March 15, 2008

Katyn, a name that haunts Poland, may gain greater familiarity in the West. A new book from Yale University Press and a new, Oscar- nominated film from director Andrzej Wajda offer different takes on the Stalinist mass murder of Polish prisoners of war in the spring of 1940 and its 50-year cover-up.

In April and May 1940, some 14,500 Polish prisoners were shot by their Soviet captors. The POW's, chiefly military officers and policemen, were taken prisoner during the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939. Before their deaths, they were held in the Soviet Union at Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk, special camps run by the secret-police agency NKVD, the abbreviation in Russian for the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs. The prisoners were buried en masse in pits in the wider region of each camp - in the Katyn Forest, northwest of the Russian city of Smolensk; at Kalinin (now Tver), northwest of Moscow; and at Kharkov, in what is today far northeastern Ukraine.

Katyn came to stand as the name for the three collective killings, says historian Anna M. Cienciala in Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment. It was from that forest in April 1943 that the German government first reported the discovery of mass graves. The bodies were exhumed and through insignia and other evidence identified as Polish officers killed in 1940. The Germans, says Cienciala, worked to turn the discovery to propaganda advantage with the intent of building support among Poles and dividing the Allies. Stalin's regime denied responsibility and claimed German forces had committed the killings in the summer of 1941 after invading the Soviet Union.

The Soviet denial, further embellished, endured for nearly 50 years. It was also maintained by successive Polish Communist governments until they ended, in 1989. On the Soviet side, change came after glasnost when Russian scholars' findings in newly opened archives and Polish pressure combined to provoke a reversal. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet responsibility. Further admissions came from his successor, Boris Yeltsin. Both presidents turned over documents to the Poles.

Those documents are the heart of the Yale book, edited by Cienciala, a professor emerita of history at the University of Kansas, whose family left Poland when she was 10 in 1939. Her co-editors are Natalia S. Lebedeva, a historian and researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences; and Wojciech Materski, a historian and director of the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

As part of the Yale press's Annals of Communism series, the book presents English translations of materials drawn from Russian and Polish editions of Katyn records edited by Lebedeva and Materski. For the Yale edition, Cienciala wrote lengthy, lucid introductions that preface each of three groups of documents and prepared nearly 100 pages of endnotes. With extensive other apparatus, the end product is a book of nearly 600 pages that, despite its heft, grips the reader.

The stage-setting first document is famous: the nonaggression pact signed between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union in August 1939, followed by the secret protocol that divided Poland between their two spheres of influence. In a September 17, 1939, note to Poland's ambassador in Moscow, one day after the Red Army's invasion, a Soviet official wrote that Poland had become "a fertile field for all kinds of accidents and surprises, which could pose a threat to the USSR."

It was clear that the NKVD viewed their captives the same way. Officers made up the bulk of the POW's. However, a majority were not regular military, but reservists, among them judges, physicians, journalists, lawyers, professors, engineers, artists, and Catholic, Jewish, and other clergy. A picture of camp life comes from reports by NKVD political officers who worked to thwart the prisoners' resistance.

The Politburo document of March 5, 1940, ordering that the prisoners be shot, may be the "smoking gun," as Cienciala says with grim literalism. But there are many equally startling texts: For example, a record of the March 3, 1959, Soviet decision to destroy all the personal files of prisoners it notes were killed in 1940. Most intriguing are documents that reflect debates of the glasnost period. Among them are a memorandum from March 22, 1989, whose authors included Eduard Shevardnadze, then foreign minister. It warns "time is not our ally" and suggests "perhaps it is more advisable to say what really happened and exactly who is guilty, thus effecting closure to the problem."


For Andrzej Wajda, making a film about Katyn was a deeply personal as well as artistic project. The Polish director's father was among those killed in the massacres subsumed under that name.

The 2007 movie was nominated for best foreign-language film at this year's Academy Awards. But at the time of this writing, Katyn, alone among the five nominees, had yet to find a U.S. distributor. Perhaps that will change given the director's fame. Wajda received an honorary Oscar in 2000. Four of his films have been nominated by the Academy, including Man of Iron (1981), which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. Indeed, at a special screening of Katyn on February 17 in Washington, a sellout audience seemed rapt throughout.

As Katyn begins, the film echoes the Yale book's first document. We see two groups of Poles: One is fleeing east, away from Nazi invaders; the other is fleeing west, away from the Red Army. In the confusion, we meet a young Polish mother and her daughter. Somehow the woman tracks down her officer husband just before he will be taken prisoner. Begging him to desert, she reminds him of his marriage vows. While moved, he reminds her of the vow he took to Poland. The film then alternates between scenes among the POW's and scenes among the families left behind and their struggles with the Germans, the Soviets, and especially the postwar Polish government that forbade any public reference to Katyn as a Soviet crime that had occurred in 1940.

In Wajda's nonlinear approach, the film's greatest power is at the end in images everyone knows will come. Echoing the Yale book's forensic evidence, it shows how most of the prisoners were shot, which was, to minimize resistance, probably indoors, one by one, by surprise, their bodies later transported. But others are shot in full awareness at the edge of the pits. The wrenching scenes provoked one Hollywood Reporter writer to ask: What must have been in Wajda's mind, "when he in essence staged his own father's demise?" Perhaps Wajda, who turned 82 on March 6, has answered. After making many films on war and Polish history, he told reporters recently, "I would now like to conclude that chapter in my career."