Encounter with Katyn, The Wartime and Postwar Story of Poles Who Saw the Katyn Site in 1943
By Tadeusz Wolsza
The Katyn Forest Massacre, An Annotated Bibliography of Books in English
By Andrew Kavchak
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
The rule is that one gets ensnared in various ways anytime anyone has anything to do with the Katyń affair. The latter denotes the notorious mass murder and genocide by Stalin and his henchmen of at least 22,000 Allied POW officers of the Polish army and a subsequent cover-up in which the USSR and the UK, the US, and other Western Allied powers colluded to bury the truth. Katyń became the by-word of Soviet and Western perfidy against the Poles, even if it was just the tip of an iceberg as far as crimes against the Polish people are concerned.
Yet, despite the efforts of the mighty of the world, we now know much about crime. However, the truth will always come out even if it takes time to emerge from the bowels of Communist and Allied mendacity.
In pursuit of the truth, two new works have recently been published regarding Katyń: by Professor Tadeusz Wolsza, a Polish scholar, and by Andrew Kavchak, a Canadian grandchild of one of the victims, Stanisław Kawczak. First, a disclaimer: I know Professor Wolsza personally; we cooperate on the academic board of the Second World War Museum in Gdańsk. As for the latter writer, I have corresponded with him some to help him popularize his work.
Andrew Kavchak’s The Katyń Forest Massacre: An Annotated Bibliography of Books in English (Middletown, DE: By the Author, 2020) is an indispensable tool for foreigners, general readers, and academics to learn about the mass murder of Polish POWs by the Soviets. It is also helpful for Polish scholars and history buffs to learn about the historiography of Katyń; to bemoan the scarcity (fewer than 40 titles over eighty years!) of publications on this particular aspect of Soviet terror.
First, there is a brief introduction to the killings and their aftermath. Then, the writer lists the resources chronologically and elaborates on them competently. Some of the titles he discusses pertain to Katyń specifically; in a few instances, only segments concern the massacre, for example, Wesley Adamczyk’s memoir, where he bemoans the loss of his father, who was shot by the Soviets but spent most of his recollections on his own travails as a child in the Gulag and afterward. One wishes Kavchak spent more time delving into the profiles of some of the authors. For example, it does matter that Professor Stanisław Kot was a leftist who, nonetheless, spoke the truth about Katyń.
Kudos to my friend Alexander “Maciek” Jablonski of Canada’s Oscar Halecki Institute for all his encouragement for Andrew Kavchak’s work. Yet, credit must go to the author himself, who successfully turned his pain into our public gain: “As I am of Polish origin and had a relative who was among the victims, I felt it was my duty to develop a thorough understanding of what happened at Katyń. In the process, it helped me to understand Polish history, politics, and culture better. Knowledge about Katyń is also a prerequisite to ensuring that future generations would be aware of the story. As one writer put it, ‘we are not permitted to forget.’ The deception that reverberated around the Katyń story for decades was neither the beginning nor the end of attempts by the Kremlin to fool the masses. The phenomena of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ have been a standard component of its modus operandi since the Russian revolution. The culture of deception may even find its roots in earlier times as attested to by the legend of the ‘Potemkin villages.’” (p. 12). Hear, hear!
In his Encounter with Katyń: The Wartime and Postwar Story of Poles Who Saw the Katyń Site in 1943 (Durham, NC: Janusz Kurtyka Foundation for Carolina Academic Press, 2018), Tadeusz Wolsza focuses not on the victims but the witnesses of Katyń. And, pace the title, the historian casts a broad net including Poles and individuals of other nationalities who visited, under German jurisdiction, the site of the massacre in 1943. Altogether the monograph retraces the histories of over 50 people involved in this sordid business. Grounded in impressive research in Polish Communist secret police archives, Encounter with Katyń consists of two stages: an investigation and a cover-up.
The investigation took place in situ at Katyń and afterward, where the experts and others worked with the sordid evidence. They participated in exhumations, examined decomposed bodies, and scrutinized various items retrieved from mass graves. Some of the experts brought the evidence back home, e.g., a Danish physician carried a skull of a Polish officer back to his institute in Copenhagen.
The cover-up commenced immediately upon Berlin’s propaganda barrage releasing information about Katyń in April 1943. Moscow hypocritically cried foul. Stalin mendaciously accused Hitler of the crime; the Kremlin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish Government in Exile in London for daring to ask for an independent investigation by the Red Cross. Western Allies would not touch Katyń with a ten-foot pole. They knew the truth and buried it. Besides, they also abandoned their most faithful ally – Poland, who was “First to Fight.” The cover-up continued after the war. It entailed, aside from cyclical Communist propaganda salvos about the alleged Nazi guilt, a sustained campaign to force the Katyń witnesses to recant or, if that failed, discredit or even eliminate them, which we shall return to shortly.
At the outset, Wolsza shows us the initial reactions of the witnesses to the crime and their subsequent fate. Generally, the visitors were a mixed lot. Some were distinguished experts with impeccable credentials in their fields, including forensic medicine. Others were journalists and popularizers, who were brought in with hopes to serve as Nazi propaganda tubes. There were also a few workers and other lower-class people. In other words, the visitors represented a broad section of European society.
Some Polish witnesses accepted the German invitation only after confidential consultation with and permission from the Polish Underground State authorities. A few others were explicitly ordered by the clandestine Polish Home Army to join the expedition. Almost all the latter tended to wear several hats, including working in secret Polish organizations and German-sanctioned institutions (e.g., the official charity, Rada Główna Opiekuńcza [Main Charity Council — RGO]).
Further, in addition to the denizens of German-occupied Poland, the participants included representatives of countries, such as France or Denmark, conquered by the Third Reich. Furthermore, there were the subjects of Axis states, Bulgaria and Hungary, for example, and neutral nations such as Spain and Switzerland. Lastly, Allied POWs, both officers and enlisted men, Americans, Brits, and others, flew in from their Oflags and Stalags in the Reich to Smolensk to shock them with the Soviet perfidy.
Most of the witnesses became convinced of Soviet culpability while assessing the evidence personally. Some issued an expert opinion on the crime, while others refused to. A few collected the evidence from the latter group, hid it, and wrote reports for the Polish underground.
Some went on the record publicly to denounce the mass murder. A few consciously propagandized for the Nazis. Specific individuals were merely craven collaborators who would do anything to ingratiate themselves with Berlin. Others were genuine anti-Communists who believed that the Soviet Union was a greater evil than the Third Reich. That last group consisted of most of the neutrals, Axis, and occupied witnesses.
At any rate, Germany amplified the anti-Communist narrative, including the churlish slur that “Jewish Bolsheviks” were behind the Katyń murders. However, with the demise of Hitler and his comrades and the defeat of the “One Thousand-Year Reich” and its satellites and allies, there was practically no institutional or state backing for the truth of Katyń to be heard.
The Soviet secret police immediately fanned out across the Intermarium to find the witnesses to Katyń and made them recant. Not surprisingly, the NKVD was quite successful. Polish, Bulgarian, Czech, and Hungarian experts took back their testimonies. To the great fanfare of red media, they announced that they had been wrong and the Germans, not the Soviets, perpetrated the Katyń murders. Most of those who recanted enjoyed comfortable careers or at least quiet lives under the Communist occupation. Those who did not were given the treatment, including jail time after collaborationist show trials. That concerned mostly journalists and other propagandists.
However, most experts and other Katyń witnesses who found themselves out of direct reach of the Soviet secret police experienced a different ordeal. Many did not change their mind but tried to blend in and retreat into obscurity. Some of them refused to lie and continued publicly to maintain the truth of Soviet guilt. The wrath of Stalin and, later, his successors was upon them. And it was sustained for nearly half a century until Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted the truth.
The stalwart experts, who refused to give in, were invariably branded as Nazi collaborators or outright “fascists,” real or imagined. In one case, an Italian scholar experienced ostracism and severe employment problems. In another case, already in the 1970s, a Danish professor, who had witnessed Katyń, lost his daughter in a mysterious car “accident,” which he was convinced must have involved the KGB.
The Western Allied governments participated in the cover-up for almost as many years as the Soviet regime. In the United States, it started early in the game when FDR himself suppressed the truth and exiled an American diplomat and his former close friend to Samoa to prevent him from talking about Katyń. At the time, in the US Army’s newspaper, Stars and Stripes, Communist agents published a cartoon of a Polish officer, very much alive, who perpetrated the Katyń “hoax.”
When in May 1945, an American POW witness to Katyń, Lieutenant Colonel John H. Van Vliet, Jr., followed up his secret, war-time messages, dispatched surreptitiously from his Oflag about the mass murder, with an exhaustive report delivered personally to his superiors in Paris. The document simply vanished. This scandalous cover-up came to light thanks to Krystyna Piórkowska, a Katyń victim’s child, whose invaluable research Tadeusz Wolsza relies upon.
American Communists, their progressive sympathizers, and some liberals wanted to make sure the truth about Katyń would never surface. A few years after the war with the Madden Committee and the anti-Communist push by Senator Joseph McCarthy, it finally did. By the mid-1950s, American conservatives and anti-Communists presented inconvertible evidence about the Soviet guilt for Katyń. Alas, the US lost its anti-Communist focus, and the mass murder disappeared from the public square. It reemerged only in the late 1980s.
It was even worse in Great Britain, where Her Majesty’s successive governments, in their craven appeasement of the Soviets, not only passively hid the truth about Katyń but also actively harassed British subjects who spoke about the crime and participated in commemorative ceremonies to honor the Polish POWs killed by the NKVD.
Of course, the worst ordeal befell those who remained in Soviet-occupied Poland. Not only was the truth suppressed and the mendacious narrative of German guilt purveyed, the Communist government actively censored, persecuted, and terrorized the families of the victims, as well as all others, who endeavored to remember Katyń. Anyone bringing up the executed officers openly could expect a visit from the secret police; anyone brave enough to remember the victims publicly risked arrest, beating, ostracism, job loss, and slurs of “Nazi collaboration.”
Overall, Encounter with Katyń is a worthy contribution to the growing body of scholarship on the massacre of Polish POWs by the Soviets. However, it is a pity that the monograph lacks a coherent conclusion. Perhaps it is a harbinger of more to come.
Both Tadeusz Wolsza and Andrew Kavchak have done a fine job restoring and maintaining memories about Katyń, which is perhaps a singular example of the true nature of the Soviet Communist system both domestically and internationally. Thanks to both authors, and other intrepid souls like them, we shall not be deceived.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 13 April 2021