This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre, the murder of thousands of Polish prisoners ordered by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party Politburo in March 1940. A Polish exhibition commemorating this event, which has been touring Europe and the United States for the past few months, is now in the Herbert Hoover Memorial Pavilion through January 2011. The exhibition consists of forty-three panels of images and text, augmented by selected documentation from the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, home to the largest and most comprehensive holdings on modern Poland outside Poland.
Among the Hoover contributions to the exhibition is the only known photograph of the Kozelsk prison camp, in which more than forty-five hundred Polish prisoners were kept between October 1939 and April 1940, before they were executed and buried in the mass graves at Katyn. The camp occupied the buildings of one of the most important centers of Orthodox Christianity in prerevolutionary Russia, the Optina Monastery, which had been visited by tens of thousands of the faithful, including some of Russia’s leading writers and intellectuals, most especially Fyodor Dostoyevsky, for whom the monastery provided much of the inspiration for his best work, The Brothers Karamazov. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks killed or exiled the monks and turned the monastery into a prison camp. During the time that it housed Polish prisoners, it was identified to the outside world as the “Maxim Gorky Rest Home.” The photograph of the monastery-turned-prison was brought out, folded and concealed in his clothing, by Ludwik Jaksztas a Polish air force lieutenant, who was one of the several dozen prisoners selected by the NKVD, probably for operational reasons, for transfer to another camp and thus spared execution. Who the photographer was is not clear; it may have been made by a member of the camp underground who did not survive or somehow obtained from a Soviet source. It was likely one of several photographs given to individuals as they were being taken out of the camp, virtually all to be executed. The copy given to Jaksztas was the only one that reached the outside world and is now in the Wiktor Sukiennicki papers in the Hoover Archives. Sukiennicki, a Polish legal scholar and later a research fellow at Hoover, was the principal investigator of the Katyn murders on behalf of the Polish government in exile.
Lieutenant Jaksztas escaped the killing fields of Katyn but never made it back to Poland. Released from captivity after the Nazis attacked their Soviet ally in the summer of 1941, he joined the Polish forces loyal to the London-based Polish government in exile. A navigator with the RAF Polish 305 Squadron, his Mosquito bomber was shot down on the third day of the Normandy invasion. He is buried in the Langannerie cemetery in northern France, along with some seven hundred other Free Poles. The Kozelsk Optina Monastery has been returned to its original purpose and, after major restoration, has again become a vibrant center of Russian Orthodox Christianity.