WASHINGTON -- Of all the horrors and human destruction of World War II, one of the worst was the massacre at Katyn Forest. At least 25,000 Poles were killed, but for years, no one could tell by whom. The Soviets said the Germans were to blame; the Germans, the Soviets.
The Polish prisoners, including 8,000 senior Polish Army officers, disappeared in late 1939 and 1940, just at the time of German-Soviet collaboration. Buried in mass graves, the bodies' whereabouts were known, but no one wanted to claim them.
This event marked one of the most brutal of the entire war. Poland was a small country, long trapped between the massive strength of the Russians on one side and the ferocity of the Nazis' will to destruction on the other. For Poland, it was the loss of perhaps a third of their leading officer corps.
If that insult were not enough, in order to remove the Polish military entirely, the Soviets formed a new Polish officer corps. They recruited Soviets, taught them Polish language and habits, and dressed them in Polish uniforms -- and passed off this ersatz Polish "army" on both Poland and the Germans.
All through the war itself, the blame for Katyn rolled back and forth from the Germans to the Russians. It was not until the Nazis had definitively lost the war that the mass killings in Katyn, which lies westward of the White Russian city of Smolansk, became a question of concern.
We know now that Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin's Georgian killer, had given plans early in the war, in 1940, to kill approximately 25,600 Poles, about 8,000 of them Polish officers, including generals and admirals, and the rest being journalists, writers, artists, political leaders and intellectuals. Perhaps never in modern history has the top level of a country been so totally wiped out.
The Russians' intention was clear enough: Destroy the top echelon of Polish society, leaving the country without leadership, without military capacity and without its traditionally great literary and musical talent.
The Soviets' intention -- carried out without mercy -- was to blame the killings on the Germans, with whom the Poles had fought for a good while during the war against their mutual enemy, Moscow.
Poland had always been the tragic example of a country caught in the middle. It was not until after 1945 that we were to see a real Poland, with its own characteristics and history, take form; not until the 1980s, when the rest of Eastern Europe rid itself of the Soviets, that Poland was able to stand on its own feet, as well.
Yet, even in those days after 1945 and into the 1950s, confusion about the massacre reigned. Only this last spring, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Russia had failed to comply with its obligations to adequately investigate the massacre at Katyn. The New York Times International reported:
"But the court said it had no jurisdiction over the massacre itself or the subsequent treatment of the relatives of the dead, prompting an outcry in Poland and expressions of satisfaction among officials in Moscow, underscoring the deep and lingering divisions inspired by the mass killing ..."
Andrzej Melak, president of the Association of the Families of Katyn Victims, called the judgment "scandalous" and added: "The failure to condemn this genocide and the impunity of its perpetrators led to it being repeated in Rwanda, the Balkans, and it will be repeated again. Poles will not accept a ruling like this."
What is important in these postwar events was the fact that Katyn Forest and its long-silent burials were no longer so silent. Everything came out, despite the confusion about human rights jurisdictions, including the irrefutable fact that it was the Russians -- Josef Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria at the helm -- and not Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler.
Of course, with the Russians, there always needs to be some murky conspiratorial edge. Their first investigation, from 1990 to 2004, had its findings classified and no one was publically held responsible. And so the massacre continued to haunt Polish-Russian relations.
One has to wonder, too, about this kind of legal action. If a decision is laid down by a court or body respected by all, then generally the case is over. But if a decision is laid down by a body not respected by all, the crime remains devastating to the mental and moral health of a nation.
And it has seemed that the Katyn Massacre is still some way from resolution. In an attempt to better relations between Poland and Russia over Katyn, in November 2010, the Russian Parliament approved a statement holding Stalin and other Soviets responsible for the killings.
Yet, the previous April, there was to have been a peace meeting at Katyn. A plane carrying 95 high-level Poles, everyone from the president to other members of Poland's military and political elite, was traveling to a commemoration of the massacre. Unbelievably, the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. It was as though everything connected with the massacre was cursed.
Today, the memory of Katyn is still vivid. Poland is a prospering country, its ties strong to the West. Russia struggles, not only to grasp where she has come from and why, but what she is to be in this next chapter of her saga.