Death in the Forest
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
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
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
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'
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."