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I saw it with my own eyes… – Józef Mackiewicz

Tytuł: I saw it with my own eyes…

Autor: Józef Mackiewicz

Wydawca: “Goniec Codzienny”, 3 czerwca 1943, nr 577

Rok: 1943


Jozef Mackiewicz arrived at the scene of the Katyn massacre, at the open graves of the Polish officers on 21st (or 22nd) May 1943, together with a group of Polish workers sent there by the Germans, and three journalists from neutral and occupied countries. On 3rd June 1943 he presented his account in the “Daily Messenger” published in Vilnius by the Germans. We are quoting this interview ( with some abbreviations ) from: Jozef Mackiewicz, “Katyń – zbrodnia bez sądu i kary” (“Katyn – a crime without court and punishment”), edited by Jacek Trznadel, ANTYK Marcin Dybowski Publishing, Warsaw 1997; translated by Tatiana Fuller.

I saw it with my own eyes…

First question is the most difficult and therefore seems a little pointless:
So you have been there? (Obviously we knew he had)

That’s right. I saw it with my own eyes. (…)

Are you still impressed by it?

I don’t know if one can call it being “impressed”. Impression is a result of some, usually, singular event or fact, limited in itself. Smolensk which I saw, Katyn, crimes, corpses, ruins, bolshevism that I went through myself, and the letters, letters of children to their fathers, beginning with the words: “Dear Dad” or “Dear Daddy”, being dug out now from the piles of squashed, putrid bodies, from this swamp of death or the semi dried Polish uniforms… Yes, all of this creates a sort of long chain of associations, thoughts, reflections sinking deep in the heart. I would not call it an impression. An ordeal rather.

Could you then describe to us the sequence of pictures that struck you there in Katyn?

(…) It was a cold day and big clouds, covering the surrounding ruins of the houses with rain, were arriving from Smolensk, from the front line. We were driving to Katyn amid these ruins, rubbles of iron, burnt out carts and wagons, protruding iron rails and iron beds still remaining in the rubbles. People in the know said that the weather was most appropriate. Cold and rain, the wind disperses the stench of death, and there are no flies. At some point the road crosses the railway track and continues through the clearing. “Here – someone said – begins the Golgota…”

The Katyn forest is not big. Several hectares. Today the entrance to it is guarded by the watch, a barrier and a plaque with an appropriate inscription. The gravel country road deep inside is slippery and shaped by car tyres. From here only a dozen steps. Getting out of the car we are struck by the interior of the forest, typical for our climatic zone, the same as ours, Vilnius forest, consisting of young pine and birch trees, moss and fresh spring grass. But it doesn’t smell of damp moss or conifer needles. We are overwhelmed by a hideously smelling, sweet, sticky cadaverous stench. Despite the cold and the wind, it was so intense that I backed off instinctively and stepped onto an object which gave in under my foot. It was a Polish officer’s cap, with the dark green rim of our artillery. I lifted it and put it on the carpet of flowers growing right there. Perhaps it sounds pathetic that I noticed the flowers…

Please, please, continue.

And so the floor of the forest looks bad at this place. It looks simply like, let’s say, a suburban woods left by the picnic goers, messy excursionists, who on Sundays spread themselves under the trees and then leave their cigarette butts, wrappers, rubbish behind. In Katyn, there are flowers growing among this rubbish. At a closer look, we are stunned by an incredible scene. This is no rubbish. Eighty percent of it is money. Polish zloty banknotes, mainly of higher denomination. Some are lying in packs of hundred, fifty, twenty zlotys. There are individual, smaller, war-time two zlotys, and in one instance I saw “czerwonce” [red Soviet banknotes]. Faded, smeared, saturated with stench and the fluids of the corpses. Close by, wooden cigarette holders, cigarettes, bits of Soviet newspapers, buttons with eagles on them, gloves, parts of the uniforms, handkerchiefs, leather purses… All of these are the things dug out of the graves. It is not because of the neglect or the lack of conscientiousness on the part of the committee of the Polish Red Cross working here, which, on the contrary, as I will describe later, works with determination and sacrifice to identify the murdered and to preserve their mementos. It is because the thousands of murdered victims had been thrown into the monstrous pits together with all of their personal ballast of everyday life. There is a lot of it, what every person carries on themselves and what he stuffs his pockets with when alive, when it seems important to him. But after death only some things are important. For the committee, mainly, things that serve the identification of the remains, such as identity cards, letters, diaries etc. Apart from that, all metal objects that do not deteriorate, that can be cleaned and remain a cherished relict for the family. Everything else, worthless, partly rotten, permeated for eternity now with the poison of decomposition is put aside for the time being. And it is lying there. Lying there as a testimony, horrible, gloomy testimony, chaotic tatters amid the trees of the Katyn forest.

And the graves, or the pits with the corpses are nearby?

Yes, there are, or rather there were, seven. In the two biggest ones, the layer of corpses reached twelve rows deep.

And you saw this?

Did I see it! The horrific smell made me feel sick at first, before I managed to compose myself with all my willpower. We went along a path covered with freshly dug out corpses and there, behind a thick pine, behind a trench of freshly dug sand I looked down.


Ghastly. One, two, three human corpses make a heavy and overwhelming impression. Please try to imagine thousands, thousands of them, and all in the Polish uniforms… The cream of the intelligentsia, the knights of the Nation! They make deep layers inside, layers of human bodies on top of one another. At that terrible moment I think of a horrid comparison to a big box of sardines. They are layered like sardines, heads and feet alternately, pressed, flattened in a cadaverous juice, which, at the bottom of some of the graves, stands still like a green, dead liquid that does not reflect either the tops of the trees or the clouds in the sky. We took our hats of and were standing motionless, some birds were singing on the pine. It stopped raining, a blessed wind blew the intoxicating smell on the other side of the grave. And the sun even came out for a moment. It was a moment that I will never forget, because the rays of the sun reached and shone on the gold tooth of someone’s half opened mouth. I moved my head to change the angle so as not to look at these sunny games. At a moment like this, life itself seems cynical. Spring above the pit of tangled together arms, legs, twisted faces, glued together hair, officers boots, corpselike uniforms, belts. When one thinks that each of these lying positions, the twisting of the knee, the movement of the head to the back, was the last reflex of the greatest suffering, despair, fear, pain… how do I know what other worse human feelings.

They did not resist?

Oh yes, they did. A great many of them were tied with a rope, some pierced with a bayonet. That day, when I was leaving Katyn, bodies were exhumed which differed from the others in that they were not shot with this stereotypical shot to the back of the head, as it was commonly known, but showed a shot from the back between the shoulders, also bayoneted almost right through and also stabbed several times in different places. Those who resisted, as the investigation has shown, were tied. I saw this characteristic knot. I cannot repeat it but the point was that whichever arm the poor fellow moved, it tightened all the ties. Some had ropes around their necks, in this case a jerk of the arm simultaneously tightened the loop on the neck and strangled. The latest report of doc Marian Wodzinski sent to the headquarters of the Polish Red Cross says that 0,4 percent of the bodies showed a double shot to the bottom back of the head, and 1,5 percent a double shot to the neck. Calibre, as we all know, was always the same 7.63, and it did not cause a big explosion. Also a few days before my arrival a shocking discovery was made, about which it is only possible to speak through the clenched teeth: in one of the pits the layers of officers were found, who were put alive face down on the previously killed layers or those still twitching in pre death convulsions, and then they were shot in a lying position. (…)

How were these crimes committed? I mean the technical process. After all, so many thousands of officers…

Some information can be gained from the local population. On the side of the road, farther from the bad air, some local labourers, the Russians, had just started a camp fire.(…) The smoke, the smell of the burning wood was easing the stench. It was nice sitting at the bonfire. We lit cigarettes. Naturally, it is not easy to get anything out of these people. Soviet people differ from other people in that they are the best at keeping silent and best at judging the value of silence. Such a person always prefers his neighbour to speak, while he keeps silent for a bit. Neither are they used to formulating open judgements. One has to extract word by word from them. I was able though to unravel from these words the following course of events.

In March, April 1940 a train consisting of three carriages and an engine car arrived every day at the Gniezdowo station near Smolensk. Polish officers were being disembarked from the carriages. They were unloaded into the prison cars, known both in Smolensk and the whole of Russia as “czernyje worona” (black crows). The cars came from Smolensk, where the local NKVD had four of them. Three of them were going to Katyn. First there was a lorry with the belongings, followed by the “black crows” and the convoy ended with a passenger car carrying the NKVD officials. Because the officers were brought with their belongings, it follows that up until the end they did now know what awaited them. After some time the cars turned around back towards the station and were carrying like that back and forth all day. The following day new carriages were arriving, new shipment. It is difficult to establish how many people were executed in this way. The Katyn forest had been known to the local inhabitants as the site of slaughter for years. Ringed by a barbed wire, surrounded by guards, circling with dogs. Nobody could come near it and, obviously, everybody who knows the Soviet reality, understands that nobody fancied getting near it, or talk about what went on there, or whisper, or look, or guess, or even think at all. It is totally understandable. What did our officers expect being driven there for these short four kilometres, what did they feel and anticipate, what did they talk about, we can only speculate about, all of us, both those like me and the others who have been to Katyn, or like you, gentlemen, who haven’t. It may be that what’s most terrifying, what happened later, what happened immediately after the arrival at the forest, will be revealed in the future. Maybe one of the NKVD agents, maybe one of the guards, or soviet soldiers then present, will testify how our officers were dying , defenceless victims, prisoners of war without a war. With what words, what gesture, protest, terror or heroism. There were surely different people there who behaved differently. Life and death is a most human matter. Only the way in which this death was caused, the pretence and the accompanying circumstances are so inhuman, that although they can happen in the history of wars, the history of … “peace” has not known them so far.

Are there still any doubts that the people killed in the Katyn forest are not Polish officers?

No, there is no doubt.

And is there any doubt that they were not murdered by the Bolsheviks?

No. I personally haven’t the slightest doubt, absolutely no doubt that they were murdered by the Bolsheviks. I have been clearly convinced at the site of the crime in Katyn.

How have you been convinced?

Apart from the mentioned accounts of the witnesses, I was present at the exhumation of the bodies and the subsequent identification (…) Like everything in Katyn, I also saw with my own eyes how it was done.


Namely, the local workers go down into the pits where the bodies are, separate individual bodies, often having to tear them apart, so flattened and pressed the layers of corpses are. They put them on the stretchers and carry them to an empty area where they are put on the ground. Another group of workers, under a strict supervision of the members and officials of the Polish Red Cross, digs out everything that lies next to the corpses. I saw the state of the corpses and the uniforms. Sand and clay soil partly helps in the mummification (…). The uniforms are obviously flattened, stuck together, gluey, colourless. Unbuttoning is out of the question. Knives are used. The pockets are cut open, even the boots, to get out everything that that person carried on themselves when alive. And then a moment comes when the speechless, gloomy grave begins to talk. The pictures of private, political, spiritual, family and so forth life, are moving in front of our eyes. Some of the bodies only have small fragments of their personal matters. Others have numerous indications which help to state the date, the history of the last weeks, the moods, names, family status, military rank, civilian occupation. Let us not be embarrassed to say that from this grave, from this foul crime, which the generations will not be allowed to forget, a dead person walks towards us, who once lived like the others, who was happy, who suffered, dreamed, drank, prayed, flirted, cried, read, wrote, thought, played, had faults and virtues. Everything that was his comes out from the grave into the light of this spring day: crushed matches, last remaining cigarettes, money, medallions and identity cards, orders and purses, a prayer-book next to a Soviet newspaper, inoculation certificates in Kozielsk, a diary and photographs, and above all letters. Ink and copying pencil most often do no withstand the trial of a damp grave. However, words written with an ordinary pencil and the printed ones are preserved excellently. Here you are…

Mr Mackiewicz is looking like an extremely tired person now, when he is reaching for a pile of photographs.

…here you are, please have a look how it is done, how the uniforms are cut open, how things are studied and checked, important and unimportant things segregated. And here is another proof, very unpleasant, very smelly, but what can we do…

He is reaching towards a packet wrapped in many newspapers. Unwraps it. Slowly, a deadly stench begins to hang in the air. Another paper, another paper. Then we see a small wooden cigar holder, and in it three well preserved cigarettes. Some buttons with eagles. A Soviet newspaper from December 1939. A 2 zloty banknote. A bullet taken out of the skull. A major’s epaulettes, a captain’s epaulettes.

That’s how, more or less, all those things look like over there, in Katyn. That’s the state they are in. For example, they put on the table a body with slightly bent legs, head thrown back, from the forehead of which, gasps the exit hole of the bullet. Wladyslaw Bielecki. A well preserved postcard. The post mark shows the date. Bialystok 14.1.1940. In the side pocket a copy of the “Soviet Voice” from 29th March 1940. The print is showing clearly through the sticky dampness: “Comrades. We are going towards a better future. New people are coming, who… our motherland… Comrade Stalin…” and so on. Next letter. A letter to Kozielsk. Unreadable name. A prayer book. A wallet. Doctor Wodzinski opens it and suddenly, at all of us who were watching, a woman looks back, fair, with big eyes, a blonde, with a child on her arm. Maybe she has a slightly unfashionable, longish dress on this photo, she may seem banal… That’s his wife and daughter. He went into the grave with them. (…)

There is yet another culminating point, when having diverted our eyes from the corpses of the murdered fathers, we look at the letters of the children. The ones that I had in my hands, were all addressed to Kozielsk.
“Dearest Daddy. We are anxious, because we have no news or letter. We have sent a 100 rubles and a parcel, and things that you were asking for. We are well and at the same place. Please don’t worry about us. When we see each other… Signed: Your Stacha. 15th February 1940.”
“Dear Pop. Thank you very much and I also wish you good health and, all, all the best. I’m not going to school. It’s closed because of the frost. We haven’t gone to Hnidowka, because it’s far and it’s frosty. I’m collecting post stamps…”

How important this news from the son seemed, this news that had travelled on the tracks of the Soviet railways before it reached the father a few days before this horrid death: Tadzio collects stamps. Tadzio believes: “…when you return” – he writes. This refrain repeats itself all the time: “when you come back”, “when we are together” or “Daddy, you will see”… No!! He never saw again! Children are full of trust. They believe in a happy ending, in a self understandable home coming. Such a dose of faith and longing shows through them, that reading these letters, there in Katyn, one has a bitter lump tightening in the throat. Here we have yet another letter, so full of child’s love, so redolent of concern for the fate of the “beloved Daddy”, and at the same time full of faith and stout heart, that I do not dare to quote it or mention the name. Despite everything else, it would be a sacrilege. This letter arrived shortly before the end. I saw with my own eyes, what, amongst the pile of corpses, the one that it was addressed to looked like. He had meticulously folded this childlike lettering, written in pencil and with big letters, into four and put it in his wallet. Only now, has it been dug out from the stinking pit. But it does not seem to be written in vain. Today, it is re-addressed to God and it will cry for vengeance. (…)


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