In a world used to evil, the Katyn massacre, in which 21,857 Polish officers, soldiers and civilians were captured by the Red Army after it invaded Eastern Poland, stands among the brutal and degrading acts of inhumanity of the Second World War. Although Russia has accepted in 1990 its responsibility for that criminal act, Poland still deserves a formal apology from the Russian government.
In a 5 March 1940 letter from secret police chief Lavrenty Beria to then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin he stated: “In prisoner-of-war camps run by the USSR NKVD and in prisons in western Ukraine and Belorussia there is currently a large number of the Polish police and intelligence services, members of Polish counter-revolutionary parties, members of unmasked rebel counter-revolutionary organizations, defectors and others. They are all sworn enemies of Soviet power filled with hatred towards the Soviet system.”
The letter then proceeds with the recommendation to impose on them the sentence of capital punishment – execution by shooting, and states, “The cases are to be handled without the convicts being summoned and without revealing the charges; with no statements concerning the conclusion of the investigation and he bills of indictment given to them…” The letter has the approval of Joseph Stalin and Politburo members.
The Soviets seized thousands of Polish men as prisoners. The victims were mostly officers of the Polish army but among them were also university professors, priests, physicians, and teachers. There were 900 Jews among them. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) created a Directorate of Prisoners of War and took custody of all prisoners.
Following Stalin’s orders, the Polish prisoners were shot in the back of the head, and their bodies dumped in mass graves in Katyn, Mednoye and Piatykhaty. The executions were carried out every day, except for the May First (International Workers’ Day).
German soldiers discovered the first mass graves in the Katyn forest, 12 miles west from Smolenk, Russia, in April 1943 and accused the Soviets of mass murder. The Soviet government denied any responsibility and retaliated by accusing the Germans of the massacre, a policy that was followed by successive Soviet governments.
Both American and British POWs who had been taken by the Nazis against their will to witness the scene at the mass graves stated that they were convinced that the crimes had been carried out by the Soviets. However, both the US and the United Kingdom initially covered up the massacre, fearful that their disclosure would antagonize Stalin at a time when they needed his total cooperation in the war effort.
In 1952, the final report of a U.S. Congressional committee to investigate Katyn stated that there was no doubt of Soviet guilt, and called the Katyn massacre “one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.”
Only in 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt. Later, an investigation conducted by the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Soviet Union (1990-1991) and the Russian Federation (1991-2004) confirmed Soviet responsibility for the massacres.
In a poem entitled “Remembering Katyn” Anne Kaczanowski, whose father had been held prisoner in Kherson, not far from prisons where many Polish soldiers were kept during 1939-1940, wrote,
We were a threat to the cowards who silenced us with guns
But our legacy will survive through our daughters and our sons.
Our heavy hearts ached as we silently whispered goodbye
And hope someday that our destiny would emerge from the twisted lie.
Although more than 70 years have passed since the massacre, which has considerably soured relations between Poland and Russia, an official apology from the Russian government is still needed, including the total declassification of all documents related to the massacre, plus the complete identification of all the victims and the names of all the perpetrators.
An official apology from the Russian government to the Polish people will not bring the dead back to life. But it will close the circle for the victims of Katyn and their families, who still clamor for justice and truth.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America Award for an article on human rights.