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The Katyń Crime in Literature

Prof. Jerzy R. Krzyżanowski

The Ohio State University, Ohio, 2010

The Katyń Crime in Literature – 70 Years After

Article prepared for February 4, 2011 Conference: Katyn – Justice Delayed or Justice Denied?

In spite of the fact that I am speaking English to an American audience in the Midwest of the United States, I should like to use a time-honored Polish tradition that a public address, no matter how official or informal, should begin with a quotation in Latin. That was a sign of respect for the audience, for people who were bilingual, fluent in both, Polish and Latin, and who shared the same education, the same cultural values, who – in short – were equal, if not superior, to the speaker. Thus let me begin with a line from the ancient poet, Horace, whose ode „Exegi monumentum” contained a memorable phrase: ”non omnis moriar” – I will not die entirely.

And although the Roman poet in his best-known poem used it as a reference to his work that secured him fame for many centuries to come, that quotation has a more universal meaning, indicating that death, in the physical sense, does not erase the meaning of somebody’s life, as long as it leaves behind some everlasting values, be it a timeless work, a lasting memory, or sacrifice for one’s country or nation. Hence it applies to the victims of the Katyń crime, whose 70th anniversary we celebrated last year in an official symposium held at the Royal Castle in Warsaw in April 2010. My presentation today will recall some features prominent in Polish cultural life that occurred during those 70 years.

 As a long-time teacher of literature I’d like to give it the most prominent place, for I firmly believe it outlasts any other type of artistic creation, whether it might be arts, sculpture, and, in the most recent times – film. Interestingly enough, one of the cruelest facts eventually leading to the mass murder at Katyń, was first related in a book published in this country and totally unknown in Poland to this very day. The book titled Night Never Ending (1974) was allegedly written by a certain Eugene Komorowski, although it is certain that it was someone else hiding his identity under such a pen name, not yet deciphered. In the first chapter, the novel describes one of the little-known facts of the Polish defense of the city of Grodno when the Red Army invaded Poland’s eastern provinces on September 17, 1939. It shows the encounter of a Polish commanding officer, Brigadier General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński, with an arrogant Soviet officer who initially tries to downgrade his Polish counterpart superior in rank and status, then intimidates him and finally ends with a brutal execution of the General. Although the fact of his murder has been recorded in history, the cruel details of that murder have been presented in that novel for the first time, I believe. Thus a rather unique American contribution the Katyń was made.

Another among those contributions is the novel The March (1979) by an American writer of Polish descent, W.S. Kuniczak, who included there at least two major scenes referring directly to Katyń. Incidentally, I’d like to mention that that novel too has never been translated into Polish and remains totally unknown to Polish readers. Some negotiations with a publisher in Poland have begun very recently, hopefully leading to its publication there.

One of those scenes recreates the execution in Katyń, while the other one projects a mass drowning of Polish officers of Jewish descent in the Kara See. Although such a fact has never been proven, some rumors about it were circulating during and right after the war while the search for missing officers continued with no conclusive results. It is one of the most dramatic and shocking scenes, whether close to real facts or not, but not to be forgotten. At a Katyń memorial held in New York in 1988, I recited it to a large audience and later on reprinted it in my anthology Katyń w literaturze, published in Poland in 1995 and followed by two more editions.

A mass murder of ca. 26,000 Polish POWs was shrouded in such tight secrecy and security that it left no survivors, which is something hard to believe, indeed. According to well-known facts, mass murders committed by the Germans left a certain number of victims surviving, while during the Soviet executions, there have been no such cases. That problem seemed to intrigue writers investigating it and resulted in at least two literary works exploring the possibilities of such a survival. One of them is the above-mentioned novel Night Never Ending, whose protagonist, Mr. Komorowski, shot at Katyń, pretends to be dead but eventually recovers in the mass grave, manages to get out, and hides in the neighboring villages finally escapes Russia, eventually reaching Free World but not escaping the Soviet control. His story, told in the first person narration, continues to tell of his dramatic efforts to evade the Soviet attempts to liquidate him as the only surviving witness to the massacre.

A second, from the literary point of view much superior version of the same theme, was created by one of Poland’s most prominent contemporary Polish writers, Włodzimierz Odojewski in his short story „Ku dunżynańskiemu wzgórzu idzie las”, published in his collection of short stories Zabezpieczanie śladów (1984), and later reprinted in W stepie, ostach i burzanie  (2009). It introduces an anonymous witness to the execution, a man drawn to its place by some unexplained power of memory, who tries to recollect what really happened at Katyń. Its sophisticated form of narration and dramatic tension place that story above any other literary work dealing with the Katyń massacre.

Chronologically, those novels and stories had been preceded by a factual report on an existing document preserved for posteriority, and recorded in a non-fiction story Time stopped at 6:30 (1965) by Tadeusz Wittlin (1909-1998), a writer and journalist imprisoned in Workuta labor camp, who eventually left the Soviet Union with the Second Polish Corps. It was based on the factual discovery of a notebook of Major  Adam Solski, who managed to record in detail how the Polish POWs were transported from Kozielsk camp to Katyń and brought to the place of execution. It happened to be a unique document of the Katyń crime recovered from the mass graves of the Polish officers.

Yet another American novel Rendezvous at Katyn (1973) was written by Congressman Foster Furcolo, not a professional writer but a politician well familiar with the Katyń story as a member of the Congressional Committee investigating the Katyń crime in 1951-52.

 Literary works mentioned here represent just a few novels and short stories written exclusively by the émigré writers since it was impossible to publish anything on that subject while Poland was ruled by the Communists until 1989. Unfortunately, they were the not only ones dealing with that topic, as a number of hack writers tried to explore the tragic story for purely commercial reasons. With no censorship existing in the United States, it was possible to get published novels abusing the memory of Polish victims such as in e.g. Katyn, A Whisper in the Trees (1991) by a certain Anton A. Jakubowski, who in his pornographic novel explores the fact that the only female prisoner in the Kozielsk Camp, Lt. Janina Lewandowska happened to be a singular woman among thousands of male POWs, what – according to the author – eventually lead to sexual abuse and perversion. Similar accents are abundant in the novel Dacza KGB, published twelve years earlier by someone hiding under a pen name Rafał Piast. Fortunately, the honor of Janina Lewandowska was restored by a poet from Maine, Kendall Merriam, who not only wrote a poem Hymn to Janina Lewandowska but followed it up with a theatrical drama Investigation of Janina Lewandowska shown in a local theater in Bedford, Maine, and also recorded by the local TV, made available on DVD.

The ode by Horace mentioned earlier begins with a line exegi monumentum („I erected a monument”) referring to his literary work, but real monuments in stone or bronze have been erected in many countries to commemorate the victims of the Katyń crime. The first one ever was unveiled in Stockholm on November 16, 1975, followed by an impressive number of monuments on several continents, in many countries, and in many cities all over the world, including of course the United States with its famous statue „The Avenger” by Andrzej Pityński placed at a Polish cemetery in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, known among the Poles as „The American Częstochowa”, or a symbolic solid block split in the middle by thunder of History, unveiled in Toronto in 1980. While the Communist authorities in Poland tried to remove even simple crosses from the Powązki cemetery in Warsaw, the 1990s witnessed a proliferation of the Katyń monuments and memorials in free Poland and elsewhere.

There are a few images of Katyń in fine arts, including originals and copies of wooden carvings of Madonna made in the POW camps in Russia, smuggled out of the Soviet Union in the 1940s, and now kept in the Cathedral of  Polish Armed Forces in Warsaw,  and at the Polish Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

 More memorabilia have been created in music by Poland’s top composers: Andrzej Panufnik „Simfonia sacra  — Katyń Epitaph” (1963), Henryk Górecki „Pieśń rodzin katyńskich” (1990), and Krzysztof  Penderecki „Polskie Requiem – Libera me” (1998).

Finally, there is the film, in recent times gradually becoming more ambitious than ever before, appealing to mass audiences and slowly substituting for more traditional forms of artistic creations. No wonder that Poland’s top movie director Andrzej Wajda, an Honorary Oscar winner in 1990, reached for the Katyń story as the most crucial topic finally permitted by the authorities to be presented and discussed openly. The resulting film „Katyń”, released in 2007, has become an international success, being shown in many countries, including Russia on national television. Based on a novel Post mortem by Andrzej Mularczyk and accompanied by a music score by Krzysztof Penderecki, it focuses on a group of Polish POWs in the Kozielsk camp, and their families left in German-occupied Poland, eventually reaching its dramatic climax in the scenes of Katyń executions and the anonymous burial of the victims by a Soviet tractor, trying to erase the last traces of one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th Century. Superbly directed and acted by the biggest stars of Polish cinema „Katyń” crowns the long-lasting efforts to keep the memories of that national tragedy alive.


A thorough review of the reflections the Katyń crime left on Polish culture leaves the spectator and/or reader with two powerful images, one projected on the screen, and the other one on a printed page. The visual image comes in the concluding scene in the Wajda movie: huge Russian-made bulldozer „Stalinets” pushes tonnes of dirt into a burial pit filled with bodes of the murdered Polish officers, and only one single arm holding a rosary extends from the ground in a silent protest, as a beacon pointing toward the sky, equally mute and powerless.

The other image is more elevating. It comes from a novel And the Snow Will Cover Everything (Zasypie wszystko, zawieje…) by one of Poland’s most outstanding authors Włodzimierz Odojewski, initially published in Paris by Institute Litteraire in 1973, and in subsequent years reprinted several times in Warsaw. In one of the most memorable scenes, we read about a visit to Katyń made by the novel’s protagonist Paweł Woynowicz who comes there trying to claim the body of his brother buried there together with thousands of others. At the graveside Paweł encounters a group of visitors, and listens to a homily pronounced by a Polish monk who says about the Katyń victims:

„…they have not disappeared, they have simply moved into a thousandfold life. Into the memory of their loved ones, into the permanent memory of our nation, as well into the memory of that nation that equally easily brings torture and death to others as it does to itself. For us, they will remain forever a symbol of martyrdom, and for their hangmen the eternal pangs of conscience and burning stigma of shame on their foreheads. For them, and for their children, and children of their children, until one day they will face the crime of their fathers and will want to get rid of that shameful stigma and leave their barbaric ways once and for all. And that will be to the credit of those whom we’re burying here.

Don’t cry. They are dead but they have not died.

They are not enclosed in the earth but free from the earth. They are not entombed in the earth forever but rising from its black bowels in order to enter and remain in each of us. They are disintegrated in decomposition, but also in our worldly life, in our sorrows and joys, in our anger and tenderness, our goodness, in our ascents and falls, in our baseness and smallness as well as in superiority, justice, nobility, and love, in all our passions and deeds, our sleep, and our daydreams. They are also present in the countless parts of life surrounding us: in the darkness and dawn, in flowers and branches, in the particles of air and rays of the sun, in the dew and rain, in the wind, rustlings of nights, and in oak leaves. In the eternal, unstoppable life, in the running of time toward the end of barbarism and the true freedom. They are in everything, making with us, and those who will succeed us, an uninterrupted unity. Although with no hearts that would bleed from wounds…”

            Yes, the Latin non omnis moriar could not be better explained in our time.

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