America Needs a Katyn Memorial

A flower is attached to a wall inscribed with the names of killed Polish officers during a commemoration ceremony at a memorial complex in Katyn, about 350 km (217 miles) west of Moscow, April 10, 2013. The memorial was erected on the spot of the 1940 massacre where thousands of Polish officers were killed by the Soviet NKVD secret police. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
The plan to move a monument to victims of the World War II massacre is causing understandable controversy.

Polish politicians are engaged in a heated rhetorical battle with a U.S. citizen over the Katyn massacre, where thousands of Poles were gruesomely executed by the Soviet NKVD at the beginning of the war, before Adolph Hitler turned on Joseph Stalin. That there is a controversy between Poles and Americans over this is not new. Such controversies are a feature of the Polish–American relationship.

The latest manifestation of the controversy began innocently enough. Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop announced plans to move into storage a memorial dedicated to the victims of the Katyn massacre, as part of his redevelopment of valuable public space. One man on the commission for redevelopment objected to the memorial on aesthetic grounds: “It’s a little gruesome. . . . I can’t imagine how many mothers go by and have to explain it to their children.” And it is. The sculpture depicts a Polish soldier being impaled from behind by a bayonet. It commemorates an awful massacre. Since plans for the statue’s removal were publicized, Polish diplomatic personnel in the U.S. and politicians in Warsaw have lobbied for the statue to remain. So far, this is typical.

But Mayor Fulop began to complain in colorful terms, directly naming and shaming Polish politicians such as Stanislaw Karczewski, marshal of the Polish senate and a member of the ruling Law and Justice Party, who had criticized the proposed move. “The fact that he’s engaging and trying to dictate the high moral ground to me and trying to dictate to me what I should be doing with a park is kind of laughable,” Fulop said. Karczewski, interviewed on Polish radio, called the controversy “a really scandalous and very unpleasant situation for us.” Fulop tweeted, in response:

That escalated quickly!

It should be said here everyone has a reason to feel hot under the collar. The anti-Semitism accusation in Fulop’s tweet refers to recent laws passed in Poland that allow the government to fine those who blame the Holocaust on “the Polish nation.” Fulop’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors, one of them a survivor of Auschwitz.

Polish officials, meanwhile, want to defend their country’s honor in World War II. It was the only Nazi-occupied country that didn’t raise a collaborationist government. The exiled Polish government repeatedly tried to warn Allied powers about the annihilation of Jews only to have their claims dismissed as exaggerations made while begging for military aid sooner than the strategy of the Western powers permitted it. Polish officials see the rhetoric of Fulop as part and parcel of a larger irrational campaign to impugn the character of their nation, precisely what the law was an attempt to address. Anyone with a shred of sympathy and a modicum of historical knowledge should intuitively understand why Poles might resent their transformation in Western eyes from a principal victim of Nazi and Soviet aggression to the primary living inheritors of Holocaust guilt.

What to make of the controversy? The first thing to say is that everyone should be trying to turn down the temperature on this. Almost all national governments, regardless of their politics, seek to protect monuments and memorials dedicated to their people and national history. They are especially zealous about this in countries such as the United States, which contains significant diaspora populations. Polish diplomatic personnel in the U.S. represent all Poles, not just those who voted in the current government.

Fulop should be reminded that, whatever his opinions on the Law and Justice in Poland, the Katyn memorial in Jersey City commemorates all those who suffered at that massacre, and current estimates suggest that 600 to 800 of the more than 21,000 killed were Polish Jews. Memorializing the Katyn massacre is in no way an anti-Semitic act or a capitulation to the sentiments of anti-Semites.

Perhaps this particular spot in Jersey City is no longer the right location for the memorial. Regardless, America should host a Katyn memorial. First, it matters deeply to many Polish Americans who live here. And it should matter to all Americans as well, as our government was complicit in covering up the crime.

For those who have forgotten the massacre: At the beginning of World War II, Soviet troops rushed into the eastern part of Poland as part of the Nazi–Soviet Non-aggression Pact. The Soviets did not declare war and, in fact, they posed as protectors. In reality, they were coordinating with Germany, which had plans to annihilate the Polish elite. The war in Poland had effectively ceased by the time Stalin gave the order to execute 21,857 Polish prisoners by shooting in the spring of 1940. The Soviets did not publicize the event and pretended that their prisoners had been transferred to various camps and prison sites along the Gulag Archipelago.

The U.S. propaganda record on the Katyn massacre is truly despicable.

These claims became more ridiculous when the the Soviet Union, reeling from Hitler’s betrayal, made a deal with the Allied powers that included the formation of a Polish army, which was supposed to include those hundreds of officers and thousands of soldiers it claimed were still alive. Stalin was reduced to embarrassing lies about how thousands of Poles had gone missing somewhere in Manchuria. Germans later uncovered the mass graves, but the Soviet government denied responsibility. When Allied powers did not agree to the exiled Polish government’s demand for a Red Cross investigation, and accepted Soviet claims of German responsibility the massacre, Stalin broke relations with the Polish government and began to form his own.

President Franklin Roosevelt could be defensive about his admiration for “Uncle Joe.” He was also ignorant and insensitive in his treatment of Poland’s personnel. During the war, he suggested to Jan Ciechanowski, the Polish ambassador to the U.S., that plebiscites might show that many lands under Soviet control would not want to return to a Polish state. He also lectured Ciechanowski on his nation’s supposed foolishness in demanding answers about the massacre, which Roosevelt nastily termed “the graves question.” He delayed reappointing a U.S. ambassador to Poland after the resignation of Anthony Biddle, signaling to Stalin that he did not care much for the nation and its government.

Unfortunately, the dismal U.S. record on the matter is not limited to sins of omission. Many of Washington’s wartime propaganda exertions on behalf of the Soviet Union look embarrassing in retrospect. The Office of War Information had tremendous pull with certain magazines, notably Time, which described the NKVD as a “police force similar to the FBI.”

And the U.S. propaganda record on the Katyn massacre is truly despicable. The war-era American radio broadcaster Voice of America, acting against advice from the State Department, constantly publicized the Soviet government’s claims that the Katyn massacre had been perpetrated by the Germans.

The outrage over this lasted for years, and in 1951 the House established a  Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, known as the Madden Committee. The committee conclusions included a description of Roosevelt-admininistration officials as suffering from “a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.”

In fact, sometimes the behavior could not even be charitably attributed to mental defect or excess of loyalty to the Allies. After the war, some VOA correspondents actually defected from the United States and began writing anti-American propaganda for the emerging Eastern bloc outlets. Among these was Stefan Arski, who had headed the Poland desk for VOA during the war. Arski would continue writing radio commentary denying Russian responsibility for Katyn. He denounced the American government’s belated acknowledgment of the truth as evidence of “the flower of America’s dark reactionary forces, fascism, and imperialist domination.” The Soviet government did not admit responsibility for the massacre until 1990. The memorial in Jersey City was unveiled in 1991.

This lamentable bit of our history should be enough to justify the U.S. hosting, somewhere on its soil, a memorial to the victims of the Katyn massacre. I can assure Mayor Fulop that such a memorial will outlast any controversy with the current Polish government.


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