Lincoln * Institute

Dr. Paul Kengor

Dr. Paul Kengor

Executive Director
Center for Vision & Values
at Grove City College


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Kengor's Corner

Poland: Remembering Two Tragedies

by Paul Kengor

As Americans get on with the daily business of their comfortable lives, enjoying the blossoming of spring, thinking about their summer vacations, somewhere else, half way across the world, a wonderful nation called Poland mourns.

The recent crash of a Polish airplane in the Russian territory of Smolensk is a stunning tragedy, one that Poles continue to grapple with. The crash took the life of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and high-level figures in the government. Upwards of 100 people were obliterated. Kaczynski had once been a Solidarity freedom fighter, and wonderfully anti-Soviet, anti-Russian, and pro-American.

The event, obviously, was international front-page news. What was not, however, was the event that inspired it: the 1940 Katyn Woods massacre. This, too, was a stunning tragedy, one not admitted by the Russians for nearly 50 years, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally, officially conceded the USSR's responsibility.

It's worth pausing to revisit what happened at Katyn:

The Katyn Woods massacre was one of the worst war crimes of the bloody 20th century. It was rooted in a pact between two devils, Hitler and Stalin, who in September 1939 jointly invaded, annihilated, and partitioned Poland. The Soviets seized thousands of Polish military officers as prisoners. Their fate was secretly sealed on March 5, 1940 when Stalin signed their death warrant, condemning 21,857 of them to "the supreme penalty: shooting."

What happened next remained a state secret for a half-century. The Polish officers were taken to three primary sites, the most infamous of which bears the namesake of the crime: the Katyn Woods, located near Smolensk, Russia. There, these unsuspecting men, Poland's best and brightest, were methodically slaughtered. The Bolsheviks covered their crime with a thin layer of dirt.

The locals shuddered at the howling cries of dying men echoing through their once peaceful woods. One Russian farmer later told authorities: "For approximately four to five weeks there were three to four trucks daily driving to the forest loaded with people…. I could hear the shooting and screaming of men's voices."

Some Poles were destroyed on site in the forest, whereas others were first shot in the NKVD prison in Smolensk, with their rotting corpses transported to Katyn for burial under a few inches of soil.

At the prison, bullets were fired 24/7 by a cadre of deranged, homicidal NKVD/KGB killers who were so consumed with bloodlust, and so taken by the dark side that, in the end, their work finished, they turned their guns on themselves. Death had consumed them.

What happened at Katyn 70 years ago this spring was one of the most terrible human-rights atrocities of the 20th century, which is saying something. It deserves the same infamy as words like "Rape of Nanking" or "Auschwitz."

As we Americans whip around in our temperature-controlled cars, deciding where to spend our money next, or stand in our kitchens stuffing ourselves with the plentiful food all around us, or gaze at the idiot-box amusing ourselves with the latest depraved episode of "Desperate Housewives" or "Dancing With the Stars," let's sacrifice a minute of our precious time to remember what happened to 22,000 Polish military officers 70 years ago. Let's consider those thousands of suddenly orphaned little boys and girls, who for years stared out their empty windows wondering, "Is daddy okay?" Or the suddenly widowed wives, who asked again and again, "Is he alive?"

Many died without ever knowing the answer.

The people of Poland have never forgotten those soldiers. Chief among them was Poland's proud president, who was on his way to pay remembrance when he, too, breathed his last in a violent death near Katyn.

Let's pay tribute to his and Poland's loss by remembering Katyn, and teaching the world about this forgotten tragedy of history.

For American Radio Journal, I'm Paul Kengor, thanks for listening.