Circa 1981: Clues found to WWII's missing Polish officers
Thursday, April 23, 2009
By Barry Paris, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Barry Paris' investigative special report about mass killings in Katyn and Starobielsk during WWII was first published in the April 17, 1981 Post-Gazette and is reprinted here.
The shroud of mystery that has surrounded a major World War II atrocity for 40 years may finally be lifting, if reports out of the Soviet Union and Poland are correct.
The case is that some 12,000 Polish military and police officers who were taken prisoners of war in 1939 after the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland and sent to three Stalinist concentration camps. The bodies of some 4,500 of the officers -- executed by the Russians in 1940 -- were discovered by the Germans at Katyn Forest along the Byelorussian-Russian border, near Smolensk, in 1944. Each one had been shot through the back of the head.
Though they certainly perished, the remaining 8,000 bodies or skeletons have never been located -- until, possibly, now.
Polish laborers working on a 2,050-mile joint Soviet-Polish fuel pipeline from southwestern Siberia were recently led by local residents to a sandpit in Starobielsk, in the Ukraine. They said it contains the mass grave of another 3,830 Polish officers who were held in a monastery-prison there from October 1939 to April 1940, then reportedly taken in small groups from their jail and killed.
The Polish affairs section of the U.S. State Department said it could neither confirm nor deny the discovery, but said the government was "checking into it."
The information from the construction workers was smuggled -- along with photographs of the area -- from the Soviet Union and Poland to Paris, where it was published by the highly regarded Polish emigre organization, "Instytut Literacki," in a booklet titled "Czy drugi Katyn?" (The Second Katyn?), written by Antoni Rekulski.
According to the article, the Polish workers reported intense police surveillance of the sandpit area following the lighting of a memorial flame on the site last Nov. 1, All Saints Day. The Polish construction worker who lit the flame was lengthily interrogated and the area has since been closed off and guarded.
The Soviet embassy in Washington denied knowledge of any new information concerning a Starobielsk tragedy.
"I wouldn't know anything about that," an embassy press spokesman told the Post-Gazette, "or about reports of a discovery."
Asked if the Soviet government would be willing to investigate such reports by excavating the Starobielsk sandpit site, the spokesman replied: "You're asking about something not known, so how can I answer? There is nothing more to add to that." At that point, he hung up. The Soviet government continues to deny responsibility even for the Katyn, let alone the Starobielsk, massacre, attributing both to the Nazis.
A relatively complete list of the Starobielsk victims was compiled in 1972 by Adam Mosznski, one of the few Starobielsk survivors, from information supplied by the missing officers' families, many of whom were also arrested and never heard from again. One of the more grisly practices at the camps was to allow prisoners to write home to their families and then, based on the addresses on the letters, to arrest and deport the relatives, mostly women.
Members of at least three of the massacred officers' families are now living in Pittsburgh. They are concerned that the bodies be exhumed and returned to Poland for proper burial, with military honors, and they have been monitoring the discovery reports closely, watching for official or independent verification. Most active among the interested parties here is Dr. Jacek Jedruch, a Westinghouse scientist whose father-in-law, Maksymilian Hoffman, was one of the officers presumed executed at Starobielsk.
"The 12,000 were Polish army, police and border guard officers," Jedruch related. "The Russians kept them at three POW camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov [all in the U.S.S.R.]. When the Soviet-German war broke out a year later and Germany invaded east Poland and then Russia, the Germans found the Katyn graves -- all of officers taken from the Kozielsk camp.
"But the remaining officers, at Starobielsk and Ostashkov, were missing and unaccounted for and have been ever since -- until this discovery was apparently made by a Polish work crew connected with the construction of the pipeline."
According to the Jan. 8, 1981, Engineering News Record, a construction industry weekly published by McGraw-Hill, the Russians subcontracted part of their mammoth 20,000-mile pipeline construction to a Polish engineering company which has provided "several thousand Poles" to work on various projects under difficult conditions.
According to the ENR, workers in the inhospitable pipeline regions frequently "must live in steel huts the shape of huge oil barrels, and are forced to use outside toilets in sub-zero weather."
The sandpit in question is located near a pipeline route, and when one of the Polish work crews returned to Poland on leave late last year, one of its members carried out photographs of the area -- but not of the bodies. Thirteen photos were smuggled to Paris and published with a 28-page Polish text in the emigre journal mentioned above.
Under a section entitled "Recollections from Starobielsk," the article describes in detail the circumstances of the reported discovery:
"In the middle of the 1970s, Poles again found themselves [in the Starobielsk region], but this time they were dressed in workers uniforms with a tag "Energopol' [the Polish construction company] stitched to it.
"The were building a pipeline, the so-called Orenburg Pipeline. They had then come in touch with the curious behavior of the local people. If a worker found himself alone, often the locals would come up and press in their hands bread, onions or cigarettes and quickly disappear.
"It was difficult to explain to them that the construction crew receives not only adequate food but better than the local people. This became clear after a certain period of time when the construction workers succeeded in establishing closer relationships with the locals, [whose generous behavior toward the workers] was because they had been told the pipeline would be constructed by Polish prisoners.
"[Behind a forest outside Starobielsk], there opens up, unexpectedly, a large gaping sandy hole, most likely the remnants of a sandpit that was used a long time ago. The pit is intersected by an elevated highway which constitutes a bypass of sorts which cuts through the sandpit.
"There are two pits, one about 150 meters long, 90 meters wide, 69 meters deep, in contract to the shallower one which is more circular.
"In 1977 on All Saints Day in this pit were two flames, lit by one of the Polish workers n the pipeline construction job. Shortly afterwards, the Russian police arrived at the construction camp and interrogated the workers.
"The fellow who lit the candles had nothing to hide. He prepared the lights, placed them there and lit them, he said. Asked why he did it, he said, 'Because there are 6,000 Polish officers buried there and this is All Souls Day and according to the custom, a flame should be lit on the graves of the departed.'
"When the police wanted to know where he heard this piece of news, he also had nothing to hide. He said that he used to walk through the area on his off hours and that he met one of the locals who, when he found out that he was dealing with a Pole, said that in this pit were executed and buried some 6,000 of 'your' -- meaning Polish -- officers. He never saw the man again and would not recognize him if he saw him again. It was dark, he said.
"But the memory of this [incident] lived with the construction workers -- and the pit is still being visited by some workers -- at the most, two at a time. They go there just to find out where the place is and what it looks like."
The article concludes on a cautionary note, calling for a formal review of all available information and observing:
"On one hand, we don't know how much truth there is in this report. We know, however, that this is the first direct indication of the place where most or all of the officers at Starobielsk were executed and buried."
Jedruch emphasizes that "there is no positive identification, nor could there be until you started digging. That there is doubt about it is acknowledged. The burden rests on the Soviet government to permit excavation."
The subject is an understandably difficult one for the victims' families to discuss. One such survivor is Mary Majewski of Natrona Heights, whose father, a career officers in the Polish army, was among those killed at Katyn.
Majewski describes the Instytut Literacki publication quoted above as "the most serious Polish publication outside Poland, an absolutely reputable, unbiased journal" which publishes articles by Poles, Ukrainians and others on both sides of the "Iron Curtain."
"I was only a child when it all happened," said Majewski, who lived in Poland for more than a decade after the war, before emigrating to the United States. "Later I became frantically interested, but the point came in my life when I wanted to be cut off from that because it was too painful.
"So many people died. People were taken and killed like -- I'm sorry, I'm emotional about it. In Poland, it was a very taboo subject. And after the Communists took over in 'free' Poland, it was even worse. I was to hush-hush what happened to my father.
"That was the irony of it all -- that they were killed in such a horrible way, and we couldn't even talk about it."
Janina Rychalski, now of Pittsburgh, has similar memories. Though her father's death has never been confirmed, he was among those officers massacred at the Ostashkov POW camp, and she and her family were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to the Soviet Union. They were among the lucky few to return.
"Until very recently, this subject was not allowed to be discussed," she said, "so our relatives that we correspond with in Poland could not write about it. We never had any confirmation [of her father's death], even though everybody tried for years and years. It was not something that was possible to check out. We just know that everyone at the Ostashkov location was lost."
According to Jedruch, the entire Starobielsk controversy is "unprecedented in that prisoners of war are covered by the Geneva Conventions, yet the Russians would not allow any Red Cross officials to keep track of them or find out about them," let alone visit the site. He said he has received other reports saying that the Soviets have since made efforts to obliterate the site. Attempts to bring the matter to the attention of the Polish government have resulted in prison sentences for several self-appointed investigators in Poland, Jedruch said.
"There are about 20 known survivors of the Starobielsk camp, according to Jedruch. Their reports all state that the monastery in which the prisoners were held was surrounded by a high wall beyond which no one could see.
"The prisoners were taken out of the gate one by one," he relates, "and anything that would identify them was taken away, as were all sharp objects. They were then walked through a narrow passage one by one, and that's the last they were seen. Thereafter, all trace of them was lost."
One thing, however, is certain -- that "the place is being watched closely," says Jedruch.
"If you as little as try to light a candle there," he says, "the police intervene. That in itself makes it highly suspicious. Why are they so touchy about a sandpit? How many old sandpits do you have that are constantly watched by the police?"