Katyn keys

Mateusz Wyrwich

Two criminals, the leaders of Germany and Russia – then USSR – signed the pact concerning the extermination of the Polish nation in 1939. Germany was symbolically judged during the Nuremberg Trials and Russia, the successor of the Soviets, has not been judged yet. Commander Lieutenant Jozef Stanislaw Kamienski, outstanding lecturer at the Faculty of Ship and Steel Construction of the State Technical School in Warsaw as well as at the Maritime Officers’ School in Torun, author of manuals on ship technology: murdered in Katyn. Retired Brigadier General Bronislaw Bohatyrewicz, participant of the independence war in 1920, volunteer in September 1939: murdered in Kozelsk. Reserve Lieutenant Wlodzimierz Jozef Godlowski, professor of the Jagiellonian University, outstanding neurologist: murdered in Kozelsk. Captain Jozef Bilewski, eminent sportsman, 16-time Poland’s shot put and discuss champion, participant in the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928, the coach of Janusz Kusocinski: murdered in Kozelsk. Janina Dowbor-Musnicka Lewandowska, general’s daughter, graduate of the Music Conservatory in Poznan, graduate of the Higher Pilot’s School at Lawica, the first woman in the world who parachuted from a height of 5,000 m: murdered in Katyn…
This list of outstanding Poles, people having various professions, includes almost 23,000. The lives of most of them ended in their early 20’s, 30’s 40’s. They were the salt of the nation. The occupant knew about that. That’s why the occupant murdered them. The joint Russian-German decisions concerning the genocide of Poles were taken at the beginning of 1940 in Zakopane and Krakow, the cities occupied by the Germans. The consequence of those decisions was the planned massacre of the Polish elite by the Germans – first during the AB Action and then during the whole period of the occupation; by the Russians – at first, the actions that were then called the Katyn massacre and afterwards the actions in the 1940s and 1950s by the Soviets agents placed in Poland. It was Beria, the Chief of NKWD, that proposed to Stalin what action could be taken concerning the Polish prisoners. But it is only one detail. Since ‘the final solution’ of the problem of the Polish prisoners was accepted by the highest officials of the Soviet state. They also defined the way to treat the families of the prisoners.

We had to remain silent

Among the numerous documents, books and commemorative texts that have been published recently it is worth quoting a small fragment of the work by Elzbieta Stepska-Kot, who was three when her father Tomasz Slawinski, a policeman from Tarnopol, was murdered in Tver. The text was sent to the competition announced by Pawel Kowal, MEP. ‘…the Commons [in Tarnopol] were fenced; along the barbed wire fence the Soviets are standing, their guns directed towards the square to which our fathers are being brought. My mummy, sister and I are there. My mummy has a bundle, bread, dried sausage, tea. Mum can see my dad; she is going to him crying. Someone grabs me from my mummy’s hands and my sister goes to Father, ignoring the shouts and commands. Daddy covers her with his coat and they go to the square assigned for the prisoners. Daddy asks my sister dozens of questions. He asks her to be polite, not to forget to pray and he asks her take care for me (she is six years older). My sister Wanda is surprised why daddy does not hug and kiss her. He is standing at attention. She notices that he is extremely untidy; the buttons of his uniform were cut off, his cap is broken, he has not shaved for a few days; he has many abrasions and big tears on his face – these were tears of pain, sorrow, helplessness and farewell. My sister is looking at the Father’s companions – they are crying like children, touching my sister, making the sign of the cross on her head. Yes, it was my saying good-bye to Father and then there was a range of other sufferings. Our fathers were kept in the commons for three or four days. Without food, water, warm clothes. Thousands of prisoners were brought there and at night they were taken to unknown places. After a month we received a card thrown under the door of our flat – letter from my daddy. He wrote, «I am in the camp of Ostashkov. Many acquaintances are with me. We are in an old monastery; sleep on the floor, without any covers…» Our gehenna in exile lasted over six years. I was separated from my mother. Beaten, pushed, deprived of food, ridiculed. I was forbidden to speak Polish. We were reminded that we came here so that the Siberian land could devour us. Our bones would be taken by wolves in the steppes…And we had to be silent… Prayer gave us strength and hope to see our mothers and families again. And we did. We returned to our Homeland, physically and psychologically wounded. We had to learn Polish again… For many years we were bullied but we are living in the Polish land – so much loved and longer for. The land for which our Fathers gave their lives… We were enslaved, beaten and humiliated. We were guinea pigs. They thought that through hunger, deprival of all rights, degradation and lost of health they would close our mouths. We would be silent. We would lose our memory but we do remember.’

Restoring memory

Throughout the post-war years the Polish communists used various ways to erase the genocide conducted by their principals from the national memory. They also claimed falsely that it had been the Germans that conducted the massacre. All people who attempted to tell the truth were imprisoned or severely repressed. The leaders of some democratic Western countries helped to cover up the traces in order not to irritate their ally. The so-called unknown perpetrators profaned the Katyn memorials, erected in the West by the Polish communities. But the memory of the Katyn massacre has survived. In the 1970s Adam Macedonski founded the illegal Institute of Documentation of the Katyn Massacre. The underground press, which was active during that period, published more and more materials about this act of the Soviet genocide. Fr Stefan Niedzielak did a lot for preserving the memory of this national tragedy and he paid the price of his life. However, it was only the sovereign Poland that created the possibility to make official efforts to commemorate the Katyn massacre. The transformations in the Soviet Union, which was changed into the Russian Federation and followed the policy of accounting for its past, make these changes especially easier. In Poland it was the Independent Historical Committee for the Investigation of the Katyn Massacre and the Katyn Families Association that began commemorating the victims of the Soviet genocide. Since 1988 the groups of historians acting in these organisations, presided over by Marek Tarczynski and Jedrzej Tucholski, have written the biographies of the victims who were on the Katyn list. The first idea to create the Katyn Museum originated in 1989 when the Katyn Families were asked to make their memorabilia of the victims available. The memorabilia were shown at the exhibition in the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw in April 1990. Thousands saw the exhibition entitled ‘Nie tylko Katyn’ [Not only Katyn]. For the first time people could see the murdered officers’ photos or letters written from prisons as well as the fragments of their uniforms and personal belongings recovered from the graves during the first exhumation conducted by the Germans (in 1943). Glasses, cigarette-cases, pens, pencils. The collection of the future museum was enlarged when there was the exhibition dedicated to the Katyn victims, organised on the 51st anniversary of the massacre by the Polish Army Museum. Answering the appeal of the Federation of the Katyn Families the museum delegated its workers to collect family souvenirs all over the country. After the success of the exhibition in 1991 there were discussions concerning the necessity to create the Katyn Museum. The exhumations in Kharkov and Mednoye supplied masses of tragic exhibits. In November 1991some part of the already preserved objects were presented at another exhibition organised by the Polish Army Museum. The rest of the objects were still in the Prosecutor’s General Office as the evidence of the crime. The Association of the Katyn Families asked the Deputy General Prosecutor Stefan Sniezka to take special care for the objects. Since as they wrote, ‘Our efforts will aim at creating the Katyn Museum, following the model of the Museum in Auschwitz and the Museum in Majdanek. In our opinion this new museum should have a wider dimension, namely apart from collections of objects it should collect all documents connected with the Katyn massacre, dispersed in various archives, both in Poland and abroad, as well as in social organisations and in private hands … Apart from the museum and archival documents it should contain library collections and scientific workshop that would conduct proper scientific research..’ The Federation of Families also approached the Mayor of Warsaw Lech Walesa and the Prime Minister Jan Olszewski concerning the creation of the Katyn museum. The situation became alarming since there was the danger that the exhibits from the investigation exhumation could be destroyed. After several month talks with the army the Sadyba fort, which had been built by the Russians during the partitions, was planned as the location of the Katyn Museum. Then ‘national’ discussion about ‘unsuitability of the location’ began. The Katyn Families accepted the choice. However, some ‘zealous’ advocates of the Katyn Museum did not like two elements that according to them ‘will not expose the memorabilia in the way worthy enough.’ The first element was the distance between the fort and the city centre – several kilometres. The other was the fact that the homeless lived in those administrative buildings. Some newspapers published accusations, ‘’The homeless will pay for Katyn.’ The leaders of that cynical discussion were… the left-wing papers. Despite these alleged obstacles the museum was created as part of the Polish Army Museum. And on the last days of June 1993 thanks to the efforts of the independence environments, including the army and police, the Katyn Museum was opened. The Field Bishop Slawoj Leszek Glodz blessed the museum and Fr Zdzislaw Jastrzebiec Peszkowski, a prisoner of Kozelsk, spoke about the massacre and the over 50-year old way to open the museum. The museum, collecting more and more objects, developed with time. There was a plan to move it to the present Polish Army Museum. The state authorities decided that the best location for the Polish Army Museum would be the Warsaw Citadel, built by the Russians after the November Uprising. The Katyn Museum as a branch of the Polish Army Museum, was to be moved there as well. Therefore, the headquarters at the Sadyba fort were closed. Now the inventory of the collections is being taken and almost 26,000 exhibits are being moved. The new location of the Katyn Museum will be the kaponiera (fortress construction). Currently, the museum halls and the area surrounding the kaponiera are being designed. The opening is to take place in two years. As the director of the museum Romuald Chagowski says, ‘ ‘We want to reconstruct the way of the prisoners and the conditions they live in. But first of all, we want to show the whole history connected with the Katyn massacre. The events that led to it, i.e. the circumstances of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Then all the documents related to the massacre. The lies about Katyn and the struggle for the truth. We also want to have a symbolic cemetery of the victims and an exhibition dedicated to their families, Siberian deportees. However, the main exhibits will be the objects recovered from the mass graves: buttons, fragments of officers’ uniforms, cigarette-cases, hand-made chess, pipes, home equipments, and what is most characteristic, lots of keys found in the pockets. They believed that the war would end and as prisoners of war they would leave the camps…’
Soon, in April, on the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, the Virtual Katyn Museum will be launched in the Internet. The memorabilia, including the original ones, will be letters of the victims, photos, documentaries as well as the audio and video recorded stories of the widows and children of the Katyn victims.

"Niedziela" 12/2010

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl