Monumental dream realized

Memorial: After three decades of effort, the Polish soldiers killed in Katyn Forest are honored with a Baltimore landmark.

November 20, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

Standing beneath Baltimore's newest and tallest sculpture, the Rev. Zdzislaw J. Peszkowski yesterday remembered the martyrs - the Polish soldiers who were marched into the Katyn forest and shot dead in the back of the head. He recalled a detail: The Soviets stuffed some of the victims' mouths with sawdust to muffle their cries.

"And now," he said, "Baltimore is shouting to everybody, `Never again!'"

Peszkowski, who survived the massacre that killed thousands of his compatriots, was part of an international cast that helped to formally unveil the National Katyn Memorial yesterday a couple of blocks east of the Inner Harbor. Diplomats from Eastern Europe, and a strong turnout of Polish-Americans from greater Baltimore and beyond, gathered in the November chill to contemplate a sculptors' imagery.

FOR THE RECORD - A graphic published in The Sun's editions on Nov. 20 gave a misleading comparsion of the Katyn Memorial with other Baltimore monuments. The other monuments were pictured with their bases. When the Katyn Memorial's base is included in calculations, its height is 56 feet, not 44 feet.
The Sun regrets the error.

They found, in atrocity, a lesson in bravery.

"The cold chills I have aren't from the cold," said Peggy Snyder, a choreographer for a children's Polish folk dance troupe, as she toured the memorial. "This is kind of like closure, and a dedication to the people who came to the call of their country."

Yesterday's ceremony marked the end of a long local effort to commemorate the 1940 massacre at Katyn. Three decades ago, an Army major who had been stationed in Poland began selling soft drinks and sandwiches to raise money for a plaque in East Baltimore's Patterson Park. About a decade ago, a committee was formed to fortify the fund-raising effort. Over time, $1.4 million was collected.

But even as the goal was about to be reached, another snag arose: A dedication ceremony planned for September had to be postponed because rough weather and labor strife delayed the statue's delivery from Poland.

Which only made yesterday's festivities all the more satisfying.

"It's almost like a mission impossible. Nobody thought it could be done," said Stanley Sdanowich, a member of the National Katyn Memorial Committee.

Alfred Wisniewski, the committee chairman, was so overcome with the moment that he could not speak during the ceremonies. He allowed his brother, Stanislaus, to read his statement, which included a message to the dead: "May your dreams now be peaceful ones, because you will always be honored. You will always be remembered."

The statue memorializes a massacre whose history has, for many, been overshadowed. In 1939, Poland was invaded simultaneously by Nazi Germany from the west and Stalin's Red Army from the East. The Soviets captured more than 15,000 Polish officers and transferred them to camps in the Soviet Union.

The officers disappeared in 1940. Three years later, more than 4,000 bodies were found in mass graves in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk in western Russia. For decades, Moscow blamed the massacre on the Nazis, but in 1990, the Soviet government acknowledged that its forces had carried out the killings.

Yesterday, at least 500 people gathered at President and Aliceanna streets to honor the fallen soldiers. It was a day for Polish pride to take center stage.

A contingent of military re-enactors, dressed in World War II-era Polish army uniforms, marched past the stage.

The statue stands in the Inner Harbor East section that is home to the Sylvan Learning Center headquarters and, soon, to the Marriott Baltimore Waterfront hotel.

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland told the gathering that the prominent location is appropriate. Since many Polish immigrants' first glimpse of Baltimore was of Fort McHenry, followed quickly by the cross atop St. Stanislaus Church, it is fitting that the Katyn Memorial might be another landmark that a newcomer from Poland might see, she said.

While the Washington Monument in the city's Mount Vernon section is four times as tall as the Katyn Monument, ceremony organizers described the new work - 44 feet and weighing nearly 12 tons - as the city's tallest sculpture, and one of the largest bronze statues on the East Coast.

Standing atop a fountain whose waters run over black granite bricks, the statue depicts soldiers against flames that are gilded in gold leaf. World War II-era soldiers are depicted alongside other great warrior heroes from Poland's history, such as Boleslaw the Brave, who ruled the country in 1000 A.D. The flames also include a cut-out in the shape of an eagle, the symbol for Poland.

"You can look through, just like you look through your soul and see what you love: Your freedom, your country, your family, your past, your history and your future," Andrezj Pitynski, the statue's sculptor, said yesterday.

There is a Katyn memorial in Jersey City, N.J., and others in Poland. But Peszkowski, one of about 400 to survive the massacre, described the Baltimore memorial as "the biggest - the most beautiful, in some ways - Katyn monument in the whole world."

At the end of the nearly two-hour ceremony, he and committee chairman Wisniewski climbed into a cherry picker to place a small container of soil from the Katyn forest on the statue.

And Hanka Raczynski blinked away tears. The Bethesda woman's father, a captain in the Polish army, was among those killed at Katyn.

She was age 7 at the time.

"This," she said, "is so beautiful."

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