The Great Terror in the Soviet Union between 1937 and 1938 decimated thousands of innocent, randomly selected people and those who contested the criminal rule of Joseph Stalin. Among the victims were also the Poles who remained within the Soviet Union after the Treaty of Riga was signed in 1921. On August 11, 1937, the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, gave the order to start the so-called Polish Operation, which led to the deaths of no less than 111 thousand of our countrymen, murdered on fictional charges or deported to labour camps. In principle, it was enough to be Polish to arouse suspicion in the eyes of NKVD, and consequently to be subject to a severe sentence. The repressions from the years 1937-1938 sent a dramatic message to the Poles beyond the eastern border. They constituted a warning what fate might befall them if they unexpectedly fell into Soviet hands in the future.
The origins of the crime
The drama of the officers of the Polish Army and thousands of our fellow countrymen who stayed behind in the Eastern Borderlands began on 17 September 1939. On that day the Red Army, while implementing with delay the provisions of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939, invaded Poland. About a quarter of a million soldiers got into Soviet captivity, including 10 thousand officers who were imprisoned in several places of isolation. Next, they were moved to three camps in the following locations: Kozelsk (soldiers), Ostashkov (policemen) and Starobelsk (soldiers and members of other services). On 5 March 1940, the authorities of the Soviet Union made a decision concerning all the prisoners. The elite group of dignitaries, headed by Joseph Stalin, received a document authored by Lavrentiy Beria, in which the detained Poles were described as hardened and uncompromising enemies of the Soviet Union, with no sights for improvement. The sentence was easy to predict: capital punishment.
A journey into the unknown
The transports from the three camps to the execution sites started on the night of 3 – 4 April 1940. The NKVD functionaries kept the destination of the journey hidden from the Poles until the very last moment. Before the departure, propaganda talks and searches took place. The officers received a dinner, which as a matter of fact was much better and more abundant in comparison to the previous ones. They were supplied with provisions for the road: 800 grams of bread, a bit of sugar and 3 herrings each, wrapped-up in paper for the first time. By the way, this paper was then used by the prisoners to write letters and notes – the last ones in their lives. Those who stayed behind in the camps envied the departing ones. It seemed to them that their colleagues were going to a better world, or maybe even home… Cavalry Captain Józef Czapski, a prisoner of Starobelsk, recalls that rumours were spread according to which the prisoners were supposed to be given over to the French and the British. The disinformation was deliberate. It was supposed to eliminate all suspicions and possible revolts. At that time nobody thought that it would be the last trip in their lives. Death transports reached the execution site after a few hours. The prisoners left their last traces in the railway cars – the inscriptions: surname, date or information that they reached a particular place, those from Kozelsk arrived in the vicinity of Smolensk.
A priceless account from the scene of crime
A prisoner of the Kozelsk camp, Stanisław Swianiewicz, professor at the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, an outstanding specialist in German and Soviet economy, whose life was spared by the Soviets, was one of the few witnesses who survived the journey into the unknown. One can even risk an assertion that he was literally several minutes away from being shot in the back of his head. The witness made the following note: „There was an ordinary medium-size passenger bus with whitewashed windows in the square. (…) The bus took about 30 prisoners and disappeared behind the trees. It came back about half an hour or three quarters of an hour later to take the next group”. The Professor would not realize then that his colleagues had already been dead at that time.
Poles were murdered in the following NKVD headquarters: Smolensk, Katyn, Kharkiv and Tver, while they were secretly buried in nameless grave pits in Bykivnia, Katyn, Mednoye and Kharkiv (Piatykhatky). Some of them, younger and physically fitter ones, resisted. This was evidenced by the later discovered remains of the murdered. They had their hands tied up with a rope, loops put around their necks with the hands tied at the same time, sacks were thrown on their heads and their coats were wrapped with a rope while their mouths filled with sawdust. In Kozelsk, the number of officers tied up with ropes was estimated at about 20% (i.e. about 800 officers).
Criminals from the NKVD murdered a total of 21,857 people (the virtual exhibition of plaques with the names of the dead includes a smaller number, because based on the documents known today, it encompasses lists of people buried in the cemeteries in Katyn, Kharkiv, Mednoye, and Bykivnia. Given the current state of research, this is the most accurate list of the murdered).
The first executions took place on 4 April 1940 in the afternoon. The majority of the victims were officers of the Polish Army and policemen. There were also women, e.g. in Katyn daughter of General Józef Dowbór-Muśnicki – Lt. pilot Janina Lewandowska was executed. Her plane was shot down by the Red Army soldiers during a patrol flight in September 1939. An 18-year-old high school student, Stanisław Ozimek, son of a policeman from Ashmyany, did not leave his father alone in the camp in Ostashkov. They were murdered during the execution in Tver. It cannot be ruled out that their executioner was Vasily Blokhin.
A murderer in a leather coat
125 NKVD agents were involved in the executions of Polish officers and other prisoners of war, from guards and drivers to officials of various ranks and those who directly carried out the executions. A Russian historian, Nikita Petrov, calculated the number of criminals on the basis of the list of those awarded for exemplary execution of the special action in 1940. This list of disgrace starts, in alphabetical order, with the name of a driver Alexandr Alexandrov, and ends with Vasily Ziltsov, a functionary from the Tver prison. However, the most notorious criminal in this group was Major of public safety, Vasily Blokhin. Throughout his entire criminal career he murdered 10-15 thousand people, including his superiors and those who fell into disfavour with Joseph Stalin, such as Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky and the heads of the NKVD, Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezov. He also participated in the executions of Polish policemen from Ostashkov. For the executions he prepared himself special cloths: a long leather coat, a cap and goggles covering up the face. He might have wanted to keep his uniform clean from staining with blood. Initially, he set the upper limit of those to be executed at 300 people. Then he reluctantly changed his mind and reduced the number to 250. He said then that the night was short and the execution had to be finished at dawn. The equipment also failed – the guns were not technically prepared for such an intensive use, they overheated. He organized a base resembling a „staff car” at the railway station in a special lounge. After the executions it served as a site of carousals. The criminals from Kharkiv, Katyn, Smolensk and Tver never suffered any consequences for the crimes they committed.
Survivors from the Soviet massacre
Only 394 prisoners, selected for various reasons, survived the extermination (the reasons included: unique professions, scientific achievements, military merits from the past, willingness to cooperate with the Soviets, interventions e.g. from Germany, Italy, Lithuania). Gen. Jerzy Wołkowicki, whose life was spared, had served as ensign in the tsarist army and was a hero of the Russo-Japanese War in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. In turn, Cavalry Captain Narcyz Lopianowski, who, together with his Uhlans, burned a dozen or so Soviet tanks near Khadyevtsy in September 1939, received an offer to serve in the Red Army at any post of his choice. The Polish officer refused but managed to survive because the camp in Kozelsk had already been dissolved. The Italian royal family, on the other hand, urged for release of Cavalry Captain Józef Czapski, using Germans to support their cause, who were still allies of the Soviets in 1940. Finally, General Zygmunt Berling for instance, along with a group of several other officers, agreed to cooperate with the Soviets.
A breakthrough in the crime
Until spring 1943, the Polish authorities unsuccessfully searched for the missing officers. Most of the efforts were undertaken by Prime Minister General Władysław Sikorski and the Commander of the Polish Armed Forces in the USSR, General Władysław Anders. In April 1943, the German propaganda announced the discovery of graves of Polish officers near Smolensk. The Germans, sure of their innocence, carried out the biggest propaganda action in the war time, including trips organized to Smolensk and Katyn on a massive scale. About 31 thousand people from all parts of occupied Europe, neutral countries as well as Wehrmacht soldiers took part in them. The Germans also brought in over 60 Poles. Some of the members of the trips took back with them uniforms epaulets, buttons, ropes which had been used to tie the hands of the murdered. One of the doctors, a Dane Helge Tramsen, took a skull of a Polish officer.
The aim of the German propaganda was clear: to break the alliance between the Allies: the Anglo-Saxons and the Soviets. The plan failed. The British and Americans, for military reasons (after all, Stalin could at any time send thousands of soldiers to the front, and Polish capabilities had already been exhausted) took the side of Soviets. They sacrificed the Polish government-in-exile and the entire Polish nation. This can be construed as the beginning of the Katyn lie, the scale of which was amplified by the Soviets in January 1944 after the falsified findings of the Nikolai Burdenko commission.
Emigration continues to fight for the truth
In 1946, for the first time in history, the crime committed against the Polish officers was defined as a genocide. It was done upon the initiative of the Soviet prosecutors at a trial of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. They decided to accuse the Germans of the murder in Katyn. The execution date was set for autumn 1941. The Anglo-Saxons rejected the Soviet assertion. The Katyn crime was not ascribed to Germans. This caused everyone to ask the question: if not the Germans, then who? The answer was clear.
The developments at Nuremberg sent an important message to the Polish emigration (including former soldiers of the 2nd Corps of General Anders), who intensified its efforts to speak out about the crime. More articles, brochures, interviews were published, while in 1953 a documentary film was released. Another significant event was the publication of the book „The Katyn Massacre in the Light of Documents” with a foreword by General Władysław Anders, which first appeared in 1948. I would also give a great credit to two writers: Józef Mackiewicz and Ferdinand Goetl. In a sovietized Poland, it was mainly the families of the murdered who fought against the Katyn lie, and who, by doing so, ran the risk of becoming subjected to repressions. Telling the truth about Katyn was punishable with prison.
The consequences of the Katyn Massacre
The Katyn murder was more than a genocide. It was, first and foremost, a planned extermination of Polish intellectual elites. The thesis that the Soviets took revenge for the defeat of the Bolsheviks in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920 is also justified. The fact that almost at the same time when the NKVD officials were murdering Poles, other NKVD functionaries were carrying out the second deportation of the Polish population from the Eastern Borderlands deep into the Soviet Union, also speaks in favour of such a view. The deportation affected the families of the Katyn victims, who settled down in the Eastern Borderlands twenty years before, with the task of developing the economy and promoting national awareness and Polish culture.
The murdered officers (most of whom were called up for military service from the reserve force in September 1939) constituted about 30% of Poles with higher education. Among the victims were several hundred eminent scientists (with professor titles), social and political activists, doctors, writers, journalists and athletes – Olympians. Their absence was particularly noticeable after the war.
It was not the only tragic aftermath of the crime. Another one concerned the fate of the Polish state and its citizens. After the severance of diplomatic relations between the Polish government and the Soviet Union in April 1943, the rank of the Polish authorities in exile dropped dramatically (Poles were no longer treated as guests, but as intruders). The British and Americans took the side of the Soviet Union in the international discourse about Katyn. At the same time, they put Poland and other countries in the Central European region under Kremlin control. Joseph Stalin created a zone of his influence in this part of Europe and established communist rule in the subjugated countries. The entire region was separated by the so-called Iron Curtain from the rest of Europe. And one more thing. After 1945 it was already certain that the exiled Poles exile would not return to their home country…
Prof. Tadeusz Wolsza
Since 2008, Professor Tadeusz Wolsza has been conducting research on the Katyn Massacre, journalists’ attitudes in the Polish People’s Republic and the relationship between sport and politics in the 20th century. His scientific output includes about 250 publications.
For several years now he has been the editor-in-chief of the „Dzieje Najnowsze” (The Contemporary History) magazine. He is a member of the College of the Institute of National Remembrance and of the Museum Council at the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk.