Katyń: More than a Museum
For more than a decade now Warsaw has been turning heads collecting ticket stubs for some of its many magnificent museums. Specifically the award-winning Warsaw Uprising Museum, and the newly arrived POLIN - The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, with its stunning architecture and hi-tech presentations are both certainly high on the "to do" list of most visitors to the city. With their international reputations it's probably fair to say that many people will be aware of these important museums before even setting foot in Warsaw. It's also worth noting that many of the older and well established museums, including the National Museum, the Ethnographic Museum and Zachęta National Gallery of Art, have all recently undergone major renovations in order to boot them up the backside into the 21st century. Finding a permanent home for the vast collection of material related to the Katyń Massacres, which was one of the most tragic episodes in Polish history, proved difficult but well worth the wait.
In Cold Blood
The history of the Katyń Massacres is a complex and disturbing story regarding the systematic executions of over 22,000 Polish Nationals interned at various transit camps and prisons located in the western part of the USSR after the outbreak of WWII. Although generally referred to as the Katyń Massacres, the name was originally linked to the discovery of the first mass grave which was discovered by the German army in the depths of the Katyń forest near present day Smoleńsk, Russia. This execution site and mass grave contained the bodies of around 4,500 Polish Nationals, the majority of whom were officer class military personnel and the remainder were members of the Polish intelligentsia, deemed to be 'Enemies of the State'. The executions at Katyń took place between April and May 1940 with each victim being dispatched by a single shot to the back of the neck.
To this day, the graves of many thousands of victims remain undiscovered. Controversy and accusations raged for the next 50 years with the Soviet Union placing the blame firmly on the Nazis and vice-versa. It was not until the 1990's that the Soviet Union, later the Russian Federation, finally admitted to the atrocities. Documents revealed that the head of the NKVD (the Soviet Secret Police), Lavrentiy Beria's proposal to execute the prisoners had been passed by the Soviet Politburo and signed by Stalin himself. In November 2010, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for having personally ordered the massacre.
Poland's relentless search for the truth about the massacres not only stands as a testament to giving clarity to history but also helped to give resolution to many thousands of families affected by the atrocities as well as decades of post-Katyń deceit and cover-ups.
A Fortress for a Forest
The Katyń Museum previously existed in a different incarnation and was housed in another army owned building at the Czerniaków Fort in the Sadyba part of the city. In 2010 a decision was taken to move it to a new location and give the whole project a new and exciting lease on life. The Museum's new home is now in the grounds of the stunning Warsaw Citadel (read more on page 89), an imposing brick fortress which was built by order of Tsar Nicholas I after the failed uprising of 1830 as a base for Russian garrisons. While in the grounds of the Citadel you may also be interested in visiting the Polish Independence Museum - Pavilion X (read more on page 86). Up until the end of WW1 this Czarist prison block was the most notorious on the site and its list of prisoners, many of whom were executed here, included the majority of Poland's most famous patriots and revolutionaries as they struggled for freedom from Imperialist rule.