New book about Katyń massacre aims to reveal extent of cover up for English readers
A new book about the 1940 Katyń massacre of 22, 000 Polish officers and intelligentsia aims to highlight the extent of the 50-year cover-up of the crime by Stalin’s NKVD and Poland’s post-war Communist regime by focusing on those searching for the truth in the aftermath.
Written by historian and writer Jane Rogoyska, ‘Surviving Katyń – Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth’ is the author’s second book on the subject of the Katyń Massacre, the first being a novel, ‘Kozłowski’, published in 2019, which followed the fate of the fictional hero Zbigniew Kozłowski , a survivor.
In her latest book, Rogoyska returned to the topic of Katyń, where she felt she had unfinished business and a story still left to tell from her research conducted when writing ‘Kozłowski’.
She told TFN: “When I was writing Kozlowski, I was doing all this research which in the end, I didn’t get the chance to use. I was lucky to be offered a commission to write a non-fiction book about Katyń and I jumped at that chance.”
For Rogoyska, it was important to tell the story of Katyń in a dispassionate way, not just from the victims' perspective, and not just focusing on the dramatic event of their deaths, but from the perspective of the investigation and those conducting it.
She also wanted to present the events in real time to convey the reality of how the crime was covered up and the hardships faced by those trying to uncover the truth.
“So few people in Britain know about the Katyń Massacre anymore, apart from perhaps some older people, and most of the books in English on the subject were published before the 1990s, when the crime wasn’t yet fully known, so part of my motivation was wanting to bring the full story to people.”
“Most books about Katyń start when the officers are captured and follow the victims. In ‘Surviving Katyn' we also start with the victims’ capture but then the narrative turns to those involved in the investigation, such as the Red Cross Investigation in 1943 and later more recent Polish investigations.
“The narrative follows what happened chronologically showing how the knowledge about the crime came to people in real time. The description of their deaths in the book only comes to us at the same time the world found out about it.”
She continued: “The book is about the workings of the NKVD. It also offers a contemporary exploration of the manipulation of truth and its impact, which I think makes it relevant to many contemporary events where the truth is being manipulated and distorted.”
Carried out by the NKVD on the orders of NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria on the direct approval of Stalin, the execution of 22, 000 Polish soldiers and members of the intelligentsia in multiple locations in the Soviet Union in April-May 1940, was a crime which the Soviets denied for almost 50 years.
Alhough the bodies of 4,000 of the officers were found three years later in the Katyń forest near Smoleńsk, the Soviets would maintain it was a crime carried out by the Germans.
It was not until 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev released documents confirming that the Polish officers has been killed by the NKVD.
In ‘Surviving Katyń’, Rogoyska introduces the reader to the key individuals involved in searching for the missing men in the immediate aftermath. Important figures include Bronislaw Młynarski, a businessman and relative of Arthur Rubinstein who was a prisoner at one of the three camps, Starobelsk, in Soviet Ukraine, from which nearly 4,000 men were taken to be executed at the NKVD headquarters in Kharkiv.
Młynarski wrote a report detailing the precise dates and number of prisoners who had been mysteriously evacuated to an unknown destination in April and May of 1940 and asked for help from the British and American governments to impress upon the Russians the need to indicate the whereabouts of these people and to recover them.
Młynarski’s report was given to Ambassador Stanisław Kot, Polish Ambassador to the USSR (1941-1942) who set up an agency, the function of which was to gather information on Poles who were still in Soviet detention.
Another two survivors, Józef Czapski and Stanisław Swianiewicz, survivors of the Starobelsk and Kozelsk camps, were also instrumental in the search for the missing officers, with Czapski writing a report of his own, which he submitted to the Soviets and the War Office and Foreign Office in Britain. He later wrote a book about his experiences in the Soviet Union, titled ‘The Inhuman Land'.
On the other hand Swianiewicz, who had narrowly escaped the massacre and was the only officer separated from the others at Gnezdovo, wrote an eye-witness account of what he saw at the request of the Polish ambassador in 1942
Rogoyska said: “I think it’s really important to remember that the people who were living through it, don’t share the perspective we have, the victims had no idea they were going to their deaths and even when people started looking for them in 1942, the expectation was they had been sent to a Gulag and they weren’t able to return, Stalinist brutality seems obvious to us now, but in 1940 it wasn’t.”
While conducting research on Katyń for both her books, Rogoyska, whose father was Polish, discovered that her great-uncle had been one of the men killed in Katyń, so it turned out that she had a closer connection to her subject matter than she realised when initially drawn to it.
Rogoyska, who describes Katyń as ‘interesting, fascinating and complex on so many levels’, hopes that readers will be keen to reengage with the story of Katyń once more.
‘Surviving Katyń- Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for the Truth’ was published on the 6th May 2021 and is published by Oneworld. It is published by Simon & Schuster in the US in June. A Polish version is set to follow in 2022.
You can hear Rogoyska talking about the book in a podcast on BBC History Extra WW2's Katyn Massacre | HistoryExtra Podcast - HistoryExtra.