Katyn, Poland's Bitter Past Recalls Taiwan's Tragedy

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Monday August 11, by by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

It is September 1939 and Poland is in dire straits; first the Nazis have attacked from the west on September 1st and then on September 17th, the Russians violated their non-Aggression Pact with Poland and attacked from the east. Andrezej Wajda's film "Katyn" opens with a poignant scene from this period. Polish refugees fleeing the German invasion on the west, meet on a bridge with refugees fleeing the Russian invasion coming from the east. They have nowhere to go; each indicates to the other it is worse where they came from. Germany and Russia have decided to carve Poland up and Poland unable to fight on both fronts must surrender.

With a temporary peace treaty made between them, Germany and Russia set out to consolidate the territory they have seized. Among the prisoners that Russia had taken are 8,000 Polish officers; they will be the focus of the story. Russia eventually moves the prisoners to a prison camp near Smolensk. In March 1940; the prisoners are led to believe they will be set free. However, Stalin decides that since he will want to keep the Polish territory Russia has occupied, it is important to have a weak Poland. He gives the order to execute all the officers as well as some 14,000 others who represent the leadership and intelligentsia of Poland.

These 22,000 prisoners will be taken out and systematically shot and buried in mass graves in the forests at Katyn. They will rest in those graves until they are discovered in April 1943 by Germans as they carry the war into Russia. The Nazis quickly use this discovery in an attempt to discredit the Soviet Union and split the Allies over these atrocities imposed on the Poles. But the story does not end here.

The tide of the war changes and Russia recaptures the region around Katyn. They also sense the need for propaganda. They make a counter claim and say that all the deaths originated from the time when Germany occupied the territory. The debates over guilt and cover-ups begin. In the final analysis it is the Russians who are guilty of these murders. The Poles know this but they cannot talk of it as Russia occupies their country. Russia then tries to erase it from official Polish history. This too is part of the Polish suffering.

Russia however is not the only guilty party. The United States and Great Britain become party to the cover up as their reports also point to Russia. However because they do not want to embarrass their current ally (but future foe), they silence their own reports. Some fifty years later in 1990, Gorbachev finally admits that the Russian secret police committed the deed, but Russia still thwarts a full investigation, sanitizes files and refuses to classify it as genocide.

This is a somber film, it is not entertainment. It is a film that exposes the hypocrisy, cruelty and lies on many sides. Wajda not only tells this story, but the story of the many Poles affected and the many ways they try to cope with this damned forced secret.

Wajda is a skilled, competent director with numerous powerful films to his credit. Long ago I saw his work "Ashes and Diamonds" (1958), one that many consider his finest film. It too dealt with the dilemmas of post war occupation and the cursed uncertainties of fighting for a cause when the chances of success are limited and most are interested only in survival.

This film, Katyn, was a nominee for the Oscars in 2007, and it will open in Taipei, Taiwan on August 15, 2008. Why should Taiwanese see it? There is of course the historical value, the cinematography and the human drama but Katyn holds more than that. Taiwan shares a similar problem with cover-ups, sanitized records and lack of justice. Over 20,000 were murdered in Katyn and few have been held accountable; some 30,000 were murdered in Taiwan during the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) suppression of the 2-28 (er-er-ba) incident. Few have been found guilty there as well.

In both, the allies of Russia and the KMT looked the other way. It took over 50 years before the truth of each atrocity was admitted to by the perpetrators and in that same period, both events were forbidden topics of conversation. The intelligentsia and leadership of the respective countries had been systematically wiped out. So many killed yet so few found guilty and perpetrators of both still walk the streets. Is closure possible? Zbigniew Brzezinski is quoted as saying, "Only with truth can true relationships be forged." But with so many destroyed and buried files, Russia and the KMT are counting that this can be avoided.