"A great man's greatest good luck is to die at the right time" - Eric Hoffer, an American philosopher, once wrote. The President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, has died tragically, 70 years, almost to the day, after the Soviets committed the mass murder of over 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the camps of Western U.S.S.R and the Katyn forest just 12 miles from the crash site.
It took the tragic death of the President for the word "Katyn" to storm into the newsrooms of the American media, cited at first only as "a place of World War II tragedy".
Two years earlier Andrzej Wajda, one of the greatest Polish film directors, brought his latest masterpiece, Katyn to America, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. In Hollywood, where good guys wear white and bad guys black, my colleagues had some trouble in distinguishing who is who and what is what in the complicated reality of post-war Poland.
Yet the movie, shocked the audience with its realism, just as strongly as the statements of the perpetrators of this horrifying massacre, which was committed in the basement of Stalin's Secret Police (NKVD) headquarters in Smolensk. They used "buckets of water to wash the blood of the victims off the basement's floor" and "had to cool off the muzzles of their guns as they overheated from firing in the back of the prisoners' heads."
Before the screening of the movie in Moscow, two representatives of the Polish distributor asked for a security detail fearing for their lives. Today Wajda's Katyn is shown in Russia's television primetime and TV networks from all around the world fight for distribution rights to the film.
For Poles, Katyn is a holy place. The national memorial site survived decades of the Soviet propaganda machine which tried to obliterate the name from maps and history books, often deliberately blurring the truth. In 1969, Soviet authorities chose a small village named Khatyn (spelled differently in Russian but sounding the same as Katyn) as the site for Belorussia's national memorial. President Richard Nixon took the bait touring "Khatyn memorial" during his 1974 USSR visit.
Top secret documents ordering the Katyn massacre, signed by Stalin himself, were released to Polish authorities in Oct. 1992 when Russian President Boris Yeltsin handed a copy to the President of Poland, Lech Walesa. But the full truth about Katyn still needs to be revealed by Russian authorities just as the documents related to the disappearance of thousands of American soldiers taken prisoners in Soviet occupied Germany in 1945.
The wound in Polish-Russian relations festered unhealed in the Katyn forests for 70 years, waiting for the Polish president and his plane. Last Sunday at the Polish president's funeral, the heads of state honored not only Lech Kaczynski but also the memory of the victims of Katyn tragedy.
Despite the plume of volcanic ashes, which forced many of heads of state to cancel their appearances, Russian president Medvedev ignored the warnings of his security detail and bravely flew his jet to Poland. President Obama canceled the trip, which can be understood. It is sad and incomprehensible, however, that our president chose to play golf when one of our biggest allies buried its leader.
Great men don't do that.
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