The ghosts of Katyn

Kris Kotarski

I saw Andrzej Wajda's Katyń when visiting Warsaw a couple of months after the premiere on September 17, 2007. I went to the cinema with my 79-year-old grandparents, my 51-year-old aunt, and my younger cousins, aged 23 and 25 at the time. We left the cinema, and sat down at a nearby cafe. I broke the silence first.

“So, what do you think?”

Katyń is the story of the thousands of Polish military officers executed by the NKVD in 1940 and the doubt and despair suffered by their families in the aftermath of the crime. The film received an Oscar nomination in 2008, probably on the strength of the final scene which shows the murders in some detail.20080209035451!Katyn_Massacre_-_Mass_Graves

My grandparents spoke first. They commented on Wajda's success in showing the fate of the prisoners, and post-war Poland, although they did not agree with the simplistic characters who were easily divided between those who were willing to go along with the “official lie” enforced in communist Poland—that the massacres were perpetrated by the Nazis and not the Soviets—and those who did not. I remember my grandpa remarking that if real people had acted like the characters in the film, they would have been arrested on the spot.

My aunt, who was born after Stalin's death in 1953 and Khrushchev's condemnation of Stalin's crimes in his secret speech in 1956, bombarded them with questions about life in post-war Poland. My cousins and I listened intently, as my grandmother told us, for the first time in detail, about her run in with the secret police when she was a student. She was accused of having anti-communist tendencies, and summoned to the notorious secret police headquarters where people were known to be tortured in the post war period. She went, and was released after a few hours of verbal interrogation. She said she was trembling the whole time.

My grandfather talked about friends from university and friends from work, and how careful he had to be about what he said in public in those days. He told us a funny story about turning Stalin's bust to face the wall in the lobby of the planning office for Warsaw's roads and bridges where he worked as an engineer. He was the last to leave the office that evening, and he would try to spend as much time in the lobby as possible over the next few days, noting which of his coworkers smiled (he could trust them), who looked mortified (jury is still out), and who finally turned it back.

The stories continued for another week or so, as, in our family at least, Wajda's film triggered a conversation between generations. This is probably why Wajda sounded pleased even though he did not win an Oscar.

“Am I disappointed?” he said in 2008, after his film lost out to another World War II drama, The Counterfeiters “No. I have survived so many things. I managed to live through the war, I was never sent to Auschwitz and I did not die in the Warsaw uprising. I have nothing to be disappointed about. To be honest, it makes me rather happy that so many people came to see the film, and that so many people believed that the film was something important for them.”

Last week, in the Guardian, I wrote about my other grandfather, Jerzy Wielebnowski (now 80), whose father Aleksander was among those killed by the NKVD in 1940.


We talked about the fact that just three days before the airplane crash, Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk paid their respects to the victims in a historic joint ceremony.

Putin, who is treated with supreme suspicion by many Poles, condemned the killings, although many did not think that he went far enough. My grandpa Jerzy was happy with the gesture, and like many other Poles, he noticed that unlike the events of 1940 which waited 70 years for a joint commemoration, the tragic airplane accident that claimed the life of President Lech Kaczyński, his wife Maria, and 94 others on April 10 brought the Polish and Russian prime ministers together that very same afternoon. (The photo on the right was taken after the crash, and the site of the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk being hugged by Putin has been called 'amazing' and 'surreal' by the Polish press.)

“It is welcome and, it seems, it is genuine. And I hope that things will change.”


After the accident, Wajda's film gained an audience across Russia where it was re-aired on one of Russia's main state channels (the film had premiered on a station with smaller viewership a few days before the crash). This, along with the outpouring of sympathy from officials and ordinary citizens in Russia, is cited by many who try to find the silver lining in the possibility of Polish-Russian rapprochement.

Those who hope for better days also note that Dmitry Medvedev braved the volcanic ash and was one of the few world leaders who managed to make it to Krakow for Lech and Maria Kaczyński's state funeral this Sunday. Many, including Poland’s highest ranking church official Primate Henryk Muszyński as well as a number of senior politicians, historians and public intellectuals have said that the bittersweet result of the presidential catastrophe is that that Poland and Russia have a historic opportunity to move beyond past enmity to put all those old ghosts to rest.

This will not be easy as Poland and Russia are at odds in a number of areas unrelated to history and other historical squabbles can always surface. Chances are that a number of divisive areas will remain simply because both states have different interests in their region, and I hope that neither Poles nor Russians confuse the hope for historic reconciliation with the hope that all problems will simply vanish.

Still, if one watches Wajda's Katyń, one will understand how important hope is in a part of the world that is still coming to grips with its past.

If you care to know why, rent the film, or take a look below (until someone takes it down)…

As I told my grandparents after we watched it, the characters may be a little wooden, and I don't like the idea of national martyrdom. Still, the story stands on its own.