London under General Sikorski was shocked to the core when it realised that here were the missing 15,000 officers they had been searching for ever since the Soviet government recognized the Polish government after Hitler’s invasion in 1941 and when a Polish Army was being formed in the Soviet Union. Every attempt to find these officers was met with awkward excuses and unlikely stories about a mass escape to Manchuria. Now they had been discovered by Germany, the common enemy of Poland, Russia and the western Allies. The Polish exile Government in London was aware that on this occasion the German claims were right, but it did not want to break with Soviet Russia. It sought a middle way by asking the International Red Cross to investigate the truth about the massacre. The Soviet Government used that moment as the excuse to break off relations with the Polish Government accusing them of being collaborators with Nazi Germany and began their efforts to recreate a new Poland in the Soviet image by-passing Poland’s legal authorities and historic traditions. The officers they had killed in 1940 were now the useful excuse for ensuring that a legitimate independent Poland would not be restored after the War once the Red Army had pushed the German troops back across Poland to Germany.
The Soviets confirmed their version in 1944 when they sent a delegation to Katyn, once it had been recovered from the Germans, to bring up the bodies once more, add a few false artefacts dated later than 1940 and then declare that the massacre at Katyn was a German crime.
After Katyn the crime came Katyn the deliberate falsehood. It became a mark of loyalty to the new Soviet-controlled regime in post-war Poland not to question that Katyn was indeed a German crime, but more importantly still to fail to raise the issue at all. Encyclopaedias published in Poland and Russia never mentioned the issue at all. Katyn had become not only the crime that alienated for ever any possibility of a rapprochement between the Soviet Union and a free independent Poland, but the symbol of that oppression which denied Poland that freedom and independence. It was the great taboo subject that dared not speak its name and a vital element in the subjugation of post-war Poland in the Soviet bloc. Employees could lose their jobs and could go to prison for stating that it was a Soviet crime. Schoolchildren would be expelled from school for mentioning the word. The massacre was so all-encompassing that even foreign states, including the United Kingdom, refused to recognize that Katyn was a Soviet crime until the Russians themselves admitted it.
Only when Katyn could be openly discussed was it possible to have a free Poland, and it was only when Russia under President Yeltsin recognized that Katyn was a Soviet crime in 1992, was it possible for the two countries to have proper relations again as friendly neighbouring nations.
So how did those 4421 officers find themselves in Katyn, and why were they killed?
In 1939 there were two totalitarian states in Europe whose mutual hatred and ideological rivalry transcended most other issues of European diplomacy. The bitterness of the confrontation was played out in the Spanish Civil War as troops from both sides volunteered their services transforming a brutal bitter conflict in to a testing ground for the new concept of total war. Hitler’s then system of alliances was actually called the Anti-Comintern Pact. Both also treated their own people with immense cruelty. Hitler had abolished democracy and freedom of speech and transformed all social, political and trade organizations into instruments of the Nazi Party’s ideology and propaganda, and had taken away all civil rights from Jewish citizens. Jews and enemies of the state were beaten up, sent to concentration camps and killed.
The Soviet system was far further advanced in totalitarian control, repression and slaughter. The Bolshevik Revolution in November 1917 had actually destroyed the infant democratic state which the original Russian Revolution had sought to set up in February 1917 after overthrowing the Tsar. Since the Red Terror that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, the new regime had used the mass murder of hostages, nations and classes by killings, starvation, imprisonment and torture as a system of propping up their one party state. This had reached a climax in the 1930’s when 700,000 were shot in the internal purge of the party by a shot in the back of the head, some 376,000 peasants were shot in the collectivization drive, 724,000 were shot for not performing tasks assigned to them such as denouncing others and this had also extended to the mass killing of pre-war minorities including the shooting of 111,000 Poles in the Soviet Union as spies (a fact that even Poles today do not appear fully to comprehend). 35,000 Mongolians were killed and a policy of deliberate starvation killed some 3.5 million Ukrainians.
Yet these two antagonistic murderous regimes did have one common enemy, the creation of a free independent Polish state. The destruction and obliteration of Poland, as the so-called Bastard of Versailles, became a common aim and led to the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov pact in August 1939 in which a secret protocol described the elimination of the Polish state. On August 31st. 1939 the German Reichstag and the Supreme Council of the USSR simultaneously ratified the Treaty and this effectively unleashed the Second World War following the invasion of Poland by Germany on September 1st 1939 and the Soviet Union on September 17th. Cooperation between the two regimes was consistent throughout the next 2 years. On September 24th 1939 as the armies of the two countries met on the new demarcation lines in central Poland a new secret protocol was agreed by both governments which stated “Neither side will allow any Polish agitation on its territories against the territory on the other side. They will suppress on their territories the beginnings of any such agitation and allow exchanges of mutual information on the official measures they have taken to do so.”
What followed in 1939 and 1940 was exactly that, a joint operation by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia to destroy the Polish state by mass terror and the mass killing of Polish elites, planned and jointly approved by Soviet and Nazi officials in a conference in Krakow at the end of 1939. This came to be known as the Polish Golgotha, as personal to Poland as the Holocaust is to the Jews. The Germans isolated the Jewish population by setting up ghettoes in the major cities and then starving them and introduced a mass pacification programme called Action AB which killed 6,500 Polish hostages emanating from the Polish elites by firing squad. The largest single site for these massacres was at Palmiry on the outskirts of the Kampinos Forest near Warsaw, where 1700 were shot.
On the Soviet side, in accordance with an agreement between Germany and the USSR, officer prisoners of war were retained by the NKVD and the lower ranks transferred to German custody or transferred to the Gulags. The remaining officers, policemen, border guards, prison staff, landowners and administrators, totalling some 15,000 people, were detained in 3 camps; Kozhelsk, Ostashkov and Starobielsk. There was an investigation of each officer and segregation of those deemed favourable to Soviet rule or who could otherwise be useful to the Soviets. 395 officers thus survived and were transferred to Grazovyets camp from where they were able to join the Polish Army in Russia in 1941.
Then on March 2nd 1940 Lavrentij Beria, Commissar for Internal Affairs, sent secret memorandum nr. 794/B to Stalin in which he stated that 14736 prisoners of war and 18,632 Poles in Russian prisons, including 5141 policemen, were “declared and unreformable enemies of Soviet rule” and that on those grounds they should be summarily shot without being confronted or responding to the charges against them. This note was countersigned as approved by Stalin and his 5 closest henchmen. In this way the Soviets were eliminating national and class enemies who would be hostile to continuing Soviet rule in Poland, and at the same time taking revenge for the defeat of the Red Army outside the gates of Warsaw in 1920 when the Poles had prevented the spread of revolutionary terror into Central Europe. Polish officers and soldiers had been asked earlier, during the screening, if they had participated in the 1920 campaign and if so, then whether drafted or as volunteers.
Following the approval of Memorandum 794/B the killings began in that same month. Probably they were decided on earlier and the memorandum was just a formality. As mentioned already 4421 officer reserves in the Kozhelsk camp were shot in the Katyn Forest between 3rd April and 12th May 1940. They included the only woman Janina Lewandowska, an ace pilot. Significantly her sister was killed in the same month in Palmiry by the Germans, both victims of the same campaign of mass murder by two different enemies.
3820 officers from Starobielsk camp, including prominent generals such as Stanislaw Haller and Leonard Skierski, were shot at night in the back of the neck in the cellars of the NKVD headquarters in Kharkov between 5th April and 12th May 1940. The heads of the bodies were covered to hide the blood and then driven in lorries with 25 bodies each laid alternatively head to toe and then buried secretly in Pyatykhatki in unmarked mass graves dug every day just before dawn until the massacre was finished.
6311 policemen and border guards from Ostashkov camp were killed by a shot in the back of the head in the NKVD HQ in Kalinin (now Tver) between 4th April and 16th May 1940. The executioners dressed bizarrely in brown leather aprons and long leather gloves identified each officer by name in one room with walls painted red, then handcuffed him and led him to a black padded cellar with a drain and there the officers were shot in the back of the head at a rate of 250 every night and their bodies carried through a small exit to waiting lorries which transferred them to be buried in long trenches opened and covered every day with a bulldozer at an unfenced site in Miednoye, 30km from the execution spot.
That same month a further 3435 political prisoners, policemen and officers brought in from Soviet jails in South Eastern Poland were killed in Kiev and Kharkov and also 3870 executed in Minsk from various Soviet jails in North Eastern Poland.
This is a total of 24,357 Polish officers, doctors, engineers, administrators, policemen, landowners, forestry officials, Jewish elders, priests and rabbis and other prominent figures from the Polish elites who would have been considered hostile to Soviet rule in Poland.
Although the total found at Katyn totalled 4400, the name “Katyn massacre” is now extended to cover all those mass murders. This is recognized as a war crime by the European Court of Human Rights and it was committed on an industrial scale. All this occurred while Polish families and settlers, more than 1.5 million Poles in total, were being deported to suffer heavy labour and slow lingering deaths in the wastes of Siberia or Kazakhstan of whom barely half survived until the amnesty in late 1941.
Katyn was one of the worst crimes of the XXth century. Others like the Holocaust or the killings in Cambodia were on a vaster scale but at least the perpetrators were largely identified and often punished. This was not true of Katyn for which crime not one single perpetrator was arrested or punished. Katyn, the crime, and Katyn, the deliberate falsehood, acted as an open festering wound, precisely because not only the families of those killed, but also the nation as a whole, could not come to a closure for 50 years as one Soviet Government after another lived in denial. The dead officers could only be honoured abroad, mostly by exiled Polish communities, but without the recognition of the governments of the countries in which they lived. Only after 1989 was it possible to honour and mourn the victims in Poland and only after 1992 was it possible to do so in Russia. Here the bodies were located, identified and then given a proper burial in a new cemetery. Indeed it was on such a flight to Smolensk to honour the dead at Katyn in 2010 that the presidential plane carrying a 94 strong Polish delegation, headed by President Lech Kaczyński and ex-President Ryszard Kaczorowski, crashed and all on board were killed. It adds a particular poignancy and a further sense of deep loss whenever this massacre is remembered.
However with added tensions this year in Eastern Europe it is worth continuing to remember this terrible crime in the hope that memory of the victims will not again be tarnished by cynical deceit. So let us honour them now for their sacrifice and for the values for which they were killed, love of their country, love of freedom and rejection of foreign tyranny.
Wiktor Moszczynski 18th May 2014