Hundreds of bodies excavated from mass grave 18 years after the war
American soldier witnessed the exhumation of corpses in Katyn
Historian Kristina Piorkowska uncovered important archival documents
NEW YORK –
The leadership of Great Britain and the United States knew about the scale of the Katyn massacre even during the Second World War. This secret special operation of the Stalinist NKVD was reported in 1943, among other sources, by the captured American Lieutenant Colonel John Van Fleet Jr. After his release from captivity, he gave under oath a more detailed affidavit about Katyn. It happened in Paris on May 10, 1945.
The American historian Christina Piorkovska, who has been studying the Katyn tragedy for many years, spoke about this. The other day she gave a talk at the Kosciuszko Foundation (Manhattan).
“These brave and courageous people, Van Fleet among them, took a huge risk to inform their governments about the terrible crime against humanity committed by the Soviet secret services,” Kristina Piorkovska told the Voice of America correspondent. “Previously unknown documents that I discovered strongly confirm that the US and British governments had detailed information about the executions of Polish officers.”.
According to Piorkovskaya, in November last year in the US National Archives near Washington, she was able to find the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Van Fleet, stored among thousands of other papers in an unassembled box of documents from the US Embassy in France. In 1943, Van Fleet, as part of a small group of prisoners of war, was brought to Katyn by the Nazis, where he and his comrades in misfortune witnessed the exhumation of the corpses of Polish officers..
In the spring of 1940, on the initiative of Beria, with the approval of Stalin, in the Katyn forest and a number of other places, the NKVD troops shot 22 thousand Polish officers taken prisoner by the Soviet army during the invasion of Poland. For a long time, the Soviet authorities argued that the execution was the work of the Nazis. This “conclusion”, based on deliberate falsifications, was reached by the commission of Nikolai Burdenko, created after the liberation of Smolensk. This point of view was defended by the Soviet authorities until 1990, when the Kremlin recognized the responsibility of the NKVD for this atrocity..
Military investigator James Hoffman and Van Fleet, interrogated by him in Paris, believed that the Soviet Union should be charged with the Katyn massacre. This was recorded during the testimony..
As you know, at the insistence of the Soviet side, Katyn appeared in the indictment of the Nuremberg trials over the leaders of the Third Reich. But the international tribunal did not support the accusation, which was viewed by the international community as a de facto admission of the USSR’s guilt. However, the United States and Great Britain did not take any action in relation to the ally in the anti-Hitler coalition for reasons of a strategic nature..
It is characteristic that one more testimony under oath that Van Fleet gave, having arrived from Paris to Washington, was “lost.” According to Piorkowska, this fact may serve as further evidence of the unwillingness of the US authorities at that time to spoil relations with Stalin..
In his Paris testimony, Van Fleet said that he personally witnessed the exhumation of approximately 3,500 corpses. Most of them were dressed in practically new Polish military uniforms. All victims were shot in the back of the head.
“The personal belongings of the victims and the degree of decomposition of the corpses indicate that they were killed in February – April 1940,” the testimony says. At that time, this territory was under Soviet control..
Van Fleet named several more American and British prisoners of war whom the Nazis brought with him to Katyn as witnesses to the exhumation. Previously, these names were not known to historians..
How did British and American prisoners of war pass information about Katyn to their countries? The Germans treated them somewhat more liberally than the prisoners from the eastern front, and called to send letters and postcards to their relatives. Van Fleet and his fellow prisoners used secret military codes to encrypt messages about the Katyn massacre.
As Piorkowska emphasized, certain difficulties arose in Great Britain when she turned to the state archives with a request to allow her to work with documents on British prisoners. “At first they made me understand that I had to pay 600 pounds sterling for access to documents,” says the historian, “and then they refused altogether under a far-fetched pretext”.
In the USA, Christina Piorkowska tracked down Van Fleet’s son, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a military man. In a conversation with him, she asked a question about coded letters, but he flatly refused to answer. Piorkovska explains the refusal of the British archives and the taciturnity of Van Fleet’s son by the fact that, apparently, secrecy has not been removed from the codes used by the prisoners of war..
Currently, Piorkovska is looking for relatives of other prisoners of war witnesses to the exhumation. Earlier, she spoke about the results of her research at a press conference in Warsaw..
Kristina Piorkowska graduated from Columbia University and taught at the University of Warsaw. She translated and prepared materials on Katyn for the Museum of the Polish Army.
Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Service «Voices of America» in New York.