In either April, 1940, or September, 1941, on Goat Hill, a high slope overlooking the Dneiper River in Poland, twenty to fifty at a time, some 10,000 fine, strapping, healthy Polish men stood stiffly at attention at the edge of long trenches with their hands tied behind their backs. For no other crime than being Polish Army officers, these men were shot in the back of the head with 7.65 mm. pistols and shoved into mass graves. The question has long been—who were their executioners?
Now, eleven or twelve years and thousands of miles from these graves in Katyn Forest, a Committee of the United States Congress is attempting to investigate and fix the responsibility for this mass murder in direct violation of International Law.* This action of our Congress and the Kremlin’s scornful rejection of the Committee’s invitation to send a representative to present Soviet Russia’s views brings back to mind the many headaches which this and other Polish issues caused me during my mission as United States Ambassador to Moscow from April, 1942, to October, 1943.
To understand this extremely complex event in the history of World War II, we must recall that, when the Nazis and the Russians divided Poland in 1939, the Russians took prisoner more than 180,000 Polish soldiers, of whom about 10,000 were officers. The more distinguished generals were carried off to Moscow’s Lubianka Prison. The rest of the officers were confined in three prison camps near the old Polish border. Of the 5,131 Regular Army officers and 4,096 Reserves confined to these camps, about 400 survived to join General Anders’ Polish Army in Russia, when he began to organize it with Soviet consent after the Nazi attack on Russia in June, 1941, made Poland and Russia allies against the Axis powers. The swift drive of the Nazi Legions across the flat plains of Western Russia astonished the world. By July 15, the German Army had captured Smolensk.
At first, General Anders was not concerned that so few of his officers had reported in. Some, he reasoned, had probably been transferred to distant Arctic or Far Eastern labor camps. Hut by November, when thousands of enlisted men had reported in and not one additional officer, he went to see the Polish Ambassador, Dr. Stanislaw Kot.
While I was in Moscow with the Beaver- brook-Harriman Mission in November, 1941, Dr. Kot finally obtained an interview with Mr. Stalin. When he asked why the Polish officers had not been released in accordance with the agreement with the Polish-Government-in-Exile in London, Mr. Stalin appeared to be astonished. “They have not been released yet?” he cried, and in Dr. Kot’s presence, he called up the NKVD. “What about the Polish prisoners who were in those camps at Starobielsk, Kozielsk, and Ostas- zkov?” he demanded harshly. He listened for a moment. “The amnesty applies to all Poles. They must be released at once!”
A month later, after collecting from the 400 survivors 4,500 names of brother officers, who had been confined in the three camps, General Sikorsky came on from London and, with General Anders, went to see Mr. Stalin. This time, the Russian Dictator expressed no surprise or indignation. To their questions he gave a very weakanswer. “Perhaps,” he suggested, “those officers have returned to German-occupied Poland or maybe they escaped from Siberian prison camps into Manchuria.”
Knowing what good check the NKVD keeps on all travel in Russia and particularly on foreigners, this explanation was hard to accept. General Anders suggested that perhaps the NKVD, being short of men, was still holding them in some distant Siberian labor camp.
Mr. Stalin smote the table with his clenched fist. “If they haven’t released everyone of them, someone is going to be sad,” he cried. “We will see immediately.”
Again, he called up the NKVD headquarters and told them to release all Poles who had ever been in those three camps. Months passed, but only one Polish officer showed up, of whom more presently.
My first personal contact with the Polish Question came while I was still in Washington being briefed for my new job as Ambassador to Russia. As soon as my .appointment was announced, I was beset on all sides by people with an axe to grind in the Soviet Union. By far the most persistent and voluble were the relatives of missing Polish officers. Despite earnest solicitation by our representatives in Moscow, no news as to their whereabouts or their situation had yet been obtained. Wouldn’t I, please, try to get some information as to their loved ones?
One of these poor people, a middle-aged woman, came to see me in my temporary office in the State Department. Her husband, a doctor by profession, had been taken prisoner by the Russians and sent to a concentration camp in Siberia. The woman pressed a letter into my hand. “When you see him in Russia,” she said hoarsely, in her broken English, “give this to him. They tell me he is dead, but I do not believe them. You will find him. Give him this letter, please, and God will go with you always.”
As I looked into her broad, sorrow-lined face, I could not help but experience some of her shining faith. By an odd coincidence, I was able to help that poor woman. One day in the spring of 1943, a man, dressed in ragged civilian clothes, walked into my office in Kuibyshev. He told me that he had first been transferred from Kozielsk to a prison camp in Siberia to care for his fellow prisoners. Because of his efficiency and cooperation, he was later released from confinement and made his way by foot and rail from the concentration camp in Siberia to Kuibyshev. When he told me his name, I handed him the letter his wife had given me two years earlier. The expression of surprise and delight on his pinched and haggard face was ample reward for all the effort I expended in behalf of the Polish exiles during my tour of duty in Russia.
I tried to question him, but he firmly refused to discuss his experiences or to comment on conditions in the camp from which he came, but he did tell me that there were no Polish officers in his camp.
My next contact with the Poles was at Teheran on my way into Russia. Twenty- eight thousand Polish soldiers had been released by the Kremlin and sent to Iran, bringing with them their families and several hundred orphaned children. These were the Polish troops which later fought under General Anders in Italy with such courage and distinction.
At their camp on the outskirts of Teheran, it was heart-rending to see the little orphans wandering about, practically naked because most of the clothing that they wore into Iran had to be burned to destroy vermin. The Polish soldiers were doing their best to care for them, but I noted that most of the children were sick and many of them had the distended belly of near starvation.
By the time I reached Moscow in April, 1942, I realized that the Polish Question was sort of a “burr under the saddle blanket” to the Russians. In my first interviews with Mr. Molotov and Premier Stalin, I avoided any reference to the Poles. But the Polish Question was not a problem that one could long ignore.
Having a number of important issues confronting me, as soon as I had presented my credentials to President Kalinin and made my official call on Premier Stalin, I sought an interview with Mr. Molotov, Commissar of Foreign Affairs, which was granted April 25th. I remember that I took with me as interpreter, Eddie Page, my Second Secretary, adviser, counselor, and friend. We sat at a long, highly-polished table, with Mr. Molotov’s heavy figure at the end and Mr. Pavlov, his interpreter, on his right. I sat opposite Pavlov with Eddie on my right.
We had discussed all of the matters I had come to take up with Mr. Molotov, and I was looking for an opportunity to terminate the interview. As I reflected on our conversation, I could not help but compare mentally our positions. He had been out of the Soviet Union but once in his life—a visit to Berlin before the War—while my acquaintance with foreign countries was quite extensive. He had, through his officers in various countries and a most efficient system of espionage, a working knowledge of conditions in foreign countries, while I knew almost nothing of conditions in the Soviet Union. He spoke no English. His interpreter, Mr. Pavlov, had complete command of both Russian and English. I understood almost no Russian at all and therefore had to depend completely upon Eddie Page, who had a good command of Russian. Mr. Molotov spoke and understood French readily while my knowledge of French was most inadequate. This situation gave promise of many interesting experiences. I soon discovered that negotiating through an interpreter is like kissing through cheesecloth—little satisfaction can be gotten from either.
At this point in my reverie, Mr. Pavlov informed me that Mr. Molotov had a question to take up. “A letter has been received from your Embassy in Kuibyshev, which requests permission for an Army officer to be detailed as liaison officer to the Free Poland army forces. I don’t want to take this matter up officially, but we have difficulty understanding why you need such an official. Why can’t the Polish and American Military Attaches in Kuibyshev arrange all their business between them there? We would have to have further information and very good reasons before we could grant this request.”
I thought I had been pretty thoroughly briefed for that interview, but this issue was new to me. All I could do was admit my ignorance and promise to advise Mr. Molotov further when I had consulted our Embassy files.
“What is the news from the Front?” I quickly changed the subject.
One of the most delightful members of our Diplomatic Corps in Russia was the representative of the Polish-Government-in-Exile in London, Dr. Stanislaw Kot. Back in the wartime capital at Kuibyshev, as soon as matters of protocol had been disposed between us, Dr. Kot entertained me at dinner. He spoke English fluently and was a delightful conversationalist. In order to put me even more at ease, he placed on my right at dinner a member of his staff, M’lle Askansky (some of the younger members of our staff referred to her as the Ashcan). An attractive young person commanding many languages, she kept me abreast the multi-lingual conversation at the dinner table. Since both Dr. Kot and M’lle Askansky were ardent bridge players, we saw much of them at our residence and the Polish Embassy. Over the bridge table, frequent discussion of the issues kept me updated on the complicated Polish situation. Dr. Kot’s principal concern was to find the lost Polish officers. But his difficulties over Polish citizenship,1 evacuation of Polish women and children from Russia, post-War boundaries of Poland, and refugees from Poland soon became my worries, too.
I first took up the Polish Question with the Russian Government on May 27, 1942. In Kuibyshev at that time, I obtained an appointment with Mr. Andrei Vishinsky, now Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, who headed the Kuibyshev branch of the Foreign Office as Assistant Commissar. Famous in the Soviet Union as prosecutor of the purge trials of the ’30s, middle-aged, of medium height and full figure in 1942, Mr. Vishinsky had auburn hair and a florid complexion and gave me the impression of being extremely shy. His face flushed a brilliant red upon the slightest provocation and he had but little to say— two characteristics in striking contrast to the white-haired, bitter, vitriolic Soviet “statesman” we have seen in action on the international scene since the War. Mr. Vishinsky spoke French fluently and said that he was studying English.
For the interview, I took along Eddie Page. Mr. Vishinsky had a Foreign Office interpreter whose name I have forgotten. Again we sat at a long, polished table. After formal greetings, I opened the discussion by saying, “My Government has informed me that the Soviet Government has delayed giving effect to certain clauses of the Polish- Soviet Agreement, particularly in regard to recruiting for the Polish Army among Polish refugees in the Soviet Union, the release of civilians evacuated from Eastern Poland, the release of Polish prisoners of war to join the Free Poland armed forces, and continuation of the evacuation of Polish army divisions and civilians to Iran. My Government hopes that the Soviet Government will make liberal interpretation of the agreement. We have no desire to interfere in Polish-Soviet relations, but it is the conviction of my Government that a generous attitude on the part of the Soviet Government would further our joint war efforts by promoting a spirit of confidence between Poland and Russia, the two most important of the United Nations in Eastern Europe.”
Mr. Vishinsky was silent for a long while, looking down at his hands folded on the table before him, the color flooding into his thin face. Finally, he looked around at me. “I will present your views to my government,” he said.
I tried to discuss the Polish Question further, but he showed no interest. Finally, I broke off the unsatisfactory interview.
I was new to the diplomatic game as it was played in Russia. Before long, I discovered that, while Kuibyshev might be the official seat of Soviet Government, the seat of decision was at the Kremlin in Moscow. As soon as arrangements could be made, back we went to the Russian capital.
Once settled in Spaso House, I again sought an interview with Mr. Molotov. At his office in the Kremlin, I told him that my Government had been asked to assist in evacuating about ten thousand Polish children and their mothers from Russia to Iran and thence to some other country, probably South Africa, where they could be better cared for than in wartime Russia. President Roosevelt, himself, was interested in the project. Before we could carry out this humanitarian plan, we had to obtain permission from the Soviet Government to evacuate these Polish women and children from Russia. “My Government therefore earnestly requests that the Soviet authorities permit this group to leave the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Molotov’s reply was very long. Mr. Pavlov scribbled furiously to keep up with him. I record his reply in full because it indicates so well the Soviet attitude toward the entire Polish Question.
“I will, of course, report the views expressed by the Ambassador to my Government,” Mr. Pavlov interpreted. “However,
I would like to give the Ambassador the following résumé of our position in regard to the Polish situation.
“This is not a simple question of evacuation, which would be a small matter, but a fundamental problem affecting our basic relations with the Poles. If this group had been evacuated along with the first group2 of thirty or forty thousand, the question might have been satisfactorily settled, although this is doubtful as there is always trouble where Poles are concerned.
“My Government does not wish to start a second evacuation, having just finished the first, since such a move might well cause instability not only among the Polish population in the Soviet Union, but hostile comment among Poles in German-occupied Poland. Poles in that area might think that conditions are so bad in the Soviet Union that my Government is unable to care for and feed the Poles resident here, and that was why my Government had to send them to Africa.
“As was explained to Sikorsky during my recent visit to London, it would appear more advisable to endeavor to improve the situation of the Poles in the Soviet Union than to evacuate such a small group. The entire Soviet population is suffering from the War and the Poles are likewise suffering. However, the Polish Government can feed them. We do not believe that much would be gained by evacuating ten thousand out of a total of a million and a half Poles.” 1
We went on to other matters, but the Poles came up again when I told Mr. Molotov that we had cancelled our request to assign one of our Army officers as liaison with the Polish Army units in Russia and that the orders of Colonel Henry Zymanski to such duty had been revoked. Mr. Molotov’s heavy face darkened and he spoke forcefully, even angrily.
“Whenever Polish questions are brought up, there is always trouble. There are good Polish elements in this country, who have subordinated themselves to our laws, and our relations with these people are friendly. But there are bad elements, who refuse to reconcile their views with those of their London Government and who are also hostile to the Soviet Union. Vigorous measures must be taken against those who continue to work against our laws. It seems to me that there are entirely too many people interesting themselves in Polish politics.”
In the succeeding months of 1942, my notes show that the situation of Polish military units and civilians still in Russia steadily worsened. When the Nazis and Italians stabbed into Egypt that fall almost to Alexandria, threatening the whole Middle East position, the Russian Government did agree to let three divisions of Poles and some twenty thousand members of their families leave Russia for the Middle East.
On other issues, however, the tension between the Polish-Government-in-Exile and the Soviet Government continually increased. Polish military authorities trying to obtain the release of the ten thousand officers whom they needed so badly were repeatedly put off. No reason or excuses were given. General Anders and Dr. Kot were not informed that the Germans had captured the prison camps before the Poles could be evacuated, or that they had been transferred to other camps, or, indeed, anything at all. As far as the Polish authorities could learn, these officers had suddenly and completely disappeared from the face of the earth.
The Poles also had almost continuous trouble with distribution of Polish Relief, which the generous-hearted people of America and other countries of the West were contributing in great quantities. In September, 1942, Mr. Lozovsky, Mr. Vishinsky’s assistant in Kuibyshev, told me that, of 370 Polish delegates assigned to distribute Polish Relief throughout the great expanses of Russia, 180 had been arrested and jailed for espionage and other hostile actions against the Soviet Government and would remain in jail until they cleared themselves of the charges. He did add that the other 190 were still at large in Russia and were carrying on their relief duties.
Our Assistant Naval Attaché in Murmansk kept us informed as to the situation in the northern Russian ports. Most of the Polish Relief supplies came in by ship over the northern convoy route. The Poles had stationed two of their officers, Captain Gruya and Captain Loga, at Murmansk to receive and forward relief and military supplies. They had no auto or boat transportation; no gasoline or fuel oil; and but little help from the Russians. One percent of their supplies was damaged in handling at the ports by indifferent prisoners of war working as stevedores; two to five percent were lost by pilfering in the port areas; over half of the remaining supplies disappeared between Archangel and Murmansk and the Polish Army Camps and refugee areas.
Although these Polish officers had been granted diplomatic status as Polish consuls in the two ports, Captain Gruya was arrested on a train going from Archangel to Murmansk and was taken to the NKVD prison in Archangel, where he was “third-degree-ed.” His diplomatic credentials were taken from him and torn up before his eyes. Both Captain Gruya and Captain Loga were run out of the northern ports by the NKVD and eventually made their way south to report in to their Military Attaché in Kuibyshev, leaving the British to attempt to look after their interests.
There was little that either the British or our naval representatives could do for the Poles. The Soviet bureaus, INI'LOT and “The Port,” took charge of unloading Polish Relief cargoes and military supplies. Our representatives saw their goods piled high on the docks, in warehouses, and loaded onto trains—to disappear into the vastness of Russia. Meanwhile, we received frequent complaints from Dr. Kot and Polish military authorities as to the care of Polish civilians resident in Russia and lack of military supplies for the Polish troops.
Careful examination of the Polish officers who had survived the Nazi invasion of Russia now began to show results. Polish military authorities gradually reconstructed this picture of events: between April and June of 1940, the missing officers were sent down the rail lines from Starobielsk, Kozielsk, and Ostaszkov toward Smolensk. One officer reported a message chalked on the wall of the boxcar which evacuated him, “Second stop after Smolensk, we are being loaded into trucks.” The message was left by a Colonel Kubya who had disappeared.
Goat Hill in Katyn Forest is seventeen kilometers from Smolensk!
Dr. Kot visited me frequently. Upon instructions from our Governments, both British Ambassador Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr and I tried our best to help the Polish Ambassador. He brought reports of the arrest of his representatives in Vladivostok for espionage and seizure of relief cargoes in Murmansk and Archangel. In July, 1942, Dr. Kot came to me complaining of poor health and told me that he had asked for relief from his position as Ambassador to Moscow.
In that summer of 1942, Soviet Russia’s military fortunes were at low ebb. Sevastapol had surrendered to the Nazi legions and General Von Paulus had laid siege to Stalingrad.
About this time, our Assistant Naval Attaché in Murmansk reported: “It is quite impossible for British or American representatives to look after Polish material since they have enough trouble with their own supplies and with the inefficient way in which most things are handled around the docks by the stevedores and loading crews. I am quite certain that little, if any, of the material consigned to the Polish Embassy (in Kuibyshev) is reaching its destination. I feel quite confident in making this statement, since numerous instances have occurred where ammunition, gasoline, and food consigned to the British Mission have been shipped south and disappeared. Although the British have protested violently, they have not recovered any of it. Soviet officials here state that they are helpless to remedy the situation.”
In August, 1942, I received a despatch from our State Department, the conclusion of which may be paraphrased as follows:
The question of Polish-Soviet relations may be brought up at your discretion with the Soviet authorities. While the United States Government does not wish to intervene in this matter, you may point out, it nevertheless hopes that the splendid collaboration shown in transferring additional Polish divisions to the Middle East may be furthered to the maximum. It is also hoped that solutions which are mutually beneficial may be found for the various problems under discussion. At the same time it is realized only direct negotiations between the two governments involved can effect a solution of some of these extremely complicated problems.
I sought an interview with Mr. Lozovsky, which was not granted until September 9, 1942. After I had explained my mission and that my Government did not wish to interfere in Soviet-Polish relations, Mr. Lozovsky said, rather sourly, in his excellent English, “That is the best thing that the American Government could do.”
Taken somewhat aback, I still pressed the question as to the present status of Polish Relief. After confirming the information I had received from Dr. Kot that 180 Polish delegates had been arrested, Mr. Lozovsky said, bluntly, “This work can be carried on by the remaining delegates in a perfectly satisfactory manner. There were too many delegates in the first place. We can’t have a bunch of hostile Poles running all over the Soviet Union unsupervised.”
“Well, Mr. Lozovsky,” I said, “I just want to express the hope of my Government that the same spirit of collaboration already shown in connection with the transfer of the Polish divisions to the Middle East may be continued and that a mutually beneficial solution to the various problems under discussion may be found.”
Mr. Lozovsky looked at me coldly. “Polish questions are very difficult to deal with to the satisfaction of everyone concerned.”
Another time, I want to tell the whole story of the visit to the Soviet Union of the defeated Republican candidate for President, Mr. Wendell Willkie. Suffice to say that his visit was arranged by President Roosevelt in a direct letter to Premier Stalin, by-passing Mr. Litvinov, the Soviet Ambassador to the United States. From the time that Mr. Willkie arrived at the military airport in Kuibyshev on September 17, 1942, until he left Moscow ten days later, he contrived to ignore and by-pass me and thus compromised the position of the American Ambassador in Moscow.
Having been given a quasi-diplomatic status by the President as his “Special Representative,” Mr. Willkie had been briefed in Washington to take up certain matters with Mr. Stalin. One of these was the Polish Question. He refused to discuss these issues or to let me brief him in late developments in the Polish situation, completely ignoring conversations which I had entered into with Mr. Molotov. Through his contacts with Communists and unknown to me, Mr. Willkie made arrangements direct with the Foreign Office for an interview with Marshal Stalin. When I questioned this procedure, Mr. Willkie informed me that it was to be understood that I was not to accompany him to the Kremlin.
I asked, “Why?”
“Because I bear such highly secret messages for Mr. Stalin that not even the Ambassador can be told about them.” -
At a reception I gave for Mr. Willkie in Spaso House on September 23rd, I specifically asked him not to take up with Mr. Stalin any matters other than those about which he had been given definite instructions by the President, since to discuss issues at a meeting with Mr. Stalin at which I was not present would leave me in a most embarrassing position.
The Polish Question was not the only matter at issue between Mr. Willkie and myself, but it is the one with which we are presently concerned. He saw Mr. Stalin for three hours the evening of September 23rd and left almost immediately for a visit to the front. Upon his return, he gave me the following resume of his discussion of the Polish Question with Premier Stalin:
Mr. Willkie stated that he had discussed the Polish Question along the lines on which he had been previously briefed, pointing out particularly that it was in the common interest of the United Nations that there should be the maximum cooperation and the least possible cause for friction between the various nations fighting against the Axis Powers. Mr. Stalin asked specific questions in regard to the Polish complaints. Mr. Willkie replied that he did not wish to argue the details of the case.
Whereupon, Mr. Stalin said that he would be willing to discuss the Polish Question with Polish officials with a view toward ironing out existing difficulties.
Mr. Willkie then went on to tell me that the rest of his conversation with Mr. Stalin was so secret that he could reveal it to no one but the President.
As a result of the unfortunate situation brought about by Mr. Willkie’s activities in Moscow, I was completely ignorant as to the progress of negotiations on several issues which Mr. Willkie had taken up with Mr. Stalin. And so I asked the State Department to order me home for consultation. I left Moscow on October 10, 1942, in Major General Follett Bradley’s plane. While in Washington, I discussed the Polish Question in all its ramifications with President Roosevelt, Secretary Hull, and other officials of the State Department, and the Polish Ambassador. I returned to Kuibyshev on January 6, 1943. The Polish Question did not come up again officially until I went to Moscow in March.
Meanwhile, the Russian military situation had greatly improved. On January 31, Field Marshal Von Paulus, encircled by the Red Army before Stalingrad, surrendered 90,000 German troops. On February 16, the Red Army reoccupied Kharkov. The tide of German conquest in Russia had begun to ebb.
While I was absent from the Russian capital, a number of events significant to the Polish Question had taken place. Dr. Kot left and was relieved by a Mr. Romer, who also proved to be a very delightful and personable gentleman. On his first visit to Mr. Molotov, the Foreign Commissar had seemed most friendly and willing to discuss Polish issues freely with Mr. Romer, until he brought up the question of the citizenship of the Polish Jews. Mr. Molotov said, harshly, that the decision had been taken in that matter and that he would not even talk about it. Discouraged, Mr. Romer asked for an appointment to see Premier Stalin.
While at the Bolshoi Theater a few evenings later, Mr. Romer received a summons to the Kremlin, where he conferred with Mr. Stalin and Mr. Molotov. The Soviet line had changed. Mr. Stalin was friendly and affable. Of course, the Soviet Government would be happy to discuss the Polish Question, not only citizenship, but post-War boundaries, evacuation of Polish women and children from Russia, Polish refugees in Russia, the missing Polish Army officers, and all the other issues. There followed an amiable discussion about the citizenship question and about a highly controversial statement given out that day in London by General Sikorsky of the Polish-Government- in-Exile, which Mr. Romer had not yet seen. Finally, Premier Stalin told Mr. Romer to get in touch with Mr. Molotov later and he would go over the whole Polish situation in detail. Mr. Romer told me that he left this meeting in a very cheerful mood, feeling for the first time in the long course of the Polish- Soviet negotiations that they might arrive at acceptable solutions. The day after I arrived in Moscow, Mr. Romer came to see me. Despite the friendly attitude of Premier Stalin, when he sought an interview with Mr. Molotov, the Commissar of Foreign Affairs refused to discuss the Polish issues with the Polish Ambassador or even to receive him.
My diary and the official files show much concern over the Polish Question during March, 1943, and many attempts on the part of Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr and myself to promote a better understanding between the Poles and the Kremlin. I recall one meeting between the British Ambassador and Mr. Romer and myself on March 22nd in my office. Sir Archibald was delayed. While we waited, Mr. Romer gave me memoranda on “Matters Concerning the Polish Population in the USSR” and “Political and Legal Considerations on the Polish-Soviet Problem of Citizenship.” When the British Ambassador arrived, we went over the whole situation once more.
Mr. Romer had reached almost the same state of frustration which had broken Dr. Kot’s health. “I’ve reported to my Government that Mr. Molotov has refused to discuss our problems any further,” he said plaintively. “I keep urging General Sikorsky not to take any action which would create a definite break in relations. I understand my Government is taking the whole matter up with your governments.”
Clark-Kerr and I both told him that we had reported the latest aspects of the situation to our governments. Until we received further instructions, there was nothing that either of us could do.
“I am in the same fix,” Mr. Romer growled. “Nothing to do but wait, wait, wait. And all the while, I feel something in the air— I feel it, I tell you. Something terrible is going to break, and soon. What shall I do? Do you think I should try to see Mr. Stalin again? He was so kindly and understanding.'’ Clark-Kerr and I nodded. He should certainly try to see Mr. Stalin again.
I recall that we canvassed the whole course of the controversy. I suggested that a compromise might be reached if the Poles would agree to discuss boundaries and Mr. Molotov would continue to discuss citizenship.
“No, no!” Mr. Romer exclaimed,' jumping to his feet. “If we agree to discuss boundaries, we might as well settle right now on the Curzon Line as our eastern boundary and give up all claim to our Eastern Provinces to the Soviets.”
We finally had to adjourn, agreeing that we could do no more, any of us, until we had further instructions.
On April 2, Mr. Romer came to the Embassy and left with me a memorandum giving the provisions of the notes which the Polish Ambassadors in London and Washington had presented to the British and American Governments, asking their help. “I believe that Sir Archibald and you will shortly be instructed to take up the Polish Question again with the Kremlin.”
The memorandum was most reasonable. I had high hopes for a practical settlement of this long-standing and troublesome Polish Question. Sir Archibald and I discussed the memoranda at length over lunch. Days passed but no instructions came from either of our governments. The Kremlin did not show any disposition to negotiate with the Poles. Their reasons are obvious enough, now. The Nazis had been defeated in Tunisia; the Italians were on their way out of the War; the Red Army was rolling down the invasion highway toward Smolensk and approaching the Ukranian capital of Kiev. To those on the inside, it must have been obvious even then that it was only a matter of time. Already, the Russian Politburo was making plans for post-War expansion at the expense of Eastern European nations. The Kremlin had a place for a Communist Poland in their plans.
On April 13, 1943, came the “break” that Mr. Romer had dreaded. The Goebbels propaganda machine went into high gear. The Nazi radio announced that, in Katyn Forest near Smolensk, they had found mass graves of about 10,000 Polish officers, each with his hands tied behind his back and shot through the back of his head. Russian peasants had told the Nazis that these Polish officers, prisoners of war, had been murdered by the NKVD in the spring of 1940. The German broadcast claimed that papers found in their pockets, as well as the condition of the bodies, indicated that the men had died early in 1940. Names announced over the German radio corresponded with those of Polish officers missing from the three prisoner of war camps mentioned above.
If it were only German propaganda, it was very clever propaganda, designed to split the United Nations coalition down the middle. The Russian has never had much love for the Pole. The reactionary Polish Army officers would be a difficult element to absorb into a Communist government in post-War Poland. On the other hand, the Nazis had been guilty of enough mass murder in the past five years to be entirely capable of just such a massacre.
Two days later, Radio Moscow broadcast an indignant denial of the Nazi charge. “At last,” it said, “these new German lies reveal the fate of the Polish officers whom the Germans used for construction work in the Smolensk area.” The next day Tass explained that these Polish prisoners had been captured alive by the Germans during the Red Army retreat from Smolensk in the summer of 1941, information which the combined efforts of the British, American, and Polish Governments had been unsuccessful in extracting from the Soviet Government until that day.
The Poles were wild. They knew that many of their officers had been removed from the three prison camps in April, 1940. If the Soviet Government knew that they had been captured by the Germans in 1941, why had the Russians let the Poles hunt and hope for almost two years?
Ambassador Romer urged caution. The Polish Government in London proceeded cautiously. On April 17, the Polish Cabinet issued a statement, of which I obtained a rather poor translation. It began:
There is no Pole who isn’t deeply shocked by information loudly proclaimed by German propaganda of the discovery near Smolensk of huge graves filled with corpses of massacred Polish officers missing in the USSR, and about their execution.
At the same time, the Polish Government in the name of the Polish Nation refuses to permit the Germans to promote discord among the United Nations by shifting that crime in self-defense to the Russians. The hypocritical indignation of the German propaganda will not conceal from the world the cruel crimes committed by the Nazis against the Polish Nation.
The statement then went on to list a long series of crimes committed by the Nazis in violation of International Law and the Laws of War. Unfortunately, somewhere in the statement, the Polish included an announcement that their representative in Switzerland had been instructed to ask the International Red Cross in Geneva to send a delegation to Katyn Forest to investigate and report on the true state of affairs and establish responsibility for the mass murder.
The fat was in the diplomatic fire. The Russians were furious. On April 21, Radio Moscow denounced the Polish Government for their proposal, since it was collabprating with Herr Goebbels. The Soviet Press violently attacked General Sikorsky’s statement as proving “how influential are the pro-Hitler elements in the Polish Government.” The next day, Berlin poured salt on the Russian wounds by announcing the discovery of yet another mass grave. On April 23, the International Red Cross Headquarters stated that it would be happy to comply with the Polish request, but only if Russia joined in making it.
The men in the Kremlin had found the incident they sought. About noon on April 26th, Mr. Romer sent word that he would like to see me and immediately came over to my office. About midnight, he had been summoned to Molotov’s office in the Kremlin. Mr. Molotov read a note to Mr. Romer and then handed it to him.
“I promptly laid it down on the table,” Mr. Romer said. “I told Mr. Molotov that I could not receive such a note. In the first place, it was couched in such intemperate language that it was wholly unacceptable as a diplomatic communication. I told him that he would have to submit the note through the Soviet Ambassador to my Government in London; that I, the Polish Ambassador in Moscow, would never accept such a communication. Do you know what he did? About two-thirty this morning, a Foreign Office messenger routed me out of bed and handed me a note. Naturally, I didn’t know what it contained until I had it translated. When I did, it was the same note that the Commissar had presented to me in his office. I don’t know what to do. Do you think I should return the note to the Foreign Office or should I keep it and see what happens?”
When he left my office, he still hadn’t decided what to do.
The note in question took drastic action. Because the Polish Government had appealed to the International Red Cross to investigate outrageous charges against its ally, Soviet Russia, and because of “other provocations” unnamed, the Soviet Government was discontinuing relations with the Polish Government in London. The Soviet note also stated, “The Polish Government, to please Hitler’s tyranny, deals a treacherous blow to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Government is aware that this hostile campaign against the Soviet Union was under- taken by the Polish Government in order to exert pressure upon the Soviet Government, making use of the Hitlerite fake to wrest territorial concessions from it.”
Later that day, I received word from the Foreign Office that Mr. Molotov wished to see me. About five p.m., I proceeded across Red Square in the Embassy limousine, received an impressive salute from the guard at the Kremlin Gate, and, with special guards riding our running boards, drove from the gate to the palace entrance. I went down long corridors, guided by a Foreign Office aide in uniform, and into Mr. Molotov’s outer office. Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr was just leaving. As he passed, he said in a low tone of voice, “I imagine you will be given the same information I just received—the Soviets have discontinued relations with the Polish Government. I have endeavored for an hour to persuade Mr. Molotov to delay making the note public. I’m afraid I have failed. Please use your influence to the same end.”
I went on into the inner office and took my usual seat at the long table. Mr. Molotov got right to the point. “On April 21,” he said, “Premier Stalin addressed a joint message to President Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, a note almost identical to the note I was forced to present to the Polish Ambassador last night. Ambassador Litvinoff was instructed to present the note to the President or Mr. Hull personally. Unfortunately, both of those officials were out of town. It took until April 24 to change instructions and have the note delivered to your Acting Secretary of State, Mr. Welles.”
Mr. Molotov then read the note which I have described above. I verified that no answer had as yet been received from our President. I knew that President Roosevelt was travelling through the United States inspecting military bases and I told Mr. Molotov that was undoubtedly why no answer had as yet been received.
“I have no instructions in this situation,” I went on, “but I know that the President will be greatly distressed to hear of a rupture of Soviet-Polish relations.”
I, too, tried to persuade Mr. Molotov to hold up publication of the Polish note until President Roosevelt had time to reply to Mr. Stalin’s note, but I had a sense of unreality as I spoke. The decision rested higher up. Mr. Molotov could only do what he had been told to do.
Nevertheless, I urged him again and again to hold up publication, to give the parties to the dispute time to find a solution and avoid a complete rupture in relations. Mr. Molotov slumped back wearily in his chair and shook his head. “Nyet, nyet! It is no use. For two weeks, this slanderous campaign against the Soviet Union has dragged on. The Poles have been working hand in hand with Hitler. We have shown a maximum of patience. Our people have become extremely indignant. We must make the break and publish the note. I hope that your Government will understand the Soviet position.”
I realized it was hopeless, how hopeless I discovered a few days later, when the Soviet Government set up in Moscow her own “Union of Polish Patriots” made up of Polish Communists virtually unknown on the international scene. This Union later became the Lublin Government which moved into liberated Poland on the heels of the Red Army and took over Poland for the Communists.
Anxious to conciliate the Kremlin, on May 1st, the Polish-Government-in-Exile withdrew its request for a Red Cross investigation. Realizing he had a good thing, Herr Goebbels went ahead with an investigation of his own, employing a panel of twelve distinguished Europeans, only one of whom, a Swiss, was neutral. This commission unanimously agreed that the condition of the bodies and the papers in the officers’ pockets proved beyond doubt that they had been dead and buried for three years. This placed the massacre back in 1940 when the Russians held Katyn Forest.
The Nazi propagandists took to the graveside a number of American officers, prisoners of war in Germany. One of these, Army Colonel John H. Van Vliet, Jr., recently testified before the special House committee, “Despite my hatred for the Nazis, I formed an immediate, unshakeable opinion that the Russians were guilty.”
At noon on April 29th, Polish Ambassador Romer came to Spaso House to tell me goodbye and to inform me that his Government had asked the American Government to takeover Polish documents and the British Government Polish affairs. Later in the afternoon, with my First Secretary and members of my staff, I went to the station to see Mr. Romer off. Also present were Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr and his staff and the Turkish Ambassador and his Secretary, as well as all of the foreign correspondents and news photographers.
In the course of his few months in Moscow, Mr. Romer had become very popular with us all. It was a cold, rainy day, with an air of gloom over the assemblage. We gave Mr. Romer our little gifts and watched him waving from the window as the train pulled out of the station, feeling without quite knowing why that with him went some of our hope for a free and peaceful world.
The Polish Massacre in Katyn Forest was argued back and forth on propaganda broadcasts between the Germans and the Russians until September, 1943, when the Red Army recaptured Smolensk. On January 22, 1944, four months later, the Soviet Government announced that a Soviet investigation commission had been formed to settle once and for all the Katyn Forest dispute. A number of our American correspondents and military aides were invited to Goat Hill to see for themselves. They were shown about by the Director of the Moscow Institute of Criminal Medical Research, Dr. Victor Prozorovsky. They saw Red Army men digging in great trenches where bodies of the Polish officers were laid out in rows and layers, like cord- wood ricked up for the Winter. In large medical tents, they saw autopsies performed, while surgeons explained that the firm texture of the flesh indicated that the bodies could not possibly have been buried longer than two years. They noted that most of the bodies wore long, heavy underwear and fur coats, rather warm clothing for September (when the Nazis were supposed to have murdered the Poles) but not unusual for April (when the Polish officers were evacuated from the prisoner of war camps). Many of the newspaper clippings, letters, and other documents were dated February and March 1940, although the visitors were shown a few papers dated in 1941.
The evidence of German guilt which.they were shown was detailed, complete, and darning. Yet a few questions remained unanswered :
If the Polish officers were captured alive by the Germans in the Summer of 1941, why weren’t the Polish officials told at once?
Why was the quest of the Polish military authorities for their lost officers allowed to continue for over two years?
Would the uniforms and boots be in such excellent condition after two years in Russian prison camps?
Why were the officers wearing heavy underwear and fur overcoats in September when Katyn Forest is very warm?
Why were there so many letters and documents dated in February and March of 1940 and only a few dated in 1941?
Why were the news despatches from Moscow so peculiarly censored by Narkomindel that all the correspondents’ doubts of German guilt were eliminated from the despatches?
One obvious truth is this: The Russians didn’t need to be polite to the London Poles any more. By November 1943, a few hundred miles south of the Russian border in Teheran, the Big Three were discussing, not so much how to win the War, as what to do about the world after it was won. Present at the Teheran Conference was my friend, Admiral William D. Leahy. In his book, I Was There, he wrote:
Polish boundaries caused little argument at Teheran. After a more or less general acceptance of the Curzon Line as Poland’s eastern frontier, to which Roosevelt made no specific agreement, the matter of the western border was left undecided—except that the Big Three seemed to accept as a principle that Poland should get some German territory to compensate for the area claimed by Russia on her side of the Curzon Line.
The Russians at that conference seemed to accept as an axiom that post-War Poland would be a Communist Poland.
Katyn Forest is now behind the Iron Curtain. Probably no one except the German and Russian authorities and a few eye witnesses will ever know for certain just who massacred the Polish officers. Both ruthless dictatorships were easily capable of the act.
There is a lesson—Let my fellow citizens beware that they never be caught like the Poles between the upper and nether millstones of dictatorship.
*Copies of the multi-volume, printed Hearings Before the Select Committee to Conduct An Investigation of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre may now be obtained from the U. S. Government Printing Office.
1. Stalin was willing to let Polish war prisoners, organized into combat divisions, leave Russia to help the British in the Middle East, but he insisted on regarding Polish Jews as Soviet citizens and he refused to let them leave Russia under any circumstance, a position to which the Polish-Government-in-Exile objected passionately during my whole stay in Russia.
2. The Polish Army unit, their families, and the orphans I saw in Teheran.