A new book and a new film take a fresh look at three collective killings known as Katyn





Katyn, a name that haunts Poland, may gain greater familiarity in the West. A new book from Yale University Press and a new, Oscar-nominated film from director Andrzej Wajda offer different takes on the Stalinist mass murder of Polish prisoners of war in the spring of 1940 and its 50-year cover-up.

In April and May 1940, some 14,500 Polish prisoners were shot by their Soviet captors. The POW's, chiefly military officers and policemen, were taken prisoner during the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in September 1939. Before their deaths, they were held in the Soviet Union at Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk, special camps run by the secret-police agency NKVD, the abbreviation in Russian for the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs. The prisoners were buried en masse in pits in the wider region of each camp — in the Katyn Forest, northwest of the Russian city of Smolensk; at Kalinin (now Tver), northwest of Moscow; and at Kharkov, in what is today far northeastern Ukraine.

Katyn came to stand as the name for the three collective killings, says historian Anna M. Cienciala in Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment. It was from that forest in April 1943 that the German government first reported the discovery of mass graves. The bodies were exhumed and through insignia and other evidence identified as Polish officers killed in 1940. The Germans, says Cienciala, worked to turn the discovery to propaganda advantage with the intent of building support among Poles and dividing the Allies. Stalin's regime denied responsibility and claimed German forces had committed the killings in the summer of 1941 after invading the Soviet Union.


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