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Remembering Katyn

  • Hon. Benjamin L. Cardin
    US












Senate

112th Congress, First Session

Mr. President, I rise today to commemorate the lives lost in last year’s plane crash near Smolensk that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria, and 94 others who represented the political, cultural, and religious leadership of Poland. Words alone offer little solace before such awesome tragedy, which is one of the reasons people must gather together before monuments and flowers to add a tangible dimension to our shapeless grief. While eloquent remarks can move the heart, we all know a smile, a gaze, or an embrace can often do more to bring comfort to the sorrowful. 

Katyn has become a tragedy in three acts–the crime, the cover-up, and now the crash. Surely it is fitting for us to meet, comfort each other, and remember those who died. But what lies beyond our tears? Can good come from this evil? 

For the loved ones of those 96 souls who perished nearly a year ago, they must take comfort in knowing that the final act of their beloved was a noble one–that of remembering those martyrs whom Stalin and his henchmen sought to erase from Poland and, indeed, from history. 

As Stanislaw Kot, Poland’s wartime Ambassador to Moscow, said, “People are not like steam; they cannot evaporate.” He was right and it is written, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” In a haunting twist of fate, a hungry wolf in the Russian winter would scratch at the snow and uncover the hastily buried bones of Poland’s best and brightest. And the truth about this unspeakable crime would one day be known. 

We have come a long way–a very long way–from the time when this atrocity was falsely presented as a Nazi crime and from the time when the names of the dead could only be circulated in communist Poland in the form of samizdat publications and whispered around kitchen tables. 

Nevertheless, there is still more that must be done to set the record straight. This involves insuring that all the evidence relating to the execution sites, the executioners’ identities, the motives for the crime, and the fate of so many Polish families who vanished on the Siberian steppe are publicly available. We must ensure that the fullness of the truth is uncovered and shared for its own sake and for closure. To that end, I welcome recent news of the Kremlin’s release of still more documents relating to the massacre. 

Further, I believe that finally coming to terms with Katyn is a necessary precondition for a durable Polish-Russian rapprochement, which is itself good insurance for maintaining a Europe, whole, free, and at peace. 

Next week Presidents Komorowski and Medvedev will meet before the mass graves at Katyn and, I trust, will continue a dialogue of healing between two great nations that have suffered so much from the elevation of an ideology over a people. I wish them well in their talks and ongoing mission of reconciliation and believe that the only lasting balm for this wound lies in the heart and not in a courtroom or even a legislature. 

This is not to say that charges or claims should not be pursued, but to recognize that, in many cases, such actions will fall short and offer little by way of consolation. 

It would be most unfortunate for the memory of Katyn to be debased by ideologues of any ilk who would usurp this sacred memory for partisan projects. For too long the truth about Katyn was denied by those on the left who turned a blind eye to the reality of communism and many on the right seemed to view Katyn as just another issue to be exploited in the struggle of ideologies. People and their memory are an end, in and of themselves, and must never be used as a means to advance even a just cause. The only decent relationship to them is that of love and remembrance–our dignity and theirs demands nothing less. 

My sincere hope is that Poland and Russia can do better than some countries that have fought bitter diplomatic battles and enacted laws to force or deny recognition of historic crimes. By honestly evaluating a shared past of suffering, Poles and Russians have a real opportunity to build a shared future of friendship and prosperity. 

Poland is now free and her traditions support the forgiveness that offers a path out of the valley of this shadow of death. In so many ways, Poland is, and must remain, a light to those nearby who still live in the darkness of oppression and lies. 

As we continue to ponder the devastation of last year’s catastrophe, I would like to close by putting a couple faces on our sadness; those of Mariusz Handzlik and Andrzej Przewoznik, who both died in last year’s crash. 

Mariusz was a diplomat and father of three. He was well known and well liked in Washington from the years he spent assigned to the Embassy of Poland. In 2000, he played a fateful game of chess with Polish war hero and Righteous Gentile Jan Karski who narrowly escaped “liquidation” at Katyn. Karski would die in a Washington hospital and Handzlik in a gloomy Russian forest. 

Andrzej was a historian, a husband, and father of two. He was the principal organizer behind the conference I cohosted as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission last year at the Library of Congress to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre. Andrzej hoped to spend time at our National Archives sifting through the papers of the Madden Committee and other relevant U.S. Government documents on Katyn. 

The memories of Mariusz, Andrzej, and so many other truly exceptional people on that doomed flight offer much by way of virtue and accomplishment that will inspire Poles for generations to come. Let us take comfort in the truth that is, at last, known and bask in the warmth of heroic memories and do this together with our Polish friends who are second to no one in their love of freedom.

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