Remembering the dead

Forty years ago this month a memorial to the dead of Katyn was unveiled, not at a major public location, but in the Council-owned Gunnersbury cemetery.

In 1945, the exhausted Allies had little choice but to accept the absorption of part of pre-war Poland into the Soviet Union and the installation of a puppet Government in Warsaw.  For the surviving remnants of the Polish forces who had taken on Hitler and Stalin and then regrouped in London to continue the fight, it was a shattering blow.

With a return to Poland now fraught with risk and uncertainty, many Poles decided to settle in Britain. To begin with, most stayed close to the focal points of war-time Polish life, such as Knightsbridge and Kensington, where the Daquise Polish restaurant still survives.

In time, however, a strong community emerged that radiated west to Hammersmith and Ealing.  But no matter how successful that first wave of Poles became in Britain, they remained uncompromising towards Poland’s communist authorities. Throughout its long years of dictatorship, they refused to forget the old country and the horrors inflicted on it by its neighbours to either side.

One of those horrors was the massacre in the forests of Katyn. On 5 March 1940 Stalin ordered his internal security police – the NKVD – to shoot an estimated 22,000 Polish prisoners-of-war captured during a joint Soviet-Nazi operation to enslave and dismember Poland.

The prisoners were all officers – many of them doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, policemen and priests – who might one day have opposed Soviet tyranny.  The victims were driven, tied and blindfolded, to secret killing grounds, shot in the head and buried in mass graves.

By 1943, the Nazis had been defeated at Stalingrad and were in retreat.  With awesome hypocrisy, Goebbels’ released a news film accusing the Soviet Union of war crimes.  It showed the bodies of thousands of Polish officers unearthed by the Germans in the Katyn Forest, close to the Belarus border.

The Soviets counter-accused but the facts were clear enough, even then.  However, the Eastern Front and the relationship with the Soviet Union was so critical to the war effort, to national survival even, that the British government took care to avoid publicly contradicting Soviet claims that Katyn had been a Nazi atrocity.

As recently as the late seventies, British ministers continued to maintain there was ‘insufficient evidence’ either way. Proposals for a Katyn Memorial that would place the blame where it actually belonged were therefore a tad awkward, to say the least.

Nevertheless, in 1971, a Katyn Memorial Fund was formed to raise money for a suitable monument. Cash poured in and within a year the fund was looking for a site. Given its Polish links, Kensington and Chelsea was a natural choice.  Several sites were proposed, but for one reason or another, they all proved unsuitable.

Then in 1975 a request was made to the Council to allow the monument – a 20-foot obelisk – to be erected out at Gunnersbury, which better reflected the new centre of gravity for London’s Polish community.

The granite obelisk was regarded as provocative by the Government of the day and by the Soviet Union itself.  It’s not hard to see why: on the front is Poland’s pre-war crowned eagle surrounded by a wreath of barbed wire, emblematic of enslavement followed by the dedication – Katyn 1940 – which flatly contradicted the USSR’s insistence that the Nazis committed the atrocity in 1941.

The unveiling in September 1976 was attended by over 5,000, none of them representatives of the British Government.

Documents of the time suggest that pressure was brought to bear on the Council not to allow the memorial or at least tone down its message.  The Council Leader of the day, Sir Malby Crofton – who had served with the Poles during the war – wasn’t having any of it.  As we explained in a letter to The Times:

‘we are proud of our large Polish community and honoured to have provided a site for such a splendid memorial.’

It was only in the 1990s, thanks to Gorbachev and Yeltsin, that communist responsibility for Katyn and other crimes against humanity began to be openly acknowledged. By then the memorial had stood for a quarter of a century; a monument to the victims of Katyn and a sharp needle piercing the fabric of Cold War detente.

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