For 50 years, the word was never spoken, only whispered: Katyn, the forest where in spring 1940, six months after Germany and the Soviet Union secretly agreed to carve up Poland, more than 21,000 Polish military officers, intellectuals, priests, doctors, Boy Scouts and others were murdered by Joseph Stalin’s secret police.
This was quickly followed by mass deportations. Between 1.2 million and 1.6 million Poles, many of them women and children - “enemies of the state” - were transported to Siberia in cattle cars. Stalin’s plan was to help himself to a large hunk of eastern Poland by exterminating its leadership class and depopulating the territory. Within 18 months 760,000 were dead. About one third of the victims were children.
German troops discovered the mass graves of Katyn in 1943, two years after their invasion of the Soviet Union. Stalin immediately blamed the Germans for the atrocities. Roosevelt and Churchill knew better, but unwilling to risk their new alliance with Moscow, they went along with the cover-up.
After the war, textbooks in Poland, vetted by Moscow, sustained the lie. It was not until the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was in a terminal state of decrepitude, that the truth began to leach out. Travelers to Poland in those days might have noticed a discreet memorial in a corner of a parish church - a cross, a candle, a simple epitaph: Katyn.
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the truth flooded out, but even today, 68 years after the terrible events, the truth does not sit easily. This was evident last month when several survivors of the deportations gathered at the Gallery Theater in Chicago for the screening of a new documentary by Chris Swider, a filmmaker on the faculty of Columbia College.
Swider’s “Children in Exile” is a reflection of the deeply felt emotion unleashed when Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, acknowledged in 1990 his country’s role in the Katyn massacres. Scores of public memorials to the victims have sprouted across Poland, including an impressive monument to the victims of the deportations erected in the center of Warsaw.
In 2004, the Russian government agreed to make all documents relating to Katyn available to Polish researchers as soon as they were declassified. The process has been slow, but a number of scholarly works already have been published.
Last year, Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s most celebrated film director, released what is arguably his masterpiece, titled “Katyn.” For Poles, viewing it has almost become an obligatory act of patriotism and solidarity.
To this growing body of work, Swider has added an important new chapter. “Children in Exile,” which made its local debut at the Chicago International Documentary Festival, tells the story of the civilian deportations through the testimony of the survivors. It is a story that has lived within Swider for much of his life, but one that he never expected to tell “because I never thought that communism would end in my lifetime.”
Swider’s father, a captain in the Polish Army, narrowly escaped death at Katyn. He had been dispatched to a Soviet slave labor camp in Russia’s far north a few days before the killings started. Eventually, he was “amnestied” by Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union; he ended up in the Polish battalions that fought alongside U.S. and British troops in Italy.
Swider’s family immigrated to Chicago in 1951 when he was 6 months old. He said he grew up “surrounded” by the wartime stories of his parents and their emigre friends, but it was not until communism collapsed and he was able to access his father’s KGB files that he began to see the documentary potential.
“Children in Exile” has been 16 years in the making. The story of Poland’s wartime miseries and its aftermath is so complex, that Swider’s first problem was how to winnow down an overabundance of material.
He said he decided to focus on the plight of exiled children for two reasons: Their story has not received much attention, and they are still around to tell it.
His technique is simple. “You turn a camera on and listen,” he said.
One of Swider’s early decisions was to include an extended interview with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s last communist leader.
During Q&A sessions that followed the screenings in Chicago, members of the audience, mainly Polish-Americans, sharply criticized Jaruzelski’s presence in the documentary. One man asked Swider why he put “this Polish traitor” in the film.
“Because at the time he experienced what he experienced, he was a child, not a traitor,” Swider replied.
Afterward, Swider explained his thinking on Jaruzelski: “I wanted a pro-Russian communist. Whether you like him or not, his presence confirms and verifies the truth of what the others say.”
One of the “others” in Swider’s documentary is Wesley Adamczyk, whose father was murdered at Katyn. Two months later, Adamczyk, who was 7 at the time, was sent to Siberia with his mother, brother and sister.
For two years, Adamczyk endured malnutrition and disease before escaping with his mother and sister to Kazakhstan, and then on to Iran where his mother succumbed to dysentery, malaria and general exhaustion.
Adamczyk, then age 9, would spend the next seven years in various orphanages and refugee camps, a journey that took him from Tehran to Baghdad and eventually Beirut. For one year, he lived by himself, a virtual hermit, in an empty schoolhouse in Lebanon before relatives in Chicago managed to locate him and bring him to America in 1949.
Adamczyk buried his traumas. He graduated from DePaul University, built a career as a senior chemist for Lever Brothers in Hammond, Ind., and became an accomplished tournament bridge player. He rarely spoke of his previous life.
That changed in the early 1990s when Adamczyk began to search for the truth about his father’s death. This led to a memoir, published in 2004, about his own childhood exile.
Now 75, Adamczyk is a gregarious man. He was warmly received by the audience at the Gallery Theater.
“Saying this is difficult, because I love this country,” he told them after the lights went up. “But what happened has an American connection in that the West helped Stalin cover up these crimes.”
It is too late to bring the perpetrators to justice - virtually all of them are dead. But there is still time to establish a full record of these crimes, and good reason to do so: “We shouldn’t cover up crimes like this because if we do, they will repeat themselves,” Adamczyk said.