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Kharkiv 1940 - 2000

Jolanta Adamska

Bulletin of the Council for the Protection of Memory of Strugle and Martyrdom Przeszłość i Pamięć, no. 2 (15) 2000, pp. 4–20

It so happened that the first of the long-awaited Katyn Massacre necropolises to be opened in 2000 was the cemetery in Kharkiv in Ukraine, despite the fact that it is Katyn that has become the globally-recognised symbol of the crime committed in the spring of 1940 on more than 21 thousand Polish officers and policemen. It is Katyn that should play the main role in the history of the Massacre, as presented in the Bulletin against the background of the history of one of three burial sites.

The struggle for truth about Katyn lasted 60 years; it took another 10 years to restore dignity to the victims by building Polish war cemeteries and holding a state funeral.

Katyn had been known as the site of the massacre of Polish Army officers from the Kozelsk camp and as the site where their bodies were ditched (and not buried properly) since 1943, and even earlier – although to only a few. It was only in 1990, i.e. 50 years after the crime was committed, when areas where the bodies of officers and policemen imprisoned at the Starobilsk and Ostashkov camps had been thrown into pits were approximately determined; those findings were confirmed by exhumations conducted in 1991.

How many years need to pass to reveal the sites where the remains of over 7 300 Poles, murdered in Western Byelorussian and Ukrainian prisons pursuant to the same decision of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the VKP(b) of 5 March 1940, are buried?

Starobilsk, Eastern Orthodox church, prison for Polish Army officers
Starobilsk, Eastern Orthodox church, prison for Polish Army officers

The Starobilsk camp (then Soviet Union), the second special NKVD camp for Polish Army officers in addition to the one in Kozelsk, was housed in a former convent, at a distance of 3 km from the railway station. Apart from the camp, some prisoners were located in two houses in the town (19 Lenina Street – 17 officers and 2 privates from the Lviv defence staff, and 32 Kirowa Street – 6 generals and 98 officers).

Prisoners of war, soldiers and officers of the Polish Army began to arrive there at the end of September 1939 (first transport – 28 September); among them, there were Lviv defenders with General Franciszek Sikorski, the crew of the Brest Fortress with General Konstanty Plisowski, and officers of the Pinsk Flotilla.

By 16 November 1939, 11,262 prisoners of war had been brought to Starobilsk. In October, privates and non-commissioned officers, residents of Western regions of Ukraine and Belarus, were freed, and subsequently prisoners of war from the central regions of Poland were handed over to the Germans.

On 14 October, there were 7,045 prisoners of war in Starobilsk, including 4,813 privates and NCOs. They were kept in two Eastern Orthodox churches, filled will bunk beds reaching the vaults, and in other convent buildings, as well as in basements and even in tents and dugouts. The living conditions were very harsh, especially in the beginning. The camp lacked bath and laundry facilities, water mains, washing rooms, garbage dumps, and decent toilets.

On 29 November 1939, 3,907 prisoners of war were kept in the Starobilsk camp, including 8 generals, 57 colonels, 130 lieutenant colonels, 321 majors, 853 captains, 2,519 officers of other ranks, 2 chaplains, 2 nobles, 5 senior state officials, 1 police colonel, and 1 student.

According to source documents, the number of the camp’s prisoners ranged, between 29 November 1939 and 1 April 1940, from 3,916 (the highest number recorded on 31 December 1939 and 20 January 1940) to 3,893 (the lowest number recorded on 1 April 1940). The number of generals, nobles, state officials, and others (2 persons) did not change. After 31 December 1939, only 55 colonels were staying at Starobilsk, and the number of Lt. Colonels decreased as well (to 126). The same goes for majors (316 as at 1 April 1940) and captains (843 as at 1 April). The number of other officers, in turn, went up (to 2,527 as at 1 April). As for clergymen, for some time – in February – there were 18 of them, later, until the end – 9. The numbers fluctuated slightly and varied in the specific lists drawn up.

Among the 3,845 Starobilsk prisoners kept there as at 15 March 1940, there were 1,303 active officers and 2,231 reserve officers, including 600 members of the air force and 30 warrant officers and cadets. There were also more than 20 university lecturers, 400 doctors, several hundred lawyers and engineers, 100 teachers, a number of writers and journalists, and many staff members of the Polish reserve army.

In February 1940, among the 3,908 prisoners of war, there were 3,828 Poles (97.9%), 71 Jews (1.8%), 4 Ukrainians, and one of each: German, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Bulgarian.

8 generals of the Polish Army were imprisoned in Starobilsk and taken from there to be murdered; those were (the age indicated is valid at 1940):

The three NKVD special camps (Kozelsk, Starobilsk, and Ostashkov) were operated by the NKVD Prisoner of War Directorate, established by Beria as soon as on 19 September 1939, pursuant to order no. 0308. The said Directorate was headed by State Security Major Piotr Soprunenko. St. Sec. Captain Aleksandr Berezkov was appointed commander of the Starobilsk camp, whereas Mikhail Kirshin was appointed its commissar.

On 8 October 1939, the camps received Beria’s order concerning tasks related to the operational handling of prisoners of war by Cheka, placing the main emphasis on the establishment of an agent and intelligence network that would detect counter-revolutionary organisations and gauge the moods of the prisoners. A file was opened for each prisoner containing their investigation-related documents; long interrogations were conducted, information was gathered, and lists and reports were compiled concerning the prisoners and their families (for instance, at the beginning of March 1940, lists of the prisoners were compiled that indicated their place of residence by voivodeships). It is known that families of the imprisoned officers and policemen were included in deportation transports that took Poles from Western Ukraine and Belarus to Kazakhstan in April 1940.

On 31 October 1939, representatives of the central NKVD authorities were assigned to the three special camps to manage the investigations. In Starobilsk, intensive work in this area was initiated as soon as at the beginning of October by Captain Boris Piotrovich Trofimov; it was continued by an inspector from the Prisoner of War Directorate, St. Sec. Captain J. Yefimov, who arrived on 1 November. The operational group of the Directorate staying at Starobilsk comprised (as at November 1939) Trofimov, Yefimov, and Yegorov.

By means of its order of 31 December, Beria set a deadline for completing the investigations at the special camps for the end of January.

It was obvious that Polish officers would not accept their situation easily. On 30 October 1939, a letter of protest against the imprisonment of the officers of the Defence of Lviv – effected despite the guarantee of personal liberty received from the Soviet command – was sent to the commander of the Ukrainian Front, Timoshenko, by General F. Sikorski (a copy of this letter was also received by Beria, of course).

A statement on the unlawful imprisonment of Polish Army officers was also submitted – on the initiative of a group of colonels – to the camp commander by Col. Edward Saski, a judge of the Supreme Martial Court, on 13 January 1940. He asked for an explanation whether the prisoners kept in Starobilsk were considered prisoners of war – if so, they should be treated in accordance with the applicable rules – or just prisoners, in which case they must be informed about the crimes for which they had been deprived of liberty and formal charges must be pressed against them; or whether they were being interned, in which case they should be informed which of their actions had led to their deprivation of liberty, especially that they had been captured within the Polish territory.

On 30 October, letters (112 signatures) were sent to Beria and Marshal Voroshilov by doctors and pharmacists from Starobilsk, who invoked the Geneva Convention and requested that they should be sent to a neutral state or to their places of permanent residence. Following that request, commander Berezkov requested his superiors in Moscow to send him the text of that convention for the purpose of becoming acquainted with it and using it. The response that he received from Soprunenko was very meaningful: The Geneva Convention for Doctors is not a document that you need to apply in your practical operations. In your work, you need to follow directives of the NKVD Prisoner of War Directorate (all quotations come from the publication titled: Katyń. Dokumenty zbrodni). Simple, is it not?

Meanwhile, the tragic finale was approaching.

On 31 December 1939, Beria ordered that senior officials of the Directorate be assigned to the three special camps to check the status of the investigations; a regiment commissar, the head of the Political Department and the commissioner of the Directorate, Semon Vasilevich Nekhoroshev, left for Starobilsk to take over the command of a special camp brigade. The group concluded its investigation at the beginning of February (it had detected, inter alia, anti-Soviet organisations of the prisoners of war and an underground organisation of officers).

The increasing amount of unsent correspondence, which could not be inspected on an ongoing basis (12–16 thousand letters a month) was a side-effect of the investigation.

After the investigations had been concluded in all 3 camps, on 10 February, the final findings on the prisoner-of-war contingent were submitted to the leadership of the NKVD. At that time, there were 12 generals, 82 colonels, 205 lieutenant colonels, 563 majors, 1,521 captains, 1,830 lieutenants, 4,149 other officers and 21 chaplains kept at the three special camps.

Pursuant to Beria’s order of 22 February, former correctional officers, intelligence agents, police instigators, military settlers, employees of courts and public prosecutor’s offices, land owners, merchants, and nobles were moved to prisons (to remain at the disposal of the NKVD). On 3 March, 12 persons were sent from Starobilsk to prisons: a colonel, two lieutenant colonels, four majors, three captains, a low-ranking officer, and an official.

On 3 March, an order was issued for information about all prisoner-of-war categories to be telegraphed on that day, broken down by rank, nationality, and voivodeship. However, such lists were drawn up – without waiting for a reply – at the Prisoner of War Directorate based on the already-existing data from reports of 27–29 February. The data were used to formulate Beria’s infamous request of 5 March 1940, in which he proposed to murder the prisoners from the three special camps and from prisons in western regions of Ukraine and Belarus.

(...) They are all sworn enemies of the Soviet authority, full of hatred for the Soviet system (...) Each of them is looking forward to liberation, in order to be able to actively join the fight against the Soviet authority (...). Bearing in mind that they are all sworn, implacable enemies of the Soviet authority, the NKVD deems it absolutely necessary to:

I. Order the NKVD to examine under a special procedure:

  1. The cases of the 14,700 persons kept in camps for prisoners of war, former Polish officers, officials, land owners, policemen, intelligence agents, gendarmes, settlers, and prison service officers,
  2. as well as the cases of 11,000 persons arrested and kept in prisons in the western regions of Ukraine and Belarus, members of various c[ounter]-r[evolutionary] organisations, former land owners, manufacturers, former Polish officers, officials, and fugitives

– and to impose upon them capital punishment – execution by shooting.

II. The cases are to examined without summoning the prisoners and without presenting charges, the decision concluding the investigation and the indictment (...)

III. The cases are to be examined and the resolution is to be adopted by the following three persons: Merkulov [Vsevolod N., Beria’s first deputy], Kobulov [Bogdan Z., Beria’s deputy], and Bashtakov [Leonid F.] (Head of the 1st Spec[ial] Department of the NKVD).

Southern Railway Station in Kharkiv
Southern Railway Station in Kharkiv

The document was signed by representatives of the highest Soviet authorities: Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, Mikoyan, and was approved in absentia by Kalinin and Kaganovich.

Beria’s motion was approved by a decision of the VKP(b) Political Bureau, also dated 5 March.

Three days earlier, on 2 March, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the VKP(b) adopted a resolution displacing to Kazakhstan 22–25 thousand families of those Poles who were to be executed pursuant to the decision of 5 March 1940.

The fate of the prisoners had been sealed. At the same time, the other invader of Polish lands – the German Reich, allied with the Soviet Union – was preparing for the Intelligenzaktion, which was to be carried out in the General Government.

Both aggressors agreed that the enslaved nation of Poland had to be effectively deprived of its leadership.

On 16 March, prisoners from NKVD’s special camps were deprived of the right to correspondence and security was stepped up. On that same day, the process of drawing up individual motions concerning the prisoners of the three special camps and NKVD prisons began. Such motions were also drawn up for those who had recently arrived in those camps from the Narkomchermet labour camps (producing black metals), the Rivne labour camp, as well as prisons and hospitals. The first motions were sent to Moscow between 19 and 21 March.

By 23–25 March, the camps had been prepared for an emptying operation. The transport of prisoners of war to the local NKVD branches in the Smolensk, Kharkiv, and Kalinin Oblasts was organised by the Chief Convoy Troops Directorate of the NKVD. In Starobilsk, railway cars were ready for transports as soon as on 23 March. The route to Kharkiv passed through Voroshilovgrad or the Valuyki station. Before the commencement of the operation, Captain Yefimov, formerly commanding a special brigade, and Captain Mironov, as well as a representative of the NKVD Chief Convoy Troops Directorate – Aleksey Ribakov – arrived at the camp.

The order to commence the operation was issued in the last days of March. There were 3,895 prisoners of war in Starobilsk at that time.

After 3 April, documents containing lists of prisoners to be transported started to arrive at the camps from Moscow, as drawn up by the 1st Special Department of the NKVD and ordering that the persons listed in those documents be transported to the local NKVD branch in the appropriate oblast. The heads of local NKVD branches (in the case of Kharkiv – Major P.S. Safonov) received similar lists, probably containing orders for execution. In most cases they included 98–100 names.

395 were excluded – for various reasons – from the transport to the death sites and were taken to the Yukhnov camp (Pavlischev Bor, later Gryazovets).

Between 3 April and 10 May, lists with the names of 3,888 prisoners arrived at Starobilsk, with 78 of them supposed to be sent to Yukhnov and 3 to Moscow. The survivors included Major Józef Czapski, who later emigrated and became a painter and writer (author of Reminiscences of Starobilsk). By 12 May, 3,807 prisoners had left for Kharkiv; on 14 May, 57 officers remained at the camp, waiting to be taken away.

On 23 May, Soprunenko drew up a report summarising the camp emptying operation. According to the report, the total of 3,896 persons were sent from Starobilsk to Kharkiv, and 78 to Yukhnov (in total, 14,587 prisoners from three camps).

However, a note of 3 December 1941, also signed by Soprunenko, informs that in April and May of 1940, 15,131 prisoners were sent to local NKVD branches from the NKVD camps by the 1st Special Department; the same number was quoted on 5 December 1943 by Denisov, head of the 2nd Department of the Prisoner of War Directorate.

The difference amounts to 544 persons.

On the other hand, according to a letter of Shelepin, Chairman of the KGB, to Khrushchev, dated 5 March 1959, 21,857 persons were executed in the spring of 1940, including: 4,421 – in the Katyn Forest, 3,820 – in the Starobilsk camp (!), 6,311 – in Kalinin, and 7,305 – in other camps and prisons in Western Ukraine and Belarus.

It seems that without obtaining all documents from Russian archives, we will not be able to identify the exact numbers of and all the circumstances in which Polish Army officers and policemen were murdered.

The surveys of the death pits conducted 50 years after the crime had been committed revealed that 4,302 Polish soldiers were buried in the Kharkiv forest. Among the 421 names that were identified (based on documents, notes and items accompanying the remains), 32 persons were not included in the NKVD list of Starobilsk prisoners. A similar mystery surrounds Katyn – according to the findings of Marek Tarczyński, PhD, about 400 more people were buried in the death pits in the Katyn Forest than originally indicated in the NKVD transport lists.

NKVD building in Kharkiv
NKVD building in Kharkiv

A great deal of correspondence, addressed to the prisoners or not sent from the camp, had been collected at the camp (commander’s note of 9 June 1940). On 15 June, Soprunenko ordered that all that correspondence be burnt. As for correspondence addressed to prisoners, 1,595 letters, 2,149 postcards, and 300 telegrams were destroyed; as for unsent correspondence – 253 letters and 3,402 post cards. Additionally, the fourth copies of prisoners’ photographs were destroyed – 5,105 photographs and their negatives. On 23 July, further correspondence intended to be received by the victims was destroyed: 1,184 letters, 3,250 postcards, 79 telegrams.

What happened to the officers taken away from Starobilsk – did they realise what awaited them? There was much speculation among the prisoners, however, they certainly did not anticipate the fate that the leaders of the Soviet Union had prepared for them.

As we read in Nekhoroshev’s report for Merkulov, dated 14 April: When bidding their farewell, prisoners of war make the following appeal: “To continue unwaveringly the future fight for great Poland; whatever they do to us, Poland has existed and will exist”. In one of the barracks, prisoners of war read the following appeal: “To unwaveringly persevere in defending the honour of the Polish officer, for the future great Poland!”.

They were taken to the Southern Railway Station in Kharkiv and then, by trucks – about 15 persons in each – to the NKVD prison at Dzerzhinsky Street, where they were searched and had their luggage, Russian money, and belts taken from them; then they had their hands tied on the backs and were taken to the basement of a separate building across the yard (sometimes they spent several (?) hours in the cells). There – according to a rather vague testimony of a former prison guard interrogated in the years 1990–1992, Lt. Mytrofan Vasilyevich Syromyatnikov – they were brought to a cell where St. Sec. Senior Lieutenant Timofey Fyodorovich Kupriy, head of the commander’s office of the local NKVD branch for the Kharkiv Oblast, and a public prosecutor were sitting behind a table. They asked about the prisoners’ basic personal details, concluding with the formula “you may go now”. Having turned around, the officers were usually shot by Kupriy with a Nagant (the executions were commanded, or carried out personally, by Kupriy – head of the Kharkiv NKVD branch, St. Sec. Major Piotr S. Safonov, and his deputy – St. Sec. Captain P. Tikhonov, as well as employees of the Command Department, sent from Moscow). The building in which the murders were committed was blown up by Kupriy in 1941, before the arrival of the Germans.

Anthropological surveys conducted during the exhumations in the 1990s revealed that those murdered in Katyn and Kalinin were usually shot in the occiput, whereas those killed in Kharkiv – mostly in the back of the neck, at the height of the first three cervical vertebrae. The “advantages” of this method of execution were: low identifiability (the skull remained intact) and less bleeding after death.

The executions were carried out late in the evening and during the night. The bodies, with their heads wrapped in coats, were subsequently loaded onto trucks and taken to a forest near Piatykhatky, a neighbourhood of Kharkiv (about 10 km from the centre of Kharkiv, 75 m to the right of the Belgorod road, at present – part of Quarter 6 of the Forest Park), where they were thrown into pre-readied pits, near the graves of victims of previous NKVD executions.

The graves were located on both sides of a brick-paved road covered with black slag, which formed a loop for the manoeuvring vehicles.

Silence fell over the death pits in the Kharkiv forest and prevailed for 50 years – although maybe not completely. The solid “iron curtain” and the fear of people terrorised by the totalitarian state made it impossible for the secret of Piatykhatky to permeate to the West. Additionally, the area of the mass graves was secured against undesirable curiosity with a strong, wooden fence with barbed wire, patrolled on the inside by armed guards with dogs.

During the German occupation, local inhabitants dismantled the fence to use the wooden planks it was made of (however, just as in Katyn, nobody informed the Germans about the burial sites). The fence was not rebuilt after the war, only its tall posts remained. In the 1970s, the area was refenced (probably in connection with the initiative of the forest’s director – see below) and a guest house, KGB dachas, and a guardhouse were built there.

However, various things “revealed” by the soil, especially more valuable items from the graves of Polish officers, were collected by locals, mostly children; they became objects of peculiar trade; some graves were also uncovered intentionally to gain access to such items.

However, the year 1989 and its dramatic events were already approaching, and they caused a major breakthrough in the Katyn matter as well.

In September of that year, for the first time in the history of post-war Sejm, a parliamentary inquiry concerning the investigation of the Katyn massacre was submitted by Andrzej Łapicki, MP. On 17 September 1989, associations of Katyn Families, emerging across Poland, formed a federation (the process was initiated by Bożena Łojek). In October, the Independent Historical Committee for Investigation into the Katyn Massacre (NKHBZK) was established, and on 9 October, at the insistence of Katyn communities, the Polish Public Prosecutor General, Józef Żyto, requested the Soviet Public Prosecutor General, Aleksandr Sukhariev, to launch an investigation into the Katyn massacre.

New developments were also taking place in the Council for the Protection of Memory of Strugle and Martyrdom (Rada Ochrony Pamięci Walk i Męczeństwa - ROPWiM), and more rapidly than elsewhere. Already on 5 April 1989, its contemporary chairman, General Roman Paszkowski, an officer of the Polish Army before the war, organised a trip to Katyn, on a special plane, for a state delegation and 40 members of families of the murdered; a Mass was celebrated and earth was collected from the mass graves. It was later embedded in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Katyn Monument at the Powązki Cemetery.

A cross in the Katyn Valley in Warsaw with the inscription completed in 1989
A cross in the Katyn Valley in Warsaw with the inscription completed in 1989

Following the personal decision of General Paszkowski, the “government” monument in the Katyn Valley at the Powązki Cemetery was completed, before 1 November 1989, with the date 1940 and the names of the camps: Kozielsk Ostaszków Starobielsk (the work took much longer than expected, as the letters, installed during the day, were torn off at night). In the autumn of 1989, General Paszkowski organised the first special train to Katyn for families of the victims. Despite the fact that Sukharev replied, in January 1990, that the Soviet public prosecutor’s office had no evidence that could refute the conclusions of the special commission of Prof. Burdenko, two months later, in March and April 1990, the situation “took a complete U-turn” (by the way, it is worth noting that many important events in the history of Poland occur in the same months).

Obviously, the attention of Katyn communities turned to searching for unknown burial sites of officers and policemen from the Starobilsk and Ostashkov camps. Some unverified information concerning the alleged taking away or destruction of the remains of Polish Army officers murdered in the Katyn Forest was also collected and analysed. At the ROPWiM, its newly-appointed chairman, former commander of the Grey Ranks, Stanisław Broniewski, PhD, and his deputy Cezary Chlebowski, PhD, became particularly involved in those activities. Field searches were also conducted independently by employees of the Kharkiv branch of the Energopol company (they searched the areas of the Derhachi railway station, 8 km to the north of Kharkiv, and the vicinity of Bezludivka, 14 km to the south of the city). However, the graves were about to be discovered soon.

In the meantime, following a survey carried out by the Federation of Katyn Families (FRK) in the early 1990 and the collection of the Families’ opinions on the form of commemorating the victims of the crime – for now, at the only known site, Katyn – on 24 March 1990, the first meeting of representatives of the FRK and the ROPWiM on this matter was held. The Katyn Families believed that an extraterritorial Polish military cemetery should be built on the site of the graves, with the names of all victims displayed there; additionally, a ceremonious funeral should be held, with military honours and an ecumenical Mass.

The first significant signal concerning the graves of officers from Starobilsk was given by a Kharkiv youth newspaper Nova Zmina: in its edition of 3 March 1990, it printed a letter of a former driver of the staff of the Kharkiv military district, who had learnt from an NKVD driver that before the war (meaning the German-Soviet war of 1941), bodies of persons shot in the NKVD building were transported to the Piatykhatky forest (he gave an account on those developments in 1989).

This information was passed on to a journalist of Gazeta Wyborcza, Leon Bójko, by the editor of Moskovskiye Novosti, Genadiy Zavoronkov. He also had a letter from a resident of Leningrad who as a small boy would find with his peers, in the early 1950s, in the forest along the “black road” – from Piatykhatky to Alekseyovka – buttons, eagles, and military insignia from Polish uniforms.

It was also Zavoronkov who published, in the 12th edition of Moskovskiye Novosti of 25 March (2 weeks between General Jaruzelski’s visit to Moscow), the results of research conducted by Prof. Natalya Lebedeva from the Institute of General History of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the special collections of the Soviet State Archive and the Central State Archive of the Soviet Army. The documents that she disclosed indicated irrefutably that in April and May of 1940, about 15 thousand of Polish Army officers and policemen from the camps in Kozelsk, Starobilsk, and Ostashkov were handed over to the local NKVD branches in the Smolensk, Kharkiv, and Kalinin Oblasts.

On 13 April 1990, President of Poland, Wojciech Jaruzelski, who was staying in Moscow, received, from the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, 2 folders with documents containing NKVD transport lists from the special camps in Katyn and Mednoye and a list of personal files of the prisoners of war that had been kept in Starobilsk.

In April 1990, the search for documents commenced in Kharkiv, and preparations for launching an investigation into the crime against the officers from the Starobilsk camp were initiated.

In May of that year, two journalists – Leon Bójko from Warsaw and Genadiy Zavoronkov from Moscow – visited Quarter 6 of the Forest Park in Kharkiv, covering the vicinity of Piatykhatky. Directed by a forester, they reached the partially overgrown “black road”, which ran deep into the forest, not far from a KGB building. In the forest, traces of sunken pits were visible (an account summarising the expedition was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 29 May).

On 13 and 14 June 1990, the Polish press reported that the deputy head of the KGB office in Kharkiv, Colonel Aleksandr Niessen, sent to Moskovskiye Novosti a telephonogram informing that over 1,760 Soviet citizens and an unknown number of Polish soldiers were buried in Quarter 6 of the Forest Park.

In connection with those publications, in mid-June, the head of the Consular Department of the Polish Embassy in Moscow, Michał Żórawski, submitted a note to the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs requesting it to take an official position and to allow representatives of Poland to participate in the exhumations. At the same time, Polish consuls from Kyiv, Ryszard Polkowski and Bogusław Szczepaniak, visited the Kharkiv forest. They also met with the management of the KGB office in Kharkiv. Its head, General Nikolai Gibadulov, claimed that it was 99% certain that Polish officers had been buried in Quarter 6 of the Forest Park.

First individual memorials
First individual memorials
Kharkiv – death pit area
Kharkiv – death pit area

On 23 June 1990, Gen. V. Golushko, the head of KGB, and his deputy, Gen. Grigory Kovtun, provided Poland (represented by the consuls from Kyiv) with a list of 4,031 names of Polish Army officers, prisoners of the Starobilsk camp. The list was handed over in the presence of representatives of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz and L. Kozaczko, Members of the Polish Parliament and members of a Sejm delegation that was staying in Ukraine along with Mikołaj Kozakiewicz, Marshal of the Sejm. It was also the first time that wreaths were laid and grave lanterns were lit on the graves of Polish officers.

In July 1990, Stefan Śnieżko, Deputy Public Prosecutor General of Poland, expressed his willingness to conduct the planned investigation into the Katyn massacre (he was appointed by the Minister of Justice, Aleksander Bentkowski). By the end of July, he submitted two requests for admitting Polish representatives to participate in the exhumations in Kharkiv. During the talks with the First Deputy of the Soviet Public Prosecutor General, Vladimir Silikov, and the Kharkiv district public prosecutor, Genadiy Korzevnikov (inter alia), held between 18 and 20 July in Kyiv and Kharkiv, Śnieżko obtained their consent enabling Polish public prosecutors and expert witnesses to participate in the investigation that had begun in April and in the exhumations planned for September.

The project for the Polish participation in the exhumations was presented to the Soviet authorities in August, but there was no response. On 13 September, Śnieżko was notified of the dates fixed for the exhumations, which were to last 2 (!) days, on 26 and 27 September. The Soviet Union was employing the proven method of evasion and procrastination. During the subsequent talks held between 20 and 22 September in Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Soviet Public Prosecutor General, Potebenko, informed Śnieżko about the intention to refer the investigation to the military prosecutor office.

First monuments in the Kharkiv forest
First monuments in the Kharkiv forest

The issues of the investigation, exhumations, and Polish military cemeteries were included – at the insistence of the NKHBZK (in 1990, the Polish Katyn Foundation was established to collect funds for building the cemeteries) – in the agenda of issues to be brought up by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Krzysztof Skubiszewski, during his October visit to Moscow. They were raised at the final meeting of 11 October, with the participation of Minister E. Shevardnadze and in the presence of Colonel Ivan Abramov from the Soviet Public Prosecutor General’s Office. The colonel was ordered to arrange for the investigation to be launched by 15 November. The investigation was taken over by the Soviet Chief Military Prosecutor Office (criminal case no. 159 against persons responsible for the Katyn massacre). In mid-November, Poland was informed that representatives of the Public Prosecutor Department of the Polish Ministry of Justice and Polish experts would be allowed to view the Soviet files and to participate in the investigation and exhumation activities. The files were made available to Polish prosecutors – Stefan Śnieżko, Henryk Stawryłło, and Colonel Stanisław Przyjemski – during their stay in Moscow on 17 December. It was also agreed that the Russians would request that Poles perform activities by way of legal aid.

A letter of the Soviet Chief Military Prosecutor Office of 25 December informed that under that agreement, the Polish Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office would act as an auxiliary prosecutor’s office supporting the investigation and offering legal aid for the Soviet investigation.

For the purpose of the future exhumation-related activities, German aerial photographs of the vicinity of Katyn, Mednoye, and Kharkiv, taken in the 1940s and brought to Poland from the US by Wacław Godziemba-Maliszewski, were analysed.

During the next visit of Polish public prosecutors (the same team) to Moscow, in April 1991, approx. 100 investigation files were made available to them and the exhumation dates were fixed (between July and September, at the latest, of that year). The work was to be conducted under the supervision of Soviet and Polish prosecution authorities. Between 25 and 27 June, public prosecutors from Moscow were staying in Warsaw: Col. Nikolay Anisimov, Col. Stefan Rodzievich, Col. Aleksandr Tretetskiy, Col. Yuri Shumeyko from the General Staff of the Soviet Army. They brought ready orders concerning the dates of the exhumations, signed by General Moyseyev, the contemporary head of the Staff.

Meanwhile, in Łódź, at the 5th Congress of Delegates of the Katyn Families, on 29 June 1991, the issue of commemorating the Polish prisoners of war resting in Kharkiv and Mednoye was discussed. The families decided that the cemeteries should be based on a concept similar to that proposed for Katyn.

The final composition of the Polish exhumation team was determined on 11 July. The following worked in Kharkiv: public prosecutor S. Śnieżko – as the head of the team, public prosecutors: Zbigniew Mielecki, MSc, and Henryk Stawryłło, MSc from the Ministry of Justice, Col. Andrzej Komarski, head of the Military Prosecutor Office of the Warsaw Military District, Erazm Baran, PhD, forensic physician from the Medical Academy in Cracow, Prof. Bronisław Młodziejowski, an anthropologist from the Police Academy, Roman Mądro, PhD, from the Medical Academy in Lublin, Jędrzej Tucholski, MSc, Eng., author of Mord in Katyn, Prof. Andrzej Nadolski, an archaeologist from the Polish Academy of Sciences, Elżbieta Rejf from the Chief Directorate of the Polish Red Cross, and Col. Zdzisław Sawicki, an expert in phaleristics. The team was later joined by Jarosław Rosiak, MSc, Eng., and Aleksander Zalęski from the National Police Headquarters. The team was accompanied by Rev. Zdzisław Peszkowski, a prisoner of the Kozelsk camp, Stanisław Mikke, the editor of Palestra, and Józef Gębski, a film director accompanied by a crew from the Documentary and Feature Film Studios (WFDiF). Eventually, the exhumations were to be carried out at both sites – in Kharkiv and Mednoye – between 25 July and 30 August, and the efforts to prolong that period turned out to be unsuccessful.

The main objective was to obtain evidence for the investigation into the Katyn massacre.

In parallel with the preparations for the exhumations, the Polish delegation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Defence, the ROPWiM) held talks in Moscow, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, on 22-27 July, concerning the establishment of the cemeteries.

Having arrived in Kharkiv on 24 July, the Polish team saw a recently finished monument commemorating the victims of Stalinism resting in the forest (a Catholic cross and a poem by Asnyk on a plaque; built on the initiative of the Kharkiv KGB). In the centre of the forest, there was also a birch cross erected by employees of Energopol before 1 November 1990.

The exhumation works in Kharkiv lasted between 25 July and 7 August. 49 pits were excavated and the remains of 169 Poles and 20 Soviet citizens were recovered. In three cases, beyond doubt, mass graves of Polish Army officers were discovered, in one – items closely linked to them were identified. In 2 cases, mass graves of Soviet citizens were found. The surveys confirmed that buried in the Kharkiv forest were the remains of Polish officers from the Starobilsk camp; a number of facts were also established, concerning e.g. the method of killing and the circumstances of the crime. Material evidence was obtained as well.

Personal and official documents, including correspondence from families, rouble banknotes, pieces of newspapers, etc. were passed for examination to the Central Forensic Laboratory of the National Police Headquarters and the Police Sciences Institute in Legionowo. Additionally, many personal items and pieces of equipment were found (military badges, medals, dog tags, pieces of uniforms, shoes); on some of them, names were still visible. They were transported to the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw. Early in 1993, about 5 thousand artifacts from Kharkiv and Mednoye were officially taken over by the Polish Army Museum from (after they were actually handed over by the National Police Headquarters). They were later handed over to the Katyn Museum (a branch of the Polish Army Museum), established on 29 June 1993.

In the following years, some of those items underwent conservation procedures, commissioned by the ROPWiM.

After the exhumation works were completed, members of the team placed the exhumed remains of Polish officers in 9 coffins, with crosses placed on the lids; they were laid in grave no. 5. The remains of Soviet citizens were placed in a grave beside. A tenth coffin, with the skeleton of one officer, was prepared for a ceremonious funeral. It was held on 10 August 1991 with the participation of an official Polish delegation, led by the Minister of State for National Security, Lech Kaczyński, representing the President of Poland. The other members of the Polish delegation included: Deputy Marshal of the Senate, Andrzej Wielowiejski, Deputy Ministers of Foreign Affairs and National Defence, head of the Office of the Council of Ministers, heads of the ROPWiM, 32 relatives of the victims, including a son of Reserve Second Lieutenant Stanisław Plewa and 2 Katyn widows, an honour guard of the Polish Army, and an orchestra (the ceremony was prepared by: the Office of the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Education Department of the Ministry of National Defence, and the ROPWiM). The coffin, covered with a white-and-red banner and a Virtuti Militari ribbon, was ceremoniously placed in a grave. A 7-meter oak cross (provided by Energopol) was erected at the site, next to a plaque reading: Pamięci 3921 generałów i oficerów Wojska Polskiego, więźniów Starobielska zamordowanych wiosną 1940 roku przez NKWD i tu pochowanych. Charków 10.08.1991 Rodacy [In memory of 3,921 generals and officers of the Polish Army, prisoners of the Starobilsk camp murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940 and buried here. Kharkiv 10.08.1991 Compatriots]. The Mass was celebrated by: Bishop Brig. Gen. Sławoj L. Głódź and a survivor from Kozelsk, Rev. Zdzisław Peszkowski. The Mass was attended by clergymen of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Greek-Byzantine Church, the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession, and of the Jewish religion. Soil brought from Katyn and from Poland – from the Kościuszko Mound and the Piłsudski Mound – was thrown into the grave. An Orthodox cross was also placed on the Ukrainian grave. The ceremony was also attended by central and regional authorities of the Soviet Union.

It was obvious that the exhumation works that had been initiated must be continued and that the remains of Polish officers had to be buried in a dignified manner.

Already during the work, the FRK submitted a letter to the chairman of the ROPWiM (dated 30 July) in which it presented its position on the planned cemeteries and the commemoration of the victims. Polish military cemeteries should be created in Katyn, Mednoye, and Kharkiv; the burial was to conform to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. The FRK believed that the Polish government and appropriate institutions (the ROPWiM, the Polish Architects’ Association) should organise a competition for 3 memorial cemeteries, built and arranged in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions. The families of the victims were to be provided with a right to express their opinions as well. A ceremonious funeral needed to be organised.

At that time, the Eastern Bloc was already on the verge of collapse; the Soviet Union had fallen apart, new, autonomous states were being created, and on 24 August 1991, Ukraine proclaimed independence.

The complex political situation on the one hand facilitated and accelerated, on the other hand – hindered the Katyn-related activities.

Legal regulations were necessary that would provide a basis for taking action in the new reality.

In March 1992, the Katyn Advisory Commission was established at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (its members included representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of National Defence, the General Staff of the Polish Army, the Public Prosecutor General’s Office, the Chief Directorate of the Polish Red Cross, the ROPWiM, the Polish Architects’ Association, the Episcopate, the FRK, the NKHBZK, the PFK, and the Police Family 1939 Association); its main objective was to draw up agreements to be concluded with Russia and Ukraine, concerned with the protection of graves and memorial sites.  Draft agreements, together with notes requesting a consent for immediate commencement of further exhumations, were submitted to the authorities of the Russian Federation on 16 June, and to Ukraine – between 11 and 13 July.

As a result of the Polish efforts, letters of intent concerning joint actions aimed at establishing Polish cemeteries in Katyn, Mednoye, and Kharkiv were signed: with the authorities of the Smolensk and Tver Oblasts – in April and June 1992, and of the Kharkiv Oblast – in mid-July.

On 18 May 1992, the Treaty on Good Neighbourliness, Friendly Relations and Co-Operation between the Republic of Poland and Ukraine was signed.

In the first days of July 1992, the ROPWiM, complying with the requests of the Katyn Families, took over the coordination of all activities related to demarcating and building the future Polish military cemeteries; on 16 July, the Katyn Commission was transformed into the Katyn Team (with the same composition, with the participation of a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and with Stanisław Broniewski as the chairman), operating within the structures of the ROPWiM. From then on, all activities related to Katyn were overseen by that institution.

It should be noted that during all talks (July 1991, July 1992) Ukraine raised the issue of building a common cemetery for victims of totalitarianism, whereas Poland emphasised the need to separate the two cemeteries.

On 15 September 1992, a young historian from Cracow, Andrzej Przewoźnik, was appointed Secretary General of the ROPWiM. From then on, all Katyn-related issues were in his hands. Some progress was made, although slowly and often with unforeseen difficulties.

On 14 October 1992, a special envoy of President Boris Yeltsin, the chief archivist of the Russian Federation, Prof. Rudolf Pichoya, handed over, to President Lech Wałęsa, a selection of Katyn documents, including copies of the famous note of Beria and the decision of the VKP(b) Political Bureau of 5 March 1940.

In mid-October 1992, the FRK finished analysing proposals concerning the construction of the Katyn cemeteries, as submitted by Katyn Families from Poland. They agreed on one thing. The cemeteries were to be located at the original burial sites.

On 15 October 1992, following a visit of the Katyn Families to the Kremlin, Vice President of Russia, Alexander Rutskoy, appointed the Working Group for Katyn Issues, headed by Gen. Leonid Zayka. The Group was to complete the investigation as promptly as possible, provide assistance with the exhumations, and complete the construction of the cemeteries in 1994 (!). A group of Russians, close associates of the vice president, came to Poland.

The authorities of Ukraine, responding to a memo issued in July, also gave their consent to further exhumations at Quarter 6 of the Forest Park, by means of a memo dated 22 September.

But is was a lengthy process; difficult negotiations were being conducted over the wording of intergovernmental agreements, with the active participation of Secretary General of the ROPWiM.

Simultaneously, the Katyn Team were discussing the Substantive Data for the Concept for the Competition for Katyn Cemeteries (in Katyn and Mednoye in Russia and in Kharkiv in Ukraine) with Suggestions from the Federation of Katyn Families, drawn up in January 1993 by the FRK, based on the results of its surveys. The cemeteries should have a Polish and military character, they should emphasise the Polish origin of the victims, their military functions, and the manner in which the crime was committed, as well as its mass character. All victims were to receive individual plaques with epitaphs. The posthumous award of the Virtuti Militari Cross to the prisoners from the three camps by the Polish Government in London should also be emphasised at the cemetery.

Finally, intergovernmental agreements on the protection of graves and memorial sites of victims of war and totalitarian repression were signed – with Russia, on 22 January 1994, and with Ukraine, on 21 March (the agreement titles are slightly different) – that created a formal basis for the exhumations and for building the cemeteries.

Preparations for the actual work had already begun; teams were being formed, equipment was being gathered, etc.

At the same time, the ROPWiM and the Katyn Team were holding discussions and making preparations for announcing a competition for designing the Katyn cemeteries.

The works in Kharkiv were preceded by exhumations in Starobilsk. Before the victims were transported to the place of their execution, about 30 officers had died at the camp (the exact number is not known due to deficiencies and inaccuracies in NKVD documents). The KGB and local inhabitants showed the ROPWiM the place where they were buried, at a municipal cemetery that was to be closed down. As a result of consultations, on 2 February 1994, the Council’s secretary general – Andrzej Przewoźnik – signed an agreement with the municipal and district authorities of Starobilsk concerning the exhumation and the demarcation of an area for a Polish section at the new Chimyerovka municipal cemetery. The exhumations, commissioned by the ROPWiM, were carried out between 15 and 21 April 1994 by a team of Polish specialists led by  Mariana Głoska, PhD, an archaeologist from the Polish Academy of Sciences in Łódź (the other members were: Prof. Roman Mądro from the Medical Academy in Lublin, Przemysław Mądro, PhD, Stefan Pedrycz, MSc – a representative of the Polish Red Cross; other participants included Aleksander Herzog, a public prosecutor from the Polish Ministry of Justice, Col. Wiktor Łaździn, a deputy military attaché at the Polish Embassy in Kv, and A. Przewoźnik).

Graves in Starobilsk before the exhumations
Graves in Starobilsk before the exhumations

Among the remains, 48 persons were identified as Poles, who probably died both at Starobilsk Camp 1 and Starobilsk Camp 2. It was impossible to identify them by name due to the absence of any personal documents.

On 21 April 1994, coffins with the remains were placed in individual graves at the new cemetery section and buried with the participation of a Catholic priest.

On 19 November 1994, the ROPWiM concluded an agreement, with Budimex S.A., concerning the building and commemoration of the cemetery section according to a design drawn up by Andrzej Rószkiewicz, an architect from Warsaw. Once completed, the cemetery section was consecrated on 25 September 1995, with the participation of the team responsible for surveying and for the exhumation work in Kharkiv.

Polish section at the Starobilsk cemetery
Polish section at the Starobilsk cemetery

The work in Quarter 6 of the Forest Park in Kharkiv lasted 3 surveying seasons, between 1994 and 1996: between 2 September and 27 September 1994 (16 days of work at the site), between 3 June and 22 September 1995, and between 27 May and 14 September 1996.

After the work completed in September 1994, a delegation of the authorities of the Kharkiv Oblast signed, in Warsaw, on 23 December 1994, a document expressing the will for Polish specialists to continue their surveys.

The work was prepared, from the formal and organisational point of view, and was performed to the order of the ROPWiM.

In the meantime, in September 1994, a team of military land surveyors led by Lt. Col. Bogdan Kolanowski, PhD (comprising Major Jerzy Wiśniewski, MSc, Captain Ireneusz Chudzik, MSc, and Lieutenant Tadeusz Dadas, MSc) conducted a field survey at Quarter 6, drawing a 1:500 map of the area of the future cemetery. Based on that survey, height maps and raised-relief maps were prepared, as was a terrain model. The land surveys covered the area of approx. 16 ha.

1994 – surveys
1994 – surveys

In various periods between 1994 and 1996, the exhumation team, still led by Prof.  Andrzej Kola from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, comprised the following: archaeologists, court physicians, anthropologists, forensic investigators, monument conservators, representatives of the Polish Red Cross, as well as engineering and technical assistants; Mieczysław Góra, MSc, Marek Urbański, MSc, Maria Blombergowa, PhD, Jacek Dąbrowski, MSc, Witold Tokarski, MSc, Wiesława Matuszewska-Kola, MSc, Małgorzata Grupa, MSc, Wojciech Szulta, MSc, Jacek Bloch, MSc, Grzegorz Dębski, MSc, Andrzej Florkowski, PhD, Jarosław Bednarek, MSc, Beata Iwanek, MSc, Erazm Baran, PhD, Robert Kola, MSc, Paweł Bielecki, MSc, Eng., Magdalena Dobrowolska, MSc, Andrzej Szuwarski, Major Sławomir Stochmal, Ewa Gruner-Żarnoch, PhD (Katyn Families), a lawyer – Stanisław Mikke, MSc, and archaeology students from the Nicolaus Copernicus University; local inhabitants assisted in performing the physical work as well. The names of those persons are mentioned here in recognition of not only their professionalism and involvement, but also the persistence and fortitude that they had to show to fulfil the extraordinarily difficult – both in mental and physical terms – task they had been entrusted with. The atmosphere and the conditions of that work, as well as the determination and sacrifice of particular members of the team, is best described by Stanisław Mikke in his well-known book: „Śpij, mężny” w Katyniu Charkowie Miednoje [“Rest, Valiant Man” in Katyn, Kharkov, and Mednoye]. It must be added that the members of the exhumation teams, performing a historic task of outstanding importance to Poland, were not rewarded with any special honours from the Polish government. The only thanks and honours came from the grateful Katyn Families and the ROPWiM, which presented them with Medals of Guardians of National Memorial Sites.

The search for graves was conducted by relying on the archaeological method of drilling and narrow-space surveys over an area of 1.3 ha, in a park of a Ukrainian state security sanatorium. In 1995 and 1996, the efforts concentrated mainly on archaeological and exhumation work.

1994 – surveys
1994 – surveys

A total of 75 mass graves were found over an area of 50 x 100 m, located on both sides of the “black road”. The large graves located within the loop created by the road – except for one – were exclusively the graves of Polish officers.

In total, 15 Polish mass graves were discovered and surveyed in the years 1991 and 1994–1996, including 8 wet graves, with water reaching even up to 60–75 cm from the bottom. The largest of those graves, having a surface area of 4.2 x 14.0 m, contained 1,025 bodies. The numbers were as follows: 1991 - 2 graves - 167 persons,
1995 - 3 graves - 80, 673, 718 persons, 1996 - 10 graves - 1,025, 329, 130, 35, 90, 303, 390, 70, 244, 48 persons; in total: 4,302 persons, including 1 female.

1996 – exhumation work
1996 – exhumation work

A total of 4,673 surveys were carried out during the work performed in the years 1994–1996. In 1996, 60 graves of Russian citizens were also explored and exhumed; they contained 2,098 bodies.

There were also traces of mechanical interference with the pits, reaching down to the bottom, dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s, with drills having a diameter of 60 and 80 cm. It was probably connected with a report filed with the KGB by the then director of the Kharkiv forest, Anatoly Omyelich, in the 1970s; he reported that after heavy rains, human skulls and bones were found in Quarter 6 (information obtained by L. Bójko in May 1990).

Subsequently, machines were brought to the forest, some men were digging in the graves and pouring something inside, and then the area was re-fenced and a KGB holiday resort and dachas were built within that fence.

Traces of the destruction of the graves in the Kharkiv forest
Traces of the destruction of the graves in the Kharkiv forest

In 1996, based on the items and documents found in the graves, 188 names of Starobilsk prisoners included in the NKVD list handed over to Poland in 1990 were identified; other 21 names were not on that list. In total, 421 names of Polish officers were obtained during the archaeological works in the years 1991 and 1994–1996.

After the works had been completed, in September 1996, a birch Catholic cross was placed on each Polish grave and an Orthodox cross was placed on each Soviet grave. On 11 September, Rev. Col. Tadeusz Dłubacz celebrated a Mass at the graves, in the presence of guests from Poland: families, members of the team, and Secretary General of the ROPWiM.

The original burial site covered an area of approx. 1.3 ha and had the shape of a rectangle measuring 50 x 100 m. The graves were located along the original fence. The graves by the fence (Soviet ones) usually measure 2 x 3 up to 3 x 4 m, Polish graves – up to 17 x 3.5 m (1 large one).

Large quantities of various objects belonging to the victims were found in the graves: pieces of equipment (fragments of uniforms, hats and shoes, dog tags, accessories), personal use items, such as: canteens, billies, dishes, personal care items, combs, mugs, wallets, coins, cigarette cases, souvenirs, chains, some watches, rings, signet rings, and wedding rings, chess and checkers pieces, religious objects, documents and pieces of newspapers. Following their conservation, they were handed over to the Katyn Museum.

Wooden cigarette cases found in the death pits
Wooden cigarette cases found in the death pits

Large quantities of highly specialized documentation drawn up during the work served as an element that was necessary for the construction of the future cemetery.

Even when the works were still under way, representatives of the ROPWiM held several meetings with Ukrainian authorities about issues related to the work of Polish specialists and the construction of the cemetery.

Ukraine insisted on a common necropolis of victims of totalitarianism, motivating it, inter alia, by the vicinity and the mingling of the graves (Ukrainian authorities did not consent to move the remains from the graves of Soviet citizens lying among the Polish graves for the purpose of creating an exclusively Polish section). The issue was finally settled during the visit of the then Polish prime minister, Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz (there was no representative of the ROPWiM on the delegation), to Ukraine, including to Kharkiv, when it was decided that a common cemetery for victims of totalitarianism would be created.

Following complex and laborious preparations, on 17 July 1995, the ROPWiM published a call for proposals for layout concepts of Polish military cemeteries in Katyn, Mednoye, and Kharkiv; the concepts were to become a basis for drawing up detailed designs for the cemeteries. The call for proposals was aimed for Polish artistic communities in Poland and abroad. 5 teams were individually invited to take part in the procedure, on the same terms that applied to others. The task to be completed was defined by the ROPWiM in cooperation with the FRK. It consisted in specifying the area, arrangement, and shape of the mass graves, designing the form and arrangement of individual epitaph plaques and general epitaphs, choosing a place for holding ceremonies, and defining the manner in which the cemeteries will be operated and maintained. The need to attain high artistic value was underlined as well. The cemeteries were to be ecumenical in character and were to include national, state, and religious symbols, with a particular emphasis on the September Campaign Cross and the Virtuti Militari Cross.

32 submissions were filed, including from France, Germany, and Norway. A jury composed of 22 persons (among them, distinguished artists – sculptors, architects, graphic artists, and representatives of the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of National Defence, FRK, NKHBZK, PFK, the Police Family 1939 Association, Katyn communities, and the Primate of Poland), headed by Prof.  Maciej Gintowt from the Warsaw University of Technology, announced the results on 1 December 1995. Equal distinctions were awarded to three concepts and work was to be continued. The winning design was to be selected during the next stage of the procedure. In April 1996, members of the 3 teams visited the sites of the future cemeteries (the visit was organised by the ROPWiM) to take a full account of the condition of those sites.

On 1 October 1996, the jury selected the designed submitted by the team composed of: Zdzisław Pidek, sculptor (Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk), Andrzej Sołyga, sculptor, and architects Wiesław and Jacek Synakiewicz. In the opinion of the jury, the designed showed deep respect for the existing mass graves and death pits. The concept of an underground bell was deemed to constitute a major advantage. Having accepted the general concept, the jury, the families, and Katyn communities indicated the need to correct and complete it. The final shape of the cemeteries was outlined in the document titled Post-Competition Recommendations, drawn up in cooperation with Katyn communities and taken into consideration in the development of the designs. The focal point of each cemetery was have the shape of a vertical memorial wall with the names of all victims, an underground bell, an altar, and a cross visible from a long distance, which together should serve as an open-air chapel for prayers and ceremonies. As it was impossible to build individual graves (the remains could not be identified), mass graves with crosses were to be constructed. The process of designing the common cemetery in Kharkiv turned out to be particularly difficult.

On 7–9 December 1998, Secretary General of the ROPWiM agreed with the authorities of the Kharkiv Oblast, including the lead architect, upon the final boundaries of the cemetery, and received a list of 2,746 names that should be displayed on the wall of the Ukrainian part. Many of those names were Polish.

On 27 June 1998, the foundation acts and the memorial stone were laid at the Kharkiv cemetery. The event was witnessed by the presidents of Poland and Ukraine, who signed a common foundation act for the cemetery of victims of totalitarianism. Guards of honour were held by the Polish and Ukrainian graves.

The foundation act for the Polish military cemetery was signed on behalf of the Katyn Families by the chairman of the FRK Council, Janusz Lange.

The cornerstone, made of marble, copper, and ceramics, had been presented by the Katyn Families and people of good will from the Opole region. It had been consecrated by John Paul II in Rome on 24 December 1994.

The ceremony of laying the foundation acts, on the left – graves after the exhumation
The ceremony of laying the foundation acts, on the left – graves after the exhumation

In 1998, the ROPWiM issued a call for tenders for the building works. The tender procedure was completed in October of that year. The contract was awarded to Budimex S.A., acting in the capacity of the general contractor.

In the same year, complex formal, organisational, and preparatory activities were initiated. The most important thing was to obtain a building permit and approve the detailed design documentation.

Much earlier, in December 1994, after long discussions among representatives of the Ministry of Municipal Economy, the Polish Red Cross, the NKHBZK, and the ROPWiM, having studied the applicable provisions on inscriptions at war and military cemeteries and having determined their form, the ROPWiM signed an agreement with the NKHBZK for the preparation of individual inscriptions for the Polish Army officers and policemen resting at the three Katyn cemeteries, as well as the cemetery record book, for now – only for Katyn.

An abbreviated form was adopted for inscriptions on individual plaques: the military or police rank, first and last name, date and place of birth, profession, military or police assignment, year of death; in total, 1.5 of a printed line, about 75 characters.

Epitaph plaque of General F. Sikorski
Epitaph plaque of General F. Sikorski

The entries in the cemetery record book were to be expanded with major military and civilian positions, data on the family, a short note on the sources, and a photograph; a total of 5 printed lines.

All the editing was commissioned to a member of the NKHBZK, Col. Marek Tarczyński, PhD, and the organisational and technical coordination of the project was the task of Bożena Łojek, PhD.

At the beginning of 1995, the NKHBZK appointed 3 teams responsible for preparing the inscriptions: for Katyn – employees of the Military Historical Institute and the Central Military Archive, led by M. Tarczyński; PhD, for Kharkiv – employees of the Central Archive of the Ministry of the Interior and the Katyn Museum, led by Jędrzej Tucholski, MSc, Eng; and for Mednoye – employees of the Central Archive of the Ministry of the Interior and the Police Academy in Szczytno, led by Grzegorz Jakubowski, PhD. The work was based on NKVD’s transport lists from Kozelsk and Ostashkov and a list of personal files from the Starobilsk camp. Special questionnaires were sent to the Katyn Families, requesting biographical data and photographs of the victims. About 2,800 replies were received.

While it is worth emphasising the great involvement and effort of M. Tarczyński, PhD and Bożena Łojek, PhD it is necessary to point out problems with keeping the deadlines, experienced by other teams. Those problems were caused, inter alia, by the inflow of new materials from post-Soviet archives.

By means of decision no. 271 of 24 March 1999, the Executive Committee of the Kharkiv City Council allocated 4,248 m2 of land in Quarter 6 of the Forest Park to the ROPWiM and issued a permit for the design and construction of a cemetery for victims of totalitarianism. Until then, the land had been used by the Ukrainian State Security Service and the DSKP Kharkivulenbud.

On 31 March 1999 Budimex along with its subcontractor, Elektrotechnika Sp. z o.o., commenced the construction works in Kharkiv. In 1999, the tender procedure for sculpture elements was completed, under which the ROPWiM commissioned their production, delivery and assembly to the consortium of Budimex S.A. and Metalodlew S.A.

In the winter of 1999/2000, following the verification of the inscriptions prepared, sculpture elements (altar components, obelisks with the coats of arms of Poland and Ukraine, the Virtuti Militari cross), as well as individual epitaph plaques were made of cast iron in Poland. Bells inscribed with the text of Bogurodzica and the names: KatynKharkiv, and Mednoye, were made in a renowned bell casting workshop of Janusz Felczyński in Przemyśl.

The construction works were resumed in the spring of 2000. On behalf of the ROPWiM, the entire process of creating the Katyn cemeteries was overseen by Secretary General Andrzej Przewoźnik. The process was supervised, both in Poland an on-site, by   Ryszard Grauman, MSc, Eng., a building site inspector, and Krystyna Brydowska, Eng. The President of the Management Board of the Federation of Katyn Families, Włodzimierz Dusiewicz, participated in all major decisions and visits to the building sites.

The ROPWiM organised, in cooperation with the Management Board of the FRK, periodical information meetings for presidents and representatives of Polish Katyn Families, during which they provided information on the status of the works and any activities undertaken.

The Cemetery of the Victims of Totalitarianism in Kharkiv was built using Polish state funds – mainly government funds allocated to the ROPWiM – and funds raised within the society by the Katyn Families and the Polish Katyn Foundation.

Polish altar wall
Polish altar wall

The cemetery has the shape of an irregular quadrangle covering a total area of 2.31 ha and measuring: 143 m (South) x 134 m (West) x 97 m (North) x 64 m (East). Its main elements include the following: 75 mass graves (15 Polish graves and 60 graves of citizens of Soviet Ukraine) with cast iron crosses – Catholic and Orthodox, the “black road” (the graves and the road are paved with basalt), a Polish altar wall (a vertical cast iron panel with the names of Polish officers murdered, a cross, an altar table, a bell), a Ukrainian altar wall (a vertical cast iron panel with the names of 2,746 Soviet citizens of various nationalities murdered: Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Byelorussians, Germans, Lithuanians, and others, an Orthodox cross), and the main alley connecting the two altars, with epitaph plaques (on a low wall base) on both sides and with the Virtuti Militari Cross and the September Campaign Cross embedded in the walls. At the entrance, there are obelisks with the Polish and Ukrainian coats of arms, and further, to the left, there are symbols of the 4 religions of the victims. The cemetery is surrounded by 530-metre-long steel fencing (362 posts with crosses). At night, it is illuminated by ground lights and lamps.

During the visit of a Polish government delegation to Ukraine in March 2000, the date of the opening and consecration ceremony was set for 17 June.

The preparations for the ceremony were overseen by the Organisational Committee appointed by the prime minister the previous year.

Ukrainian altar wall
Ukrainian altar wall
One of the Polish graves
One of the Polish graves

On 17 June 2000, the first Katyn cemetery, built at the location at which the bodies of Polish officers from the Starobilsk camp murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940 were hidden, was ceremoniously opened and consecrated in the presence of Polish and Ukrainian prime ministers: Jerzy Buzek and Viktor Yushchenko, a Polish government delegation with the Minister of National Defence, Bronisław Komorowski, and the Minister of Culture and National Heritage, Michał K. Ujazdowski, a Sejm delegation with Deputy Marshal Stanisław Zając, a Senate delegation with Deputy Marshal Andrzej Chronowski, and representatives of the President of Poland: Marek Siwiec, Secretary of State, and Witold Śmidowski, as well as Bishop Brig. Gen. Sławoj L. Głódź, clergymen of various religions, high-ranked military commanders, honour guards of the Polish and Ukrainian armies, the Polish Army orchestra, and most importantly – the Katyn Families. Some of them arrived in Kharkiv on a government plane, some – on a special train from Olkusz (290 persons, including the President of the Management Board of the FRK, Włodzimierz Dusiewicz, under the protection of soldiers from the Air Mechanised Corpus in Cracow), others –on a coach from the Wilejka travel agency.

Before the ceremony on 17 June 2000
Before the ceremony on 17 June 2000

There is no need to describe the ceremony itself, as numerous reports were published in the press and some fragments were shown on television. Each participant experienced that event in their own way; every person felt that something different was particularly important and memorable. A meaningful depiction of the 60 years of waiting is recorded in a photograph by St. Mikke (presented on the Bulletin cover) – the hand of an old man, in the twilight of his life, looking for the plaque of his father among the many epitaphs... It is a good thing that at least some lived to that moment.

The severe, humiliating captivity and the cruel death, the disgraceful burial, the hiding and desecrating of the graves, all that was blurred – at least partially – by the decent, soldierly, state funeral, by the tribute paid by the highest authorities of both countries, by the military honours. Not everyone was able to bear that tension – the heart of Ms. Ewa Gruner-Żarnoch failed, the text of her speech on behalf of the Katyn Families was read by someone else.

After over 10 years of continued efforts, the first of the Katyn cemeteries officially came into existence.

What reflections come to mind in the year of those two anniversaries: the 60th anniversary of the crime and the 10th anniversary of revealing the other two burial sites?

Certainly that a crime cannot be hidden and consigned to oblivion. Those who played the role of the masters of millions of lives 60 years ago, sending – with one signature – hundreds of thousands of innocent people to death in oblivion and disgrace, mostly shared their fate, and not only that – years later, they became criminals in the eyes of the world and history, and their names have become synonymous with infamy and genocide. Those whom they intended to obliterate completely – not only physically – have triumphed today and are covered in glory, and their graves are now revered and cared for. A comforting manifestation of historical justice. Unfortunately, the Katyn investigation has not been progressing at all for several years now - a fact that is met with great concern of the Katyn Families. And no conclusion of that investigation may be expected anytime soon.

Polish Prime Minister delivering his speech
Polish Prime Minister delivering his speech
After the ceremony, 17 June 2000
After the ceremony, 17 June 2000

The next reflection concerns those who fought for the truth about Katyn, for revealing the graves, and then for the creation of the cemeteries. It also concerns those whose efforts, studies, exhumation-related work, as well as design and building-related work have all led to that grand creation in the form of beautiful and dignified Polish necropolises.

Nothing came easy as far as the Katyn case was concerned. It has its heroes - brave, determined and genuinely committed people. We learned their names during those 10 years of continued effort, but also before that. An example is the founder of FRK, continuously contributing to the efforts related to Katyn, the “bold” Bożena Łojek, and her kind, always helpful associate, Włodzimierz Dusiewicz. Many people deserve recognition and admiration; let us hope that their involvement will be appreciated in the finale of the efforts for commemorating the victims of the Katyn Massacre. As it is the case with any grand scheme, however, the issue of Katyn attracted also those people who perceived it mainly from the angle of their own ambitions and tangible benefits, and even worse, who impeded the activities undertaken. Fortunately, there were not many of them; still, their activity intensified over the last years and has led to a situation in which a number of difficulties had to be overcome, also domestically.

Essentially, the year 2000 concluded the 60-year period of the Katyn Issue – but not completely, as some Poles murdered in the western oblasts of Ukraine and Belarus in the spring of 1940 are still waiting for their burial sites to be discovered. We still believe, however, that those victims and their families will also witness a ceremony similar to that held in Kharkiv on 17 June.


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