Monument to a massacre little known

May 31, 1997|By Andrew Ratner

THIS IS NOT about the 25-story statue of Columbus, or whomever its Russian sculptor meant to portray, that some would like to see in Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

This is about another statue, three stories tall, with a darker Russian connection and a much better chance of being erected, if not in the harbor, a block east of it.

Dozens of people have been working for a decade to build the National Katyn Memorial in Baltimore. (If Washington gets to share the Orioles, Baltimore attractions get to claim they are ''national.'')

The project is a marker to a World War II massacre of which most Americans have never heard, partly because the former Soviet Union tried to hide it from the world for 50 years.

In 1940, 15,400 Polish prisoners-of-war were trucked to the Katyn Forest and other areas in the Soviet Union, east of Poland. Many were reservist officers who were leaders in Poland -- among them doctors, teachers, the chief rabbi of Warsaw, 29 Catholic priests.

The captives' mouths were muffled with sawdust. Their hands ** were tied, they were shot in the head and dumped in mass graves. Soviet dictator Josef V. Stalin needed to get rid of these intellectuals to help him conquer Poland, it was said.

German soldiers stumbled upon the skeletons in 1943 and blamed the Soviets, hoping to drive a wedge between the Allies. The Soviets replied that the Nazis were the murderers.

The truth was hidden more vigorously than the bones. Mentions of Katyn were erased from reference books in the Eastern bloc.

The price one family paid

Karol H. Borowski, a former Towson State professor who grew up in Poland, recalls that after he told his teacher about his family's discussions of Katyn, his father lost his job the next day and was put to work on the railroads.

In 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell, then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev acknowledged his country's responsibility for Katyn.

For a decade before that, a retired U. S. Army major living in Anne Arundel County named Clement Knefel had begun selling hot dogs at festivals to collect money for a memorial to Katyn's victims. He hadn't raised much when, in 1990, he hooked up with retired innkeeper Alfred B. Wisniewski and more politically active members of the Polish-American community in Baltimore.

Seven years later, the goal is in sight: The legislature and governor just approved $200,000 in bond money for the project. The group needs $100,000 on top of the $100,000 it has raised. The city provided land -- a grassy circle ringed by a cobblestone street between the harbor and Fells Point.

As for the monument itself, Polish sculptor Andrzej Pitynski has designed a flame-like form, 44 feet tall, edged with rough, seemingly charred, images of soldiers. A space in the center cuts the silhouette of an eagle, a symbol of Poland. The artwork is jarring. Few would term it ''pretty.'' Perhaps that is as it must be for a memorial to a mass murder.

One of the largest gifts, $36,500, came from the Associated Jewish Charities of Baltimore, which recognized its own people's pursuit in the Katyn group's passion to publicize a crime against mankind. Indeed, while the Holocaust Museum in Washington and ''Schindler's List'' have helped kindle the memory and history of the extermination of 6 million Jews in World War II, even many second- and third-generation Polish-Americans are unaware of Katyn.

Some may say Baltimore has no unique link to merit a statue to the tragedy; that the work has no place near the festive waterfront; that it's a Cold War relic with no relevance to modern conflicts in the Balkans, Africa or elsewhere.

The architects of future war crimes would no doubt agree.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 5/31/97

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