Saturday, April 10, 2010

Poland Has Not Yet Succumbed

When I think of the Katyn Forest massacre, I find it hard to imagine a time time when something so catastrophic could happen.

Quick history lesson: When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Russia did the same. Theeir goal was to slice up the country, with bits going to the German invaders and other parts going to their communist allies. Everyone knows about the horrific crimes committed by Poland’s western neighbors, but few seem to know about what the nation on the east did.

In Poland, able-bodied people are required to serve in military. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professor, a lawyer, an artist or a factory worker. The most educated people – the leaders of society – are typically the officers. When World War II broke out, the fighting Polish soldiers came from all walks of life since they weren’t volunteers.

In 1940, 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed by Russian authorities. I’m not saying one of these events is worse than the other, but here are some other massive tragedies for comparison. On 9/11/01, 2,752 people were killed in the World Trace Center. In Pearl Harbor, 2,350 people died. In the Battle of Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. history, 6,821 American troops were killed. About 18,000 Japanese also perished.

Nearly a third of the Polish casualties were officers. Soon after, relations between Russia and Germany soured. Russia left, while Germany stuck around to plant the seeds of their 1,000 year reich. The Germans unearthed the thousands of bodies and rightly attributed it to the Russians. The United States, lead by Franklin D. Roosevelt, suppressed evidence in order to pin it on the Germans. He didn't want to upset his new allies, after all.

At the end of the war, Russia essentially took over the country as they originally intended to. The official party line was the Germans wiped out the 22,000 people who would have aided the country most when it needed to be rebuilt. Saying otherwise was illegal.  About 21 percent of the population was killed during the war and the capital, Warsaw, was leveled to the ground. A generation or was two wiped out and nearly all the Jewish people were killed or fled the country. How can any nation recover from that?

My mom told me a story about how my grandpa, who lived on a small farm outside of Warsaw, was sitting at a meeting when some communist party figureheads mentioned that horrific forest massacre committed by the Germans. My grandpa corrected them, and everyone in the crowd knew he was right. He wasn’t punished that time, so he fared a lot better than my cousin who was beaten senselessly by some party members for vandalizing a propaganda sign.

Today, the Katyn Forest massacre is getting some more press. The president of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, died in plane accident en route to a ceremony in remembrance of the massacre. His wife was on board and also died, as were 70 other high ranking officials. He was the fourth president since the country emerged from Communism in the late 1980s.

I’ve been devouring stories about the plane crash, and it’s reminded me of everything I learned about the massacre. I’ve read a number of books, news stories and I recently saw the great Andrzej Wajda, film Katyn. Poland has rebuilt itself dozens of times throughout history. At times, the country didn’t even exist on the map after being picked apart by neighboring countries.

The plane crash isn’t close to being the worst that Poland has dealt with, but it belongs in the same category. Poland, one of the two countries that I’m a citizen of, has to start yet again from tragedy. We certainly have the experience.

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