Thoughts and Actions. Lost in the Forests and Trees of Katyn

Famous Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyn”, released in 2007, is a masterful, poignant, and dark retelling of the horrific crime of 1940. Its original title was “Post Mortem” – an attempt to provide a final chapter to one of the many hauntingly sad and tragic episodes of the 20th century. It is said that the film is not about the crime of Katyn, but about the lie. For Wajda, it was a way to address the truth about the murder of his father, and thousands of other fathers, sons, and brothers. For the Polish people, and the world, this was a film that had to be made.

At the partition of Poland in 1939, which ignited World War II, the Soviet Union moved into and occupied the eastern part of the country. In 1940, the Soviet government took the Polish military officer POWs and members of the intelligentsia, and murdered them one-by-one in a factory-like manner, every day, morning and night, dumping their bodies in common pits in the Katyn Forest. The point was to decapitate the Polish state and remodel it to their own design. The removal of leaders from across society was seen as a necessary step to advance the new world order of a communist reality. Over 20,000 men were murdered this way.

After the crime came the lie – or better, the lies. Many lies. The Soviets claimed they could not account for all of the missing POWs. Somehow they were simply lost in the fog of war. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, it found the mass graves of Katyn Forest. For propaganda purposes it exposed the Soviet’s crime in an attempt to highlight to the world the horrors of living under a communist regime. All the while, of course, the Nazis were carrying out their own atrocities. The Soviets denied their role, and when they retook the territory they brought in their own experts to claim that it was really Germany who was at fault.

This lie was perpetuated throughout most of the remainder of the 20th century. In fact, both the British and United States governments participated in the lie, conspiring in the cover up for a time. President Roosevelt and U.S. military leadership at the time personally suppressed the truth of the Soviet massacre so as not to embarrass our war-time ally. The feelings of our common enemy against Nazi Germany were determined to be more important than the truth. Furthermore, the United States also could not permit the truth about Soviet behavior to come out in the immediate post-war period. This is because at Yalta we had agreed to repatriate Soviet POWs and refugees found in western Europe in return for the small number of western POWs. Most of the Russians and East Europeans did not want to return, yet they were sent back to certain death or forced labor camps: a crime in which our government was a knowing participant. Knowing what awaited them, some attempted or succeeded in committing suicide before being sent back. Termed by the U.S. itself as “Operation Keelhaul” in part, it remains the great war crime for which there has been no sufficient investigation; not even a movie. Yet, it was the holocaust that followed the other holocausts of World War II. We knew that it was mass murder; and we can not escape that we were a participant. Why? Because we knew the truth about the crime of Katyn. The forced repatriations numbered in the millions.

The U.S. Congress held hearings to determine the truth of Katyn in the 1950s. It was not until 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged that the Soviet Union had carried out the massacre and then covered it up. Documents proving that the orders came from Josef Stalin and the Politburo were turned over to the Polish government. For the Poles, however, knowing who committed the crime was one thing; who participated in the lie was another. Nearing the close of World War II, with Soviet occupation of Poland came communist domination of society. Believing the Soviet lie about Katyn became official policy. People across Eastern Europe were put in the same situation that the Russian people faced 20 years earlier. With the communists, one had to go along with the lies to get along. Any other course would be extremely dangerous.

In the movie Katyn, there is a key scene where the widow of one of the Polish generals who was murdered at Katyn Forest speaks with a former Polish army officer who had been in the main camp but survived and was now working for the Soviet occupiers as a major in the internal security forces. Here is their dialogue:

Major: I was there a year ago.
General’s Widow: Where?
M: In Katyn when the Soviets sent us to the graves.
GW: What were you doing there?
M: Stalin needed us, officers of the First Corps, to testify about the impartiality of their investigation.
GW: And?
M: We did.
[pause]
GW: It’s a lie. And you know it.
M: They had eyewitnesses.
GW: Major… The Soviets must lie to cover up the crime, but you don’t have to.
M: Madam.
GW: You mustn’t.
M: I saw them pull out of the pits those I was with in Kozielsk. I was in disbelief that I was alive, whereas I should have been there with them.
GW: You should, Major, testify about the truth.
M: I could just as well shoot myself in the head.
[the Major rises and salutes two Soviet officers as they walk by, and sits again]
GW: You salute murderers as if they were the winners.
M: It makes no difference whether it’s the Soviets or the Germans. Nobody will resurrect the dead anyway. We have to survive, forgive. We must live.
GW: You’re the same as they are. You may think differently, but you do the same. …. What does it matter that you think differently?

Both arguments are compelling. The widow stands for the truth of what happened. It does matter who murdered whom, and why. The major also has a point, speaking the truth will not change the result, and it will likely get you killed. If the issue is survival, what is the value of dangerous truth? It is easy to wax poetic about “speaking truth to power” and we enjoy so doing. However, unless one understands that sometimes that means you die, and remembers that many have died doing so, then such statements amount to nothing except simplistic, naïve bumper sticker philosophy. The widow’s heartfelt cry for truth, for justice, for an end to the lie in the face of the dark curtain that is coming down around her is noble but seems useless. The major’s compromise regarding the murder of his friends and his complicity with the murderers is eminently practical, yet hard to take. Shortly after this conversation he is unable to bear the weight of the lie and he does, in fact, shoot himself in the head.

And what of our own thoughts and actions? Where is that spot inside each of us that says we can believe one thing and do something different? The reasons for speaking a useless truth or committing an expedient act despite the truth may all be noble, may all seem correct. People have been saved by deception and killed by the truth. How do we know when our actions absolutely must align with our thoughts? Where is the wisdom that tells us to wait, not to shout truth into a whirlwind?

And concerning the participation of our own government in the post-war repatriations? There was some opposition to the policy inside our government and there was some amount of public outcry. But we had our reasons. Okay. So we thought differently, we knew right and wrong, and yet we acted like them. As a result of that and regardless of our motivation – whether the end came from the noose, the gun, disease, or forced labor – it is likely that hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, died.

Perhaps there is this. If a man who is innocent is yet murdered by the government. What does it matter which government? No one can resurrect him now. We must move on and get along. Because nothing we say will change things, and it may get us killed. …. And what if the man is the Christ? And what if there are witnesses to the truth? And what if speaking the truth does get them killed?

And what if doing so changes the world?

And what if every person embodies the image of God?

“You may think differently, but you do the same. …. What does it matter that you think differently?”

Dominus Vobiscum
Rdr. Timothy

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