A fairly new museum in Warsaw
about the Katyn massacres of a large part of the Polish military's officer class and intelligentsia by the Soviet Union
in the spring of 1940, following the USSR
's invasion of eastern Poland
in the early stages of WWII
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: The Katyn massacre is, from a Polish perspective, one of the greatest traumas of the nation in the 20th century and had long been a black spot on Polish-Russian relations. What happened?
When Nazi Germany
from the west, thus kicking off WWII
, the Soviet Union
went in from the east to occupy
the Baltic states and parts of eastern Poland
(which ended up as parts of present-day Ukraine
) – all this was previously agreed between Hitler
as part of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
. In this early phase of the war, the two countries even exchanged Polish POW
by or handed over to the Soviets were often sent to labour camps in the east of Russia (and many perished in the harsh conditions there) or held prisoner in specially set up camps in the west of the USSR
. Amongst these were also a large part of the Polish Army's officer corps
, higher police ranks and intelligentsia
In 1940 the head of the secret police organization NKVD
(what was later to become the KGB
), Lavrentiy Beria
, personally instigated the order, approved by Stalin
himself and signed by high-ranking members of the Soviet Politburo, to eliminate, i.e. execute some 25,000
captured Polish “nationalists and counter-revolutionaries” – by which they actually meant those said officers and intelligentsia.
The idea behind this is assumed to have been mostly strategic
: to weaken the Polish military class long-term and so much so that a post-war Poland
, presumed to be rather hostile towards the USSR after losing a good part of its territory to it, would not be a potentially awkward enemy to cause trouble in the nearer future.
So in early April 1940, the systematic mass executions began – namely by shooting in the neck, using German-made handguns – allegedly because the Russian models had too much recoil to be used for such a lengthy operation (which lasted into May) … but the fact that German guns were used also came in handy for propaganda purposes later (see below).
The killings took place not actually in Katyn
alone but also in a few other locations, including the relevant prisons themselves. But Katyn, near Smolensk
in western Russia
, was one of the main locations where the bodies of the victims were buried in mass graves, and so Katyn became the hyperonym for the whole operation and tragedy. This is also so because it was here that remains of victims were first discovered.
There had already been rumours about the mass killings – and the Polish government- in-exile found itself unable to account for the whereabouts of its officer class and pressed for information from the Soviets
– who simply denied the massacres
and initially claimed that the Poles in question had been freed in the far east. But when Germany
launched Operation Barbarossa
and invaded the west of the USSR
, including the Smolensk area, the Nazis
followed up such rumours and soon enough found
the first mass graves
in the forest
the bodies, also calling in members of the International Red Cross
as a key witness.
The German Nazis
then proceeded to lavishly exploit the discovery for
their own propaganda
– using it as “clear evidence” of the brutal nature of Bolshevism. Not incorrectly as such, of course, but with quite an amount of irony and cynicism, given that the Nazis were themselves filling mass graves with millions of Jews at that time (see Operation Reinhard
). While their own atrocities were obviously kept secret by the Nazis, the exhumations of Polish victims of the Katyn massacre were shown on news reels back at home and abroad. Eventually the victims' remains were reburied
in a proper military cemetery set up by the Red Cross in 1943.
However, when later that year the German troops had to retreat westwards as the Red Army advanced in their counter-offensive, Smolensk and Katyn fell back into Soviet hands again – and so they soon began a big cover-up, destroying the cemetery and putting the blame for the murders on the Nazis.
The whole issue was also awkward for
the Western allies
, as the head of the Polish government-in-exile based in London, Wladyslaw Sikorski
, insisted that the matter be thoroughly investigated and included in any negotiations with the Soviet allies. But in July 1943 Sikorski's plane crashed
shortly after taking off from Gibraltar
killing all on board – under mysterious and highly disputed circumstances. Anyway, the “accident” (if it was one) was at least politically convenient for both the British/American as well as the Soviet allies (hence conspiracy theories about the incident remain rife to this day), while for the Poles it was a major setback.
In the post-war era
and all through the Cold War
, the topic of Katyn
became a more or less forbidden subject
in communist Poland
. Bringing the topic back up, however, later became part of the Polish resistance and reform movement in the 1980s
which eventually succeeded in ending communism
in Poland (see also Solidarnosc
and Roads to Freedom
), which in turn started the successive collapse of all the Eastern Bloc
regimes one after the other.
The issue of Katyn was eventually brought out into the open in the Soviet Union
even before it, too, collapsed, when in 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev
issued an official apology
and full acknowledgement of Soviet responsibility
for the Katyn massacre. Declassification of related secret documents pertaining to the massacres took a bit longer to come along, but the case was at least being discussed. The whole issue was one of the main dark spots on Polish-Russian relations, and even though some reconciliation has by now been achieved, it remains a touchy subject.
At the same time, forensic investigations and exhumations resumed
at the Katyn site itself and many of the finds ended up as visual evidence on display in today's Katyn Museum in Warsaw
At the site in the Katyn forest a proper cemetery has meanwhile been reinstated and is these days also augmented by an official memorial museum by the entrance to the complex. The site opened in the year 2000.
Ten years after the opening of this memorial tragedy struck again on 10 April 2010 when the plane of then Polish president Lech Kaczynski crashed near Smolensk killing everybody on board. He, his wife and a delegation of the Polish military and other dignitaries had been on their way to a 70th anniversary memorial ceremony at Katyn. The exact circumstances of this crash were (and in part still are) the subject of conspiracy theories too, though the official version is that it was due to pilot errors in conditions of bad visibility at the time. The site of this crash can also be visited (the Russian Katyn memorial can organize this locally).
The story of the Katyn massacre also featured in various works of art
and in film
, most recently and prominently in the 2007 film
“Katyn” by Andrzej Wajda (who died in October 2016 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw
What there is to see:
Once you've finally tracked down the entrance
to the museum proper (see below
), you descend a slope to a first underground vault level. Shadowy projections onto the white walls “accompany” you going down … more such projections also follow on later. They really are quite eerie.
The museum exhibition is on two levels. All the longer texts and audiovisual elements are in Polish only. But at least most of the labels accompanying individual displays also come with an English translation. Many displays don't really require much comment at all, actually, as they kind of speak for themselves, especially in the second part.
The first part
is full of displays of objects as well as plenty of video screens, drawers with documents and the like – but you don't get much out of any of these unless you have a decent grasp of Polish. I don't, so only part of the exhibition was decodable for me. Easily identified are some famous historic photos, e.g. of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact
, of course. But many other items and the accompanying texts remained a mystery to me.
There are also loads of artefacts on display, the majority of these items found at the Katyn forest site and transferred here, such as pieces of clothing of the victims, hats, jackets, boots, overcoats, and also all manner of personal effects, as well as masses of cartridges.
The collection of personal items plays even more of a key role in the second half of the exhibition, which is accessed by taking a lift another level down (the museum wardens are eager enough to guide you in the right direction).
Here the main elements are various display cabinets subdivided into little orange-terracotta-clad compartments, each displaying a particular item dug up from the original Katyn site. Many of these are really personal items, such as wedding rings, photos, spectacles, watches, keys, and so on, even a little photo of a girl on a beach (maybe one of the victims' loved one?).
I found this by far the most touching part of the whole museum and spent a long time here inspecting the wide range of little objects, trying to use my imagination to picture what significance all these items may once have had for their owners before they fell victim to the massacres.
Eventually you come to the end of the exhibition proper and find that the exit is actually not in the same place as the entrance was, where we had left our wet umbrellas (it was a very rainy day). Kindly, however, a museum warden fetched our umbrellas from the entrance for us before ushering us out into the open air again.
Following the museum part, the memorial continues with a path along the inner Citadel wall, flanked on the other side of the path by marble stelae specifying a range of professions (presumably of the victims), such as 'ekonomista', 'historyk', or 'muzyk'.
The path eventually leads to a separate memorial room (called “epitafium'), divided into separate sections for Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc. – inside are large panels listing all the known names of the victims together with their dates of birth.
Finally, the path leads back up to the entrance level, namely through a “cut” in the Citadel ramparts forming a narrow staircase. At the top of the stairs you find yourself back on the square outside the museum entrance, only at the opposite end of it. From here you have to rejoin the black-paved path back to the Citadel's southern gate. En route you can catch a glimpse of the military barracks beyond the fence (the odd gun on display can also be spotted).
All in all: even though the museum either requires a good command of Polish and/or quite a bit of previous knowledge about its subject matter, it is definitely worth a visit. In particular the gloomy displays of all those personal items made a deep impression on me.
For the uninitiated and non-Polish-speaking visitor the museum could probably not be recommended unreservedly. But I doubt anybody would stumble upon it by chance anyway. The fact that you're reading this is also evidence that you already know a bit about the story. And for a pre-informed audience, it really is good.
Yet if you really want to get to the bottom of it all, but don't know the language, then you'd have to come with a Polish interpreter/translator or hire a foreign-language guide.
inside the south-eastern corner of the military complex that forms the Citadel of Warsaw
– north of the edge of the city centre and the Old Town. Access is via the southern Citadel gate at ul. Jana Jeziorańskiego 4.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: potentially a bit tricky to find; but free
Details: It can be a bit confusing and tricky to find. The reason for this is that you can find wrong addresses quoted for the Katyn Museum. So please note that it is found neither through the main entrance to the Citadel on Wybrzeże Gdyńskie nor at Dymińska 13, the latter being the official address for the projected, newly-designed Polish Army Museum (furthermore: the Katyn Museum used to be part of yet another branch of the Polish military museum at another old fort in the south of Warsaw, so older references may still erroneously point you there).
So, to make it quite clear: you have to make your way to the southern entrance
of the Citadel
at ul. Jana Jeziorańskiego 4, about a mile (1.5 km) north of the heart of the Old Town of Warsaw
The nearest public transport access to this would be Park Traugutta, served by several tram lines (1, 4 , 6, 18, 28) and a couple of buses. The nearest metro stop is Dworzec Gdański, but from there it'd be a rather roundabout walk. Better hop on the tram for one stop to Park Traugutta.
Once through the gate you're not there yet and have to follow a new darkly paved path to the right of the gatehouse which will cross a newly laid-out landscaped square, until you finally get to the actual door to the museum.
Opening Times: Thursdays to Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Wednesdays to 5 p.m., closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
Time required: I spent about 45 minutes in the museum, but if you understand Polish you can probably use a lot more time than that.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Warsaw
The location of the Katyn Museum inside the Warsaw Citadel would suggest that it's best combined with that – however, in order to get to the entrance to the publicly accessible parts of the Citadel you'd first have to go back the way you came in to see the museum, i.e. leave the Citadel through its southern gate, and walk all the way round to its eastern side and use the main public entrance there. This detour is necessary because most of the Citadel is still a military complex that is out of bounds to civilians.
If instead you walk south from the museum and the Citadel in the direction of the Old Town but then turn right onto Konwiktorska boulevard you'll come to the topically related 1995 Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East
(see under Warsaw
All over Poland
there are other memorial monuments
dedicated to the Katyn
tragedy (see e.g. Wroclaw
), and also in other countries where there were (or still are) Polish exiles/ex-pats, e.g. Great Britain
and the USA
At the site of the Katyn
, about a dozen miles (20 km) from Smolensk
, a proper memorial complex and Polish military cemetery were finally inaugurated in the year 2000. It also includes a small museum exhibition by the entrance (open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The southern side of the Citadel, where the entrance to the Katyn Museum is located, is actually not far from Warsaw's most prominent mainstream tourism draw, its Old Town. It's less than a mile (1.4 km) walk to the Rynek, the Old Town Square.
Alternatively you could cross the River Vistula by means of the Most Gdanski bridge (several tram lines use this too) to get to Warsaw's zoo.
See also under Warsaw
- Katyn museum 01 - hard to find museum entrance
- Katyn museum 02 - going down
- Katyn museum 03 - vaulted corridors
- Katyn museum 04 - projection
- Katyn museum 05 - multi-media
- Katyn museum 06 - cartridges
- Katyn museum 07 - hats
- Katyn museum 08 - rain coat
- Katyn museum 09 - cabinets with personal items
- Katyn museum 10 - personal belongings closer up
- Katyn museum 11 - timeless watch
- Katyn museum 12 - photo of a loved one, maybe
- Katyn museum 13 - wedding ring, maybe
- Katyn museum 14 - US first aid box
- Katyn museum 15 - outside part
- Katyn museum 16 - separate memorial room
- Katyn museum 17 - steps
- Katyn museum 18 - back in the courtyard outside the museum
- Katyn museum 19 - the museum is inside an active military complex
- Katyn museum 20 - plan
- Katyn museum 21 - citadel