Surviving Memory

70 years ago, on 5 March 1940, Lavrentii Beria, the USSR People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs sent a memo to comrade Stalin regarding the more than 25,000 Poles held in Soviet prisoner of war camps and NKVD prisons, justifying the necessity of executing the Polish prisoners.

The memo was signed by the Soviet Union’s leaders: Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov and Mikoyan; a note on the margin said that comrades Kalinin and Kaganovich also agreed with this solution. On the same day Beria received the decision of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union giving its approval to shoot the Polish prisoners of war. Most of the prisoners, captured when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, were held in three camps: Kozelsk, Ostashkovo and Starobelsk.

It is important to highlight this bureaucratic circulation of documents for the sake of historical truth and to understand the totalitarian machinery of the Soviet state. The Soviet leadership regarded the Poles held behind the bars of camps and prisons as enemies because they espoused ideals that were fundamentally alien and odious to the communists. The courage, skills, convictions and patriotism of the Polish prisoners of war were seen as a threat to the Soviet Union. Their faith in a free and sovereign Poland, a democratic, modern and strong state that they would build following a century of occupation, represented a danger to them. This was not a Poland that ‘‘comrade Stalin’’ cared for. That is why they had to die. Without trials, verdicts, defence lawyers – and without guilt.

Apart from professional officers the people held in the camps and prisons also included reserve officers: medical doctors, engineers, foresters, teachers and academics, lawyers, priests, public figures, journalists, writers, civil servants, policemen.… The elite of pre-war Poland. It is impossible to list all the social and professional groups that ended up on this death list. The verdict of Katyń was to be a verdict over a whole nation, which was not to expect a better future. Their loss is painfully felt in Poland to this day. The death of tens of thousands of men represented a tragedy for hundreds of thousands of their family members. Not only in emotional, but also in material, everyday terms. The victims’’ families, who were deprived of male support and who later continued to be persecuted in Poland under communism, tried – despite all the adversities they endured – to realize the ideals of their husbands, fathers and brothers by studying, making use of their skills and being of service to society.

However, the memory of Katyń – as the events of March and April 1940 are symbolically referred to – has survived. It has proved impossible to erase this crime of communist genocide from the pages of Polish history. And in particular, it has proved impossible to erase from Poland’s memory the names of those who sacrificed their lives. Yet the Katyń massacre should be seen not just in terms of dry figures. It stands for the tragedy of thousands of individuals who comprised the flower of our free fatherland, only to be murdered by the NKVD in a remote forest and in Soviet dungeons. But it is only now, in free Poland, that we are able to pay adequate tribute to the victims of the Katyń massacre. And it is only now that we can fully comprehend the extent of Poland’’s loss.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Tygodnik Powszechny on 17, March 2010.