Poland Marks the Day World Learned of World War II Massacre

April 12, 2003
WARSAW -- Poland on Saturday marks the day the world learned 60 years ago of the World War II massacre of thousands of its officials by Soviet agents in Western Russia's remote Katyn Forest.

The 60th anniversary of the revelation will be marked by the delivery in Warsaw of U.S. congressional records of a probe into the atrocity in which around 4,500 poles were shot and buried on communist leader Joseph Stalin's orders.

The massacre was discovered when on April 12, 1943 the army of Nazi Germany, on its advance into Russia through the forest, discovered the remains, each killed by a single shot in the back of the neck.

More than 10,000 other members of Poland's elite and intellectual community were dispersed around the Soviet Union to suffer similar fates.

Moscow, which has never formally apologized, initially blamed the killings on the Nazis and only admitted responsibility in 1990 after the end of the Cold War.

The massacre strained allied ties after World War II and continues to strain Polish-Russian ties today.

"As we observe the anniversary of the discovery of this tragedy, let us hope and pray that humanity is spared such tragedies in the future," U.S. Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski said recently when handing over a copy of a 2,300-page congressional record to Poland's ambassador to Washington.

The records will be delivered to Warsaw's archives on the day of the anniversary by Allen Paul, U.S. author of a book on the massacre. Kanjorski said he hoped the documents, the result of a 1951-1952 probe by a select congressional committee, "will aid public officials, historians and many others in efforts to understand the terrible crime of Katyn and its continuing impact on Russo-Polish relations."

Until now the records have not been available in Poland, where the issue was taboo during decades of communist rule, and are being handed over at the request of the Warsaw government.

The Soviet Red Army invaded Poland on September 17, 1939, two weeks after Hitler attacked the country from the West.

The surprise assault had been agreed in a secret accord between Germany and the Soviet Union, under which the two countries would divide Poland between them.

After the invasion, 22,000 Polish officials were interned by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, which later became the KGB, and many killed.

Last year Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski expressed regret that Moscow had never formally apologized for the atrocity. Russian President Vladimir Putin replied during a visit to Poland it would be a "mistake" to allow relations to become "bogged down in old problems from the past."

After decades of denial the full truth of the massacres was only admitted with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost -- or openness.

In 1992, Russia's then president Boris Yeltsin handed over documents concerning the murders to his counterpart Lech Walesa.

Polish historians see the massacre as a symbol of communist era crimes and cover-ups.

"The Katyn massacre is just a drop in the ocean in the Stalin-era crimes," Polish historian Andrzej Paczkowski told AFP.

He said it was at the same time a "crime against Poland, a political crime designed to exterminate Poland's political elites" which opened the way for Moscow to take control of Poland after the end of World War II.