Wednesday, April 9, 2008

KATYN: The Forest of the Dead

April is the month when many of the killings at Katyn Forest took place during World War II. Poles try to remember this every year, and I've been thinking about Katyn recently. I've been thinking about Katyn and my father.

When I was a child, he told me a lot of stories about what happened in the war, about things that happened to my mother's family and his family and to Poland. One of the stories that he came back to repeatedly was about what happened in the Katyn Forest near the Russian town of Smolensk in 1940.
He told me about how the Soviets took 15,000-20,000 Polish Army officers and killed them. Nobody knows the number for certain.
My father used to say, "It's hard to count bones."
These soldiers were mainly reservists; that means they weren't professional soldiers, just civilian soldiers. In their daily lives, they were doctors and lawyers, teachers and priests. My father used to say that they were the future of Poland. He said that the Soviets didn't want Poland to have a future, so they took these doctors and lawyers, scientists and librarians and tied them up and blindfolded them and shot them in the back of the head. They were buried in mass graves.

One of the things he also told me was that people knew about this, countries likes the US and England knew about this, and nobody did anything about it. The Soviets, of course, denied it, and so did other countries. They didn't want to bring it up. I guess they figured what was the point of talking about massacres and genocide.
My father never wanted me to forget about Katyn.
Years ago, I wrote a poem about it for my book Echoes of Tattered Tongues, and I want to share the poem with you on this anniversary of the Katyn Massacre.

There are no Great Walls there,
No towers leaning or not leaning
Declaring some king's success
Or mocking another's failure,
No gleaming cathedral where you can
Pray for forgiveness or watch
The cycle of shadows play
Through the coolness of the day,

And soon not even the names
Of those who died will be remembered
(Names like Skrzypinski, Chmura,
Or Anthony Milczarek).
Their harsh voices and tearing courage
Are already lost in the wind,
But their true monuments
Will always be there, in the dust
And the gray ashes and the mounds
Settling over the bodies over which
No prayers were ever whispered,
No tears shed by a grieving mother
Or a trembling sister.


Here's a trailer for the Oscar-nominated film KATYN by Andrej Wajda.



Manfred said...

It seems to me the only really good reason to kill is to rid the world of those who kill for the wrong reasons.

george kruszewski said...

The Katyn Monument in Adelaide Australia has words "murdered by the NKVD" which reminds all of the perfidious NKVD and Stalin. Today, Putin and KGB(NKVD) still refuse to face the truth and open their archives. Is the truth still too evil and sickening for them to admit and expose to historians? See website

macon d said...

I guess they figured what was the point of talking about massacres and genocide.

Most people only remember the massacres they're told to remember. For example, Americans remember the few thousand who died on 9-11, and we sort of remember our 4,000 dead soldiers, but we almost never remember the hundreds of thousands who've died in Iraq.

Oh, wait, sorry, those were Iraqis, and as Rumsfeld said, when it comes to them, "we don't do body counts."

John Guzlowski said...

I've been doing presentations around south Georgia about my parents and their experiences in the camps this last week, and one student asked me, "What have people learned from the Holocaust and the killing in World War II?"

I paused for a moment and said, "Nothing."

The student was surprised. He probably thought I was going to say, "We've learned to stop killing each other."

But we haven't. Genocide is either down your street or just around the corner.

A better question would have been not "What have we learned?" but rather "Why is there so much evil in the world still?"

John Guzlowski said...

I received this from Maryann Wojciechowski from Las Vegas:

Thank you, John.

We sometimes need to take a somber moment to remember the history to which we are connected by familial ties. Among others who were lost in the forest: the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, and the father of Adam (Grochowski) Grant, the artist who died in Toledo the same year my mother did. Toledo is my adopted home town, my fellow displaced person.

My father recently attended a small gathering of Poles and Polish-Americans to view the Wajda film. He is almost 94, and is amazed that he has survived for so long. I had to take him to the hospital recently, and he told the doctors that he has seen history at its worst, including Auschwitz, and if this is the end of his journey, then so be it.

SagaciousHillbilly said...

I hear the tears, grieving, trembling and prayers in your poem.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks, Saga-Billy,

I write these poems, talk about the trembling and tears, but I wonder if that's enough. We look at these man-made disasters and massacres, and we write about them and we grieve.

What good does it do?

History is made by murders and madmen who don't care about our trembling and tears.

What can you do in the face of evil?

Manfred said...

John, It does some good. I saw a picture recently of a prayer vigil for the 1 year anniversary of the Virginia Tech massacre. Only one young woman was crying in the picture and I thought--she gets it. She feels their grief. Without those tears, life really is a tale told by an idiot.

Steve said...

Until now Id never heard of the Katyn Forest massacre. How brutal we are to each other, how callous and unfeeling. Every time I hear of these atrocities, my heart breaks a little more, be it Katyn,Babi Yar or the killing fields of Cambodia or Bosnia.

at any rate, thank you for what you do dear friend, it is greatly appreciated.

Michael Meyerhofer said...

Power poem! Thanks for sharing--and, as always, for lending your heart and your substantial artistic talents to these essential topics.