Layers of History and Grief in Katyn

Posted by Ian on Apr 11, 2010 in blog | No Comments

From the New York Times 
(http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/10/layers-of-history-and-grief-in-katyn/)


The past and present converged near the woods of Katyn, in western Russia, where Poland’s president and a delegation of 87 others were killed Saturday in a plane crash. They were traveling to commemorate.

DESCRIPTIONGrzegorz Jaklubowsk/European PressPhoto AgencyIn Katyn, remembering the Polish leaders who died in a plane crash on their way to the ceremony.
The plane crash in western Russia that killed Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski and many of the government’s leaders on Saturday reverberated not only throughout the world but also in history.
The Polish leaders were on their way to commemorate the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish soldiers there by Soviet Union in 1940. “It’s a damned place,” former President Aleksander Kwasniewski was quoted as saying in the Times article. “It sends shivers down my spine.”
The place is Katyn Woods, in the Smolensk region of western Russia. Many of the soldiers killed there in 1940, after the Soviet Union invaded Poland, were among Poland’s military and intellectual elite.
The plane that crashed Saturday was carrying 88 members of Poland’s current elite, including from politics, military and business. President Kaczynski’s wife, Maria, also died, and The Associated Press said that her uncle had been among those killed in the Katyn massacre.
The massacre has been a thorn in Polish-Soviet relations for decades. The Soviet Union had long denied its involvement, and it took 50 years for Moscow to admit its former government had ordered the killings.
Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin became the first Russian or Soviet leader to attend a memorial for the massacre, and his participation with Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, was seen as an important step in the improved relations between the two nations. Still, leading up to the 70th anniversary, there had been discussion and controversy in Russia about the event, including Russia’s Communist party, which did not want Mr. Putin to apologize for the Soviet role.
President Kaczynski, whose policies often clashed with Russian officials, was not invited to participate. Instead, he was leading a separate memorial on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary. He flew there from Warsaw in a Soviet-designed airplane.
While the plane crash has the potential of setting back Russian-Polish relations, historians are already hoping it could achieve the opposite effect.
“If any good can come with such a horrible event, it would be a way of framing these memories so that both Poles and Russians could get beyond them,”Brian Porter-Szucs, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, said in a telephone interview.
Michael D. Kennedy, a former colleague of Mr. Porter-Szucs, and now the director of Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, said he has been encouraged by both Russian and Polish reports on the crash that have focused on sympathy and grief and not as much on politics.
“The great variable for me is how Russia will recognize this moment as an opportunity to move ahead. It’s a great opportunity for Medvedev and Putin to go beyond the rapprochement that existed yesterday,” Mr. Kennedy said in a telephone interview.
The massacre, and its subsequent history, is convoluted and complicated, he said. About 5,000 bodies were discovered in the area by the Nazis (thousands of other soldiers had been murdered in nearby camps and prisons, and Katyn has become the symbolic memorial site).
The Nazis had used the original discovery in a way to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and the allies. The Soviets at the time denied their involvement and blamed the Nazis. According to Mr. Kennedy, in 1943 the Polish government in exile — led by Prime Minister Wladyslaw Sikorski — called for an independent investigation, which prompted Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to break ties with the Polish government.
Less than four months after Mr. Sikorski’s request, he died in a plane crash in Gibraltar with 16 others, a coincidence that historians recalled on Saturday. Conspiracy theories still abound about Mr. Sikorski’s crash, but the one on Saturday does not have the same resonance, Mr. Kennedy said.
“If this were 20 years ago, people would be spreading stories about some sort of dastardly motive,” he said. “I cannot imagine any foul play.”
Saturday’s crash brought up tearful memories for people in Poland and the Polish diaspora, especially those who grew up under Soviet rule who were not allowed to mention the atrocities, which were confirmed by the original commission from the International Red Cross.
“We couldn’t even speak about it, we knew about it from our parents,” Zygmunt Matynia, 55, the Consul General of the Republic of Poland in Chicago, said in a telephone interview on Saturday.
“I remember we couldn’t find anything about it in our books, it was wiped out of our history. Only after Poland gained independence in 1989 could we commemorate that massacre. It was for us still very fresh history.”
Mr. Matynia said he lost several close friends in Saturday’s plane crash, including Mariusz Handzlik, the under secretary of the president’s chancellery, who was due to be in Chicago on Sunday to discuss Mr. Kaczynski’s visit next month.
Mr. Matynia also mourned the death of Wojciech Seweryn, an artist in Chicago and leader of the large Polish-American community there, who had spearheaded a project to create a monument for the victims of the Katyn massacre.
“When I saw the list of the passengers, I knew he was there,” Mr. Matynia said. “Because he was a son of the officer who was killed in Katyn, so he was very emotionally attached.”
The monument was erected in St. Adalbert cemetery in the Chicago suburb of Niles in 2007, and President Kaczynski attended its installation. On Saturday, people had already brought flowers and left candles at its base.
The monument has several parts, including a 15-foot cross, adorned with a white eagle — the national symbol of Poland. But the eagle does not have a head, representing Poland’s powerless state between Russia and Germany during World War II.
In front of the statue, St. Mary is holding a fallen soldier.
“This is a kind of circle,” Mr. Matynia said of Mr. Seweryn’s death in the crash. “It’s terrible, after 70 years he had survived, and then he died in that area close to his father.”




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