Photo of the Day

Kaytn massacre: This 1952 photo, shows a view of a partially emptied mass grave in the Katyn forest where approximately 22,000 Polish men were killed. Declassified documents add proof that the U.S. government helped cover up the Soviets’ responsibility.

The Hill of Goats

 Impossible to tell when I will return home..

Katyn Forest is a wooded area near Gneizdovo village, a short distance from Smolensk in Russia where, in 1940 on Stalin’s orders, the NKVD shot, and buried over 4000 Polish service personnel that had been taken prisoner when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939 in WW2 in support of the Nazis.

In 1943 the Nazis exhumed the Polish dead and blamed the Soviets. In 1944, having retaken the Katyn area from the Nazis, the Soviets exhumed the Polish dead again and blamed the Nazis. The rest of the world took its usual sides in such arguments.

In 1989, with the collapse of Soviet Power, Premier Gorbachev finally admitted that the Soviet NKVD had executed the Poles, and confirmed two other burial sites similar to the site at Katyn. Stalin’s order of March 1940 to execute by shooting some 25,700 Poles, including those found at the three sites, was also disclosed with the collapse of Soviet Power. This particular second world war slaughter of Poles is often referred to as the “Katyn Massacre” or the “Katyn Forest Massacre”.

Executions normally take place hurriedly, but in this case the killers were in no rush. The victims were taken from their prison camp and put on a train for two days without food and water.

When they arrived at their final destination, they were bundled onto coaches with windows smeared with cement to obscure their view. After a short drive, the men were directed one by one to the rear door of the vehicle.

As each man stepped into the gloomy light of the Russian forest, he would have had no doubt as to his fate.

Ahead lay an L-shaped pit with the fresh corpses of his fellow Polish officers. But before the full horror could have set in, he would have been grabbed by the arms of two strong Russian soldiers wearing the uniform of the Soviet secret

If he struggled, his hands would have been tied and a choke knot applied to his neck. Others had greatcoats tied over their heads; some had their mouths stuffed with sawdust. Those who still tried to break free had their skulls smashed, or were repeatedly bayoneted. There could be no escape.

Many were simply led to the edge of what would imminently be their grave. Held on either side, the victims were approached from behind by an NKVD man equipped with a German Walther 7.65mm pistol.

The relatively small recoil, compared to that of heavier Russian pistols, made the task far easier on the executioner’s wrist, an essential requisite for a killer with so many men to despatch.

The shot was fired at the base of the man’s skull, and if the job was done correctly, the bullet would have exited through the forehead. Death was instantaneous, as one by one the Polish officers filled the mass grave.

The location was a forest outside the small village of Katyn just west of the city of Smolensk. And it was here  –  and at two other sites between April and May 1940  –  that Stalin’s killers shot some 22,000 Polish officers, who together constituted the cream of Poland’s military elite.

The full horror of what took place at these three locations has gone down in history as the ‘Katyn massacres’.

For years, the blame for the killings was alternately attributed to the Germans and the Russians, both of whom were all-too capable of brutality on such a scale. Added to this were stories of cover-ups by the British and American political establishments, and there have been the inevitable slew of conspiracy theories.
It is often forgotten that when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Stalin followed suit just over a fortnight later. Faced with the combined might of a twin attack, it was impossible for the Poles to hold out, and by the end of the month the country was carved up by two of the world’s most brutal regimes.

As the Germans started enacting their infamous horrors against the Polish population, the Russians were embarking on a similar campaign of brutal suppression.

In October, Lavrenti Beria, the head of the Soviet secret police, issued an order that officers should be separated from among the hundreds of thousands of Polish PoWs.

One of the officers was Zdzislaw Peszkowski, a 21-year-old who had just graduated from the military academy. Shortly before he died, Peszkowski was interviewed and he was able to recall the events of 1940 with astonishing and deeply moving clarity.

‘We were packed into cattle trucks and sent off,’ he said. ‘In mine there were about 70 of us, and we were in that truck for one month. One of my friends with me had been a Russian prisoner before, and he told me that if the Russians gave us herrings, I should not eat them, because if you do not drink water with them, you are in trouble because of their saltiness.

‘However, some of my comrades did eat herring, and it was a disaster. The men’s lips were so dry that they bled as if they had been cut with knives.’

The officers did receive water at the occasional stop, during which they were able to gasp in some fresh air and dispose of the bodies of those who had died.

Eventually, in early November, the convoy arrived at a large church in Kozielsk in north-eastern Poland, where Peszkowski and some 4,000 other officers were quartered in a PoW camp.

The prisoners sat there for months, afraid of what was going to happen, but few guessing their true fate. As Peszkowski said: ‘We did not think it possible that the Russians would kill us without mercy.’

In Moscow in March 1940, the men’s fate was finalised. That month, Beria sent a memorandum to Stalin, proposing that the officers should be shot in order to crush any potential insurrection.

The Soviet leader agreed, and scribbled his expansive signature over the top of the paper. His approval was endorsed by three members of the Politburo, all of whom added their names under that of their leader.

The Russian eagerness to slaughter Poland’s military leadership was not simply born out of savagery. Many believe that Stalin reckoned that such ruthless tactics would permanently weaken the Poles, and make them a much easier people to subdue.

With the acceptance of the Beria memorandum, events moved swiftly, and at Kozielsk as well as other camps, the officers were despatched eastwards on trains.

‘They started to send groups away every few days,’ Zdzislaw Peszkowski recalled. ‘For a while, these departures were celebrated, as we were given the idea that they were being sent off to a new kind of life in a very good place.’

This optimism was increased by the fact that the Russians would cynically inoculate the prisoners against diseases such as cholera and typhus. However, when the empty trains returned after a few days, the prisoners started to wonder where their comrades had really gone.

Peszkowski remembered how a woman who worked in a local hospital started crying when she spoke to one of the prisoners. ‘He asked her what the problem was, and she said: “They are lying.”’

The next day, the woman disappeared.

Accounts of exactly what did take place at the execution sites are understandably scarce. Few of the Russian soldiers who took part ever spoke of what they had done.
But Janusz Laskowski, a Pole now living in London, recalls how, as an 11-year-old-boy, one of the Russian executioners had been billeted at his mother’s house.

Every evening, Janusz had listened as the Soviet soldier taunted him by describing his day’s work. We now know that after being transported into the forest in trucks, the Polish PoWs were discharged into a barbed wire cage, which acted as a temporary holding pen.

From here, they were taken in groups to the edge of the killing pits, their hands bound.

Those who struggled were blindfolded or had coats thrown over the heads. But those who went quietly would have witnessed a monstrous sight.

In the broad, deep pit lay the bodies of their dead comrades. Those around the edges had been packed tightly, head to toe, like sardines in a tin, while those thrown into the middle were tossed in a disorderly pile.

Russian soldiers were trampling up and down on the corpses, dragging their latest victims into position like butchers in an abattoir. The new arrivals soon joined the dead, a single bullet shot at point plank range through the back of their skulls.

Polish POWs captured by the Red Army during Soviet invasion of Poland

The first news of a massacre at Katyn Wood came in April 1943 when the Germans found a mass grave of 4,500 Polish soldiers in German-occupied Russia. The discovery at Katyn Wood was to greatly embarrass the Russian government.

The Russians responded to the German claims that Russia’s secret police did it, by claiming that the massacre was carried out by the Germans themselves. In the context of the war – the Allies were fighting the Nazi war machine and Russia was a valued ally – the German version was not accepted by the British or other Allied governments. However, in the era of the Cold War, the Russian version was heavily scrutinised and questioned.

The first announcement of what had been found at Katyn Wood was made on Radio Berlin on April 13th, 1943.

“A report has reached us from Smolensk to the effect that the local inhabitants have mentioned to the German authorities the existence of a place where mass executions have been carried out by the Bolsheviks and where 10,000 Polish officers have been murdered by the Soviet Secret State Police. The German authorities went to a place called the Hill of Goats, a Russian health resort situated twelve kilometers west of Smolensk, where a gruesome discovery was made.”

Radio Berlin broadcast 

The Germans claimed that they found a ditch 28 meters long and 16 meters wide at the Hill of Goats in which were 3,000 bodies piled up in layers of twelve. All the bodies were fully dressed in military uniform; some were bound and all had pistol shots to the back of their heads. The Germans believed that they would find 10,000 bodies (hence the figure in the broadcast) but eventually the final total was 4,500. The Germans claimed that the bodies were in good condition and they even recognised a General Smorawinsky as one of the victims. The soil had done a great deal to preserve the bodies and any documentation found on them.

[NKVD- Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del. If you are Polish NKVD means “Nie wiadomo kiedy wroce do domu. Impossible to tell when I will return home.”]

When German forces attacked Poland in September 1939, the Blitzkrieg tactic tore great holes in the Polish defence. However, on September 17th, as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Russian forces also invaded Poland. The Russian leadership called on the Polish soldiers to rise up against their officers and political leaders as a punishment for getting the country into an unjust war. Those Polish officers and senior NCO’s captured by the Red Army were arrested and deported to Russia.

It is known that they were taken to three camps in Russia – Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. One of the camps, Kozelsk, contained more than just officers. It contained arrested Polish university lecturers, surgeons, physicians, barristers and lawyers. One woman prisoner was held at Kozelsk – Janina Lewandowski. Her body was found at Katyn clothed in the uniform of the Polish Air Force. Ostashkov held officers – but it also held anybody from Poland who was considered to be ‘bourgeois’. It seems that only Starobelsk held only officers from the Polish military.

To start with, the Russians attempted to ‘re-educate’ the Poles in all three camps. Brigadier Zarubin of the Soviet Secret State Police was put in charge of this task. His efforts to promote the Soviet way of life probably had no chance. The Poles in the camp were forbidden to say Mass – which for a devout Roman Catholic nation was a major blow and it was almost certainly done secretly. Therefore, it is untenable to think that there were any takers for the Soviet view point which Zarubin was trying to sell. It seems that Zarubin reported his failure to Moscow and shortly after this a colonel from the Soviet Secret State Police turned up at all three camps. Just after the visit of this colonel, groups of prisoners were taken from the camps to an unknown destination.

In April 1940, all three camps were simultaneously cleared.

On June 22nd, 1941, Nazi Germany launched ‘Operation Barbarossa‘. The German military swept aside the Russian army and penetrated deep into Russia. Stalin, alarmed by the collapse of the Red Army, ordered that an amnesty should be granted to all Polish prisoners who were willing to fight against the Germans. On August 14th 1941, a Polish-Soviet military agreement was signed. However, no-one could account for the whereabouts of the officers held in Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. Winston Churchill himself wrote about the embarrassment such a disclosure brought on the Russian authorities.

The Polish government in exile, based in London, was especially concerned that the Russians explain where these men were. Stalin gave two answers. Initially, he claimed that the men had escaped to Manchuria. However, the authorities in Moscow – which was effectively Stalin – claimed that the men were held in territory that the Germans had taken in their lightning attack in June 1941 and that only the Germans could account for their whereabouts. This was to become the standard Moscow answer to the problem – the Germans were responsible.

In recent years the unspoken knowledge of the suffering and slaughter under Soviet power has become a more open subject in the USSR. The peoples under Soviet power have had to deal with knowledge of purges, GULAGs, the informers, the secret police by its many names, and the mass graves at Kuroparty, Poltava, Kolyma, Leningrad, etc, etc. With this glasnost, or openness, comes the burden of adjudication and the problems of assimilating the knowledge into everyday life in such a way as to do justice to both the living and the dead. The Katyn massacre is different. Katyn involved the coldly calculated killing of prisoners from another country, taken in a brutal demonstration of power and disregard for treaties. Katyn was designed to ensure the smooth transition to Soviet power in Poland.

The Second World War was devastating for both Poland and the Soviet Union. Before the conflict was over vast areas of both countries had been decimated and many people had paid for the accident of their place if birth with their lives.

From September 17, 1939 tens of thousands of Polish people were deported into the Soviet Union. Many of them disappeared in the turmoil of war and its aftermath. Most of them now lie in Soviet soil unknown and unpitied, lost to an unbridled force which exploited the opportunity to eradicate them.

The fate of some is known. For example, 3,000 died at the Chukotsk lead mines in August 1940. Some 4,500 are buried at Katyn, and another 10,000 are reported as buried at Kalinin [Tver] and Kharkov.

Of the original eight mass graves reported at Katyn in 1943, seven were exhumed and the bodies reburied in smaller graves after identification [where possible], and a religious service.

One of the earliest–and certainly the most infamous–mass shootings of prisoners of war during World War II did not occur in the heat of battle but was a cold-blooded act of political murder. The victims were Polish officers, soldiers, and civilians captured by the Red Army after it invaded eastern Poland in September 1939. Strictly speaking, even the Polish servicemen were not POWs. The USSR had not declared war, and the Polish commander in chief had ordered his troops not to engage Soviet forces. But there was little the Poles could do. On 28 September, the USSR and Nazi Germany, allied since August, partitioned and then dissolved the Polish state. They then began implementing parallel policies of suppressing all resistance and destroying the Polish elite in their respective areas. The NKVD and the Gestapo coordinated their actions on many issues, including prisoner exchanges. At Brest Litovsk, Soviet and German commanders held a joint victory parade before German forces withdrew westward behind a new demarcation line.

Official records, opened in 1990 when glasnost was still in vogue, show that Stalin had every intention of treating the Poles as political prisoners. Just two days after the invasion began on 17 September, the NKVD created a Directorate of Prisoners of War. It took custody of Polish prisoners from the Army and began organizing a network of reception centres and transfer camps and arranging rail transport to the western USSR. Once there, the Poles were placed in “special” (concentration) camps, where, from October to February, they were subjected to lengthy interrogations and constant political agitation. The camps were at Kozelsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov, all three located on the grounds of former Orthodox monasteries converted into prisons. The NKVD dispatched one of its rising stars, Maj. Vassili Zarubin, to Kozelsk, where most of the officers were kept, to conduct interviews. Zarubin presented himself to the Poles as a charming, sympathetic, and cultured Soviet official, which led many prisoners into sharing confidences that would cost them their lives.

The considerable logistic effort required to handle the prisoners coincided with the USSR’s disastrous 105-day war against Finland. The Finns inflicted 200,000 casualties on the Red Army and destroyed tons of materiel–and much of Russia’s military reputation. That war, like the assault on Poland, was a direct result of Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Hitler.

The Soviet dictator offered Helsinki “remarkably moderate terms,” in the words of British military historian Liddell Hart, taking only territory needed to defend the land, sea, and air approaches to Leningrad. The difference between Stalin’s treatment of Finland and Poland underscored his imperial ambitions toward the latter. Moscow and Helsinki even exchanged prisoners once hostilities had ceased. Stalin, however, dealt harshly with his own soldiers who had been in Finnish captivity. At least 5,000 repatriated troops simply disappeared from an NKVD prison and were presumably executed.

Stalin was anxious to settle with Finland so he could turn his attention to Poland and the Baltic countries, which the Red Army would soon occupy and the NKVD would “pacify” using terror, deportations, and executions. Militarily, the war was over by late February, though a peace agreement was not signed until March. NKVD interrogations were completed about the same time. The Poles were encouraged to believe they would be released, but the interviews were in effect a selection process to determine who would live and who would die. On 5 March 1940, Stalin signed their death warrant–an NKVD order condemning 21,857 prisoners to “the supreme penalty: shooting.” They had been condemned as “hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority.”

The exhumation of mass graves in Katyn

The Katyn Forest massacre was a criminal act of historic proportions and enduring political implications. When Nazi occupation forces in April 1943 announced the discovery of several mass graves, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels hoped that international revulsion over the Soviet atrocity would drive a wedge into the Big Three coalition and buy Germany a breathing space, if not a victory, in its war against Russia. (A headline in the May 1943 Newsweek read: “Poles vs. Reds: Allied Unity Put to Test Over Officer Dead.”) But Goebbels miscalculated. Despite overwhelming evidence of Soviet responsibility, Moscow blamed the Germans, and for the rest of the war Washington and London officially accepted the Soviet counter charge. When the Polish government-in-exile in London demanded an international inquiry, Stalin used this as a pretext to break relations. The Western allies objected but eventually acquiesced. Soon thereafter, the Soviet dictator assembled a group of Polish Communists that returned to Poland with the Red Army in 1944 and formed the nucleus of the postwar government. Stalin’s experience with the Katyn affair may have convinced him that the West, grateful for the Red Army’s contribution to the Allied military effort, would find it hard to confront him over Poland after the war.

Professor Stanislaw Swianiewicz was the sole survivor of Katyn. He was waiting to board a bus to the forest area when an NKVD colonel arrived and pulled him out of line. Swianiewicz was an internationally recognized expert on forced labor in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, who had been born in Poland when it was still part of the Russian empire, and had studied in Moscow. He ended up in Siberia, and after the war emigrated to the United States, where he taught economics at the University of Notre Dame. At least one CIA analyst remembers the professor from his days in South Bend.

Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, 2 generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots. 7 It was their social status that landed them in front of NKVD execution squads. Most of the victims were reservists who had been mobilized when Germany invaded. In all, the NKVD eliminated almost half the Polish officer corps–part of Stalin’s long-range effort to prevent the resurgence of an independent Poland.

Recent historical research shows that 700-900 of the victims were Polish Jews. Ironically, the Germans knew this, and it complicated Goebbels’ effort to portray the atrocity as a “Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy”–a mainstay of the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic propaganda.

Deceit: The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Roosevelt, centre, didn’t want to anger Josef Stalin, left, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during World War II. In this 1943 file photo, Stalin, Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill meet for the first time to discuss Allied plans for the war against Germany and for postwar cooperation in the United Nations.

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt joined British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin at a conference in Tehran that cemented the pledge of an Allied second front against Nazi Germany in Western Europe.

The leaders, known as the Big Three, chose the Iranian capital as the site for their parley, largely at Stalin’s behest. When first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Roosevelt’s daughter Anna voiced a desire to accompany the president, he said no women would be present. Subsequently, they were incensed to learn that Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek of China had made the trip.

Rather than feeling any trepidation about the dangers of a secret trip through war zones, Roosevelt was not only eager to meet again with his friend Churchill but also excited at the prospect of meeting Stalin for the first time.

Roosevelt promised Stalin that the Americans and the British would invade Nazi-occupied France, crossing the English Channel, in the spring of 1944. Until that point, Churchill favored a joint strike through the Mediterranean, pushing eastward through the Balkans. That strategy would have presumably secured British interests in the Middle East and India while curbing the Soviet advance into Eastern Europe. For his part, FDR, with the advent of an Allied victory, sought to break up the British Empire; his concessions to Stalin served that goal.

At a dinner meeting of the Big Three on Nov. 29, Stalin proposed executing 50,000 to 100,000 German officers so that Germany could not plan another war. Roosevelt, believing Stalin was not serious, quipped that “maybe 49,000 would be enough.”

Churchill, however, was outraged and denounced “the cold-blooded execution of soldiers who fought for their country.” Before storming out of the room, he said that only war criminals should be put on trial. Stalin brought him back after saying that he was only joking.

The leaders agreed that the Soviet Union would fight against Japan once the Nazis were beaten. They also promised to offer postwar economic assistance to Iran and guaranteed the host nation’s independence and territorial integrity.

Roosevelt outlined for Stalin his vision of the proposed world organization in which a future United Nations would be dominated by “four policemen” — the United States, Britain, China, and Soviet Union — who “would have the power to deal immediately with any threat to the peace and any sudden emergency which requires action.”

Their discussions about a postwar peace settlement were tentative at best. Nevertheless, they voiced their desire to cooperate after what they believed would be an inevitable German defeat. The meeting proved so friendly that Churchill, who mistrusted Stalin, later voiced concern about Roosevelt’s efforts to woo the Soviet leader.

Map of the sites related to the Katyn massacre

Decades of denial and deceit: How one of the most barbarous crimes in world history was covered up

September 1939: World War II begins with the German invasion of Poland from the west, quickly followed by the Soviet invasion from the east. The carving up of Poland results from a secret pact between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviets soon capture thousands of Polish officers and transport them to POW camps in Russia. They also deport hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians to Siberia.

April-May 1940: Soviet secret police kill 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war and dump their bodies in mass graves. The murders, carried out with shots to the back of the heads, take place in the Katyn forest in western Russia and other locations. At that time, letters from the officers to their families come to a sudden stop, bringing despair to relatives and creating an early Polish belief that the Soviets killed them. Questioned by Polish leaders on the fate of the officers, the Soviets begin decades of denying their guilt.

1941: Germany attacks Soviet Union, and in its eastward advance overruns the territory surrounding Katyn. The Soviets join the Allies in the war against Hitler.

April 1943: Nazi Germany’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels announces the German discovery of mass graves at Katyn. Goebbels hopes public knowledge of the Soviet crime would sow distrust between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies and weaken their alliance.

May 1943: As part of the Nazi propaganda effort, the Germans bring a group of American and British POWs to Katyn, as well as other groups, to see the remains of the Poles in the mass graves, in an advanced state of decomposition.

May 1945: World War II ends. Upon being freed Lt. Col John H. Van Vliet gives his first report to Army intelligence on what he witnessed at Katyn, one that disappeared and still has never been found.

1951: The U.S. Congress sets up a committee to investigate the Katyn crimes after questions about the whereabouts of the missing Van Vliet report from 1945. Even ahead of the formal establishment of the committee, Van Vliet in 1950 makes a second written report on his impressions from Katyn.

1952: The Congressional committee concludes there is no question that the Soviets bear blame for the massacre. It faults Roosevelt’s administration for suppressing public knowledge of the truth. The report also says it suspects pro-Soviet sympathizers within government agencies buried knowledge about Katyn. It expresses anger at the disappearance of the first Van Vliet report and says: ‘This committee believes that had the Van Vliet report been made immediately available to the Dept. of State and to the American public, the course of our governmental policy toward Soviet Russia might have been more realistic with more fortunate post-war results.’

1990: The reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admits that the Soviets bear guilt for Katyn.

Sept. 10, 2012: The U.S.National Archives releases about 1,000 pages of newly declassified records related to the Katyn massacre. Among them are the newly declassified U.S. army documents proving that two American POWs wrote encoded messages to Army intelligence, MIS-X, soon after their 1943 visit to Katyn, pointing to Soviet guilt.

The US deliberately helped Russia cover up one of its most infamous Second World War atrocities to gain favour with Stalin, the declassified documents suggest. Thousands and thousands of captured Polish officers and other prisoners were systematically murdered in the Katyn forest on the western edge of Russia in 1940.

Three years later American prisoners of war sent secret coded messages to Washington with news of the massacre after seeing rows of corpses in an advanced state of decay in the forest, proof that the killers could not have been the Nazis who had only recently occupied the area.

Their testimony might have lessened the tragic fate that befell Poland under the Soviets, some scholars believe. Instead, it mysteriously vanished into the heart of American power. The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not want to anger Russian leader Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during the war.

Documents released in 2012, lend weight to the belief that suppression within the highest levels of the US government helped cover up Soviet guilt.

There is evidence of the secret codes sent by the two American POWs – something historians were unaware of and which adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on.

The declassified documents also show the United States maintaining that it could not conclusively determine guilt until a Russian admission in 1990 – a statement that looks improbable given the huge body of evidence of Soviet guilt that had already emerged decades earlier. Historians say the material helps to flesh out the story of what the US knew and when.

The Soviet secret police killed the 22,000 Poles with shots to the back of the head. Their aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control. The men were among Poland’s most accomplished – officers and reserve officers who in their civilian lives worked as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or as other professionals. Their loss has proven an enduring wound to the Polish nation.

In the early years after the war, outrage by some American officials over the concealment inspired the creation of a special US Congressional committee to investigate Katyn.

In a final report released in 1952, the committee declared there was no doubt of Soviet guilt, and called the massacre “one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.” It found that Roosevelt’s administration suppressed public knowledge of the crime, but said it was out of military necessity. It also recommended the government bring charges against the Soviets at an international tribunal – something never acted upon.

It found that Roosevelt’s administration suppressed public knowledge of the crime, but said it was out of military necessity. It also recommended the government bring charges against the Soviets at an international tribunal — something never acted upon.

Despite the committee’s strong conclusions, the White House maintained its silence on Katyn for decades, showing an unwillingness to focus on an issue that would have added to political tensions with the Soviets during the Cold War.

It was May 1943 in the Katyn forest, a part of Russia the Germans had seized from the Soviets in 1941, when group of American and British POWs were taken against their will by their German captors to witness a horrifying scene at a clearing surrounded by pine trees: mass graves tightly packed with thousands of partly mummified corpses in well-tailored Polish officers uniforms.

The Americans — Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. — hated the Nazis and didn’t want to believe the Germans. They had seen German cruelty up close, and the Soviets, after all, were their ally. The Germans were hoping to use the POWs for propaganda, and to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its Western Allies.

But returning to their POW camps, the Americans carried a conviction that they had just witnessed overwhelming proof of Soviet guilt. The corpses’ advanced state of decay told them the killings took place much earlier in the war, when the Soviets still controlled the area.

They also saw Polish letters, diaries, identification tags, news clippings and other objects — none dated later than spring of 1940 — pulled from the graves. The evidence that did the most to convince them was the good state of the men’s boots and clothing: That told them the men had not lived long after being captured.

Stewart testified before the 1951 Congressional committee about what he saw, and Van Vliet wrote reports on Katyn in 1945 and 1950, the first of which mysteriously disappeared. But the newly declassified documents show that both sent secret encoded messages while still in captivity to army intelligence with their opinion of Soviet culpability.

It’s an important revelation because it shows the Roosevelt administration was getting information early on from credible U.S. sources of Soviet guilt — yet still ignored it for the sake of the alliance with Stalin.

One shows a head of Army intelligence, Gen. Clayton Bissell, confirming that some months after the 1943 visit to Katyn by the U.S. officers, a coded request by MIS-X, a unit of military intelligence, was sent to Van Vliet requesting him ‘to state his opinion of Katyn.’ Bissell’s note said that ‘it is also understood Col. Van Vliet & Capt. Stewart replied.’

MIS-X was devoted to helping POWs held behind German lines escape; it also used the prisoners to gather intelligence.

A statement from Stewart dated 1950 confirms he received and sent coded messages to Washington during the war, including one on Katyn: ‘Content of my report was aprx (approximately): German claims regarding Katyn substantially correct in opinion of Van Vliet and myself.’

The documents also show Stewart was ordered in 1950 — soon before the Congressional committee began its work — never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.

Katyn-Kharkiv-Mednoye memorial in Swietokrzyskie Mountains, Poland

The Katyn Massacre left a deep scar in Polish-Soviet relations during the remainder of the war and afterward. For Poles, Katyn became a symbol of the many victims of Stalinism. Although a 1952 U.S. congressional inquiry concluded that the Soviet Union had been responsible for the massacre, Soviet leaders insisted for decades that the Polish officers found at Katyn had been killed by the invading Germans in 1941. This explanation was accepted without protest by successive Polish communist governments until the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union allowed a noncommunist coalition government to come to power in Poland. In March 1989 this government officially shifted the blame for the Katyn Massacre from the Germans to the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. In 1992 the Russian government released documents proving that the Soviet Politburo and the NKVD had been responsible for the massacre and cover-up and revealing that there may have been more than 20,000 victims. In 2000 a memorial was opened at the site of the killings in Katyn.

On April 7, 2010, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin joined Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at a ceremony commemorating the massacre, marking the first time that a Russian leader had taken part in such a commemoration. Three days later, on April 10, a plane carrying Polish Pres. Lech Kaczynski to another commemoration ceremony crashed near Smolensk and the Katyn site, killing Kaczynski, his wife, the head of the national security bureau, the president of the national bank, the army chief of staff, and a number of other Polish government officials.

In November 2010 the State Duma (the lower house of the Russian Federal Assembly) officially declared that Joseph Stalin and other Soviet leaders were responsible for ordering the execution of the Polish officers at Katyn.

Katyn Forest Massacre

Records Relating to the Katyn Forest Massacre at the National Archives

The Katyn Wood Massacre – History Learning Site

The Katyn Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field — Central Intelligence …

Katyn Massacre and Related Atrocities | World War II Database

Katyn Massacre | Polish history [1940] | Britannica.com

Declassified documents prove U.S. DID help cover up 1940 Katyn …

World War 2: Katyn Forest Massacre – Warsaw Uprising 1944

Katyn Forest Massacre – Seventeen Moments in Soviet History

13th April 1943: Nazis announce Katyn Wood massacre of Polish …

Katyn Massacre « The View East

Soviets admit to Katyn Massacre – Apr 13, 1990 – HISTORY.com

Katyn Massacre — ‘The Lost 10,000’ – Institute for Historical Review

 


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