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Katyn: Tragedy upon Tragedy

In April, in the cruellest of ironies, many of Poland’s political elite perished when their plane crashed on the way to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre of an earlier generation of Polish leaders. John P. Fox reports.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when officers of the NKVD (the Soviet Union’s secret police organisation) murdered around 16,000 Polish officers in a forest in what is now Belarus. The victims had been selected for elimination, on the basis of social class, from the 181,000 Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army when the Soviet Union annexed the eastern marches of Poland on September 17th, 1939. 

The region where the bodies were found had been under Polish control since the end of the 1919-21 Polish-Soviet war. On September 1st, 1939, shortly after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on August 23rd, Hitler invaded western Poland, while on the 17th the Red Army invaded Poland’s eastern half as part of its aim to extend Soviet territories westward into Ukraine and what was then known as Belorussia. Russian military and civilian forces remained in occupation until June 22nd, 1941 when the Nazis invaded Soviet-controlled territories, including the Baltic States and the Soviet Union itself. 

On April 13th, 1943, Radio Berlin announced that the remains of the bodies of thousands of Polish officers, together with their personal effects, had been found in mass graves at a place called Kozy Gory (‘Goat’s Hill’), a Soviet health resort situated in the Katyn vicinity, just west of Smolensk and at two other sites near Tver and Kharkov.

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