- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2000

Spring is a wonderful time of year. Buds and flowers, sprigs and greenery remind us all that spring is the season of new life, the future, optimism. Nowhere is it better to be alive in the spring than in Washington. March 5, a few Sundays ago, was one of those perfect spring days warm and breezy, with daffodils, tulips and forsythia blooming everywhere.

It seems rude even if not downright unnatural to think unpleasant thoughts on days like that, but we should have. So should people where spring is still brisk, places like Warsaw, Moscow and in a place called the Katyn Forest, near the town of Smolensk. For March is more than an ordinary day. Forty-seven years ago, on March 5, Joseph Stalin, the brutal dictator of the Soviet Union died. Seven years before on that very same day Winston Churchill warned the West about the Soviet Union in his famous "Iron Curtain Speech" in Fulton, Missouri.

But March 5 should be remembered for something far more grisly. It was on March 5, 1940 that the Soviet Politburo approved a memo prepared by Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD. That memo outlined the case for murdering some 21,000 innocent people:

"The NKVD camps for prisoners of war and the prisons of the western regions of Ukraine and Belorussia now hold large numbers of former Polish army officers, former members of the Polish police and intelligence service, members of Polish nationalist, counter-revolutionary parties, members of uncovered counter-revolutionary insurgent organizations, etc. All are determined enemies of Soviet power, full of hate for the Soviet system of government. The prisoners of war and policemen in the camps are trying to continue their counter-revolutionary activities and carry on anti-Soviet agitation. Each of them is only waiting for liberation in order to have the opportunity of actively participating in a war against Soviet power.

"The NKVD organs in western Ukraine and Belorussia discovered a series of counter-revolutionary insurgent organizations. In all these counter-revolutionary organizations, the lead role was played by former Polish army officers, and police officers … .

"Taking into account that all of them are hardened enemies of Soviet power, and do not show any promise of improvement, the NKVD of the USSR considers it absolutely necessary that the NKVD be instructed to … review all these cases in a special procedure [ie. without even presenting charges] and to apply to them the highest punishment. [death by shooting] … ."

This document bears the signatures of Stalin, Beria and other members of the Politburo. Motions, like this one, usually carried unanimously. The "instructions" were ruthlessly carried out in the next several months. On June 10, the regional NKVD sent headquarters a memo stating: "The liquidation of the three Polish prisoner-of-war camps was carried out in the regions of the towns of Kozielsk, Ostaschkovo and Starobyelsk. The operation of liquidating the above three named camps was completed on 6 June." Some 21,000 thousand Poles were now "missing."

On April 13, 1943, the Germans announced the discovery of mass graves containing the bodies of Polish officers in Katyn Forest. The Soviet government responded by declaring that the Katyn graves were on an "archaeological site" and immediately blamed the Germans for the atrocities. Their own "investigation," the Burdenko Commission, claimed the victims had been killed in summer 1941 when the Germans occupied the area.

A U.S. Congressional Commission of Inquiry into Katyn in 1951-52 determined conclusively that the victims had been killed between March and May 1940, i.e., when the territory was under Soviet control. Proof of the date included, in addition to a few eyewitness accounts: (a) letters, postcards and newspapers found on the bodies; (b) the winter clothes of the some of the victims; and (c) the fact that the trees covering the graves had been transplanted there in spring 1940. While the bullets used to shoot the victims in the back of the head were German-made, they had been exported to Russia before 1933. The rope with which the victims' hands were tied behind their backs (when not tied with wire) was made in Russia. They had been killed in the standard NKVD way, by a bullet in the back of the head.

Nonetheless, for half-a-century, the Soviet Union and its supporters in the West continued to deny any Soviet involvement. Only in the late 1980s, the truth began to be confronted. The Polish government's spokesman, Jerzy Urban, admitted publicly that all available evidence pointed to Soviet guilt. A Soviet historian reported finding traces of the crime in Soviet archives. Relatives of the dead officers were permitted to travel to Katyn in 1987. The Cardinal Primate of Poland, Jozef Glemp, visited the site in late summer 1988. The official Soviet admission of guilt came on April 13, 1990, exactly 47 years after the German announcement on finding the Katyn graves: Mikhail Gorbachev gave General Jaruzelski, then visiting Moscow, copies of NKVD lists of the names of Polish officers, NCOs, border guards and others massacred in the spring of 1940.

That is why, on April 13, 2000, the Polish Parliament paid homage to all of those murdered. Spring is a good time to think about the future and to acknowledge the truth of the past.

Robert A. Schadler is the executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

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