Remembering Katyn: A Testimony to a Nation’s Memory

“Collective memory,” a term coined by French philosopher Maurice Halbwachs, separates itself from individual memory in the most basic of ways. It is, essentially, the sense of common heritage and common memory shared by human beings who have never met; grievance, pride and joy shared on a collective level. In Poland, the tragedy of the Katyn massacre is an example of collective memory. The heartbreaking testimonies, pictures and documents displayed at the Instituto Cultural de Providencia, sponsored by the Polish embassy, bring to light the extent of human cruelty and human suffering remembered by so many.

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Photo by Joanna Rozniak (click for more photos)

On March 5th, 1940 a document signed by the Soviet Politburo (the executive committee for several communist political parties), including Joseph Stalin, gave the public and secret police organization of the Soviet Union (the NKVD) the green light to execute Polish military officers, policemen, intellectuals, artists, doctors and prisoners of war (POW’s). This document sealed the fates of approximately 22 thousand people.

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Photo by Joanna Rozniak

Originally, the term “Katyn Massacre” was used to refer to the massacre of 4,500 Kozielsk POW’s that took place in the Katyn forest. It was later used to refer to the simultaneous executions that occurred in the Oshtankov and Starobielsk camps, as well as the executions of West Belarus and West Ukraine POW’s.

In April 1943, the Nazi-German army discovered a mass grave of 4,143 Polish military reserve officers of which 2,815 were identified. The subsequent discovery of the Oshtankov and Starobielsk camp victims followed. In an effort to avert the truth, the Soviets blamed the Germans for the murders and continued to deny them until 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the NKVD had carried out the executions. Still, the Russian federation does not classify the executions as war crimes or genocide, and the Russian government does not consider those executed as victims of Stalinist repression.

Three cemeteries were constructed in Katyn, Miednoje and Kharkov to commemorate the victims.

At the Instituto Cultural de Providencia, the exhibit of this horrific tragedy is set up in reverse order, starting with letters and postcards to and from the prisoners. On the second floor one witnesses the discovery of the massacre with posters entitled “The Conspiracy” and “The Search,” representing the different episodes of the discovery process. The third and last floor display the different events leading up to the massacre, the Nazi-German attacks on Poland and the invasion of Poland by the Red Army, named the Soviet army after WWII.

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Photo by Joanna Rozniak

Included amongst the testimonies are heart-wrenching letters to and from organizations such as the Red Cross and the Missing Person’s Inquiries Office. Many ending with the phrase, “we regret to inform you, but we must assume that the above mentioned was murdered in 1940,” bringing no solace to inquiring family members, loved ones and friends.

Other images include belongings of the executed and family and wedding photographs that put a face to those massacred for the viewers to relate to, making it difficult to dismiss this event as “just another massacre”—even in our faceless-media-frenzied times. Included in the exhibit are photos of the exhumations and mass graves, not easy to look at by the faint of heart.

This is a must see testimony to a massacre known to few outside Poland. Although one walks out feeling less than merry, it is an affirmation of the worldwide collective memory of human suffering.

Starting in November, the Center will also be showing the film “Katyn” by prominent Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose father died in the Katyn massacre.

Instituto Cultural de Providencia
The exhibition “Recuerdo Katyn 1940” runs until December 28, 2009
Monday-Friday 10 am- 7 pm; Saturdays 10 am- 4 pm; Sundays closed
The film “Katyn” will be screened on Saturday November 7 and 21 at 11 am, 3 pm and 6 pm; and on Saturday November 14 and 28 at 11 am.
Metro: Pedro de Valdivia
Phone number: 56 (2) 784 8600

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