Katyń and the Thaw

“Why won’t you write about this, gentlemen?”

AFTER the watchtower where he is ensconced is razed by the Vietnamese, Fowler, the English journalist in Graham Greene’s latest novel,1 gravely injured, hides in a rice paddy, up to his waist in water.

In the course of the night, his teeth chattering with cold, he falls into a half faint from the pain. His mind is tormented by the moans, childish whining, and low sobbing of a Vietnamese soldier dying about a dozen paces away from him.

Fowler thinks “how strange it was that men of my profession would make only two news-lines out of all this night. . . .”

Human suffering in Greene’s novels is never just counted in figures; it is never just “a complex drawing up of accounts”: every suffering has its own unique measure. Greene puts in Fowler’s mouth the following words: “Suffering is not increased by numbers: one body can contain all the suffering the world can feel. I had judged like a journalist in terms of quantity and I had betrayed my own principles” [emphasis J. C.].

Let Graham Greene the writer therefore not be surprised that two lines in the Sunday Times by Graham Greene the journalist, in which he counts victims “by numbers” and with the word “insignificance” places the Katyń massacre in a hierarchy of crimes, provoked so many responses and letters to the editor (unprinted, however, as they were written by Poles). That mountain of little shoes left by the children burned by the Nazis, shown to Greene in the camp museum in Poland, those countless crosses, knocked together from stovepipes in the squares of Warsaw, those objects evoking proof of the German presence in Poland—added to the persistent and tendentious steering of the writer’s attention by the friends of Piasecki2 who were his hosts—gave us that sentence, in which the journalist Greene betrays the writer Greene.

Six million murdered here, and there, in a faraway forest, only four thousand and a few hundred corpses. An insignificance.

Some Communists are already exploiting these low numbers. “What do those four thousand mean in comparison with the astronomical number of liquidated enemies of the people in China?” one Polish Communist said to a friend of mine.

But if so, we must forget about it, forget about Katyń, forget that for a Pole Katyń is not just the bodies in the Katyń forest, the decomposing remains, carefully photographed and filmed by German enemy propaganda (“their innards were splattered on the earth, the sun shone . . . these were people loved by mothers and sisters”), that it also means all the Katyńs that have yet to be discovered, the sites where the prisoners of war from Ostashkov and Starobielsk were murdered.

But with all those other Katyńs it still comes to more or less fifteen thousand. Insignificance!

Those thousands, murdered we know not where, in the period as it is now called of the Beriovshchina, had their duplicate files or papki, one copy in the camp and one at Moscow Center, with photographs, biographical information, and where they were sent. Those files undoubtedly still lie somewhere, carefully arranged in the labyrinthine archives of the Ministry for Internal Affairs in Moscow. Six hundred young pilots, eight hundred doctors. There were among them prominent names in the Polish medical world: Professor Kołodziejski, Dr. Stefanowski, Dr. Levittoux, and men known all over Poland for their self-sacrifice and scope such as Dr. Wroczyński, the organizer of the Health Fund, Dr. Dadej, founder of the sanatorium for the poorest children with tuberculosis in Bystre; there were university professors, scholars like Pieńkowski and Nelken, engineers like Antoni Eiger, vice-president of the Anti-Hitler League in Poland. The memory of these people, annihilated in Katyńs of all kinds, is associated with approximately a million and a half Polish citizens deported in 1939 and 1940, of whom the overwhelming majority perished in bolted train cars in Vorkuta or Karaganda, in the Altai Steppes or in the hunger-ridden kolkhozes of Kazakhstan. Neither Piasecki nor any of his friends said a word about all this to Greene.

A vast number of these people died, but not all of them.

Why am I writing about it now? Graham Greene is not the issue. Judging by his two brief articles, and even more by the interview he gave to Kultura, this writer whom I adore has already managed to see what most tourists didn’t. The reconstruction of Warsaw’s Old Town did not obscure from him the fact that the Warsaw Uprising had been wiped from Polish history with the same efficiency as Trotsky was airbrushed out of the history of the Bolshevik Party.

Nor do I wish to make atrocity propaganda, a litany of atrocities—so many millions here, so many there: “suffering is not counted in numbers.” If I write about this, it is because we observe in Soviet Russia and in Poland signs of a thaw. Kultura, trying to assess those signs, trying in the current subtly altered situation of open dialogue (the quiet dialogues between Poland and the Polish emigration were never interrupted, even for a moment) is accused from one side of subversion, of treason to the integrity of the emigration, and from the other side of a grave tactical error. We are reproached with trying to speak of the most disturbing and painful matters with precision, getting them right. But if we want a dialogue, it has to be a dialogue without unspoken assumptions.

Kosior and Antonov-Ovseyenko in the USSR, Béla Kun in Hungary, Warski, Leński, Bruno Jasieński—the whole Polish Communist Party seen as a nest of subversion in 1938.3 What does it all mean?

“After the victory, one day when it can no longer do any damage, the secret archives will be opened . . . then you and a few of your friends will be granted the sympathy, the compassion you were denied today.” This was what Koestler’s Gletkin says to Rubashov. Gletkin is keeping his word now, but all of it is happening only inside the Communist Party . . . after the victory. So is this the thaw, this is all it is?

For example, you somehow don’t hear anything about the rehabilitation of the murdered Alter and Ehrlich,4 those magnificent leaders of the Jewish Bund.

Let us allow ourselves to dream—more, to think this through. What now? If the review of a whole array of trials to come is the order of the day, how can it not affect not only the families of those eight million destroyed during the 1938 purges, not only Soviet citizens, but also relations with countries not in the Soviet Union but belonging to its orbit of power—how can it not affect Poland?

We are not concerned here with the moral evaluation of the motives for the decision to make spectacular turnarounds, so far carried out with “almost Stalinist discipline.” What “discussions” held at the top have resulted in Gamarnik,5 among others, for whose death Voroshilov is responsible, now beginning to be rehabilitated, or Kosior, who was executed by Molotov and succeeded by Khrushchev?

If we judge these rehabilitations, the proposals of Ms. Pankratowa (for changing all the school textbooks she herself wrote), the attempts by leaders who bear joint responsibility with Stalin for the Stalinist era to separate themselves from Stalinism, if we judge these as certain marks on a monolith, then these facts may bring with them unpredictable consequences for the leaders themselves, and they may prompt fundamental changes in further development and in Soviet foreign relations.

If so, we should begin by ceasing to brush under the carpet everything that is most poisonous in Soviet-Polish relations. The silences and falsifications that have fooled no one until now must be brought into the light of day and, wherever possible, corrected, for they will not be forgotten by Poles.

Could Graham Greene, hemmed in by PAX,6 guess what Katyń, all the Katyńs, mean in Polish consciousness: the deportation of over a million Poles in 1939 and 1940, the deportations of—at a modest estimation—tens of thousands of Home Army fighters from 1944 onward, culminating in the deportation, by means of a base trick, of the sixteen leaders of the Underground led by General Okulicki? I know the vast majority of these people are dead, but not all of them are. There are people who are still alive to die every day in countless camps and prisons. This string of facts has been a torment to every Pole’s heart for seventeen years, no less of a torment than the lonely cries through a single night in the rice paddy were to Greene’s Fowler.

Today we have a range of new information about them, about the exiles who are still alive. Germans, Spaniards, Italians, Austrians released from Russia send reports to Radio Free Europe about Poles who are still languishing in camps. One of them even writes of some special camp for Polish scientists, another (a German) gives a list of surnames, adding: “Maybe the fact that we are helping to bring about the release of Poles can partially redeem our guilt toward the Polish people.”

Anyone who has been in a camp knows what the solidarity of camp friendship means. I will never forget the ragged crowds in Totsk, the Poles who traveled to us directly from the camps. Each of them, each and every man, had a list of his colleagues who had not yet been set free, each of them spoke of those people and urged us to save them. Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians spoke of one another with the same urgency. Today this solidarity has united people who a few years ago might have been mortal foes but were brought together as brothers in the Gulag.

On September 22, 1955, the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued a decree on transferring to Polish authorities all Polish citizens present in the Soviet Union. From Poland we know about the return of a number of Poles from Russia. However, surprisingly little is written about it in Poland. People return every now and then, one cannot make out any particular method or plan—it is done shamefacedly and seemingly chaotically. (An example: a wife returns without her husband about whom she then makes inquiries for months, without success . . . ) Is this confusion suspicious? Or just bureaucratic? I am familiar with this from the years 1941 to 1942. We don’t know if the information from people who come back, information on those who remained behind in the camps, is used or not. No repatriation lists are published. Interviews with the repatriated are rare, cherry-picked, prettified, or simply mendacious. So it turns out it is Ambassador Kot and the Polish intelligence service who are responsible for the yearslong deportation of Józef Mieszkowski?7 Were these statements the price of his being allowed to return home?

But in Poland there must be whispered reports from those coming back from the Soviet Union, even though more than one of them has a “memory buried whole, like the book of Herculaneum turned to ash in the earth: the resurrected author himself can’t read it, and said only that he would ask God about it.”

Those who come back all seem to be from a “free settlement”; are all exiles already in “free settlements” after doing their years in the Gulag?

We have no information that Poles were released from camps or prisons before they had served their sentences. And that is precisely what must be done. We all know what the camps are like in Russia, what kind of mortality they have and what their work and living conditions are like, and people in Poland know all the more about it by now. Only let us not hear the word amnesty, a dishonest word. Amnesty for people deported in the night in 1940, amnesty for soldiers who were put in camps for fighting Hitler and let out so they could go on fighting him, amnesty for Home Army soldiers, amnesty for Underground leaders deported by a trick? There should be a moratorium on the word.

If this is a thaw, not just a few smooth propaganda moves on the outside and a few easy breaks given by victorious Gletkins to people with already broken backs but also the first symptoms of a long and certainly very difficult but also organic process in the Soviet Union, then the whole truth about the Katyńs must be revealed and the Poles who are still alive must be returned to Poland. Otherwise in the consciousness of every Pole the solidarity between today’s leaders and those of the Beria era is unbroken.

Jan Kott writes with unmistakable emotion in Cultural Review of the devastating impact of the performance of Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve on the Warsaw stage. “It’s as if Mickiewicz captured the world red-hot,” writes Kott. He does not add that Mickiewicz’s genius also lies in the fact that he also captures today’s historical events red-hot and even more, and that for that reason “every cut in the text is felt like a stab in the heart,” for that reason everyone was crying, the coatroom attendants, the stagehands, and even government minsters. One cannot be surprised by the tears in the Warsaw audience—they cannot have cut the verse:

If I forget them, O Lord in Heaven,

May you forget me.

These words pulsed inside all of us, coatroom ladies, stagehands, every Pole at home and in emigration, ministers of state. They pulsed with their terrible resonance, and if we all called for the whole truth about all Katyńs and about saving those who are still alive perhaps we too, as Mickiewicz once did, would find Russian friends in the expanses of Russia and understanding of these matters on their side.

Kultura, 1956

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