The grave unknown elsewhere or any time before ...
Katyń - Kharkov - Mednoe


The massacre of 15,131 harmless prisoners of war - perpetrated in 1940 on commissioned and non commissioned officers of the Polish Army and Military Border Guard Corps and mobilized State Policemen, Border and Prison Guards - is an unprecedented crime in history of the civilized world, committed on the armless soldiers of the enemy side taken prison by the victorious country. The crime, for half a century bearing heavily on the political relations for both the Polish and Russian nations, should for ever become a warning to mankind. As it has Been said, `the grave that is unknown elsewhere or any time before ... .' There is hardly any Pole who have not lost their kin in that grave.

The Fourth Partition of Poland that came about in the aftermath of the September invasion initiated a new, extremely tragic, chapter in Poland's history. The times were distinguished by the anguish of the Poles in the eastern lands, which assumed the unprecedented dimensions. The Soviet occupation lasted relatively short, less than two years, until 22 June 1941, when Germany attacked its most loyally. The effects of the NKVD activities in Poland from September 1939 to June 1941 proved to be disastrous and appalling. It is also reflected in the numerous top-secret NKVD documents, which recently were made public.

The note of the Chief of NKWD L.Beria to J.Stalin

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Already during the battles in September and October 1939 murders on Polish prisoners-of war were quite frequent. Instances include Grodno, Mokrany or Sopoćkiny. This is when, among others, General Józef Olszyna-Wilczyński was killed.
A total of 130,242 prisoners were taken to the NKVD camps located in the interior of the USSR, including 5189 soldiers transported from Latvia and Lithuania in July 1940. The crime committed on part of them will be treated elsewhere in this article.
Until 1 August 1941 46,594 Polish citizens arrested in the Eastern Lands of the Republic of Poland survived in the prisons and camps. How many were earlier executed, how many died in prisons and during transports, and in particular in the awesome camp conditions, no one has been able to count exactly up to now. Many mass murders were committed also during evacuation of the prisons in June and July 1941 with the band of the NKVD troops withdrawing in the face of the pushing forward German army. Notable examples include: Lvov, Berezvech, Vileika, Luck or Minsk. The losses incurred during these cruel `death marches' are estimated at many thousands victims. The work to determine the list of the murdered people is now in progress.
An estimated 330 thousand Poles, including the elderly, women and children, were deported as entire families from the lands beyond the Bug R. into the Soviet Union, largely to Kazakhstan during four large deportations over the years 1940-41, while 210-230 thousand of young men were forced to serve in the Red Army.
Towards the end of 1941 the General Anders's Polish Army was being joined by the trickling in of men from the most remote corners of the USSR. They were coming not only from the POW camps but also from prisons, concentration camps, forced settlement places and with them the persecuted families looking for help from the Polish soldier. As a result, the General was taking his army out to Iraq; and together with the 76,110 men a total of 43,755 civilians could be saved to total 119,865 Polish citizens. There could, however, have been many more of these soldiers.
As soon as 19 September 1939, the First Rank Commissar of the State Security, Lavrentii Pavlovich Beria (the Popular Commissar for Internal Affairs) called the Board of the NKVD of the USSR for Prisoners of War and the Interned (Head: State Security Captain, Peter K. Soprunenko) ordered to set up camps for Polish prisoners. These were: Jukhnovo (rail station of Babynino), Yuzhe (Talitsy), Kozelsk, Kozelshchyna, Oranki, Ostashkov (Stolbnyi Island on Seliger Lake near Ostashkov), Putyvli (rail station of Tetkino), Starobelsk, Vologod (rail station of Zaenikevo) and Gryazovets camps.
To the aforementioned camps prisoners were transported by rail from the transitory pointa (e.g. at Shepetovka) and located in the vicinity of the former state border with Poland.
Remarkably an immediate meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) was held in Moscow, as soon as on the fourth day after having signed the secret protocol with Germany (02.10.1939) with the Polish prisoners issue on the agenda. It had been resolved there that the particularly active, highly patriotic elements, brought up on the independence tradition, was isolated in special camps, notably:

·         the generals and commissioned and reserve officers, high-rank military and state officials, thus the commanding Staff of the army and the elite of the intelligentsia in the Starobelsk camp (in November, as the camps became full, the officers were gathered also in Kozelsk);

·         the intelligence and counterintelligence staff, military police, policemen and prison guards - in the ostashkov camp.

The following day Lavrentii Beria issued a top secret executive order no. 4441/b to its subordinated NKVD units. The prisoners, once arrived in the camps, were questioned on the basis of a uniform questionnaire drawn up by the Board of the NKVD of the USSR for Prisoners of War and the Interned. In December a team of officers were delegated to the Ostashkov camp with a duty to carry out an investigation of all the policemen with an order to prepare the records of investigation for the Special Board (Osobne Soveshchanie) of the NKVD of the USSR by the end of January 1940.
Amidst the professional military put in prison in Kozelsk and Starobelsk were: one admiral, 12 generals, and a great many graduates of the Higher War College. Around 8400 officers of the professional and reserve services were the commanding staff capable of manning at least 16 pre-war divisions. Amidst the reserve officers were quite a number of world-class representatives of academic communities, at least 770 academic, secondary and primary school teachers, not less than 920 physicians, veterinary doctors and pharmacists, over 450 lawyers and 650 engineers, and additionally 45 clergymen of various denominations, members of the Parliament (the Sejm and the Senate) of the Republic of Poland, ministerial officers, central and local government officials, public servants, diplomats, industrialists and bankers, landlords, writers, artists and musicians, political and social activists, scouting instructors, quite a number of excellent sportsmen, among which some renowned Olympic games champions. Behind the barbed-wire the elite of the Polish intelligentsia were herded.
The Red Army invading Poland's territory and the NKVD Cheka-operational units that followed, were interested not only in the Polish Army military. Chased and persecuted with utmost zeal were the services of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: officials of the State Police and the autonomous Police of the Province of Silesia, Border Guards and prison guards, as well as military settlers living on the eastern frontiers of the Republic of Poland. In September 1939 a total of ca. 6000 policemen were interned in the lands beyond the Bug River, meaning that every 5th or 6th policeman was taken prison to Ostashkov. There were not only servicemen of the State Police from the eastern provinces. As the western and central provinces were being gradually occupied by the Wehrmacht, the police were evacuated from those areas to the Tarnopol and Brest on the Bug. The NKVD could boast a very good harvest in particular in Tarnopol, where it captured the majority of the Police of the Silesian Province which withdrew there in full order.
The policemen were zealously chased. The pre-war police was a highly patriotic element, brought up on the tradition of the fight for independence. Served in its ranks were a great many participants of the struggle for independence of Poland in the years 1914-1921: soldiers of the Polish Legions of Marshal Pulsudski, veterans of the three Silesian Uprisings and the Great-Poland Uprising, servicemen under the command of Gen. Haller, Gen. Dowbor-Musnicki, and Gen. Żeligowski, and in particular veterans of the 1920 Polish-Soviet war. During the inter-war period also young policemen were recruited with utmost care, paying particular attention to the education in the spirit of allegiance to Poland.
Fulfilling the provisions of the secret protocol of 28 September 1939, also all the civilians still at large were taken care of, to whom similar criteria could be applied as to the POW's detained behind the barbed wire, in general termed by the then Soviet nomenclature as `hostile counter-revolutionary elements' and "strange class" individuals. In starting the action on 5 October 1939, soon to assume huge dimensions, Beria issued an order to set up within the NKVD Moscow headquarters three groups: operational, 'records-keeping, and investigative ones with the task to investigate the materials on "Polish intelligence" . The order underlay a subsequent order which was signed by Merkulov, Beria's assistant, on 5 November 1939. According to the latter order participants of various counterrevolutionary organisations, intelligence agents, residents, infiltrators, military and civilian policemen, etc. were to be found over the area of the Western districts of the Ukrainian SSR and Belorussian SSR, thus on the lands eastward of the Bug R.
The prisons situated on the invaded areas were soon filled with all those who were considered by the new Soviet authorities a potential peril to the Soviet system. These originated from such men as: army officers who were not prudent enough to have reported at the registration points, those detained on the southern border, heading for the Polish army in France or were curing their wounds in hospitals; with the policemen even those retired for many years; civil servants of central and local administrations, representatives of justice - attorneys and judges, as well as penitentiary system personnel and guards; members, and in particular the activists of Shooting Society, of all social organisations and political parties: "strange-class elements" - landlords, financial world representatives, businessmen, and merchants.
The first official information on the detentions and deportations made by the NKVD was given to the Polish conspiratory authorities as late as half a year afterwards during a conference called in Belgrade by the Commander-in-Chief of the Military Struggle Union (29.05.-02.06.1940). The delegate of the Lvov Command for Area no. 3, lieut. Roman Tatarski pseudo Luda gave the following account of this event: "the planned and consistent extermination of the Polish element comprises all the social and professional groups and is directed in the first place against the element capable of carrying arms [...]. The priorities of the groups comprised in deportations: commissioned and non-commissioned officers, settlers, police, central and local government public servants, finally peasants [...]. The Soviet extermination policy also turns against Ukrainian and Jewish nationalists; it persecutes Poles in the first place".
Lieut. "Luda" unknowingly spoke of the people who had already been dead.
Nearly 20,000 detainees, including over 1200 officers and more than 5000 former civil and military policemen and intelligence personnel were awaiting their fate in prisons for many months. The decision was taken in March 1940; it concerned both the POW's from the Kozielsk, Ostashkov and Starobielsk camps, and the people detained in prisons.
On 5 March 1940 the Politburo of the CC CPSU were made acquainted with the proposal of the People's Commissar for Internal Affairs, Lavrentii Beria to examine, according to the extraordinary order with the application of the death penalty by shooting, of the matter of 14,700 prisoners kept in the NKVD camps and of nearly 11,000 Polish citizens detained in the prisons in the Western districts of the Belorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR.
Beria suggested examining the matters without summoning the defendants, and with regard to ,,the prisoners detained in the camps - merely on the grounds of the information provided by the Governing Body for the Affairs of Prisoners of War of the NKVD of the USSR and with respect to the detainees - on the grounds of the note drawn up on the basise of the files of the NKVD Boards of the Bielorussian SSR and the Ukrainian SSR. The examination of the proposals and issuing the sentence was entrusted to the "troika" of high NKVD officials: Merkulov, Kabulov and Bashtakov.
The Politburo decision coincided with Beria's proposal.
In the period from 3 April to 19 May 1940 a total of 14,552 prisoners were murdered: 4421 from the Kozielsk camp, 6311 from the Ostashkov camp and 3982 from the Starobielsk camp - in the Katyń Forest, Kalinin (Tver today) and Kharkov. A mere 395 prisoners were saved from the manslaughter, who were taken to the Yukhnov camp and then to Gryazovets. Those were the only ones who escaped death.
By the order of 22 March 1940 Beria commanded that within ten days 3000 detainees were transported from the prisons in Lwów, Równe, Włodzimierz Wołyński, Tarnopol, Drohobycz and Stanisławów - to Kiev, Kharkov and Kherson, and the same number of detainees from Brześć, Wilejka, Pińsk and Baranowicze - to Mińsk. There they met their fate. At that time 7305 people were slaughtered: 3435 were murdered by the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR and 3870 by the NKVD of the Belorussian SSR.
The list of the victims of the decision of the Politburo of the CC CPSU slain by the NKVD men in the spring of 1940 therefore comprises a total of 21,857 names of Polish citizens.
Knowing the foregoing facts it stands to reason that in the spring of 1940 rather frequent correspondence conducted until then between the prisoners and their families in the occupied Poland, suddenly stopped. Also the contact with the prisoners of the eastern borderland prisons broke. What is more, almost all the families of the officers and policemen in captivity, who lived in the areas occupied by the Soviets - a total of 60,351, mostly women and children - were deported to Kazakhstan on 13 April 1940. Attempts to carry on the correspondence with the deportation sites proved useless. Similar was the case of the families living in the areas under German occupation. Letters, wires and post-cards were returned by the Soviet invariably with the same stamp: "Retour parti" .
Following the assault of Germany on the Soviet Union on 30 July 1941 the Polish-Soviet diplomatic relations were resumed and, the following month, the Polish Army in the USSR began being organized under the command of Gen. Anders who had been released from Lubianka prison. To the recruiting points at Buzuluk, Trotskoe and Tatishchev no one came up from the camps at Kozelsk, Ostashkov or Starobielsk, except for a handful of the prisoners who luckily survived at the Gryazovets camp. Others have no longer been heard of any more. None of those coming from the numerous places of confinement to enlist to the Polish Army had recently heard of any of the prisoners from those three camps.
Repeated inquiries about the fate of the unaccounted-for, numerous diplomatic notes, finally demarche of the embassy and the Polish military authorities, who were increasingly alarmed with the inexplicable and mysterious disappearance of 14.5 thousand prisoners from three large camps, remained without a response but for the evasive, cynical replies of the Soviet government dignitaries. General Władysław Sikorski spoke on this issue to Stalin during his meeting at the Kremlin in December 1941, equally to no avail. The search carried out by specially appointed staff team headed by captain Józef Czapski also failed. The terrfying truth was to come to light as late as the spring of 1943.


Ostashkov is situated 180 km west of Kalinin. Today the former name of the locality, Tver, has Been restored. The increased-severity camp; which served as a confinement place for State Police, Border Guards, Prison Guards, Military Police, the 2nd Division of the Polish Army Staff, and employees of the judiciary, was located 11 km away from Ostashkov on Stolbnyi Island on Lake Seliger on the premises of the former orthodox monastery of Nilova Pustyn. Undernourished, lodged in cold, unheated monastic accommodation, the Polish prisoners every day were losing their strengths. Mortality here was much higher than in the military camps. Many of the inmates developed tuberculosis. On the lake side in the vicinity of the locality of Świetlica, there is a derelict tiny country cemetery on which graves of Polish policemen can hardly be identified. In the early 1940 in the Ostashkov camp an estimated 6300 prisoners were kept.
From 4 April 1940 on, the prisoners sentenced to death were driven in groups day after day from the camp to the rail stop of Soroga, wherefrom via Likhoslavl they were transported to Kalinin under guard by prison rail cars. Like in Kharkov, they were taken by prison busses from the rail station to the District Board of the NKVD at Sovetskaya street where they stayed for a short time in the cells in the cellar of the building. Detailed information on the executions was given during the hearing by Dmitrii S. Tokarev, former head of the Board of the District NKVD in Kalinin.
According to Tokarev the shooting was started in the evening and ended at dusk. The first transport on 4 April was 390 strong and the executioners had a bard time doing their duty with so many people during one night. After their claim the following transport were not greater than 250 people. Used in the executions were usually the Walther type pistols supplied from Moscow.
The execution was as follows. In one of the cellar rooms the convict's personal information was checked, then he was handcuffed and led to the condemned cell provided with felt-lined door. Additionally, to deafen down the shot sounds, some kind of loud machines (perhaps fans ?) were operated throughout the night-time. On dragging the victim into the cell, he was immediately shot dead with a shot in the back of the head. The corpse was taken out through the opposite door and laid in one of the five or six, waiting trucks, whereupon the net condemned was ordered in. The procedure was going on night after night, except for the 1 May Holiday.
At dusk the trucks set off by the Moscow-Leningrad road 32 km away to a locality of Mednoe on the Tvertsa River. There, on the premises of the Kalinin NKVD recreational centre, on the outskirts of the forest, there was a pit previously dug out by an excavator brought over from Moscow. The pit was 4-6 m deep and could accommodate 250 corpses. The corpses were dumped from the trucks randomly into the pit, and subsequently the excavator started filing the pit with earth and digging another pit for the following day. There are 23 pits of this kind in Mednoe.
The death transports from Ostashkov were stopped on 19 May 1940. A mere 112 people, who were taken to the Yukhnov camp, escaped the slaughter.
The exhumation carried out in 1991 in Mednoe, like in Kharkov, has given an answer to the following material questions: Who were the murdered? When the crime was committed? finally: Who was the perpetrator? It should be emphasized that the Mednoe area, unlike Smolensk and Kharkov, had not Been taken over by Germans in the years of the Second World War.
During the exhumation operations in Mednoe one mass grave was uncovered, out of which 240 remains of the corpses were taken out. The corpses in navy-blue uniforms prevailed. Details of their uniforms, official outfit, objects of personal use and relatively numerous well-preserved documents, among which two diaries, offered undeniable evidence that those had Been almost exclusively Polish policemen, earlier prisoners of Ostashkov camp, while the names that could be read, are also present on the NKVD transport lists. Amidst the objects found were a prison guard cap, corporal's hat of a rifleman of the Podhalańska Brigade and a badge of the Border Guard officer. All the dates read off the diaries, correspondence, personal notes or newspaper headings bore the latest date of April 1940. On one of the boxes made in the camp the carved inscription read `OstashkovSeliger', whereas on another one, `Ostashkov 7 XI 1939 GS', and on the inventory plaque, most likely removed from a piece of camp furniture the inscription pressed in metal: `TKU NKVD KO, G. Ostashkov 5588' [in English transliteration - translator's note].
As a result of examination of the skulls found it has Been established that 169 bear the signs of shots, and that the shots must have Been fired at the back of the head. Over 20 bullets were found, of which only two were from a Nagant. The remainder, 7.656 caliber, were German. In the uniform folds a dozen German pistol shells were found. Accordingly, Tokarev's testimony of the German arms supplied from Moscow for the execution have Been fully substantiated.
On termination of the exhumation work at Mednoe, exactly as it was at Kharkov, on 31 August 1991 the exhumed remains of the Ostashkov prisoners were interred during a celebration, with participation of family members, clergy, representatives of government authorities, and merely the Representation Company of the Army was replaced by the Representation Company of the Police. A tall cross was put up above the grave.
The summer months of 1994-95 came afterwards, when the officials of the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs located all the mass graves at Mednoe and carried out exhumations within a full range planned to have brought the stage of work preceding the construction of a cemetery planned on that site.



All materials are based an special edition of a Historic Reference-Book for the Pilgrims to Katyń - Kharkow - Mednoe by Jędrzej Tucholski

Materials from the Katyń Museum Collections (02-920 Warszawa, ul. Powsińska 13, tel/fax +48 22 842-66-11) have been used in the internet service.

Special regards for the Museum Director Mr Zdzisław Sawicki for photography materials.