Remembering Katyń, Remembering 21,768 Victims

by Julia Owerko

Exactly 80 years ago, on this day in history, Beria wrote a letter to Stalin. That letter, a single document, decided the fate of 22,000 Poles and dictated the future of the nation that many of us now call home. 

Beria’s Lethal Letter to Stalin

March 5, 1940, Beria writes to Stalin that thousands of prisoners being held captive in prisoner camps took part in rebellion movement, resistance organizations, and other forms of opposition that the NKVD consider to be a threat to the Soviet government. In the letter, Beria, the head of the NKVD, proposes to “apply to them the supreme penalty: shooting”. Stalin signs the document. As a result, for the next months, one by one, every prisoner being held captive in the Soviet prison camps will be ruthlessly executed by the most cold-blooded method: a single gunshot wound to the back of the head while on their knees. 

Strength in Tragedy

The Katyń Massacre is an important event in Polish history. The Soviets managed to eliminate a significant number of the Polish intelligentsia. Amongst the victims were officers, doctors, teachers, scholars, and anyone that had the potential to stand up to the Soviet regime. However, the tragedy united millions in mourning and disgust in the massacre. Although the fight for the truth was not easy and the web of lies that the Soviets created was hard to untangle and prove, the Polish people had a common goal. This event, although it continues to hurt after so many years, brought the Polish communities together and created an unspoken bond that lasts to today.

Winter in the Summer

The Burdenko report, the official Soviet report summarizing their investigations about the Katyń Massacre, was full of inconsistencies. The Poles knew that the USSR was lying and thus were confident of who was repsonsible for the mass murder of Polish inteligensia. 

The Soviets claimed that Germans were to blame for the murder stating that the time of death for the executions can be proved to be September of 1941, a time when the Germans were in control of the area where to bodies were found. However, this was a lie as the victims were buried in jackets, scarves and gloves, attire that cannot be linked to the 23°C weather that was recorded for September of 1941. Furthermore, the official international Katyń Investigation Commission announced that the decomposition rate and the appearance of insects dated the time of death for late winter to early spring – March 1940 fit the circumstances perfectly. 

There was no use in trying to manipulate the timeline. Families of the victims knew their loved ones were gone once every attempt at communication was denied with a simple single-worded letter stating “Ujechał” which can be translated as “gone away”. Communication stopped in March of 1940. 

Other inconsistencies, such as responses of the Soviet government can be even considered ridiculous. Stanisław Kot wrote in his memoirs that in response to where the 22,000 thousand prisoners were, Stalin responded that they all “escaped” clearly leaving the former ambassador of Poland baffled by the thought of a secret mass exodus of from a prison camp. When further asked where they could have left to, Stalin simply answered, “Manchuria?” The suspicious behaviour and lack of answers only proved that the Soviets were hiding the truth. 

Remembering Katyń

To say that Poles did everything to find out the truth about the Katyń Massacre would be an understatement. Poles willingly sacrificed their lives as well as the lives of their families to search for answers. 

On anniversaries of the tragic events people would gather in the cemeteries to pay their respects to the ones they had lost. Many of those gathered were undercover NKVD officers that would seek out individuals and torture them for answers. The violent behaviour of the Soviet government and police was a clear indication of their guilt as the innocent wouldn’t act as if they were covering up the truth. 

Schools were censored, Katyń was not talked about, and the only way to learn about these tragic events was at home. Flying Universities, secret tutoring, and family discussions were the only way to preserve the truth. Events like the violent protests and illegal research were the only methods that allowed the truth to survive. 

Many Poles expressed their disbelief in the Soviet version of events through their actions. There were patriots like the 76-year-old veteran who, on March 21, 1980, chained himself to the fountain in Kraków and burned himself alive. Historian Robert Szymczak who analyzed protests during PRL writes that the veteran “carried a large sign proclaiming the self-immolation was his way of protesting the Soviet slaughter of the Polish Officers at Katyń in 1940.”

In June a ceremony with over a thousand people took place in 1980 at the Powiązki Cemetery to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Katyń Massacre. This pins the date of the massacre to be 1940, not 1941. Soviet officers would blend in with the grieving Poles. When they saw someone lighting a candle or giving their respects to the Katyń victims, they would immediately arrest them. Soviet authorities soon came to the scene and arrested 36 individuals. 

Similar fate came to Solidarity’s “Katyń 1940” monument, which had to have the wording changed to “To the Polish soldiers – victims of Hitlerite fascism – reposing in the soil of Katyń”. When a similar statue in the United Kingdom commemorating the tragedy was created, but labelled Katyń 1940 instead of 1941, the Soviet government demanded its complete destruction almost immediately. 

During an interview with Mr. Pan Adam he described a phenomenon in Poland he referred to as “duality” in the sense that Poland was divided into two worlds. “We became so indifferent to the whole system which was based on a lie. (…) We knew that the teacher was forced to teach the official version that it was a Nazi massacre and it was the Nazis that killed the Polish officers. Then we knew, everybody knew. And everybody pretended not to know. We lived in those two worlds … the mask you put on when you’re outside in public places and then the real self in the real world indoors with the people you trust.” 

Although there were no survivors of the Katyń Massacre, the truth survived oppression and censorship for half a century before Soviet archives became public. To this day there are 21,768 folders of unnamed files but we no longer have to risk our lives to speculate what they contain. 

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