80-Year Tragedy for the Victims and Their Families
By Meredith Boyum
The subject that demands mentioning first and far foremost – the victims of the Katyn Genocide of World War II. 21,857 Poles were coldly executed by the Soviet Union in secret internment camps. Many of their bodies were discovered in a mass grave in the Katyn forest of Russia, giving the tragedy its symbolic name, but many more perished in other Soviet camps.
Sadly, the humanity of this devastating loss has been often overlooked in the tangled political aftermath of their deaths. A moral responsibility to justice was displaced by political motivations throughout the 1900s and continues today. Military forces thoughtlessly took their lives for the sake of conquest. Their tragedy was used by Hitler’s Germany for anti-Russian propaganda, and the lies of the Russian Government defiled their memory to evade punishment. This essay seeks not to give a sterile account of history and politics, but to present an empathetic, comprehensive truth about what happened to these innocent civilians in 1940 and why it has been challenging to bring justice to those responsible.
The cruelty towards Polish people in camps was not an isolated, unfortunate side effect of war. It was a calculated tactic. In 1939, Russian Dictator Joseph Stalin and German Dictator Adolf Hitler conspired to form the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, creating a ten-year non-aggression agreement between the two countries. More significantly, this pact detailed a carving out of eastern European territory, which would effectively “split” Poland between Germany and Russia. The two countries invaded Poland just days apart, occupying the entire nation, and commencing the second World War. Poles taken prisoner by the Soviets were strategically chosen to dissolve Polish stability and stifle any possibility of an uprising. Among those taken were military officers, police, professors, priests, thought leaders, artists, and intellectuals. Parallel to what was happening to Jews and others in Germany, this was a mass kidnapping of civilians. Kuznia-Plota (2004) states:
The selection of persons for extermination was also characterized by the fact that they formed part of the intellectual elite of the Polish Nation which, under the appropriate conditions, could assume leadership. The physical elimination of these people was meant to prevent the rebirth of Polish statehood based on their intellectual potential. Therefore, the decision of elimination was taken with the intention to destroy the strength of the Polish Nation and liquidate its elites.
Once imprisoned, Russian officers transported Poles to one of three camps. Kozielsk, Ostashkov, or Starobielsk. Many of the prisoners believed that they would eventually be released. Some were even allowed to send postcards to loved ones. On the fifth of March, 1940, the NKVD voted upon and ordered their deaths. Stalin signed off on the decision. The Soviet Union deemed all 21,857 innocent civilians, enemies of the Communist state, sentenced to execution. The Poles were transported to prisons and killed, each by a single bullet in the back of the head.
The families of these prisoners were left devastated, confused, and, worst of all, wholly silenced about their pain. Anyone who dared speak up about Soviet cruelties would either be repressed or imprisoned. Soviet efforts to thwart whistleblowers effectively influenced the narrative to outside nations, but not to most Poles, who were forced into collective silence about a terrible injustice inflicted upon their communities. Dr. Sebastian Legarski (2020) said about the time, “Society had no doubt that the ones responsible for the crime in Katyn were the Soviets.” Those families were denied a fundamental human right to mourn and memorialize their loved ones truthfully. Krystna Kryszkowiak recalls:
Mother told me to write that father died in the war… I wasn’t supposed to write about Ostashkov. She was worried that I would reveal something and be persecuted. So I wasn’t persecuted because I never told the whole truth because I knew what I was supposed to say.
In the summer of 1941, Hitler broke the non-aggression agreement by powerfully invading and occupying Russia. German troops stationed there stumbled upon the eight mass graves in Katyn. The Germans’ concern with investigating the mass killing was driven by politically motivated opportunism. Hitler wanted to use the discovery as propaganda to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its allies. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, genuinely responsible for the killings, committed its efforts to pin the crime on the Germans. Germans ordered an investigation by the International Red Cross, which operated under the name The Katyn Commission. During this, they found evidence that the killings occurred in the spring of 1940.
Joseph Stalin, facing the discovery of his war crimes, needed to discredit German findings. He starkly denied any involvement and warned against the lack of credibility in German results. He tasked Nikolay Burdenko with leading the Russian Secret Police (NKVD) in conducting their investigation. Their goal was to construct a false narrative. Since German troops didn’t invade Russia until months after the killings occurred, the evidence needed to suggest that the fallen Poles had instead been executed in 1941 by the hands of German invaders. This investigation became known as The Burdenko Commission. Paul R. Gregory and Maciej Siekierski (2008) describe the situation:
Burdenko’s report had a veneer of credibility: more than a hundred witnesses were interviewed, bodies exhumed, and documents examined. The war thus ended with two competing versions of the truth.
Stalin had succeeded in his goal: obfuscate the truth enough to avoid a consequence.
Driving even more distance between the Soviets and Katyn blame, the Katyn massacre was then presented by the Soviet Union as one of the many criminal charges to be addressed during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945. The trials were an unprecedented, multi-nation, post-war scrutinization of crimes against humanity committed by Germany during the Second World War. The Burdenko Report, compiled under false pretenses, was cited as evidence of the German culpability of Katyn. It is worth noting that though Germany was innocent of the particular atrocity known as Katyn, many other Jewish and non-Jewish Poles were killed in German-occupied Poland and as prisoners of war. The death toll at German hands during World War II is staggering. However, the distinction of the blame for these individual atrocities is monumentally important. Poland is owed an explicit, accurate acknowledgment of its history.
Victims’ families are owed truth and justice. The efforts by the Soviet Union to protect the secret of Katyn would continue at the expense of Poland for decades to come.
During World War II, Joseph Stalin was in alliance with England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the common goal of taking down Hitler. This alliance was tense and strange. Churchill and Roosevelt were cautious not to set off the hot temper of the Soviet Dictator. They opposed many of his tactics and ideology but failed to do much in swaying him. In a private conversation with Polish leader Władysław Sikorski, Churchill is quoted to have said about Katyn:
Unfortunately, the German accusations are probably true. The Bolsheviks are capable of the worst atrocities.
There is strong evidence to suggest that Churchill and Roosevelt were not just suspicious, but explicitly aware of the Soviets’ hand in the mass executions. Dariusz Tolczyk (2010) details some of this evidence:
Both Churchill and Roosevelt were better informed about the Katyn massacre than they were willing to admit. In 1943 and 1944, secret investigations were conducted on this matter by both the American and the British governments. In June 1943, the British Ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, Sir Owen O’Malley, concluded his investigation with a report pointing unambiguously to the Soviets as the perpetrators.
Having read O’Malley’s report, Churchill said to Eden:
We should none of us ever speak a word about it.
By way of negligence to expose these war crimes, or to take the many red flags about the extent of Stalin’s capacity for evil seriously, the U.S and Britain were complicit.
In 1951, under the presidency of Harry S. Truman, the U.S. released a public document called the Madden Committee Report, detailing an investigation into the Katyn executions. The report was to serve two functions: openly determine who was responsible for the mass killings, and to determine if the U.S. was involved in covering it up. The committee found that the NKVD was indisputably to blame, but failed to be as decided about America’s involvement. The report seemed to suggest that the U.S was another passive victim of Stalinism, skimming over clear evidence that Roosevelt was aware of Stalin’s tyranny from the beginning of their alliance. Roosevelt wanted to keep a paranoid Stalin from inciting war with the U.S., which gave him a strong motivation for turning a blind eye to the innocent blood spilled at the hands of Stalin. The Madden Report concluded with requesting an investigation by the International World Court of Justice, though responsibility for Katyn would be disputed until nearly forty years later.
In 1987, a joint historical commission was formed between Poland and Soviet Russia to shed light on the discrepancies of the events at Katyn. This formation generated optimism from the Polish government that this commission could lead to Soviet disclosure of information about the Katyn mass graves and the thousands of missing Poles whose disappearances were still unsolved. In 1989, the Polish government still had no answers from the Soviet faction of the historical commission after two years and was rightfully impatient. The commission was formed to address Russian secrecy, yet pressing questions were left unaddressed. Finally, Poland officially announced to the public that Stalin’s Politburo, not German soldiers, were responsible for ordering the executions.
Backed into a corner, the Russian president in 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that Russia was responsible for the executions, but only in the capacity that they had been allegedly carried out by NKVD leader Lavrenty Beria and his officers in a rogue act. This claim was based on government documents not publicly disclosed. Gorbachev at the time was campaigning an effort to increase transparency between the government and the Russian people, which motivated him to address the accusations from Poland. The admission of guilt may have also been an attempt to strengthen trust in the Polish-Russian relationship, which had been tumultuous since World War II. Gorbachev then launched Russia’s investigation into the tragic event for the alleged purpose of achieving further transparency.
Though long-awaited, the Russian admission in 1990 was one of many unfulfilling announcements from Russia that gave the appearance of transparency without any actual consequence. Essential details of Russia’s extensive cover-up and exposure of other complicit communist leaders were left out of the statement. Gorbachev seemed to hurriedly pin the blame solely on the NKVD, and pass over specifics. The move seemed beneficial to Gorbachev’s public image, and a move that he was forced to make. As Gregory and Siekierski (2008) articulated:
The Russian strategy continues to this day: deny responsibility for Katyn outright until denial is no longer possible and then admit as little as possible.
The accuracy of this statement is evident when evaluating the context of Gorbachev’s 1990 admission.
Two years later, in October 1992, the Russian government released some critical documents regarding Katyn to the Polish government. The decision to do so was spearheaded by the President at the time, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin was Gorbachev’s protege-turned-rival who, now having replaced Gorbachev in a position of power, had a bone to pick with the former Soviet President. Whether due to a personal rivalry or a genuine dedication to the truth (Likely the former), Yeltsin kicked open the doors to a broader picture of what happened in Katyn and gave a scathing indictment of Gorbachev’s 1990 admission of Soviet guilt. Once again, Katyn’s tragic history finds itself caught in a political brawl.
Yeltsin revealed that Gorbachev had removed the two most important files from the collection of documents related to Katyn. These hidden files contained not only evidence of the full gravity of Russian liability, but also correspondence dated as recently as 1990 that implicated a massive cover-up. Recovery of these two files was integral to bringing the truth to light.
In 2004, the Russian investigation into the Katyn operation started by Gorbachev in 1990 concluded. The Russian government did not publicly announce this news or notify the victims’ families. Furthermore, disclosure of the Katyn investigation documents was kept classified. Russia’s official statements are that of regret, but its actions suggest otherwise. It makes no sense for this war crime to go unpunished because of an unofficial, unspoken statute of limitations, or because those directly responsible are long dead.
In 2007, fifteen descendants of twelve Katyn victims sued Russia over the crimes committed against their relatives. This case went to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights. The Russian government still withheld requested documents to the court under the reasoning that their declassification would threaten the safety of their country. The court did not find substantial evidence for this claim. Russia’s lack of cooperation prevented any progress in the case. The court commented that it was
struck by the apparent reluctance of the Russian authorities to recognize the reality of the Katyn massacre,
a callous disregard for the applicants’ concerns and deliberate obfuscation of the circumstances of the Katyn massacre.
Later, in 2010, the Russian government made some Katyn documents publicly available on the internet, but it was an incomplete disclosure.
The lack of consequences that the Russian government has faced for the Katyn genocide is a frustrating conundrum. Stalin left a legacy of secrecy about Katyn that has somehow survived the test of time. Katyn victims’ families have spent decades searching for answers to no avail. That uncertainty causes significant emotional suffering. The smallest gesture of decency they could receive is a public release of all documents and evidence that Russia has, and an extensive, sincere public apology. The lack of this necessary act has contributed to a tense Polish-Russian relationship for years. Katyn is a topic of unresolved tension for Poland.
Unfortunately, Putin’s leadership style indicates little hope of Russian humility under his rule. There is an egregious anti-Polish attitude from the modern-day Russian government. Vladimir Putin has openly accused Poland of colluding with Hitler, causing World War II. In 2019, Putin used a Polish slur, calling a World War II-era Polish ambassador an “anti-Semitic pig.” On the subject of Katyn, he has effectively asked Poland to move on. Just days before the annual ceremony of remembrance at a historic building in Tver where 6,000 of the captured Poles were killed in 1940, the government ordered that the plaques memorializing the dead be taken down. Putin has repeatedly presented false history about Poland that has been overwhelmingly disproven. This attitude from Russian leadership is fueling a dangerous re-energization of anti-Polish sentiment in Russia and beyond.
Since few people, especially in the West, are aware of the strategic mistreatment of Polish people during World War II, the deep roots of Polish discrimination remain intact. No hard line has been drawn between the anti-Polish propaganda conceived by Hitler and Stalin and the offensive attitudes held towards Polish people today. The hateful stereotype of Polish people being intellectually inferior is a direct legacy of World War II tyranny and the Katyn massacre. First, German and Russian forces sought, with the full extent of their ability, to permanently devastate the Polish intellectual and political elite. When Poland was straining to regain stability, Hitler used this as evidence of Poland’s innate weakness. To convince society that Poles were subhuman would benefit Hitler and Stalin by dampening opposition from the public towards any cruel treatment of Poles.
Anti-Polish “humor” permeated Western media in the 1960s. Though anti-Polish bias is widely considered offensive in the U.S. today, it lingers in the form of subtext, insufficient awareness of history, and the occasional slip from a public figure. Those calling attention to these offenses are usually Polish people themselves. We are thus continuing the attitude that Polish suffering is solely the burden of Poland. Further, when Polish suffering during World War II is mentioned in history books, it is often grouped in with Jewish suffering, presented as a footnote of the Holocaust. In these ways, we allow the de-legitimization of Polish culture to thrive well into the 21st century.
It would not be unreasonable for the Katyn descendants to receive reparations for their suffering from the Katyn genocide. After World War II, Germany was left with the atrocities of Hitler’s rule to atone for, and took on the immense task of distributing billions of dollars in reparations to descendants of holocaust victims and Israel. Several nations, including Poland, collaborated with the German government to form a foundation to aid Holocaust victims and descendants. Germany also outlawed Nazi hate symbols and encouraged a culture of collective regret. Contrast this to what Polish descendants of Katyn victims have received: Denial, indifference, and encouragement to move on…
The decision to murder 22,000 Poles was made to incapacitate the Polish nation in the long term. It stands to reason that a proper recompense would be an opposite action to the crime, for Russia to make a concerted attempt to uplift, aid, and support Polish citizens, especially families of the victims. It makes no sense for this war crime to go unpunished because of an unofficial, unspoken statute of limitations, or because those directly responsible are long dead.
It is a matter of international importance that the Russian government be held accountable for its long-standing tradition of controlling its history. Unopposed immoral leadership is a threat to every nation. It is not enough for the current Russian leadership to verbally refute their history of totalitarianism; it must, with its actions, close the doors on the Stalin era for good. With each passing day without a resolution, the pain of Katyn grows for victims’ descendants. As long as Katyn is unresolved and anti-Polish revisionism persists, the nightmare of World War II still haunts Poland.
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