Conferences Katyn at NARA

2012 Opening of Katyn Collection – NARA Statements

Honorable Marcy Kaptur, US Congress Representative, Ohio

Good afternoon and let me officially welcome all guests, all those who have come to join us on this very important occasion today and as we begin in a very respectful and solemn way. Could I ask you to stand and join me by beginning our session in silence to recognize victims of the Katyn atrocities of 1940. Thank you. Please be seated.

Let me say, as a congresswoman from the great state of Ohio, it is a momentous occasion for me personally and I want to thank you all for joining us today to help make history and hope. I want to thank the archivist and his staff for their hard and incredible work, and we have many of them joining us today. We thank you so very much. We appreciate your training, we appreciate your education, we appreciate that you are doing this for the United States, for Poland, and for the world.

This is a day we have long awaited. Today, we make available to the public, to the world really, information that has been in the possession of the United States government for almost a century about the infamous WWII Katyn Massacre. WWII might seem far removed from the lives of most citizens today and for those who appreciate the 20th century’s defining struggle between liberty and tyranny, this relevance shines brightly. Katyn was a horrific act against the leadership of Poland, and the people who have already suffered from more than their share of grief and depression get the full truth of what happened at Katyn during WWII. This truth was long concealed from the families of the victims, from the people of Poland, and from the world. It is said that the winners write history. Indeed, that is our task. Yet, much of the history of Katyn was concealed for decades. Today, we shine a light on the events of more than 70 years ago so that historians and others can understand more fully what happened and why the world should learn from it.

In 2012, there is no longer any doubt that Joseph Stalin ordered the murders of thousands of Polish leaders, military officers, intellectuals, and teachers in a brutal attack that foreshadowed what laid ahead for the people of that region and for the people in what Dr. Timothy Snyder calls ‘bloodlands.’ Prof. Norman Davies of Oxford University described what occurred to the people of Poland, and I quote, ‘the beheading of the Polish nation during WWII.’ Professor Iwo Pogonowski writes as of this month, and I quote, ‘the public in the West knows very little about the cooperation between the Gestapo with the Soviet secret police in the long prepared joint program of the beheading of the Polish nation by murdering its leadership class… during the 20 months of the Hitler Stalin partnership, the Soviets deported some 1.7 million people from Poland, including nearly 22,000 Polish army and police officers and members of the Polish state administration that were captured during the hostilities.”

Sixty years ago, a Select House Committee, the Madden Committee, after investigating the available evidence, unanimously concluded that the Soviets had been responsible for the massacre which the Soviets steadfastly denied until Mikhail Gorbachev admitted the Soviet guilt. The work of the Madden Committee with his lead investigator Roman Pucinski, who later served as a member of the Congress of the United States from the city of Chicago, was crucial in making the truth of what happened at Katyn known to the world. We are joined by Congressman Pucinski’s daughter, a real judge, a real young Pucinski here today, if she could stand up and be recognized, please.

Today we shine even more to bring light on the truth. Why does it matter? It matters for truth. It matters because historians must know the facts, so that we can learn the lessons of history so that such despicable atrocities do not recur. It matters for morality. It matters because we have a moral obligation to those valiant souls who brutally lost their beings to tyranny. To pursue, and I quote my own alma mater’s motto, ‘to continue assisting in windowing by which alone the truth can be found.’ It matters for liberty. It matters because historical truth is essential to liberty and the advancement of humanity.

Poland is a strong ally to the United States. The flame of liberty has burned in Poland’s soul since the time the generals Kosciuszko and Pulaski helped our own nation win its independence. The liberty-loving people of Poland were long denied their liberty despite their proven desire. So, it matters for history’s sake. It matters because we have an obligation to history and to truth itself. As the heirs of freedom, it is our responsibility to reveal the full truth about the martyrs of Katyn and the geopolitics that impacted this historic tragedy. I cannot thank everyone gathered here today enough to help in this gallant effort and this noble effort to demand the truth for history’s sake.

Sheryl J. Shenberger

Director of the National Declassification Center

National Archives and Records Administration

Thank you for this opportunity to introduce you to the work of the National Declassification Center. As part of the National Archives and Records Administration, the Center houses the National Archives’ own documents as well as many expert documents from various government agencies and services with classification and declassification authority. We all share the mission of the National Archives to provide people with the opportunity to learn more about the U.S. Government through our permanent historical records.

The National Declassification Center’s mission of course has an additional caveat. We must always take into account the potential impact on our national security while at the same time remaining committed to a free flow of information to all audiences. The center was established by a December 2009 executive order and presidential memorandum, primarily in reaction to the inefficiency in the government declassification processes.  The executive order directed the Center to streamline declassification processes, facilitate quality assurance measures, and implement standardized equity identification training for all reviewers of the government. The presidential memorandum called for all that and to release or properly exempt by the end of 2013 the 400 million pages of federal records, 25 years old and older, previously reviewed in some manner in the National Archive. 400 million pages is a jaunting goal. It all has to be done properly. Using an ongoing type of inventory, we determined live review processes that have been completed on these 400 million pages. Using an ongoing quality assurance measure, we assessed how most of those pages were reviewed. And then we decide the truth sensitivity level within those pages, including planning how many agencies have to be consulted about the information within a given document, or a given collection of documents.

It is not the National Declassification Center’s role to determine the historical value of any of these records as that is a very subjective judgment and differs from audience to audience and scholar to scholar. But at the same time, we are involved in this factory-type of approach in order to treat all records as equally as we can. We also look for special collections within this backlog that are of higher interest to our mission, researchers or public-interest groups. Sometimes we respond to a request made through our page, as in the case of Katyn Collection, a letter from Congressperson Lipinski to President Obama.

In prioritizing the records associated with the Katyn Massacre, the National Archives was able to support a more thorough and more responsive declassification review as well as more detailed research. Unfortunately, resources being what they are, cannot try this expanded work to reference or reference series. But when we can, it is our pleasure to reach an audience such as yourselves who we know that appreciates our efforts and know the value of the historical information we provide. In the next few minutes, I’m going to turn this over to members of the National Declassification Center. Doctor Amanda Weimer will discuss the process they followed to discover these records and Mr. Joshua Mason will share some of the content contained therein.

Dr. Amanda Weimer, NARA

The National Declassification Center (“NDC”) normally does two special projects per year declassifying special topics in response to public requests. In September 2011, the National Archives responded to the letter to President Barack Obama by representative Marcy Kaptur and representative Daniel Lipinski on behalf of the Katyn Council requesting the identification, declassification, and public release of all documents of permanent value in the custody of the U.S. Government relating to the events at Katyn.

The National Archives via the National Declassification Center subsequently made this project a priority. The special effort has led to the declassification of over 1,000 pages not previously released to the public and the launch of a project to highlight Katyn material being declassified at the National Archives since the 1970s.

Special requests like this and other special projects, like last year’s Pentagon Papers released, pose quite a challenge. Before documents complete the declassification process only very few researchers are permitted access to the national security information that they contain. So, they view a request for the National Archives to prioritize the description of records already available to the public more highly than the description of classified material.

We, archivists, usually know which office created the records and to which years the records pertain with often not much else. Understanding the way, the files are organized by subject, by date, and by project, is a good beginning for being able to grasp where a particular piece of information may be stored among millions of pages that can take years of searching. Before the whole records are clearly understood whether they are classified, declassified or unclassified, it is frequently difficult even to know where to begin a search. The National Archives at large is working hard to create descriptions of the records that it holds in order to make them accessible to researchers. But understanding the four billion pages, nearly 300,000 reels of motion picture film with 5 million maps, charts, architectural drawings, more than 200,000 sound and video recordings, over 9,000,000 aerial photographs, nearly 14 million still pictures, and around 7,600 computer data sets is going to take time and energy and the process is ongoing.

To target our search for classified documents pertaining to Katyn in the vast holdings of the National Archives, the NDC turned to unclassified groups of records that are well-understood and described. Through this project, we examined more than 25 different record groups representing at least 25 separate originating offices, and located unclassified documents, photographs, and motion pictures concerning Katyn in 18 of them. By learning which groups among unclassified records contained Katyn materials, we then were able to attempt to identify classified records withheld during the declassification process that may contain information related to Katyn. We accomplished this by correlating the unique identification number within the declassified files series, called the declassification project number, to information withheld during that declassification project because the information in the withheld documents was at the time still sensitive.

Sometimes what we had to go on was that project number. When this occurred, we would check to see if any material from that project remained classified and read through as much as feasible to determine whether it related to Katyn. Sometimes we were luckier and found a withdrawal slip. Withdrawal slips contain targeted information about individual documents that remain classified, such as the creator and the recipient, the date or the topic. When we encountered a withdrawal slip, especially in folders we knew contained other Katyn material, we were able to focus our search on locating only those documents most likely to be relevant to this search, therefore creating greater efficiency in our process.

Some of our work was assisted by the tips from colleagues. One of the data entry staff at the NDC noticed records relating to general plane missiles and investigation files created by U.S. Air Force. Another tip to Katyn files was compiled in Austria, when certain witnesses resettled after WWII. These tips added to the total number of pages we knew were relevant to our project. Casting a wide net and using both of these approaches, we were able to identify more than 1,500 pages to be considered for declassification review. This review scours the documents for what we term “equities” meaning information that needs to be reviewed by particular agencies or departments of the U.S. Government. For example, the testimony provided by an eyewitness could belong to one of our intelligence agencies if it had come under U.S. control via a protected intelligence source. The information is then shown to those agencies so that a decision can be made by them as to whether the public release of the information will continue to cause damage to national security. If the damage will still occur upon release, the information is withheld and remains classified. If there is no damage to national security, the documents can become public, and they are declassified.

The review process usually takes months, even years. Once all agencies agree that a document is no longer sensitive, it is released to the public. During the special review process, because we are prioritizing the declassification of certain information in response to a public request, we ask our equity holding agencies to move material flagged for this special project to the head of their work queues and to be especially sensitive to the strong public interest in these documents.

The NDC had cooperation from declassification viewers in many different agencies for this project and because of that cooperation, we were able to declassify more than 1,000 unique pages of Katyn material not previously released to the public. Every document that we declassified during this project has been scanned and we have additionally scanned over 100 unclassified and previously declassified documents, identified in cooperation with Research Services. These digitized documents are as of this morning available online to anyone with an internet connection via the archival research catalog. Instructions for how to access our archival research catalog are printed on our posters and are available on our black and white flyers.

Additionally, our project now has a web page on, again live as of this morning and there is a link from that web page to already declassified documents. This webpage also has a link to a PDF finding aid, a list of the file subsections from which we have been able to locate Katyn documents which we have again compiled in conjunction with Research Services. Any additional Katyn documents identified in the future will follow this expedited process for release to be added to the finding aid and to be considered for digitization. My colleague Josh Mason will highlight some of the contents of the documents we have declassified.

Joshua Mason, NARA

I would like to discuss today records that we were able to discover and declassify during our search. By means of this presentation, I hope everyone will have a better understanding of exactly what it is that we’re releasing. The documents that we were able to locate, identify, and release belong to two categories. The first group are doctors involved in the army’s investigation into the original 1940 incident that was conducted in 1948. Second, we have records regarding the management of the House Select Committee to conduct the investigation and study of the facts, evidence, and circumstances of the Katyn Massacre. This committee was formed in September of 1951 and concluded its investigation in December 1952.  The documents that we have declassified belong to record group #319. Those are records of the Army Chief of Staff. The majority of doctors belong to other record groups, such as those in the Department of State and the other Armed Services that were located and declassified.

Beginning in March of 1948, the Army’s 970 Counterintelligence Corp began an investigation into the Katyn Massacre.  This detachment was able to conduct interviews concerning the incident, including valuable statements from several eyewitnesses. These included former German officers, such as the chief staff of the 4th Army, which originally captured the Smolensk area when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. Other German officers included the German commander of the SS battalion in 1943 who was ordered to secure the roads leading to Katyn, and to control only vehicles that were not belonging to the International Red Cross Commission. Polish and Soviet officers were also interviewed too, including Polish prisoners of war who had been held by the Soviets. Statements were obtained from non-military personnel as well, including a Polish newspaper editor who conducted his own investigation into the murders in 1943, and a Soviet political prisoner who lived in the Smolensk area.

One interesting document that was collected was a report titled “Notes on Judiciary Investigation of the Katyn Murders” by Doctor Roe Martin, deputy prosecutor of the Special Criminal Court in Cracow. This report provided new information that was gathered by Dr. Martin in 1945 when he interviewed several eyewitnesses of the crime. Specifically, this report discussed who committed the murders, when they were committed, how many were murdered, and how they were executed. Many of the released documents show the Army’s commitment to providing any records they could possibly locate concerning the massacre to the management. A long list of transmittals of memoranda also showed what they provided when detailing the long paper trail for evidence.

Unfortunately, there was one report that went missing during the search for related Katyn documents. It became known as Van Vliet Report. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John H. Van Vliet was one of the captive officers who was taken to the murder site to witness the German investigation. On May 22, 1945, he made a report for Major General, assistant chief of staff of G-2. According to General Bissell, a few days later, on May 25th, he mailed this report to Brigadier General Holmes, assistant secretary of the Department of State. The problem was that General Holmes did not, nor did anyone else in the State Department, ever receive this report. Several of the documents being declassified discussed this issue and the fact that the report never surfaced from the Army’s Chief of Staff or the State Department.

There is one more document that proved difficult to locate and that was an earlier report on the incident written in 1943. All the documents share that several of these reports were provided for the Madden Committee. One report by Army Colonel Henry Szymanski specifically on the Katyn Massacre cannot be found in a timely manner. A request was made to G-2 to search for this specific report. There were several of Colonel Szymanski’s documents on file but a reply from January 1952 stated that they had searched their holdings but that it could not be located. Eventually, this report was found but only after an extensive search was conducted. Overall, even though G-2 was having problems locating documents, the paper trail still shows an effort to supply the Madden Committee with what they were requesting, although it was not always in a timely manner.

A document dated February 25, 1952, shows G-2 apologizing for taking such a long time identifying and forwarding documents to the Madden Committee. One of the generals wrote that it was true that there’s been delay in locating documents desired by the House Select Committee to investigate the Katyn Massacre. But this delay has not been caused by a lack of effort. Rather it is a result of the number of volumes on the subject existing in the possession of the Army, many of which were no longer under G-2 scrutiny… The document dated March 19, 1952, detailed how several documents could not be declassified or downgraded due to their sensitivity.

The Madden Committee concluded their investigation and issued their final report in December 1952. The committee specifically mentioned Bissell and G-2 in their conclusions. Item number 2 stated that the committee was sending the report and other valuable documents to the Department of Defense so that they could determine whether General Bissell needs to be punished. The document dated March 4, 1953, discussed that General Bissell should be held accountable for his actions in handling the Van Vliet report and if he were accountable, he should be punished by the Army or the Air Force. General Bissell was transferred to the Air Force in 1948.

In regard to G-2, the concluding item in the committee’s report states: “This committee believes that the wartime policies of Army Intelligence (G-2) from 1944 to 1945 should undergo a thorough investigation.” Several newly declassified documents show that G-2 discussed the possibility of being investigated and whether or not they should prepare for it. In a document dated January 23, 1953, G-2 personnel receive information from the congressional investigations division that they should be prepared just in case an investigation must be initiated. Several directors were also concerned when Julius Epstein reported and published a small case history in 1952 called the “Mysteries of the Van Vliet Report.” Epstein consistently referred the G-2 high-ranking personnel… and the director of the Central Intelligence Agency as well as Van Vliet himself in an effort to spur an investigation into what happened to the original Van Vliet report. Documents of G-2 show conducting a background investigation on Epstein, with the help of the FBI, CIA, and the Office of Naval Intelligence that determined the enemy…

It should be noted that our search only purviews records on the Katyn Massacre. We try to locate documents discussing the other murder sites located in Minsk, Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Tver. Unfortunately, nothing as of today has been found. Also, it should be noted that the original Van Vliet report cannot be found either.

In conclusion, the documents at the National Archives declassified show if nothing else the paper trail that was generated in the search for documents regarding the Katyn Massacre and the army G-2 claims and provide new information. In the future, whenever new classified materials are to be discovered pertaining to the Katyn incident, they will be treated as high priorities. They will be given an expedited classification review process and be able to be declassified. They will be added to our gallery finding aid so that they would be forever available for the public.

Related posts

The Katyn Forest Massacre – 2012 NARA Booklet on Declassification


Katyn Operation 1939-1941 – New Book!


Independence of Poland is Sacred


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