Story of Czech victims of Katyn massacre is pieced together

El genocidio de Katyn

Thousands of Polish army officers, teachers and intellectuals were killed by the Soviet NKVD in the notorious Katyn massacre during World War II. But the fact Czechs were also murdered there has for long been an untold aspect of this dark chapter of history. Now Czech researchers are piecing together the story of several hundred such victims, while there are also plans to unveil a memorial to some of them.

The circumstances surrounding the Katyn massacre of around 22,000 Polish army officers and suspect intellectuals on the orders of Stalin in April 1940 after Poland had been divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union has gradually been pieced together.

Katyn massacre
Some of the mass graves were discovered following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union. But Stalin’s regime denied the crimes and said it was Nazi propaganda. That was the line that was kept to in spite of all the contradictory evidence and which was strictly enforced in the countries that became part of the Soviet-bloc after World War II. These included Poland and later Czechoslovakia.

The truth was admitted for the first time by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 when he accepted his country’s responsibility for the massacre. And slowly the story of the around 500 Czech victims became clearer as the archives were opened.

Czech historian Mečislav Borák has led the research that has helped uncover their stories.

Remains from Katyn mass grave
"I have found around 500 victims amongst the ranks of the Poles who were either born in what is today the Czech Republic, mostly around Český Těšín, or who at the start of the war lived or worked there but were born somewhere else."

The adjective “Czech” is a bit delicate. Parts of the contested border area between Czechoslovakia and Poland were seized by Poland after the Munich agreement in 1938. The population living there became Polish citizens until the land was reclaimed by Czechoslovakia at the end of the WWII. Many officials, such as the local police, chose to fight on the Polish side when the war broke out.

Mr Borák said it was always known that there were some Czechs killed as part of the infamous massacre, but the total quickly began to mount up as formerly closed archives were opened up and that came as a surprise.

"I never thought there would be so many. We knew about a few such people but it gradually became clear that the victims from Czech territory could be found at all the Katyn burial sites."

As well as the famous Katyn site itself, where around 100 Czechs were buried, the wave of killing took place at other locations. Most Czechs, around 350, were murdered and buried at Tver, formerly Kalinin, with another 50 at Kharkov.

The research continues. But there are now plans for a memorial bearing the names of the around 250 victims born on Czech soil to be unveiled in the border town of Český Těšín this year.