Katyn The Lie

The Katyn Witness

FORBIDDEN HISTORY – KNOW THE TRUTH

The story of a Polish soldier

who escaped from the POW death camp operated by the NKVD in the Katyn forest

 

Stefan Bartysiak waited almost half a century to tell his story. He did so only in the spring of 1992, when he appeared before a prosecutor Andrzej Witkowski, in the Regional Prosecutor’s Office in Lublin.

The story that Bartysiak presented to Prosecutor Witkowski begins in the summer of 1938 when he joined the Polish army. Bartysiak served in the 7th Regiment of Legion’s Infantry in Chełm in the Lublin province. Before the war broke out, he graduated from a non-commissioned officer’s school and was promoted to corporal. In August 1939, his regiment was ordered to march to the region of Sarny in the Wołyń province of Poland.

Upon arrival, they were positioned along the Polish-Soviet border. When the Soviet Red Army invaded Poland on September 17, 1939, Bartysiak’s regiment resisted for several hours against the advancing Soviet troops and subsequently began to retreat westwards.

After a few days, they reached the Szack region. There, one of the biggest battles of the September 1939 defensive war between the Polish troops and the invading Soviets took place. After this battle, Bartysiak’s regiment marched towards the Bug river, but along the way, most of his regiment’s subunits were captured by the Soviets. Polish POWs were force-marched to the village of Antonówka.

There, they were loaded into the cattle wagons and sent east. After a dozen or so days, this transport stopped in a village in the Soviet Union. Polish prisoners were unloaded and placed in old warehouses. These were terribly crowded. There was no latrine, and the prisoners were not given any food or drink. Not surprisingly, after a few days, some swell up and die.

After a few weeks, the surviving Polish POWs were put by the Soviets into columns, which were then under escort and force-marched to Kozielsk. There, prisoners were placed in old army barracks. The crowding was no lesser than in the previous location.

In the Kozielsk POW camp, NKVD began the interrogation of the Polish POWs. During one such interrogation, Stefan Bartysiak testified to the NKVD interrogator that his father served in the Tsarist army, and took part in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. During this war, he was to get into Japanese captivity, from which he escaped to the United States. He returned to Poland in 1920 at the urging of Józef Piłsuski and took part in the then-ongoing Polish-Bolshevik War.

When Bartysiak’s NKVD interrogator heard this story, he changed the prisoner’s category for further use, but only after a while. During one of the assemblies, which took place in the Kozielsk camp, Bartysiak learned that he had been assigned to a group of prisoners, which was destined for the death camp.

The whole group of Polish POWs destined for the death camp was loaded into the cattle wagon that departed east. After a dozen or so hours, the transport stopped at a small station. Only years later, Bartysiak realized that it was the Gniezdowo station. There, they were unloaded directly from the wagons onto the trucks tightly covered with a tarpaulin. Soviet soldiers supervising the unloading, Bartosiak noted, had sculptured horse’s hooves affixed to their shoes. In this way, they did not leave traces of feet but traces of horse hooves. It was a conscious element of camouflage.

After a while, the trucks stopped in the forest area fenced with barbed wire, which, as it turned out later, was under the electric current. The whole area was fenced off with barbed wire and contained a large-size wooden barrack and a number of dug-up, deep, longitudinal pits. Parts of some already held Polish POWs.

The conditions in the death camp were terrible. POWs slept in dug pits covered with tree branches. They were fed semi-frozen swedes and cabbage. Soon, interrogations of prisoners began in the death camp, much more detailed than those which took place in Kozielsk.

During these interrogations, Polish POWs were repeatedly beaten. One method of beating was that a naked POW was hung on a hook placed high on the wall, and then beaten with rubber buttons so that the victims evacuated excrement and urine. During or immediately after such a beating, many Polish POWs died. Not surprisingly, after a while, the whole area of the camp was covered with corpses. This all lasted until Christmas Eve on December 24, 1939. That’s when the NKVD tormentors began executions of Polish POWs. These consisted of a POW being held on the edge of the mentioned pits, and then, from a very close distance, they were shot in the back of the head.

During those executions, many prisoners were throwing themselves at their tormentors. Some even managed to get out of the grasp of their tormentors and run into another area of the camp but were immediately followed by Soviet guards and killed.

When there were enough corpses in the pits, bulldozers were brought in to cover the corpses lying in the pits with the soil. The moaning of dying was still heard from beneath the pushed soil. But on the morning of Christmas Day on December 25, 1939, the NKVD killers interrupted the executions of Polish POWs. This happened after one of the captives before getting killed bit off his tormentor’s finger.

At that time, the NKVD decided that the level of aggression among Polish POWs is so high that it threatens to erupt into rebellion, which they won’t be able to control. So, they stopped the executions of POWs and left the camp. Only Soviet guards with machine guns remained on the campgrounds. The POWs had a brief respite. On December 29, 1939, one of the Soviet officers asked the prisoners who could drive. From more than a dozen POWs who reported, a Soviet officer selected Corporal Drozdowicz, who declared that he was a professional driver.

He was instructed to use two broken-down trucks, which were on the campgrounds, to make one that could run. And Drozdowicz chose Bartysiatk for this task as well as Lieutenants Bara and Oczak. They worked hard for a few days until they were able to assemble one truck and make it run. Then they were instructed to collect the corpses on the territory of the camp and transport them to a place called the White Field.

This place was located a few kilometers from the camp. And all four Polish POWs: Bartysiak, Drozdowicz, Oczak and Bara collected corpses from the camp and transported them to the White Field. There they dug deep pits, placed the corpses inside, and then covered them with soil.

As Bartysiak recounted, during this work they were so hungry that they had cut out the meat from human corpses, fried it over the campfire, and ate it. Soviet soldiers, who guarded them, also ate this meat.

Meanwhile, in the camp, the NKVD resumed interrogation and beating of POWs. And that meant more corpses had to be removed from the campgrounds. Bartysiak, Drozdowicz, Bara, and Oczak transported these corpses to the White Field. But on March 3, 1940, during another trip with corpses to the White Field, their truck got bogged down in the mud and then completely broke down. Two of the Soviet convoys then went to the camp for help. Two more Soviet guards were left with Polish POWs. Bartysiak, Drozdowicz, Bara, and Owczak immediately communicated without words and attacked guards. They overpowered them and then strangled them. They took off their uniforms and took away the backpacks that were in the cab of the truck. These contained waterproof coats and dry bread.

They calculated that during their escape, there might be a situation when they would have to pretend to be two Soviet soldiers who convoyed two Polish POWs. They started running west, guided by the position of the sun. They kept running for almost three days until they were totally exhausted. They spent the night in the large stack of straw, which was not cleared from the field. When they woke up they marched further west. They walked mainly at night, bypassing human settlements.

They ate mainly household animals left out. They slept in straw stacks. The first locality they were able to identify on the route of their escape was Kowel, but they bypassed the city by a wide margin. Then they arrived at the Bug river. When they found a boat, they went to the other shore and found themselves on the Polish side, or rather the General Governorate for the Occupied by Germans Poland. They stole a horse cart from a villager working in the fields. In that horse cart, they arrived in the Bychawy region of the Lublin province.

There, they decided to separate, but before they did, they took an oath that they will never tell, even their loved ones, about where they were and what they saw. And they all marched to their homes. Stefan Bartysiak marched to his home in Kowalin near Kraśnik.

When he arrived at his home, he was a shadow of a man. He weighed only 42 kg. Nails were coming off his toes, and lice came out from under his skin.

When Stefan Bartysiak was finishing telling his story in front of the prosecutor Andrzej Witkowski many years later, he told him at the end that he felt relieved and that now he could die in peace. A few weeks later Stefan Bartysiak died.

What does Stefan Bartysiak’s account bring to the history of the Katyn crime?

Well, it brings a lot. Firstly, it is clear from his account that the Katyn massacre started much earlier than we knew up till now. According to Bartysiak, NKVD commenced executions of Polish POWs in the Katyn forest already on Christmas Eve on December 24, 1939. It is also clear from Bartysiak’s account that Polish POWs were horribly beaten and starved before they were murdered, to the extent that there have been cases of cannibalism.

It is also clear from Bartysiak’s account that the Soviets preplanned that they will cover up this crime so that there is no trace left of it. The element of horse hooves on the boots of tormentors is very important information.

All those elements of the story are very important in the process of reconstruction of the circumstances and course of the Katyn genocide.

ONLY TRUTH IS INTERESTING

The report by Stefan Bartysiak is an exceptional historical account. The scenes described by Stefan Bartysiak are so drastic, that it is hard even to imagine them, and that is why this history must be preserved. We decided to tell you this story in a somewhat extended documentary film. And that is why we are asking you to support the effort to seek justice for the Katyn crime.

This article is based on the Katyn Witness video documentary presented by Dr. Leszek Pietrzak in the Forbidden History video series here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnxxp5aCqTY

 

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