WWII prisoners shed light on Polish slaughter

American POWs sent secret coded messages to Washington with news of a Soviet atrocity: In 1943 they saw rows of corpses in an advanced state of decay in the Katyn forest, on the western edge of Russia, proof that the killers could not have been the Nazis who had only recently occupied the area.

The testimony about the infamous massacre of Polish officers might have lessened the tragic fate that befell Poland under the Soviets, some scholars believe.

Instead, it mysteriously vanished into the heart of American power. The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t want to anger Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during World War II.

Documents released yesterday lend weight to the belief that suppression within the highest levels of the US government helped cover up Soviet culpability in the killing of 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners in the Katyn forest and other locations in 1940.

The evidence is among about 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents the United States National Archives has released.

The most dramatic revelation so far is the evidence of the codes sent by the two US POWs — something historians were unaware of and which adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on.

The declassified documents also show the US maintaining that it couldn’t conclusively determine guilt until a Russian admission in 1990 — a statement that looks improbable given the huge body of evidence of Soviet guilt that had already emerged decades earlier.

Historians say the new material helps to flesh out the story of what the US knew and when.

The Soviet secret police killed the 22,000 Poles with shots to the back of the head. Their aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control. The men were among Poland’s most accomplished — officers and reserve officers who in their civilian lives worked as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or as other professionals.

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