A new movie shown at the Perth International Film Festival tells the story of a little-known event. In 1940 the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB, massacred approximately half the Polish Army officer corps in Katyn Forest on the border of Ukraine and Russia. All in all, it is estimated that about 20,000 men were shot over the course of a month and their bodies buried in mass graves. Anthony Barich reports.
For Morley parishioner George Mazak, the atrocities portrayed in acclaimed Polish director Andrew Wajda’s latest offering Katyn brought back his worst nightmares, but also engenders a spirit of reconciliation, not revenge.
George, now 77, was one of many Poles from Soviet-occupied regions of Poland, consisting of military and civilian settler families and families of men executed by the NKVD, the forerunner to the KGB. They were the bulk of deportations to the Siberian and Kazakhstan regions of the USSR in 1940.
The film Katyn is of particular interest to WA’s Polish community, especially descendents of army officers, policemen, intellectuals and Poland’s eastern region’s settlers, murdered by Josef Stalin’s Soviet NKVD at Katyn, and, simultaneously, at Tver, Kharkov, Miednoye and other locations in USSR in the Spring of 1940.
George, a member of the Polish Siberian Society of WA consisting of deportees to Siberia and Kazakhstan, lost his father and uncle to the atrocity at Katyn.
His father, Pawel Jerzy Jozef Mazak, was a chemical engineer in civilian life and before the outbreak of war moved from his position at the Polish Oil Refinery Karpaty in Trzebinia to work in the firm’s Warsaw head office, and was a sub-lieutenant in an army reserve unit stationed at Wadowice in the Malopolska region. George’s uncle Jaroslaw Basili Maksymowicz was a professional soldier who was a veterinary doctor who held the rank of captain with a cavalry regiment believed to be the 7th Regiment at Minsk Mazowiecki.
In January 1940, Pawel sent a letter to his family saying that he and his brother-in-law Jaroslaw were interned at the POW camp in Kozielsk. They were among the 4,421 officers killed, on Stalin’s order.
In 2007 George, his Australian wife Dorothy, youngest daughter Sally and son-in-law Greg visited the Memorial at Katyn near Smolensk, Russia, where they found the Russian personnel “respectful and sympathetic”. There, in Katyn, are also buried about 10,000 Russians, victims of Stalin’s “purges” of the 1930s. His father’s name is inscribed in a wall with all the other victims.
Monsignor Zdzislaw J Peszkowski, a prisoner of war at Kozielsk who survived the slaugher, wrote in “The Appeal of a Prisoner of War at Kozielsk” in 2005 that the victims were shot one by one in the back of the head for more than two months – 250 every night at each venue of Tver, Kharkov and Smolensk. Corpses were loaded onto trucks and removed to the forest where they were thrown into death pits.
Fr Peszkowski wrote demanding that the truth be told, aftere decades of global silence over the matter, assured, he said, by the Tehran Treaty of 1943 negotiated by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Stalin.
“At first thousands of defenceless people were slaughtered and then the truth was slaughtered,” the Monsignor said. Yet, in the face of this, he also advocated forgiveness. Some consolation came when, on Good Friday, 1992, Mikhail Gorbachev declared in the Kremlin that the NKVD bears responsibility for the slaughter, and an investigation was ordered. “Even hatred couldn’t cure this pain,” said the Monsignor, who participated in the 1991 exhumations.
“The question of Katyn – the Holy Father John Paul II says – is always present in our consciousness and can’t be erased from the memory of Europe.”
Regardless, the Monsignor’s conclusion was one of forgiveness and striving for reconciliation. It is an attitude George also takes.
“In the name of God – I forgive,” the Monsignor said. “As a witness I beg only for truth, memory and justice.”
In June 2008 the Polish government posthumously elevated the ranks of the victims at Katyn. For George, it was more closure for the devastating period, brought to life in this new movie.
He says that the new Katyn movie, with English subtitles, is a must for all Poles and their Australian families and friends. The movie Katyn uses stories from authentic diaries and letters to tell the fate of four fictional officers and their families, through whom the film shows the predicament of Poland, attacked from the west by the Nazis on September 1 1939 and on September 17 by the Soviets from the east under a secret deal between Stalin and Adolf Hitler. The disappearance of over 15,000 soldiers was a mystery at first, then revealed in the Spring of 1943 after the Nazis had unsuccessfully invaded the Soviet Union and discovered the mass graves.
The director, Wajda, said that the film “shows terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers, but women who await their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty.
He said it is a film about individual suffering, which “evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts”.