Katyn - A Crime Without Punishment

Katyn - A Crime Without Punishment

On 13 April 1990 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted that the 25,000 Polish POWs killed in the spring of 1940 were murdered by the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD). Fifty years of denial were finally over.

It was exactly 47 years earlier on 13 April 1943 that Berlin Radio announced that German forces had discovered a mass grave in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk in Russia, containing the remains of Polish officers. The Soviet Union, at the time, denied all responsibility for the Katyn massacre and blamed the atrocity on Nazi Germany. Mikhail Gorbachev in accepting NKVD responsibility for the murders also gave to Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski, on his April 1990 state visit to Moscow, documents which listed the names of those killed by the NKVD.

NKVD Prison Camps

Almost 15,000 of the Polish prisoners of war were held by the NKVD in prison camps at Kozelsk (Russia), Ostashkov (Russia) and Starobelsk (Ukraine). They were murdered and then buried in mass graves at Katyn Forest (Russia), Miednoye (Russia) and Kharkov (Ukraine). Another 7,300 prisoners were detained by the NKVD in Ukraine and Belarus. They were later transferred to camps in Kiev and Kharkov and also murdered.

The Polish prisoners of war held in the camps at Kozelsk (Russia), Ostashkov (Russia) and Starobelsk (Ukraine) were from late November-early December 1939 given the right to send one letter or postcard per month to their families and to receive mail from them. For the Children of the Katyn Massacre the rare letter received was their families last contact with their imprisoned relative. From mid-March 1940 no more letters were received.

The author of the book describes the prison camps as follows:

Kozelsk camp...about 250 kilometres (150 miles) by rail south-east of Smolensk...7 miles from Kozelsk railway station. The camp site was an old dilapidated monastery known as the Optyn Hermitage...a monastery complex famous in 19th century Russia...It included a cathedral- the main building in which prisoners were lodged - and the skit (secluded part of a monastery) where Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy had written some of their works and where the Polish officers were interrogated...On 1 April 1940 the NKVD counted 4,599 prisoners, mostly officers, including four generals and an admiral...Janina Lewandowska, shot down in a reconnaissance plane seems to have been the only female prisoner of war in the three special camps.

Ostashkov camp lay 165-170 kilometres (100 miles) west of Kalinin (Tver). It used the church buildings of the former Nil Hermitage, on Stolbny Island in Lake Seliger, 10 kms from the town of Ostashkov...[The] camp was designated for police and gendarmes but also held some army officers...

Starobelsk camp was about 210 kilometres (130 miles) southeast of Kharkov...the site was occupied by religious buildings...an old monastery with two churches and barracks. This might have been the old Starobelskii-Skorbiashchenskii convent near Khrakov...Starobelsk held the greatest number of high-ranking officers including eight generals...

The memoirs of Kozelsk survivor Stanislaw Swianiewicz, a professor at the Stefan Batory University, Wilno, and diaries found on the bodies exhumed at Katyn confirm the bad living conditions, inadequate food, and poor medical facilities at Kozelsk. (pp. 29-31)

Memorial Cemetries

In 2000 three memorial cemetries were opened at the sites of the mass graves at Kharkov (17 June), Katyn Forest (28 July) and Miednoye (2 September). The Prime Minister of Poland, Jerzy Buzek, made a speech at the ceremonial opening of the Polish war cemetery at Katyn on 28 July 2000. In this speech he said:

For Katyn was not only a terrible crime carried out under the majesty of Soviet law; it was also a lie; a lie repeated thousands of times...The word Katyn will, for whole generations in Poland and in the whole world, signify genocide and a war crime...I believe that the Polish War Cemetery at Katyn will become for us Poles and for people of other nationalities a place to visit, particularly for young generations. They will come here to see, remember, and forgive. Katyn, Mednoe, Kharkov. Together with Monte Cassino, Powazki, Narvik, Tobruk - our national cemeteries - [they] are part of our national identity, the national identity of Poles. (pp. 350-352)

The investigation into the Katyn massacre by the Soviet Union (later Russian) Main Military Prosecutor's office, begun in the early 1990's, concluded in March 2005, with the announcement that the investigation was closed and no one would be condemned because all of the members of the Soviet Politburo at the time were now dead. They also concluded that there was no evidence that genocide had been committed by the Soviet Union against Poland. The Katyn massacre thus remains a crime without punishment.

 The book is in three parts:

  1. Prisoners of an Undeclared War, 23 August 1939-5 March 1940
  2. Exterminations, March-June 1940
  3. Katyn and Its Echoes, 1940 to the Present

The author provides an introduction to each part aimed at English language readers interested in the Katyn crime but not familar with the history of Polish-Soviet/Russian relations.

The book contains the text of 122 documents relating to the Polish prisoners of war and their execution by the NKVD. The book also has 194 biographical sketches of selected Polish and Russian officers and officials. An example of these sketches is the one given below for General Anders.

Anders, Wladyslaw (1892-1970). Polish general; born in former Russian Poland. Veteran, Russian Army, 1914-1917; Polish Army, 1918-1925; Polish-Soviet War, 1920. Commander, Cavalary Operational Group, southeastern Poland, September 1939. Wounded, taken prisoner, and imprisoned in Lwow [Lviv], then Moscow, September 1939-August 1941. Commander, Polish Army in the USSR, August 1941-August 1942, then evacuated to Iran. Commander, Polish Army in the Middle East, later the Polish Army 2nd Coprs in the British 8th Army, Italy, 1943-1945; took Monte Cassino on 18 May 1944, opening a land route to Rome for the Allied armies. Member, Council of Three (emigre political leaders), London, 1954-1970. Died in London; buried, Polish Military Cemetery, Monte Cassino. Author of memoirs. (p. 383)

Katyn - A Crime Without Punishment

Editor - Edited by Anna Cienciala (USA), Natalia Lebedeva (Russian Federation) and Wojciech Materski (Poland)
ISBN - 0300108516
Publisher - Published by Yale University Press, USA, in 2007.
Book Availability - Amazon (UK) - Amazon (US) - BookFinder

A second printing of the book was made in September 2009. The American editor Anna Cienciala has provided a list of corrections which were included in this printing. The corrections can be downloaded as a PDF file.

Extracts from the book can be read at Google Books.

Anna M. Cienciala, Professor Emerita of History and Russian and East European Studies, died on 24 December 2014 at the age of 85.

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This page was added on 01 September 2009. Updated on 30 December 2014.