Dateline

A massacre in need of confession

Peter Lewis May 26 1980
Dateline

A massacre in need of confession

Peter Lewis May 26 1980

A massacre in need of confession

Dateline

Poland

Peter Lewis

The only witnesses to the crime were the tall pine trees in the Katyn forest, and trees don’t talk. Later, when the corpses were discovered, forensic experts threw all their skills into proving that the slayings occurred in April, 1940. But other experts came along shortly to dispute these findings and moved the massacre on in time, to April, 1941. The year’s difference was no mere academic quarrel. On it hinged the question of whether the murderer was Stalin or Hitler.

Now, four decades from the night when shots rang out in the Katyn forest, Western historians lay the killing of 14,500 Polish officers and prominent citizens under the pine trees squarely on Stalin’s doorstep. Yet in Eastern Europe, whenever the authorities mention Katyn, which is not often, they still stonily insist that Hitler was to blame.

In Poland itself the name Katyn still arouses peculiar horror, although the massacre was small compared to the staggering disasters that befell the country later in the war. Last month, when Poland commemorated events such as the liberation of Auschwitz and the Warsaw uprising as part of its month of remembrance, churches throughout the land said a special prayer for the Katyn dead. Owing to the uneasy truce that prevails at present between the Catholic Church and Poland’s Communist bosses, priests refrained from specifying who was responsible. Yet nobody in Poland harbors the least doubt that their army and civilian elite that fell at Katyn were put to death at Stalin’s order because, as nationalists and Catholics, they stood in the way of his long-term designs to establish a pro-Soviet government in Warsaw.

Polish dissidents have chosen this year—“the 40th anniversary of Katyn”—to mount an offensive aimed at forcing Moscow’s present leaders to admit Soviet responsibility for the crime. A Katyn institute was founded clandestinely in Krakow only a few weeks ago to condemn the Soviet Union and to publish a pamphlet setting out the details of the massacre. The authors’ names were given as Jan Abramski and

Ryszard Zywiecki, but the institute readily admits the two were not the real writers—Abramski and Zywiecki were the first and last names on the list of bodies identified from the mass graves at Katyn.

The Soviet government is unlikely to respond to the appeal to bring the facts of Katyn into the open, but some leading Russian dissidents living in the West have already answered in their manner. Thirty-two exiles, including Alexander Ginzburg, last month issued a declaration accepting blame in Moscow’s name.

The massacre had its roots in the September, 1939, partitioning of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union after the fall of Warsaw. Under the secret terms of a pact signed between Hitler and Stalin, half of Poland, with a population of 21 million, fell under Nazi rule while the other half, inhabited by 13 million, was swallowed up by the Soviet Union.

Among the Poles who found themselves on the Soviet side were 13,000 officers and 215,000 men from the Polish army. Most of the officers were directed to three internment camps lying deep inside Soviet territory, near Smolensk, 200 miles west of Moscow. Along with them went a great number of Polish doctors, scholars, scientists and engineers who had been rounded up by the

Soviets. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 many Poles held by the Russians were released to fight the Nazis, but the 14,500 men in the three camps were listed mysteriously by the Soviets as “missing.” Their whereabouts remained an enigma until the Germans overran the area and announced the discovery of thousands of bodies in mass graves in the Katyn forest near Smolensk.

To wring the maximum from what they saw as a propaganda boon, the Germans summoned experts from various countries, newsmen from neutral nations and even some British and U.S. officers, whom they had captured, to examine the site and the bodies. The experts concluded from the state of the corpses, clothing and ground—fresh sapling trees had been planted on the site—that the killings had taken place no later than mid-1940, when Katyn was still in Soviet hands. Altogether 4,143 bodies were discovered, most had their arms strapped behind their backs and had been shot in the head. The remains of the 10,000 other presumed victims of Katyn were never located.

Once the Soviet Union recaptured Smolensk it dispatched Stalin’s personal doctor, Nikolai Bourdenko, to Katyn with a team of forensic experts. They dug up the corpses and hurriedly pronounced the Poles to have died in April, 1941—when the Germans held Katyn. As Germany and the Soviet Union accused each other of the massacre, a dozen countries sent intelligence agents to the Katyn forest to obtain and/or remove vital evidence. Files disappeared and a key witness produced by the Germans was found hanged.

Although Britain and the U.S. suspected the German version was correct, they were reluctant in wartime to publicly support an accusation by the enemy against Moscow, their most important ally. While the British have refused, even to this day, to point a finger, the U.S. eventually came around to blaming Stalin. At the height of the Cold War a congressional committee concluded that the Soviet NKVD—the forerunner to the present-day KGB— was “undoubtedly responsible for the mass murder of Polish officers.” The Soviets reportedly came close to admitting the truth about Katyn in late 1956 after Nikita Khrushchev had launched the de-Stalinization process with a litany of terrible accusations against Stalin. Khrushchev thought that owning up to the crime would help to smooth relations between Poland and the Soviet Union, but he was dissuaded from talking by Polish Communist party leader Wladislaw Gomulka, who feared the reaction in Poland might be too strong to control (Khrushchev’s offer came only weeks after the Hungarian revolt).

As matters stand today, the killing of Poland’s elite at Katyn remains a festering sore in Soviet-Polish relations. Leopold Unger, a Belgian journalist of Polish origin who specializes in Eastern European affairs, describes Katyn as “the greatest unanswered crime against Poland.”

“The Poles have the smoking gun and the criminal’s name, but no confession,” Unger says. “If there is ever to be a reconciliation between the Polish and Soviet peoples it must start by way of Katyn.”