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Lorraine Adams: Katyn

April 12, 2010

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By **Lorraine Adams**


I was up at 3:30 a.m. yesterday. I couldn’t fall back asleep. After 6:30 I gave up, fired up my computer and saw that the Polish political and military establishment had been effectively wiped out in a plane crash just hours earlier. The president, his wife, ministers, members of Parliament, generals—all gone. A total of 96 people, including the crew.

As everyone knows by now, they were on their way to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Katyn. Here in the United States it’s difficult to imagine the grievous wound to the Polish psyche that Katyn represents. Its origins are in the 1939 near simultaneous German and Soviet invasion of Poland. When I was in Poland this fall, there was a massive photographic exhibit of the dual invasion in the medieval square in Krakow where butchers used to sell and trade meat. The photographs were larger than New York City subway posters. Everyone, from small children to the oldest Krakow residents, was drawn to them.

The Soviets captured and imprisoned about 20,000 Polish military officers; in the Russian woods near the village of Katyn the following year they summarily executed nearly all of them. As Anne Applebaum writes in The New York Review of Books, Stalin’s secret order destroyed Poland’s most educated and prosperous reservists, young men who were not drafted as soldiers but merchants, doctors, lawyers, university lecturers and others that volunteered. In effect, Stalin massacred those who could have mounted a serious resistance to post-war Soviet dominion. Worse, as Applebaum writes, for years the Soviets said the Germans were the killers, a lie that was repeated at Nuremberg, and even by the British. For decades Katyn was a verboten topic inside Poland. “Katyn wasn’t a single wartime event,” Applebaum writes, “but a series of lies and distortions, told over decades, designed to disguise the reality of the Soviet postwar occupation and Poland’s loss of sovereignty.”

My heart goes out to Poland. My great-grandfather migrated from Krakow, Poland shortly before WW I. He was a linen maker to the Russian czar, and an advocate of a free Poland. This fall, when I was in Krakow, I paused at the Katyn memorial off Krakow’s main square. It was erected there in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was the first time a memorial was allowed. Today, I would be placing my flowers below the cross if I could.

A great film about Katyn is Andrzej Wajda’s eponymous 2007 movie. You can buy it here. The film’s official website is slow-loading but interesting. There’s also a PBS documentary with actual footage from the time. Learn more here. Finally there’s a great Zbigniew Herbert poem about Katyn you can read on Margaret Soltan’s blog, University Diaries.

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This posts originally appeared on Next American City.

Lorraine Adams will participate in the April 26 Guernica/PEN event The Diversity Test: Gender and Literature in Translation.

Lorraine Adams is a novelist, critic and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Her first novel, Harbor, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. It was critically acclaimed in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Esquire, The Guardian, The Times of London and others. It won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for First Fiction and the Virginia Commonwealth University First Novelist Award in 2004. It was on the New York Times Book Review’s Best Books of 2004 list, a 2004 Washington Post Notable Book, Entertainment Weekly’s Best Novel of 2004 and Annie Proulx’s Book-of-the-Month Club Selection in 2004. It was short listed for the Guardian First Book award and long listed for the Orange Prize in 2006. Adams has been a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review since 2005 specializing in reviewing foreign fiction, often from the Muslim world. She has also written for The New Republic, Bookforum and Slate.

Adams was born in Coaldale, Pennsylvania and grew up in New Jersey. She graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University. She was a fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and received a master’s degree in English and American literature.

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