The National Katyn Memorial is located in the Harbor East traffic circle. - Photo by Tom Scilipoti
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The National Katyn Memorial is seen by motorists and pedestrians every day as they navigate the traffic circle in Harbor East, at the southern end of President St. Last Sunday, for the thirteenth time, dignitaries, veterans and citizens gathered at the base of the monument to remember the victims of the Katyn Forest Massacre of 1940.
During World War II, about 20,000 Polish officers—mostly reservists who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, priests and teachers—were taken in groups of 200 or 300 to Russian forests, where they were shot in the back of the head and buried in mass graves.
For years, Soviet Russia blamed the Germans for the atrocity, and it wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union that the truth became known.
“They convinced the populace that something other than a massacre happened there, and that it was committed by someone other than the Soviets,” said Tom Rybczynski, a board member for the National Katyn Memorial Foundation.
The massacre has been named for the Katyn Forest, one of three killing fields in Soviet Russia in which the executions occurred.
The Soviets killed the officers, Rybczynski said, to eliminate the “intelligentsia”—or intellectuals—from Poland.
“It’s so much easier to occupy a country when the smartest people are all dead,” he said.
Polish sculptor Andrzej Pitynski designed and built the 44-foot-tall bronze monument, which was dedicated in 2000. Rybczynski noted that there are several hundred monuments to the Katyn Massacre around the world, and that Baltimore’s happens to be the largest. Many of the monuments are simple plaques, and, originally, Baltimore had planned to erect a small stone structure with a plaque near the Pulaski Monument in Patterson Park.
“As momentum built, we ended up building what you see in Harbor East,” said Rybczynski.
The basis of the monument is a rising, abstract flame, which engulfs and lifts figures from Polish history. At the base of the flame are the representations of three young Polish officers, depicted moments before their deaths. Also in the sculpture are the first king of Poland, Boleslaw Chrobry, and King Jan III Sobieski, who won a historic victory against the Turkish army. The sculpture is very somber and unapologetically depicts the loss resulting from the massacre.
“There are some people in our own community who don’t like it because [they say] it’s a little too gruesome,” said Rybczynski, though he added that the overall theme of the sculpture is redemptive, with a Polish eagle rising from the flame. “Andrzej Pitynski tried to capture a faith rising in a flame,” he said.
The work of art is dedicated not only to the victims of the Katyn Massacre, but also “to all mistreated POWs.”
Last Sunday, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake attended the remembrance, as did former State Senator Paul Sarbanes and current State Representative John Sarbanes.
Rybczynski said that at this year’s ceremony, it was made apparent that the Katyn Massacre has gone unpunished.
“It’s admitted to be a crime and an atrocity of war, but no one has ever been punished,” he said.
Prior to the ceremony, Holy Rosary Church, 408 S. Chester St., held a Mass of remembrance. Rybczynski noted that Holy Rosary is now the oldest Polish parish in Baltimore, and is “the roots of the tree” of the Polish community.
Rybczynski lauded Richard Poremski, chair of the Katyn Memorial Committee of Baltimore, for keeping the remembrance alive.
“He basically tells us what needs to be done,” he said.
by Erik Zygmont