Daily Mail | 25Jun2009 | Jasper Rees
Katyn Forest Massacre
The genocide Britain hushed up: A new film tells the terrible story of
Stalin's own Final Solution - and Churchill's shameful complicity
A blindfold is ripped from a soldier's eyes. Looking up to get his
bearings, he notes that he is in a forest. Looking down, he sees a
long, deep pit, its floor carpeted with dead bodies in khaki uniform.
He has moments left to live. He feels for his crucifix, but a bullet
interrupts the conversation with his Maker. His lifeless corpse topples
into the hole in the ground.
After him another man is shunted forward, the blindfold removed. The
same ritual. Another bullet whistles through another brain. Then
another. And another. The gruesome procedure is repeated until the hole
fills with the bodies of hundreds and hundreds of innocent men.
This is the harrowing scene of a devastating new film, Katyn. It takes
its name from the village in western Russia [Belarus] where the bodies
of more than 4,000 Polish prisoners of war were dug up in 1943.
But these bodies were by no means the only ones to be disinterred. Near
the Soviet city of Kalinin, now known as Tver, another 6,000 bodies
were unearthed. Near Kharkov in Ukraine there were 4,000.
In all, more than 22,000 Poles - roughly two-thirds
of them officers and policemen, the rest political prisoners
- suffered the same appalling fate: to be executed, without trial or
even warning, and thrown like carcasses into mass graves.
Their murderers were the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. Indeed, the
chief executioner of the NKVD personally pulled the fatal trigger no
fewer than 6,000 times in just 28 days.
The first genocide of World War II has become known as the Katyn
Massacre. It took place in April 1940, 21 months before the Nazi regime
devised the Final Solution at the Wannsee conference in January 1942.
The whole world knew that a large group of Polish officers had
mysteriously disappeared soon after the Soviet annexation of eastern
Poland on September 17, 1939.
The invasion came after the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which
allowed Germany and the Soviet Union to carve up Poland between them.
But the fate of the officers remained unknown until the bodies were
discovered after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.
Even as the Nazis were liquidating Jews in the Warsaw ghetto,
Goebbels's propaganda machine trumpeted the atrocity as evidence of
Bolshevik brutality. Stalin counterinsisted that the mass murders had
been committed by the Nazis.
Churchill knew the brutal truth, but it made sense to keep quiet.
Stalin was our ally in the epic fight against Nazism, and his nose was
not to be put out of joint. British silence remains one of the worst
stains on our country's war record.
Even by the grisly standards of the 20th century, the Katyn Massacre
was a crime of appalling enormity: a concerted attempt to wipe out an
entire stratum of a great European nation. Behind the slaughter was a
grisly piece of forward planning.
Stalin's long-term intention was for Poland to become a friendly
neighbour under the Soviet sphere of influence. The fewer bourgeois
enemies of Communism to oppose him, the better. So he started
liquidating those Polish officers who, in long, punitive
interrogations, could not be coaxed into taking a pro-Soviet stance.
The butchery of the cream of Polish manhood was characterised by a
breathtaking lack of fuss. In the Katyn forest, the soldiers were
frogmarched to deep, open pits. As his blindfold was removed, each
officer would have seen the corpses mounting at his feet, and then
heard the trigger.
In other locations - PoWs from camps at Starobilsk,
near Kharkov, and Ostashkov, near Kalinin, the extermination took place
One by one, the officers were dragged to a prison cell, their hands
tied behind them with wire, and then shot from behind. To drown out the
noise, the cell door was lined with felt, and the drone of loud
machines masked the incessant sound of gunshots. The bodies were
unceremoniously lugged out through another door to a line of waiting
On that first night of killing, the NKVD butchers managed to dispatch
390 men. In subsequent days they confined the nightly tally to 250.
The grim cargo was then driven to the site of the mass grave in the
forest, and its contents dumped. It was a function of Soviet efficiency
that, to make use of every cubic inch of space, the corpses were neatly
stacked. (When the pits were exhumed, some were found to contain the
bones of murdered Poles up to 12 deep. One pit had 1,200 corpses). Only
one detail was unvarying: there were 22,000 holes in 22,000 Polish
Yet for some reason, the name of Katyn has never entered the global
consciousness as other atrocities have.
Note negative reference to John Demjanjuk below and to Wannsee
Former Nazi concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk has just been
extradited from the U.S. to Germany to stand trial as accessory to
29,000 deaths in the Holocaust. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic
awaits trial in The Hague for his part in the mass murder of 8,000
Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. But no one has ever stood in the dock
for their part in the Katyn massacre.
The new film is the work of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda,
whose father, Jakub, was one of the murdered officers. As well as
telling the story of their deaths, Katyn dramatises the aftermath of
the war when, in communist Poland, it was forbidden to mention the dead
For those who did, prison awaited. As a result, ignorance of the crime
spread throughout Poland over 40 years. For decades, it fell to emigre
Poles to keep the name of Katyn alive.
Among them are British Poles for whom Katyn remains a wound which
refuses to heal. It's not just that their fathers were
murdered - the officers' families also felt the
blunt instrument of Soviet oppression. As part of Stalin's larger plan
to weaken Polish opposition to Communism, 1.6 million Poles were
deported to far-flung corners of the Soviet Union.
One of those British Poles is Andrzej Polniaszek. Now 81, he was 12 in
1939 when his father Franciszek, a doctor of law and an officer, was
captured when the Soviets moved into Poland.
Soviet documentation has revealed that his father was taken to the camp
in Starobelsk, where, over a long, bitterly cold winter, he would have
been subjected to intense political agitation.
By March 5, 1940, when Stalin signed his execution order, he had been
condemned to death as one of 22,000 'hardened and uncompromising
enemies of Soviet authority'.
By April 13, 1940, Andrzej's father may well have been already dead. It was
on that date that the young Andrzej, with his mother and sister, heard
a knock on their apartment door.
'At three in the morning the soldiers came. We had an hour to pack only
the things we could carry. They even warned: "Take warm clothes. You'll
be there for some time." '
Meanwhile, in the Polish countryside, Waclaw and Janusz Gasiorowski,
aged ten and seven, were rounded up with their mother and sister.
Their father Tadeusz, a lieutenant in the Pomeranian infantry, had been
taken prisoner the previous September, and they feared the worst.
'There had been regular letters from our father,' recalls Janusz. 'And
then it abruptly stopped. Not only our correspondence, but that of
everyone who had someone in those camps.'
Andrzej Polniaszek ended up in Kazakhstan - 'a
godforsaken part of the country with a Siberian climate'. When Waclaw
and Janusz got off an overcrowded train carriage after 27 days, they
were in Uzbekistan, 100 miles from the Chinese border.
They were sent to live in stables spattered with manure, which was the
only source of fuel. Waclaw still has the cheerful advice of a Soviet
soldier ringing in his ears: 'Don't worry. You will get used to it. And
if you don't get used to it, you will die.'
The boys were lucky. Their aunt was a dental surgeon whose skills were
valuable. 'If she pulled out the tooth of a Russian, she got half a
kilo of butter, a chicken or a bag of potatoes and this kept us going.'
Others were not so lucky. Of the 1.6 million Poles deported into
far-flung outposts of the Soviet Union's gulag system, approximately a
million died of cold, starvation and disease.
There was a seismic mood swing when news broke of the German invasion
of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The Soviets suddenly needed their
captive Poles, so they were freed to join a Polish army mustering under
General Anders, who was released from the Lubyanka prison in Moscow,
where he had been tortured, to fight with the Red Army.
For young Polish deportees, the only problem was how to join up.
Railway carriages were clogged with wounded Soviet soldiers, permission
to travel was hard to secure and distances were unimaginably vast.
Anders made things harder by taking the first wave of volunteers to
Persia. Among them were the Gasiorowski boys, who travelled through
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. On the way, Andrzej was separated from his
mother and acknowledged that it had known all along who had been the
true perpetrators of the Katyn Massacre.
Most, though not all of the graves in Ukraine, have since been exhumed.
In 2000, Andrzej went to Kharkov to see the opening of the mass grave
where his father was believed to have been buried. The bodies there had
been buried in clay and failed to decompose.
To hide the atrocity, the NKVD returned to the grave with massive
drilling devices and punched holes in the ground to aerate the grave
and encourage decomposition. In the process, they destroyed the bodies.
'You can imagine how I felt when it was opened,' says Andrzej softly.
'The only way they could tell how many dead there were was by counting
the skulls which had remained intact. Out of the 4,500 buried in
Kharkov, we were only able to find 150 bodies. The rest was a mess.'
Andrzej has spent more than 60 years in his adoptive country. He
married an Englishwoman and had three children who speak only pidgin
Polish. He thinks he survived the hell of two Siberian winters because
'someone above decided that I could do something useful'.
Twenty years ago he founded the Association of Katyn Families Abroad,
which has about 2,000 members. Now that the mood is changing towards
the dark Soviet style of old in Putin's Russia, it becomes ever more
certain that the murder of thousands of men such as Franciszek
Polniaszek. Tadeusz Gasiorowski and, indeed, Jakub Wajda will go
unpunished. So the task that remains is clear.
'One of the last things we have to do,' says Andrzej, 'is to keep the
memory of what happened to our fathers for future generations. With my
son and daughter I went back to Kharkov where my father was killed.
'In the cemetery there is a big bell half-submerged underground, so
when it rings the sound goes into the ground where they are still
buried. My son and I rang it and listened. And both of us cried.'
And as he recalls the knell clanging dolefully among Polish bones,
Andrzej Polniaszek cries again.
KATYN is on release in selected cinemas.