In the 2007 film “Katyn,” directed by Poland’s acclaimed Andrzej Wajda, a young woman in wartime Krakow tries to sell her hair to raise money for a headstone for her brother, who has been murdered and buried in an unmarked grave by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. She finds a buyer in a local theater, an actress who survived Auschwitz and lost her own hair. The actress watches as the woman’s long braids are cut off in the theater dressing room and recites the following lines:
So for me to meet this doom is trifling grief; but if I had suffered my mother’s son to lie in death an unburied corpse, that would have grieved me; for this, I am not grieved. And if my present deeds are foolish in thy sight, it may be that a foolish judge arraigns my folly.
In case the audience doesn’t recognize the reference, a poster for Sophocles’ “Antigone” can be glimpsed on the wall in the background — a poster advertising the play that is currently being staged in the actress’s theater. In the ancient Greek tragedy, Antigone defies the order of the tyrant Creon that her brother’s body be left to rot on the battlefield and instead buries him with dignity, for which she herself faces a death sentence.
The scene speaks to wounds that affect many societies that have lived through war, occupation and oppression: the trauma resulting from an inability to bury one’s dead.
In Poland’s case, World War II was particularly horrific from this perspective, with countless victims of both the Soviets and the Nazis left untraced and unburied. At Katyn, the scale of the brutality and also the fanaticism with which the Soviets attacked the memory of the victims caused the massacres to stand out. In 1939, after invading Poland, the Soviet Union took prisoner more than 20,000 Polish soldiers, border guards and policemen. For reasons that remain unclear (the act brought little real benefit to Josef Stalin) these men and one woman, a lone pilot, were shot by the NKVD at various sites throughout the Soviet Union. The most infamous location was the Katyn Forest, near the city of Smolensk in western Russia, though others were murdered near the Russian city of Tver and near Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, as well as in prisons throughout Belarus.
The murders at Katyn and elsewhere were carried out under conditions of strictest secrecy. Not long afterward, the Soviets killed most of the executioners themselves; after all, perpetrators are witnesses of a sort. The bodies were hidden in forests and, in some cases, the killers tried to dissolve the corpses with chemicals. Relatives and Polish officials were lied to by the Soviets. When Stalin was asked about the prisoners’ whereabouts by General Władysław Anders, who was gathering a Polish army in Soviet-controlled territories to fight the Nazis, the dictator played dumb. Perhaps they had all escaped to Manchuria, he suggested. The painter and writer Józef Czapski, who had spent time in prison camps with the missing men but had been released before the massacres, was tasked by Anders with finding his comrades. He was led on a wild goose chase that took him across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, an experience he recounted in a memoir with the telling title “On Inhuman Land.”
Today, in Ukraine, where Russia is currently waging a brutal, neo-imperialist war, we are seeing historical parallels with the events of WWII, including the cold-blooded murder of defenseless prisoners and the elaborate deflection of blame. [Continue reading…]