Thursday, May 16, 2013


There are two issues which the reader may not comprehend in reading the generally available material about Katyn.  The contemporary image of a forensic scientist working in optimal conditions is absolutely incorrect. The first fact is that the conditions were absolutely extreme, that any image of a sterile laboratory with forensic scientists working over the corpses cannot transmit the reality of what occurred on site. The second is that none of the reports and none of the public testimony of any of the witnesses describe the intensity of the experience, even for battle-hardened soldiers who had witnessed both immediate and slow death on the battlefield.

The Madden Committee testimony of the various witnesses – the members of the International Medical Commission, the members of the Technical Commission, and the testimony of the two US Army officers is almost totally bereft of any emotional content and it is only through a close reading of a number of lesser known documents that we get any perception of how difficult the conditions were.

Interestingly, the photographer Joe Heydecker’s autobiography, a member of the PK stationed in Smolensk, never mentions Katyn in his memoirs.  Yet, he was a close friend of George Alfred Schmidt von Johnson, the field interpreter who accompanied the POWs, and he photographed von Johnson a multitude of times.  It seems highly improbable that neither von Johnson, nor the two other “Americans” in that PropagandaKompanie never mentioned their work in Katyn, either escorting various groups or broadcasting on the subject.  Yet Heydecker took a numerous photographs of the group in front of a microphone. For Heydecker not to mention Katyn was a clear choice – in the postwar period it was avoidance of a difficult subject.  

That however, is a sin of omission.  A sin of commission was committed by Harrison Salisbury, who visited Katyn some eight months later as part of a Soviet organized group of journalists.  Salisbury’s hostility to Poland, which had been first expressed in April of 1943, expressed itself overtly during his January 1944 visit to Katyn and continued onward for the next 40 years.

Returning to the POWs, it is through audio and visual material as well as their recollections in written format, that we can get the best understanding of how deeply this event imprinted itself on the memories of these POWs.

As we progress through the following days the reader will return to the massacre site and will garner a better understanding of what the prisoners did, how they conducted themselves, and most importantly what they did after their return to Berlin, and ultimately, upon their return to their Oflags, Soldags and Ilag and then upon their liberation and in the postwar years.

© Krystyna Piórkowska