The Pittsburgh Press (January 26, 1944)
Bodies exhumed near Smolensk –
Proof of Polish slaughter by Nazis found by Reds
Atrocity commission shows Katyń Forest graves to American, Allied newspapermen
By Harrison Salisbury, United Press staff writer
Smolensk, USSR – (Jan. 22, delayed)
A special Soviet atrocity commission formally charged the German Army tonight with the mass slaughter of approximately 11,000 Polish war prisoners in the Katyń Forest near Smolensk.
The commission announced its findings after six days of exhuming bodies and questioning witnesses. The conclusions regarding the slaughter in 1941 were announced in the presence of 17 American, British and Canadian correspondents and two representatives of the U.S. Office of War Information – Kathleen Harriman, daughter of the Ambassador to Russia, and John Melby, acting Moscow chief of the OWI.
The charges countered Nazi claims that the Russians killed the Poles – a moot point in the troubled relations between Russia and the Polish government-in-exile climaxed by a rupture of relations.
For the first time since the Red Army recaptured Smolensk last Sept. 25, foreign correspondents were brought here aboard a special train.
The atrocity commission in the last six days has exhumed about 700 bodies from the mass graves. Its evidence fell into three categories – medical, documentary, and testimony.
The correspondents were taken slightly less than 10 miles west of Smolensk to the Katyń hills, rolling slopes above the Dnieper River. The region is known locally as “Goat’s Hill” because goats grazed there in peacetime.
Four Red Army field and medical tents stood in a clearing. A few yards distant were huge excavations in which squads were digging out frozen corpses with picks and spades. Just beyond the graves was what appeared at first glance to be a cornfield strewn with tattered scarecrows and small pumpkins. They were Polish corpses and skulls.
From the pits and the field came the odor of many bodies.
In charge of the proceedings was Dr. V. I. Prozorovsky, director of the Moscow Institute of Criminal Medical Research. The goateed doctor was garbed in white medical cap, an orange rubber apron reaching to his knees, red rubber gloves and black leather boots.
In some of the graves, bodies were oiled haphazardly. In others they were laid out in neat rows. Dr. Prozorovsky said he believed the neat graves were those opened by the Germans when they broke the Katyń story last March.
In one grave, the Russians found three layers of bodies; in another, eight; six in a third. The bodies were buried about six feet deep, the total depth of the pits depending on the number of layers.
Each Pole had been shot individually, apparently with a revolver placed close to the base of the skull. Every skull seen by the correspondents had a neat round hole at the base and usually a slightly larger one in the forehead where the bullet emerged.
The corpses were garbed in mildewed field gray-blue Polish uniforms with Polish eager buttons. One unexhumed pit looked like a field of boots – black officers’ boots protruding at crazy angles from the frozen sand.
While the tour of the pits was in progress, stolid Red Army squads carried on the task of hacking the frozen bodies from the ground. The bodies retained a considerable amount of flesh.
The commission’s 42-page report, published by the Soviet government, cited eyewitnesses and the fact that documents on the bodies bore dates later than March 1940 – the date given by the Germans for the slayings – for authority that the Poles were alive when the Germans captured Smolensk in July 1941.
Medical testimony also showed that the bodies could not have been in the graves for more than about two years, the report said. It estimated that the Poles were slain in August and September 1941. The Katyń area was recovered when the Red Army liberated the Smolensk area last year.
The Germans issued sensational reports about the “discovery” of the mass graves early last year while the area was still in Nazi hands.
The propaganda reports so impressed the Polish government-in-exile in London that it asked the International Red Cross to investigate the charges. This provoked Russian wrath and led the Russians to break off relations with the government-in-exile April 26.
Soviet-Polish relations have never been restored.
The Polish prisoners were those officers and men who opposed the Russian occupation of eastern Poland in September 1939, when Germany seized the western half of the country.