Memory is Sacred Again in Poland

20080209035451!Katyn_Massacre_-_Mass_GravesKris Kotarski in The Guardian's Comment is Free:

The forests around Smolensk evoked dread in the Polish soul long before the tragic airplane accident that claimed the life of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria and 94 others at the weekend.

While it is impossible to overstate the significance of what is known as the Katyn massacre in Poland's collective memory, until 1989 this collective memory was officially suppressed and only maintained by thousands of families.

Unlike national narratives that often form when the essence of shared experiences is captured by a writer, poet or statesman, the Katyn memory was formed through the fragmented suffering of the families of the victims, so unlike the public outpouring which has characterised the aftermath of the recent accident.

My grandfather's story is not special – it is typical of the experiences of many in his generation. I wish to share it here not to evoke sympathy for him or for Poland, but to better explain why Kaczynski and a plane full of dignitaries and victim's families tried to touch down in the fog of Smolensk, and why recent Russian gestures, both before and after the plane accident, mean so much to the people of Poland and offer so much hope for reconciliation.


My grandfather, Jerzy, grew up in Lutsk in what is today a large Ukrainian city. In September 1939, Jerzy was nine years old, and one day his father, a reserve officer, did not return home after he was arrested in his office at the local police headquarters.

“We first received a card letting us know that he was in an internment camp in January 1940,” he recalls. “He said that he was in Ostashkov, and that he was feeling well despite the cold winter. He tried to raise our spirits and he believed that he would come back.”

On 12 April 1940, Jerzy, his mother and his three siblings were woken up at 3am by an NKVD officer and two soldiers who stood at their door.