Indeed, we have transformed your name,
Into a crying prayer and flashing lightning.
Polish Poet Juliusz Slowacki
On a sunny spring morning, so typical of the
beautiful Esk Valley, I notice the rural mail delivery
van Just leaving our farm gate.
I rush downstairs and out towards the roadside letterbox.
I walk briskly down the 250 metrelong metalled driveway,
surrounded by young vineyards, admiring the neat,
straight rows and the luscious, green foliage on the
vines. I glance across the main highway, towards the
hills covered by young pines which are the nucleus of a
future forest. I pause and look backwards to survey the
attractive setting of our homestead, built among the
wellestablished pine plantation on the hills behind it. I
fully realise how fortunate we are to live in Eskdale, in
sunny Hawke's Bay. There is a letter from my cousin in
Poland among today's mail. I hurry home wondering what
news it contains? I cannot wait to open it.
Eagerly I tear open the envelope. Enclosed with the
letter is a newspaper cutting from the Cooperative
Workers' Weekly Review in Warsaw, with the poignant
headline, a fragment from the famous Polish poet Jullusz
Indeed, we have transformed your name,
Into a crying prayer and flashing lightning
Below this title, in smaller print, is another heading
... 'Our Correspondent from Kharkov reveals that over a
period of two and a half years collectors continued to
haunt Polish officers' mass graves'.
On arrival home I impatiently read on ... 'The puzzle of
Soviet war crimes committed over 51 years ago is finally
My father's and uncle's final resting place is now
established. I feel relieved, yet my heart fills with
sadness as I recall our family and my secure childhood
spent In prewar Poland. I was eight years old, my brother
only four, when World War II began, yet I remember our
father clearly. He was a tall, wellbuilt man, with
receding dark hair, light brown eyes and a small, neatly
trimmed mustache which adorned his round face. He was an
idealist, a doctor, who treated poor people freeofcharge
and frequently paid for their medical prescriptions.
Everyone in our area knew him for his humanitarian deeds.
I still recall vividly his sad eyes filled with tears as
he bade us farewell in August 1939. He was conscripted
into the Polish army to defend his country when war
seemed Inevitable. Perhaps he had a premonition that he
would never see us again, but we were then too young to
sense the imminent tragic events about to unfold.
War erupted suddenly on 1st September 1939, like thunder
and lightning in a stormy night. It shattered our family.
Poland and much of Europe were devastated as the
horrendous war spread to the world beyond. The great
human holocaust with planned human mass exterminations,
forced family resettlement, imprisonments, exile and
unimaginable destruction had changed the face of the
earth and our lives forever.
My inner turmoil, fueled by these memories, gradually
subsides. I recall the news of the capture and internment
of 15,000 Polish officers in the three prisoners-of-war
camps In the USSR, of Starobielsk, Kozielsk, and
Ostashkov in the Ukraine. I can clearly remember our
father's monthly postcards from the Starobielsk camp. His
last card, written In March 1940, I still possess and
I read on
In 1989 Ukrainian teenagers discovered human skeletal
remains north of the city of Charkov in Piatichatki, one
of the local forest park reserves. Over a period of two
and a half years these boys continued to exhume,
undetected, the human skeletons in that forest, in search
of gold and platinum capped teeth, gold wedding rings,
gold chains with crosses or medallions found on most
victims. Metal buttons, officers' decorations and the
Polish Eagle emblem worn on their hats also interested
these young Ukrainian boys.
In 1991, with the rapidly changing political scene in the
USSR, preceded by glasnost, perestroika and finally the
fall of Communism and the ultimate disintegration of the
Soviet Union itself, the KGB confirmed the mass murders
of 15,000 Polish officers Imprisoned at the three
locations in the Ukraine.
The discovery of the mass graves by the Germans in the
summer of 1941 In Katyn Forest near the Ukrainian city of
Smolensk was then well publicized and investigated by the
International Red Cross and European forensic experts.
The four thousand victims of that location came from the
Kozielsk camp. All the officers had been shot through the
back of the head, some at NKVD (KGB) cellars, others at
the grave sites. The locations of the graves of the
officers of the two remaining camps of Starobielsk and
Ostashkov were still unknown then, but It has now been
revealed that the skeletal remains of 3,921 victims from
Starobielsk were shot in a similar manner and buried in
Piatichatki Forest, north of Charkov in Ukraine. These
Polish officers had been killed In the courtyard and In
the underground cellars of NKVD in the city of Charkov
and their bodies were then transported in covered trucks
to Piatichatki Forest, north of that city. Polish
officers from the Ostashkov camp had met an identical
fate at Miednoje in the Ukraine.
In 1991 Polish authorities were granted permission to
exhume the bones of these Polish victims, the unsung
heroes whose final resting place had remained a mystery
for over 51 years.
A close scrutiny of the Piatichatki Forest reserve
revealed several mass graves, each about 15 metres wide
and 25 metres long, containing bones buried some 80
centimetres from the surface and spread over an area of
150 square metres. The task of exhuming these remains was
a difficult one, since trees had been planted upon these
mass graves 51 years ago to erase all trace of these
shameless murders, which were part of Josef Stalin's
systematic purges of potential leaders. The sturdy roots
of alder and pine trees were intertwined with the
skeletons of the murdered Polish officers. This area was
fenced off with barbed wire and the entrance gate was
guarded during the day, excluding the public from the
forest reserve. However, this proved to be an
insufficient deterrent for the curious teenagers, who
visited the forbidden site after nightfall in search of
As I read further, I learned that these officers'
skeletal remains have now been reburied in a single,
large, new grave.
A sturdy oak cross carved from a local forest tree and
draped with a wide white and red sash, Poland's national
colours, has been erected over It. Below the cross the
metal plaque bears the following inscription in Polish:
In Memory Of:
3921 Generals And Officers
Of The Polish Army,
Prisoners Of Starobielsk
Murdered In The Spring Of 1940,
by NKVD, Buried Here.
Charkov 10892. Compatriots.
Relatives of the murdered Polish officers and Stalin's
other victims buried in mass graves scattered through the
Piatichatki Forest, now visit the site to pay their
respects to their loved ones. The area has become a
shrine, a place of pilgrimage to their relatives from
around the world.
Ukrainians have now given due recognition to the murdered
victims of Stalin's purges of the 19381941 era who
remained hidden and forgotten for so many years. They
have erected a large, black marble monument on a
prominent site in the Piatichatki Forest. It is an
Imposing structure of three panels, each facing a
different direction. The left wing is a memorial
dedicated to the 3,921 Polish officers buried there. It
is adorned with a large bell and a verse in Polish from
the poet Asnyk. The middle panel of this monument
features a cross. It pays tribute to Stalin's victims
from outside the Ukraine. The right panel commemorates
the Ukrainians resting here.
As I contemplate the unexpected news, I wonder if my
brother and I, or any of our New Zealand descendants, may
one day be among the world's many pilgrims to Piatichatki
Forest near Charkov.
My memories of the past are now unlocked and rekindled.
My thoughts reach out across the globe and back in time,
as I vividly relive the traumatic events of long ago.