British author and film director releases ‘profoundly moving’ novel about one of the 20th century’s most contentious war crimes – the Katyń massacre
The subject of the Stalin’s mass murder of Polish officers in the Katyń Forest has often been covered by non-fiction but not by a novel.
The meticulous slaughter of thousands of Poles, perhaps, being a subject too grim and bloody for fiction.
But in her new book ‘Kozłowski’ British filmmaker and writer Jane Rogoyska goes where no author has been before by using the massacre as the foundation stone on which to build a compelling novel that explores the effects Katyń wields for decades over one of its few survivors, the eponymous and fictional Zbigniew Kozłowski.
Rogoyska says a number of factors pulled her towards Katyń as compared to other historical events better known in the Britain.
“Here was a story that was incredibly important but was very little known in the UK,” she told TFN. “And then I suppose that I was also fascinated that it was an event that was subject to so much fiction—basically lies—during the 50 year hiatus between the actual event and official acknowledgement of the truth of the event.
“I thought it was an interesting premise for a story and a really interesting starting point for a story.”
So she set about researching into the events surrounding the massacre and reading the few accounts written by survivors, such as those penned by Józef Czapski, one of only about 390 officers who avoided the fate shared by 20,000 of his comrades.
This reading, which revealed the characters and minds of those who had survived the massacre, provided Rogoyska with further reasons to write the book.
“I became fascinated by the characters, not just the survivors but also the victims,” she explained. “That became the focal point for me in that I felt very strongly that when people write about Katyń, particularly in Poland, is all about the crime, all about the deaths, and the characters themselves have been elevated to symbolic martyrs; devoid of any personality, of faults, or quirks or any three-dimensional human reality.
“That took me into performing an act of resurrection, if you like, of trying to bring these people to life as real characters rather than just symbols,” she added.
To do this she created the character of Kozłowski, a young doctor captured by Soviet forces. Having survived Katyń and the rest of the war, the doctor moves to the UK, and the novel actually starts with him getting off a boat at Southampton not long after the end of the war in Europe.
Katyń and the camps only features in about 100 pages of the book but they cast a haunting shadow over the rest of it as Kozłowski struggles to reconcile himself with the massacre and the ghosts of his dead comrades.
“The book is an investigation into the effect on an individual who lived through something so extraordinary in the sense that that those people didn’t know that they were survivors at least until 1943,” explained Rogoyska.
“Even after 43 with the discovery of the bodies, the prisoners and survivors of the camps had no certainty of what had happened to their comrades. Although they had reason to suppose they were dead they had no proof and no knowledge of where the bodies were or what had happened to them.
“That became really central to the book: the exploration and investigation of what effect that will have upon you; when you know that you’ve survived something but you don’t know what it is.”
In order to bridge the years from Katyń to the early 1990s when Moscow officially acknowledged that the Soviets were responsible Kozłowski is made young enough to start with so he is alive and kicking when the story, says Rogoyska, comes “full circle” with Russia’s acknowledgment.
Much of the book is also set in west London, one of the heartlands of the UK’s Polish community, and a part of the world that the writer, who had a Polish father, knows well.
Rogoyska, who learnt as she was writing the book that one of her great uncles was killed at Katyń, says she is aware that the subject remains politically charged and highly emotive in Poland. But she hopes she can bring a fresh perspective on one of the key events of Polish history.
“I don’t want to be involved in the political aspect and I hope that the perspective of someone who is connected but on the outside might possibly allow the story to breath free of this weight, this burden that exists and persists in Poland,” she said.
“And that is one the motivations for writing about this is that a lot of the non-fiction literature is so tied up with the political aspect is that the people are obscured; so again my perspective is one of humanity; about human beings.”