Two New Polish History Books by Andrew Kavchak

Readers of Polish history will find two new books about Polish history in the first half of the 20th century to be of interest.

The first is the war memoirs of Stanislaw Kawczak titled “Dying Echoes: Memories of the War 1914-1920”

Echoes: Memoirs of the War 1914-1920 by Stanisław Kawczak was first published in Poland in 1936 (Milknące Echa: Wspomnienia z Wojny 1914-1920). It tells the story and experiences of a young Polish conscript in the Austrian army who fought during WWI wearing the Austrian uniform against the Russian army on the Eastern Front and the Italian army on the Southern Front. Kawczak began his military career as a corporal, and was promoted to officer cadet, lieutenant, and finally captain. From the beginning of the war his heart was in the struggle for Polish independence and the defeat of the three occupying powers (Germany, Austria and Russia) which had partitioned Poland since the 1790s. Kawczak was among the founding members of a secret organization among Polish officers known as “Freedom” (Wolność).

At the end of WWI the empires of the three occupying powers collapsed while the Polish State was reborn. It immediately faced hostilities and border disputes with neighboring countries. Kawczak describes his experiences fighting against the Ukrainians, Czechs and Russians.

The narrative is vivid and gives the reader an image of the life of a soldier on the march and in the trenches, as well as an account of the political debates about national interests during the “Great War”.

This book is considered in Polish literature among the best of the WWI memoirs and an authentic historical account of the plight of Polish soldiers in the Austrian army and nascent Polish forces.
This is the first English translation, with introductions by Stanisław Kawczak’s son and grandson.

These memoirs will be of special interest to students of Polish history and the complexities of nationalist conflicts during and after WWI.

The second book is titled “The Katyn Forest Massacre: An Annotated Bibliography of Books in English”.

On 23 August 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty. As part of their agreement, secret protocols delineated their respective spheres of influence over the territory between them. On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany launched the Second World War by invading Poland from the West. On 17 September the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East. The two totalitarian powers split Poland between them. Approximately 250,000 Polish soldiers were captured by the Red Army. About 15,000 military officers, police officers and border guards were segregated and interned in three camps: Starobelsk, Kozelsk and Ostashkov.

On March 5, 1940 NKVD Chief Beria provided Stalin with a written proposal to execute the Poles at the three camps as well as thousands of other Polish prisoners in the jails of Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine. Beria described the Polish prisoners as “sworn enemies of Soviet power, filled with hatred for the Soviet system of government”. He proposed to “apply to them the supreme punishment, shooting”. In the operation that followed in April and May 1940, 21,857 Poles were shot by the NKVD and buried in hidden mass graves.

On 22 June 1941 the Germans attacked the Soviet Union. The Soviets then agreed to release the Poles in Soviet captivity and allow General Władysław Anders to assume the command of a Polish Army to be formed on Soviet territory. But where were the officers who were held at Starobelsk, Kozelsk and Ostashkov? Polish efforts to find them to them were futile as the Soviet authorities dodged the issue and gave evasive answers.

On 13 April 1943 the Nazis announced a gruesome discovery in the Katyn Forest where they found mass graves containing the bodies of thousands of Polish officers from the Kozelsk camp. The Germans claimed the Polish officers were killed by the Soviets. The Soviets responded by claiming that the Nazis had captured and killed the Polish officers in 1941. This “Katyn Lie” would be official Soviet and Communist narrative on the subject for the next 47 years.

On 13 April 1990 Soviet President Gorbachev provided the Polish Government with documents confirming that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn Massacre. On 14 October 1992 Russian President Yeltsin revealed the text of the execution order of March 5, 1940, signed by Stalin.

“The Katyn Forest Massacre: An Annotated Bibliography of Books in English” begins with a history of the Katyn Massacre and an overview of the literature on Katyn. The subsequent chapters discuss the authors and contents of some 38 books that have been published over the decades in English about Katyn. Each book contributed something to the evolving literature and general knowledge about the history of the Massacre. Books were written by some prisoners who survived (Czapski and Młynarski), witnesses who were brought to the exhumations (Stroobant and Werth), diplomats and generals who tried to find out what happened to the missing officers (Kot and Anders), family members who were deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia (Adamczyk), researchers and historians (Zawodny, Ciencala, Sanford and Maresch), and authors who believed that raising awareness about Katyn was worthwhile because it might help rectify an injustice (FitzGibbon and Allen). Books written before the Soviet admission of guilt pointed an accusatory finger at the Kremlin. Those written afterwards had the benefit of archival revelations that helped shed light on previously unknown details of the NKVD Katyn operation.

Both books are available on Amazon.