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Day in the Forest. TIME Magazine, February 7, 1944.

    [ time 04/26/1943 ] [ time 07/14/1952 ] [ time 07/17/1972 ] [ exit ]  
  time cover 02-07-44Eighteen men and a girl gathered on the windswept platform of Moscow's White Russian Station. The girl was Kathleen Harriman, attractive, dark-haired, 25-year-old daughter of U.S. Ambassador W. Averell Harriman. The men were foreign correspondents. Together they boarded a four-car special train—warm, well lighted, well stocked—which they owed to Kathy. Originally their Russian hosts had planned the outing in automobiles, with each man taking his own food for three days, but they had rolled out the special when Miss Harriman asked to come along. The party played cards, ate with their official hosts in the cheery dining car, slept in soft berths as the wagons-lits swayed leisurely westward. In the morning they were in Smolensk, a ruined monument to the German occupation, and the scene of a great outrage which had become a sharp world political issue.

The Forest. A little fleet of cars took the party ten miles out the Vitebsk road to Goat Hill, overlooking the Dnieper. A light snow was falling on the slender, leaning birches, the bare oaks, the tall evergreens and the huge mounds of frozen sand with the black boots sticking out. Kathy and her companions stumbled over the rough ground, past pits the size of tennis courts, to where Dr. Victor Prozorovsky, senior medical expert of the Atrocities Commission, stood on a freshly turned heap of red sand. He was directing Red Army men as they hacked out frozen, mildewed Polish corpses, arranged them on wooden stretchers for autopsies.

In some of the pits the bodies had been neatly stacked like cordwood; in others the stiff, twisted remains had been heaped together as they fell. Some had been officers, some privates; all wore faded blue-grey uniforms and tarnished brass buttons with the Polish eagle still recognizable. Dr. Prozorovsky wore a white smock, an orange apron and red rubber gloves. Kathy had on a plaid skirt, an orange pullover sweater and garnet nail polish.

The Tent. The correspondents and Kathy saw thousands of corpses; the authorities said that Katyn Forest contained some 12,000. Then the party went into one of four large grey-green army tents, clumping the snow and muck off their boots as they entered. It was warmer inside and the stench was overpowering. Dr. Prozorovsky ripped open a corpse numbered 808, sliced chunks off the brain like cold meat, knifed through the chest and pulled out an atrophied organ. "Heart," he said, holding it out to Kathy. Then he slit a leg muscle. "Look how well preserved the meat is," he said. The skulls all revealed a small hole at the back, generally another through the forehead, showing that the Poles had been butchered by pistol, fired from behind. Eleven doctors were averaging 160 post-mortems daily.

The correspondents were told that medical evidence indicated that the bodies had been in the ground about two years. The Germans have claimed that the Russians killed these Polish prisoners of war in March 1940. The Russians say that the Germans found the Poles still locked in camps when they reached Smolensk in July 1941, slaughtered them all by the end of September. They say that German Construction Battalion #537, housed in a large Dacha half a mile away, carried out the executions.

The Testimony. Tall, blue-eyed, full-lipped Anna Alexeyeva told of having worked for the Germans in that Dacha. Trucks filled with Polish prisoners, she said, had rumbled by the Dacha in August and September 1941. Afterwards, from Katyn Forest, would come the regular sound of firing, "as if one were pounding with a hammer." Then the men would come in with blood on their tunics and get drunk.

In the afternoon the party went to the Smolensk Soviet Building to watch the Atrocities Commission in session. They heard the Commission conclude that: 1) the Germans had killed the Poles in August and September, 1941; 2) later the Germans, knowing that they would have to leave, sought to cover up evidence of the crime by opening the graves, removing dated documents. If so, they were not thorough. The visitors saw receipts dated in May 1941, and a postcard, written two days before the German attack on Russia in June 1941 but never mailed. On the other hand, as the Russians frankly admitted, letters dated 1940 were found on many bodies.

Witnesses told of false statements the Germans had tortured from them, of threats to pull out veins if they refused to sign. Some of the witnesses had served the Germans in one way or another, had good reason to fear Russian retribution. Execution by pistol is a favorite Russian method, but it is also one that the Germans have used.

When the correspondents were permitted to put questions, one asked why, if the slaughter had been in August or September, many of the corpses wore fur-lined coats. The Russians said that fall nights were cold in Smolensk and the prisoners probably had no other outer garments. Russian censorship permitted the correspondents to cable this searching question and its none too convincing reply.

At 1 a.m. the special started for Moscow. Kathy and the correspondents drank some and sang to blur the memories of the day. Cabled TIME Correspondent Richard Lauterbach: "As far as most of us were concerned, the Germans had slaughtered the Poles."
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