history Eastern_Europe  POLAND  



by Larry Magdovitz



Many people don't know what happened in the Katyn woods. Even more people would not recognize the name. Katyn is a small village west of Smolensk near the Belarus border. It was in the surrounding countryside of Katyn that one of the greatest atrocities of World War II was committed. Four thousand, two hundred and fifty Polish soldiers were murdered and buried at Katyn, but that is only part of the story. The rest is explained below, put into chronological order so that the events that came to pass are easier to follow, but what unfolds will never be easy to understand.



In 1939, Hitler attacked Poland from the west and Stalin attacked Poland from the east. The German-Russian pact had been sealed by Germany's Ribbentrop and Russia's Molotov months before the war broke out. When these two superpowers closed in on Poland, the Poles army collapsed under the tremendous weight. Tragically Poles often let Russian troops come in unharmed because they believed the Russian propaganda that they are coming to aid the Poles. Once the Red Army took over Polish cities and towns it began rounding up civilians and soldiers alike to be imprisoned or executed. Officers of the Polish army were asked to register with the occupiers and after they dutifully followed this request they were arrested. Thousands of Polish nationals were exiled to Russia. Some went to Siberia while others were taken to Moscow for political interrogation and still others were taken to various locations across the Russian border. It was at three particular prisons in the confines of Russia that the beginning of the Katyn woods massacre came into being.



The three camps were named Kozielsk, Starobielsk, and Ostashkov and they held over fourteen thousand Polish prisoners-of-war behind their barbed wire and walls. Soldiers, statesmen, police officers, and civilians were kept at the camps. Their only occupation to pass the time was to conjecture on the fate that awaited them. The cream of the Polish army sat behind the walls of the Russian prisons. Six generals were at Kozielsk alone, a heavy concentration of the commanders of a defeated army. There were three thousand nine hundred and twenty prisoners at Starobielsk, four thousand five hundred at Kozielsk, and six thousand five hundred and sixty-seven at Ostashkov. In all, fourteen thousand nine hundred and eighty-seven Polish prisoners were held by the Russians at the camps above. The camps themselves were horrific. Bugs, lice, and filth were abundant. Food that was barely edible or nourishing was all the prisoners got. There were daily, incessant interrogations, roll calls, and formations at all hours. We know most of this because from 1939-1940 there are records of correspondence from prisoners at the camps to their family members and also from the few prisoners who escaped from their Russian captors. After the spring of 1940, however, all contact with the prisoners was lost. Apparently, they simply ceased to exist.


Memorandum on NKVD letterhead from L. Beria to "Comrade Stalin" proposing to execute captured Polish officers, soldiers, and other prisoners by shooting. Stalin's handwritten signature appears on top, followed by signatures of Politburo members K. Voroshilov, V. Molotov, and A. Mikoyan. Signatures in left margin are M. Kalinin and L. Kaganovich, both favoring execution.



Smolensk had been in the hands of the Germans since July of 1941. It was near Smolensk, in 1943, that some Polish laborers, recruited by the Germans, visited an elderly Pole who lived near the woods of Katyn. Through this old man the Germans learned of a site of massive burial that had been used by the Russians after they had killed many Polish prisoners. Germany called the International Red Cross to come and investigate under their protection. Russia blocked the way time and time again through political venues. Finally, Germany called for an international team of doctors to come and investigate. This decision succeeded in outmaneuvering Russian tactics and the panel began their investigation of the Katyn wood. What they found was beyond their wildest imaginations. Upon excavating a hill called Goat's Hill in the Katyn forest, the doctors found layer upon layer of Polish soldier's bodies, some with hands tied behind their backs, others with their trench coats tied around their heads. The corpses showed signs of execution by firearms and bayonets. There were many bodies with bullet holes in the back of the skull. Through forensic analysis the scientists discovered the caliber of the guns used in the executions, where the soldiers had come from, and the approximate time they had been killed. Letters, certificates of inoculation, and other personal items were left on the bodies as they were thrown into mass graves, one on top of the other.


Five layers of 500 murdered Polish officers

buried here by the Soviets


The ground at Katyn had a mummifying effect on most of the bodies so they were remarkably well preserved. The Polish uniforms easily identified the soldiers' rank, and in the case of the few high ranking officers, it told the discoverers who these people were. In all, four thousand two hundred and fifty bodies were exhumed. Most of these bodies were identified by their personal belongings.


Throughout all this time, from 1939 to 1943, the world was oblivious to the crimes committed at Katyn. The brave soldiers of the Polish army lay forgotten beneath foreign soil. It wasn't until the Germans found the grave that the world heard of Katyn. There was still one question left unanswered by the Katyn discovery ... where are the other ten thousand soldiers? Those found at Katyn account for only the camp at Kozielsk. The NKVD denied any knowledge of the whereabouts of the soldiers and blamed the murders of the Polish soldiers on the Germans, who they said were the ones who killed the Poles. Stalin also denied any knowledge of the killings, affirming that the Nazis had killed the Polish prisoners as they were returning to Poland to fight the German army. However, at the time of the murders the Germans had not yet reached Smolensk. The prisoners were killed in March and April of 1940, as the Nazis were preparing to march against Russia. It wasn't until 1991 that the USSR officially admitted that the secret police had killed the Polish prisoners-of-war. Then in 1992, Russia released documents that said Stalin had authorized the killings. More than fifty years later, the whole truth has come out. The culpability has at last been placed on the proper mantle and finally, the victims of the Katyn woods massacre can be at peace.



The Crime of Katyn: Facts and Documents, Polish Cultural Foundation, London 1965.

Katyn, Louis FitzGibbon, The Noontide Press, Torrance, 1979.







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