Sophie’s Story

Sophie Skarbek has been a dear friend of ours for forty years. Myrna met her at one of Helen Brack’s art classes and they have pursued their interest in art together ever since. But she has become an important part of our social life as well, a character bubbling over with warmth and brightness and a Polish Australian very proud of and interested in her heritage. We seem to have quite a few friends who have Polish backgrounds, enough to awaken a keen interest in the vagaries of Polish history and to spend time travelling there. Sophe was chief among them.

Forty years is quite long enough to see many life changes, some significant like the death of her much admired husband Andrew. So the stories of the forty years beforehand appeared only as hints or passing mentions in another context. For us anyway. Her children might have got stronger doses. But as she has got older the need to connect the parts of those early years and to leave a record has become stronger.

This would be a remarkable story any time: ten years of wandering without any clear destination in parts of the world that might seem, from our parochial perspectives, exotic. Three when it started and 13 when she arrived in Fremantle, Sophie’s story while quite probably endlessly rehearsed in her mind is still an outline. A different type of story would have been contained in her mother’s journal which, in the process of attempts at publication, somehow became lost.

But stories like this have new relevance at this time when displacement is coming in waves — from Africa, from Syria and now from Afghanistan, and in the future from the impact of climate change — to a less receptive collection of possible hosts where this issue is being used to shore up brittle forms of nationalism and the political insecurity which breeds nativist thugs.

Just how hard could it have been, even with the support of the Polish Army? And when the Polish Army is taken away, what then?

My Journey

Sophie’s mother Helena and father Tadeusz.

My mum Helena Antonina Ney was born in 1907 in a town called Zabno near Krakow. There were seven children in her family, five girls and two boys. Apolonia Eleonora — Ciocia (‘Auntie’) — was the eldest. Mum, 15 years younger, came last. Teofil (at right) who was born just after Ciocia is the best known and appears in Polish Wikipedia. He was a spy catcher.

I know very little about my dad’s family. His name was Tadeusz Kurzeja and he was born in a town called Novy Sacz in the foothills of the Tatry mountains which separate Poland from Slovakia. He had brothers and was the same age as my mum.

My mum met him in a town called Kamien Koszyrski south of Pinsk, in what was then eastern Poland (Polesie) now Belarus. My mum was a teacher and my dad a school inspector — that is how they met — and  Kamien Koszyrski was where I was born on 11th August 1936.

I was just three when Germany invaded Poland from the west in September 1939 and Soviet Russia from the east three weeks later. My brother Janusz was eight at the time. Auntie was visiting us when the war broke out and that is why she remained with us over time. It was a visit that lasted ten years. She was married but had no children.

Both my dad and Teofil were officers in the Polish army. (Ciocia’s husband had died as a result of ill health during the First World War.) My uncle was a major, later a colonel and my dad a lieutenant in light artillery army reserve based at Pinsk. So when the invasions occurred they both were called to arms. They were captured on the eastern front sometime in the March or April of 1940. Shortly after both were executed at Katyn along with 22,000 other Polish military officers and community leaders. (That is why today we belong to the Katyn-Syberak Organisation.) We did not know the truth of what happened to them because for a while we kept receiving letters from my dad.

[See below at the end of the blog for more about Katyn.]

1940

On 14th April, Auntie, Mum, Janusz and I along with hundreds of thousands of Poles were exiled to Russia by the NKVD, the ‘People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs’, the Russian secret police. They knocked on our door at 3 o’clock in the morning. I remember Mum was sick with a cold. The officer was reasonably nice. She asked him where we were going. He wouldn’t tell us but told her to pack plenty of warm clothes. We had only a few hours to pack — we each had bundles and we had some hot bread and Polish sausage — and were put into a train consisting of cattle trucks. Our truck had 30 or 40 people in it. That journey took over two weeks. We all cried when the train crossed the Urals. We were leaving Europe behind. Our neighbor, Mrs Lancucki and her son Christopher were in in the same wagon and we children played together. How we survived I still don’t know.

The train stopped somewhere in pitch black darkness at night and we were told to get out. We had arrived … at Glubokoye in northern Khazakstan. For two years we lived on a small kolkhoz, a Russian settlement which included a farm worked by a collective of families and labourers under the direction of the Soviet government. There were all sorts of people there, like Japanese who had been captured in the skirmishes between Russia and Japan in the early 30s as well as Kazakhs, Mongols and so on. It seemed like the end of the world. Once again I don’t know how on earth we survived.

These are photos taken at Glubokoye round the time Sophie and her family were there. But as she says her dwelling was a mud rather than wooden hut. These people, perhaps carefully chosen because it is a ‘propaganda’ photo, almost certainly look healthier than the Polish Siberaks would have been. But it is probably accurate in terms of the representation of men and women.

My brother went to Russian school, Mum worked in some factory and Auntie looked after the children. There was not much nourishment and they were very hard conditions. We lived in mud huts, two families to a hut. The Lancuckis shared ours. The buildings were surrounded by huge steppes (open plains) where nothing much grew, no trees, only grass and tumbleweed. I remember wolves howling at night and being very scared of their noise. There were cows and we children collected their dung for heating our living space. In Winter the temperature could sometimes be minus 40C. Then in Summer it could be plus 40C.

My mum knew Russian so she got a job in a factory for which she was actually paid. As a result we had some income. Mum was also able to exchange things we managed to bring from Poland for food. The women loved her lipstick. We mostly ate flat bread and potatoes. Occasionally we were given some wheat grain and Ciocia had to make flour out of it. But we were always hungry.

The letters from Dad stopped coming. Mum used to go to the NKVD offices to ask about him and was told ubyl which means ‘gone’. That was all. The same thing happened to letters she sent to him. Ubyl.

1942

In 1942 Germany invaded Russia and the Polish government/ army operating from ‘Free Europe’ and London began negotiating with Russia to fight against Germany. One of the difficulties was that Polish generals were enquiring about the whereabouts of the officers who had been captured. The Russians said they escaped, but of course they were already dead, most of them killed at Katyn.

One of the conditions of these negotiations was to allow the Polish people who had been forcibly taken to Russia to leave the country. Only about 200,000 of a million or more Poles who were displaced were allowed to leave before Stalin decided to ‘close the border’, taking offence at the Polish negotiating group’s horror at the discoveries at Katyn by the International Red Cross.

We got out because a Polish soldier said we were his family and we were given a pass to travel within Russia. My mum decided the only way out was to get to a big train station, that was in Petropavlosk about 130 kms north from Glubokoye. We got there in a lorry mum hired with all the money we had left that she had managed to save.

Polish refugees, children, at a camp in Uzbekistan during the early years of WWII.

It took us two months, always travelling south, always south, [several thousands of kilometres] to get to Uzbekistan where the Polish army was forming. We went through Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the Caspian Sea from where we could get to Persia (Iran now), and the re-forming Polish army.

A Polish army lorry in Persia.

This army gradually grew strength and fought on various fronts — North Africa, Italy (where Mussolini was sympathetic to Germans). At the famous Battle of Monte Cassino which was one of the turning points of the second world war the Polish flag was the first to fly in victory. Polish pilots also played a role in the Battle of Britain. Once we found the army we would had their protection and we could also live in camps alongside the soldiers.

Late in 1942 the Army, which we had found by this stage, arranged for us and other refugees to travel across the Caspian sea in an open rusty old boat to Pahlavi in what was then Persia (now Iran). It was a horror of a journey for most of two days as it was extremely hot and the boat had no overhead cover. It was jam-packed, a lot of the passengers were very sick and we stayed as close as we could to the rails. I have a memory of white shadows tipping over into the water. They would have been the dead.

Polish refugees arriving in Iraq, a British newsreel, click here.

After landing we were transported from the coast of the Caspian to Tehran, again in the back of lorries, a beautiful but very rough journey. The camp where we lived for nearly a year was just outside Tehran. Our camp was near the Polish army camp, and so schools and hospitals were very well organised. My mum was able to restart her teaching career.

A Polish refugee camp near Tehran.

At one time here my brother, Janusz, got very sick with diphtheria and was admitted to the army hospital. After he recovered he became an army drummer boy and led the army band in their daily marches. We smaller kids followed them and sang along with them. I also spent a few weeks in the infectious diseases part of the hospital with scarlet fever. I was only allowed see my mum through a window, but some nurses were Polish so that was reasonably okay.

We loved Persia. The Shah, Reza Pahlavi, treated us like guests and had parties for children where we used to entertain by dancing our Polish folk dances. At that time Persia, which remained neutral during WWII, was very ‘westward looking’ and wanting to be European, and Tehran was a very beautiful city with huge bazaars. We were given a little money with which we bought lots of fruit, melons, watermelons, halva and nuts. We loved pistachios best. We had no idea about this but for a week at the time we were there Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt held a meeting to decide the ‘Big Three’ strategy for the next phase of war which included the invasion of Italy.

The ‘Big Three’ at Tehran.

However, for us, Tehran was only a transit place. Again we had to leave and climb on board a lorry for an unbelievable journey — very hazardous over mountains on steep curvy roads, and very scary. The army people with us told us not to look down, but we could see where cars and trucks had come off the sides of these roads and gone down the cliffs. We were fed Sao biscuits and canned corned beef with powdered Vitamin C orange-flavoured drinks. This trip also provided our first taste of American chewing gum. After a few difficult days, we reached the city of Ahvaz near the top of the Persian Gulf where it was as hot as blazes.

Our camp was on the sandy beach of the Persian Gulf. We swam in the sea among drifts of smelly oil. There were oil tanks everywhere, full of oil ready for export I suppose.

I lost a little gold medallion that Ciocia gave me in the sandy seashore. But amazingly this was found. We considered this some sort of miracle!!! I still have it, with the dent where the boy who found it stepped on it.   

The Persian Gulf was one of the most dangerous places then with German U-boats patrolling day and night, silent and unseen. But we travelled safely through the Gulf on our way to Karachi which was then an Indian port.

The Batory which left Poland the day before war was declared, and thereafter became an important component in the transport of Polish refugees. By the look of the costume, this photo may have been taken in more settled times.

Can you imagine our delight when we boarded a ship called ‘Batory’? It was a pre-war Polish luxury tourist ship with Polish sailors and Polish food. At night the ship had to have heavy drapes on the portholes to keep it as dark as possible. Our beloved ‘Batory’ had to be returned to communist Poland after the war. However some of the crew left the ship and to our greatest delight the captain of the ‘Batory’ was second-in-charge of the ship which eventually carried us to Australia. After the war he entered the British commercial navy.

And astonishingly here he is — Captain Eustazy Borkowski in 1937 at the ceremony of the bestowal of the ship’s ornamental badge.

Anyway we had a most beautiful if scary journey. Every day we had drills of getting into lifeboats in case of emergency and I was terrified. A young sailor said to me, ‘Young lady if you don’t get in I will have to put you in by your pigtails’. I was quietly in love with him and I always wondered what happened to him in the end.

As my mum was an important person being a teacher we sat at the captain’s table for meals and I was made to eat meat which was something new to me.

1943

We arrived safely in India (now what is Pakistan) after a few days. We cried saying goodbye to our Polish sailors and our Polish ship. The crew cried too as we were considered a very special cargo.

The town of Karachi was set in a desert-like landscape. It looked like a desert and felt like a desert, very hot. There were  two seasons in the year. It was either very dry and hot or very wet and hot.

Polish girls dressed up at Karachi Refugee camp. Sophie believes that SHE, amazingly again — this is a photo plucked from the internet — is the girl second from the right. She remembers the scalloped border on her apron.

The camp where we lived for nine months (in 1943) was outside the city. It was called ‘Country Club’ for fun. We lived in huge white army tents with maybe 16 beds in each. Showers and toilets were separate and had to be shared and we had to walk to them. At night we needed torches and we were scared of the jackals which were howling away. We did have potties ‘just in case’ in the tents. Women and children were separated from boys over 16 and any men who happened to be there, but we could still be together as a family.

The refugees were mainly women and children. The men were doctors, teachers or administrators along with those sent to rehabilitate after being wounded at the front in northern Africa. We had a hospital that also consisted of tents. School, where we started learning English, was ‘under the stars’, in the fresh air or tents. There was no electricity, except in the hospital. The only permanent building was the chapel on the hill which was made of wood.

The camp was very close to both the US and British army and air force bases. Hence we were surrounded by soldiers, and pilots flying very close to our camp just to show off to the young Polish women, I am sure. They were very good to us, especially the US guys. Their smart uniforms were made of a lovely soft khaki material and they looked very swish. The Brits uniforms were khaki as well but they looked starchy. They wore shorts. We were in the tropics after all! A few of the Yanks had Polish names, and there was a young black guy whose name was … Kwiatkowski.

The army guys and women loved us as they missed their families so much. Once again we entertained them with songs and dances in their canteens. At Christmas we were invited to their camps and each kid was given a toy, and that is where my talking doll ‘Elzunia’ came from. She was made in Canada and used to cry and say ‘mama’ when you squeezed her. Her eyes moved as well. She was the size of a 3-month old baby. Her torso was soft but her hands, feet and head were made of a sort of porcelain. Elzunia had a sad end at Clifton Street when Bo dropped her.

People got malaria and some other tropical diseases. My mum had headaches often. We received pretty strong anti-malaria medication as well as inoculations for a million diseases like cholera, yellow fever, typhoid and so on. In Poland all kids got smallpox inoculation soon after birth. Antibiotics were available as was nylon. My auntie got some nylon from parachutes and she made us blouses but made a few mistakes at first as she ironed them and they melted of course.

1943-1948

Karachi was just a transit camp too, so we found ourselves transported to a permanent one in Valivade in southern India, again hundreds of kilometres ending up well south of Bombay. I remember when we arrived in Bombay and had a bit of stopover time. We saw it at night, all lit up as we travelled along the bay, and it looked absolutely beautiful. This time our journey was overland by train and took several days. We stopped at Pune one of the busiest railway stations in the world then. Finally we boarded a local train and went down to Kolhapur and from there to Valivade about 15 kms away.

Our settlement here was built for us, brand new, and was absolutely fantastic. We had long barracks divided into apartments of 3 rooms and a kitchen, there was a verandah and a garden with banana and papaya trees. The  communal bathrooms and loos were a walk away but it was okay because the place was well lit up at night. We were so happy as it was much nicer and more comfortable than where we lived at Karachi.

My mum taught at the school next to our ‘apartment’ and I went to school there. My brother was already going to high school. The settlement was very well designed into ‘suburbs’ and we were close to the church and a hall on the hill where we had theatre, plays and films, most of them in English. English was our second language at school, sort of, with teachers knowing the language but pronouncing it in a Polish way and, as you can imagine, our English was not very good. There were trade and other schools for the older students. Education has always been highly valued by Poles and there was education for children and young people wherever we went.

There was also the town square where speakers announced the news, both local and world. So we were well informed about current affairs, with the main interest of course being in what was happening with the war. We had access to Free Europe Radio but we also had Polish newspapers delivered to us just a few days after they were published in London. It was then news about Katyn started filtering through. We had been notified that our father was ‘missing in action’, but names started coming as well.

The doctors and dentists lived the ‘high life’, that is they had electricity in posh houses. We didn’t, using these huge gas lamps for study, for Ciocia to sew and for my mother to prepare lessons sitting round our huge table. We had Xmas and other parties with yummy food.

Polish refugees at a Polish Refugee camp in India enjoying a Christmas party with a Maharaja.

There was no running water but Indian ladies brought both milk and water every day in beautiful pots carried on their heads. They also did our laundry and cleaned and polished our mud floors with dried cow dung. This was perfectly fine and hygienic to use. It had been through a baking process and it did not smell. It sounds peculiar but I assure you it was fine. The Indian ladies would go along our streets and advertise in Polish ‘prac, mazac, mam’sia?’ — in other words ‘wash and polish (smear) the floors, madam?’

Indian people and Poles had shops well stocked with everything we needed. So apart from the tropical diseases like malaria, we were happy and pretty healthy. My mum and Janusz both got malaria badly, but Ciocia and I did not. We had constant jabs for things like cholera.

Something we loved was catching a horse carriage which would take us to Kolhbapur. Everyone, and there were about 5,000 of us (almost all Poles at this stage) who lived in Valivade, loved it.

We were better off than some of the village people but not rich and not in charge of our lives. Indian people liked us and, as you know, hated the English. There were many small revolts against the English government, but it all went very badly when Mahatma Ghandi, ‘the Great Soul’, who wanted a peaceful solution to the departure of the British was assassinated. It all went horrid. We cried along with the Indians but rejoiced with them when they got independence from Britain in 1947.

But it was not the golden solution as India was divided into two or three really with Muslins moving and moved to East and West Pakistan, leaving India for Hindus and Buddhists creating another dreadful and scary problem with a lot of violence.

1948-50

That meant our idyllic camp had to close. We had an opportunity at that time to go to England which my mother would have liked. There was a Polish soldier with exactly the same name as my father who we could have gone with, but we would have had to leave Ciocia behind as she was too old to meet the conditions for entry (over 40) and that was unthinkable.

We were transported to Africa, to what was then British East Africa and what is now Uganda, at that time a peaceful place. Once again we travelled by ship this time to Mombasa, then by train to Nairobi. From Nairobi we went to Koja, a camp south of Kampala on a promontory that went out into Lake Victoria, where there were already many Poles who had come directly to Africa. There were at least four other different camps in states like Tanzania (then Tanganyika) and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

For newsreel footage of Polish refugees in Africa, click here.

This camp was surrounded by African villages. We could hear the drums most nights and watched the smoke from their fires which might have been signals across the villages. The Africans were very friendly to us and we used to do trades with them for fresh fruit and vegetables with things that we had.

Africa was beautiful but the camp was so disappointing after Valivade even though the climate was much kinder than hot, monsoony India. We lived on the banks of Lake Victoria so we got this ‘cooling effect’ from the water.

Polish girls arriving at an African refugee camp.

We lived in huge mud houses, one for the family, once again with no electricity but they had very basic bathrooms and loos (a hole in the floor). I went to high school, Mum taught, Janusz was doing his HSC-Matriculation and Ciocia was running a restaurant for people who worked. We were well off as both women brought money into the family. A local boy, ‘Guiseppe’, helped Ciocia in the kitchen.

Malaria and the deadly bilharzia from parasitic worms in fresh water were the two main diseases. We were not allowed to swim in the lake which was full of crocs and hippos, but we used to go and get water lilies which were beautiful.

There was an English priest there who took it on himself to learn Polish so he could talk to us. He used to run all sorts of activities for us, like scouts and excursions around the place. He was a good man who was very nice to us.

We did some travelling. We went to Entebee not far from the beginnings of the Nile and where there was an airport. We also took a trip to Murchison Falls and had other excursions into the jungle.

We all dreamed of going to Poland after the war but Mum said no as it was run by communist government and we knew by then that we had lost our father. So there really was not much to go back to. Our Polesie had become ‘Belarus’ and the whole map of pre-war Poland had changed.

Trouble was beginning in Uganda. Violent uprisings were becoming more common and it was no longer a safe and happy place to live. We knew, again, that we would need to leave. In 1950 we heard that Australia was looking for white migrants like the Italians who lived in Africa, but heard they would take Poles as well. Mum thought it would be a place where her children could get educated and there were conditions on other places which made it difficult for Ciocia. Both age and health conditions had to be satisfied.

A train took us from the camp back to Mombasa, the port we would leave Africa from. This was a memorable trip through beautiful landscape and with any number of animals to see: giraffes, elephants, deer, all the things people go to Africa to see. Sometimes the train stopped to let us look more closely.

You can read more about the Poles in Africa here.

1950

We boarded an old American army ship, the ‘General Langfitt’, for the journey to Australia. That was where we found that our ‘Batory’ captain was second-in-command and where we reconnected with other Poles from Africa who hadn’t spent time in India, including Christofer Lancucki who had been in the same cattle wagon as us during our expulsion from Poland and whose family shared the same hut at Glubokoye ten years earlier.

After three weeks of a pretty awful sea voyage, in February 1950 we arrived in a very drab Fremantle, bereft of people and trees, such a different port to Mombasa, so colourless and boring. We were transported to Northam by buses and left in an disused Army Camp with corrugated iron barracks. Again we had no running water but we did have electricity. The barracks were divided by grey army blankets into ‘living spaces’ for women and children with boys over 16 settled in the Men’s Barracks. Janusz was now over 16 so he lived separately from us.

The Camp had people from various European countries: Hungarian, Czechs, Italians, even some Germans. We thought, where the hell did we arrive? The Australians in charge thought we all spoke German so announcements were made in German: ‘Achtung. Achtung’ … We thought, Christ what’s going on here?!

The food was mutton and other Ozzie delicacies. The communal barracks were hot; the loos and showers were miles away. We cooled water by filling canvas army bags and hanging them on tree branches. Ice cream would have melted by the time we brought it ‘home’. There was a Canteen where Saturday dances and other recreation activities were held.

English classes consisted of teaching songs like ‘Goodnight Irene’. We all had to laugh when a lady put her hand up and said in a sing-song Polish voice to the teacher, ‘Very sawrry/ but I have to go to larvva – tawry’.

My mum in her fashion, got bored and sick and tired of waiting, so she went to Perth to a CES office and said, ‘I want a job’. And she got one in Christ Church Grammar School as a House Mother looking after the boys who boarded there. I found my way to a Catholic Boarding School, Mum helped Ciocia to find a job and my brother made his way to Perth as well and got a job in a factory.

The beginnings were very hard indeed, a bit funny in a way, but even with our broken English somehow we managed.

Okay. I just had to write this down because we thought we were brought to a very peculiar country but we were happy as it was free, far away from Europe and wars.

  • * * * * * * *

The Katyn Massacre

The massacre at Katyn occurred in 1940 in a forest which is nearly exactly half way between Moscow and Minsk. It sets off and otherwise frames Sophie’s Story.

On 1 September 1939, the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany began. The Soviet invasion of Poland began from the other direction on 17 September. The Red Army advanced quickly and met little resistance, as the Polish forces facing them were under orders not to engage. It was widely understood that the Russians were coming to help Poland resist the Nazi forces. However a pact, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between the Nazis and Russians, had been agreed which among other things secretly provided for the (fourth) partition of Poland: half, more or less, to the Germans and half to the Russians. Somewhere between 250,000 and 450,000 Polish soldiers and policemen were captured and interned by the Soviet authorities. Some were freed or escaped quickly, but 125,000 were imprisoned in camps run by the Russian secret police, the NKVD. Many thousands of Polish civilians were also deported to the Soviet Union. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance estimates roughly 320,000. Other historians suggest two to three times that many.

Lavrenty Beria had turned the NKVD into a vehicle for establishing and maintaining a regime of terror to shore up Stalin’s authority, at the same time establishing his own form of control. Evidence suggests that even before the war had begun he had developed plans and made arrangements for the subjugation of conquered states, with Poland as the first target. His strategy was to execute the country’s core leadership.

The same strategy — in this case adopted by the Nazis — is described on the walls of the original concentration camp at Oswiecim, better known as Auschwitz. First the army officers, then municipal and other government officials, then educators and other professionals. Young people will be taught another language and enough maths only to work effectively in factories. Nothing else. I remember standing there reading it and being struck by the importance attached to education and educators … and the urgency attached to their destruction.

The document at left is Beria’s proposal to Stalin (with Stalin’s scrawled endorsement) to execute 25,700 Polish ‘nationalists and counterrevolutionaries’ kept at camps and prisons in occupied western Ukraine and Belarus. The Soviet leadership, and Stalin in particular, viewed the Polish prisoners as a ‘problem’ as they might organise resistance to Soviet rule. They decided the prisoners inside the ‘special camps’ were to be shot as ‘avowed enemies of Soviet authority’. This status was determined via intensive interrogation and the names of prisoners who showed signs of demurral were added to the list.

Those who died at Katyn included soldiers — half the Polish officer corps (including Tadeusz Kurzeja and Teofil Ney) — 200 pilots, a prince, major landowners, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, many hundreds of lawyers, engineers, and teachers, and more than 100 writers and journalists. For whatever reason 395 were saved.

The executions were carried out individually. The banality of the details of the process is among its most horrific aspect. It makes it real. The first transport carried 390 people but that was too many to execute overnight. Numbers were subsequently kept to 250 per night. The executions, a single shot to the back of the head, were carried out with German-made pistols supplied by Moscow because the alternative Russian weapons recoiled too violently. Shooting became painful after the first dozen executions. The chief executioner for the NKVD, Vasily Blohkin, is reported to have personally shot and killed 7,000 of the condemned over 28 days in April 1940. This information was drawn from a Belarussian participant decades later. He’d forgotten nothing.

Something so appalling was of course kept secret.

In a twist, in June 1941 the Polish Government-in-exile signed a treaty with Russia to pursue the war as allies against the Nazis (who has just invaded western Russia), with a Polish army to be formed in Russia. The Polish General undertaking this task sought to locate the missing officers. Stalin assured him that they had all been freed but that Russia had lost track of their whereabouts. They may have gone to Manchuria he surmised.

It was the Germans who made public the discovery of some of the Katyn graves containing ‘the remains of many thousands of Polish officers’. Goebbels used the find to try to drive a wedge between the two new allies. He wrote in his diary: ‘We are now using the discovery of 12,000 Polish officers, killed by the GPU (the Russian State Political Directorate), for anti-Bolshevik propaganda on a grand scale. We sent neutral journalists and Polish intellectuals to the spot where they were found. Their reports now reaching us from ahead are gruesome. The Führer has also given permission for us to hand out a drastic news item to the German press. I gave instructions to make the widest possible use of the propaganda material. We shall be able to live on it for a couple of weeks.’

The Russians immediately and vehemently denied any responsibility placing the blame on the ‘German hangmen’, taking it so seriously as to withdraw from the agreement with the Polish Government-in-exile accusing it, of all things, of collaboration with the Nazis.

In 1943 during the course of the Nazi retreat, the Russians returned to this area. Part of Goebbels entry in his diary on 29 Sept 1943 reads: ‘Unfortunately we have had to give up Katyn. The Bolsheviks undoubtedly will soon “find” that we shot 12,000 Polish officers. That episode is one that is going to cause us quite a little trouble in the future.’ And so it proved. The Russians made every effort to destroy evidence (which included no documents found related to any period after 1940, the state of the deterioration of the bodies and so on) and to influence the international commissions investigating the massacre. Kim Philby appears to have blocked the information about it coming to the British Government from agents in Poland.

It wasn’t until almost 50 years later in 1989 that Soviet scholars confirmed that it was Beria and Stalin who had ordered the massacre. In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev went public with the admission that the NKVD had executed the Poles and confirmed that there were two other burial sites similar to the site at Katyn. And yet today there are still countless documents including some which could finally confirm the identity of the dead which remain embargoed by the Russian Government.

Even after 80 years the memory of Katyn runs deep.

Part of the Katyn Memorial at Wroclaw.