About Warsaw Mourning

On April 10, 2010 a plane full of Polish dignitaries was en route to join ceremonies marking the 70th anniversary of the Massacres at Katyn. These joint Polish/Russian ceremonies would have been the first of their kind, acknowledging Russia's role in the assasination of 22,000 Poles during the Second World War. The plane crashed in a thick fog while trying to touch down at Smolensk airport. What followed was a National Week of Mourning for all of Poland.

I was living in Warsaw at the time. On the day the President's procession slowly wound it's way through town towards the Presdiential Palace where he would lie in state, my family and I traveled to the center of Warsaw to pay our respects. As a photographer, I brought my cameras with me wanting to record the event without knowing really what to expect. I learned quickly I could go where I pleased holding a camera. Once I started taking photographs I was drawn further into the experience. The grief was palpable and all encompasing at times.

As tragic as the plane crash was, it has an even darker underlying truth. Those on the plane were traveling to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacres at Katyn. What happened in the woods outside of Katyn as well as a number of locations in the Ukraine was the mass execution of Polish Nationals considered to be either to dangerous or unreformable by the Soviet Union. Men were systematically taken from prisoner of war camps and brough to th woods where they were shot and buried in mass graves.

It is important to have an understanding of the events come to be known as The Massacre at Katyn, to understand the currents running below the tragedy. 

The Massacre at Katyn

On the 23rd of August 1939, the German-Soviet Non-Agression Pact was signed, ceremoniously allying the German and Soviet powers. A secondary, secret pact was also signed, laying out plans for the two powers to divide up the land laying between them and the countries therein. This became known as the Molotov/Von Ribbentrop pact.

One of these divisions - split down the middle - was the country of Poland.

On the 3rd of September, 1939 the Nazi war machine entered and attacked the western half of Poland.

On the 17th of September, 1939 the Soviet war machine entered and attacked the eastern half of Poland.

By the end of September, Poland was conquered, split under dual occupations. 

In the few months remaining in 1939, the Germans and Soviets traded prisoners and other spoils of war with one another, leaving the Soviets with many of the Polish army’s officers, police officers, politicians, royalty, writers, professors, thinkers and anyone else considered to be a threat to ‘the new Poland’.

Trains departed Poland daily, bringing these prisoners to camps set up within the borders of the once-Ukraine. Three specialized prisoner of war camps stood out from the rest: Ostashkov, Kozelsk and Starobelsk. It was to these camps that these ‘unreformable’ prisoners were sent.

Beginning in March 1940 executions of the prisoners in these camps began.

By the end of June 1940 nearly 22,000 Polish patriots had been killed, most of them shot in the head. Their bodies were stacked in long, deep ditches in the forested areas around these camps. One forest came to be the name and the symbol of this massacre: Katyn.

On the 22nd of June, 1941 the Nazis broke their non-aggression treaty and, in what they called “Operation Barbarossa”, invaded Russia. In the summer of 1942, the mass graves in the Katyn woods were discovered by the Nazis. The Germans chose to exploit the murders for their anti-Soviet propaganda value both to gain favor from the German Poles still in Poland and to split Allied support for the Soviets. The forensic evidence uncovered by the Germans determined the murders to have taken place in 1940.

In 1943, the Soviets re-captured the Ukraine and hastily ‘re-discovered’ the Katyn massacre, subsequently blaming it on the Nazis. The ‘evidence’ they uncovered was manipulated to show that the massacre had taken place during 1941 while the area was under Nazi occupation, not during 1940.

For the next 47 years, each Soviet regime would falsify records, bury evidence, silence testimony and inquiries, going so far as to threaten accords of peace with other global nations should anyone question when the actual massacre took place or want to investigate it.

In 1989 Soviet scholars revealed evidence for the first time that Joseph Stalin had authorized the executions in the camps in 1940.

In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the NKVD had been responsible for the massacre not only at Katyn, but in Mednoye and Piatykhatky as well.

The Katyn Massacre stands out in history not just for its brutality, but for the subsequent decades of misinformation, disinformation, lies and political strong arming. It is one of many wounds the Polish people still bear from the Second World War, and one that has yet to heal.


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