Over a period of several weeks in the spring of 1940, agents of the NKVD and soldiers of the Soviet Red Army systematically murdered almost 22,000 Polish army officers, political and cultural leaders on orders from Josef Stalin and secret police chief Lavrenti Beria. Their bodies were buried in mass graves in a forest near Katyn, about 15 miles from the Russian city of Smolensk.

Soviet forces had invaded Poland the previous September, pushing toward the west as the Nazi blitzkrieg drove east. It was all part of a secret plan hatched that summer, when the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov negotiated an alliance with his Nazi counterpart Joachin von Ribbentrop. Hitler and Stalin agreed to jointly invade Poland and divide the spoils between them, with Germany taking the west, and the USSR the east. Neither side expected the agreement to last, but both were eager to take what they could get while the getting was good.

The German invasion touched off the Second World War. Britain and France, outraged by Nazi aggression and diplomatically obliged to defend Poland, issued an ultimatum demanding a German withdrawal. Of the Soviet invasion, they said nothing. When the ultimatum’s deadline passed, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that a state of war existed between his country and the German aggressor. No such state of war existed with the Soviet Union. The western Allies believed they could make short work of Germany, but they were loath to poke the Russian Bear. They said nothing.

Stalin got away with it.

A little less than two years later the USSR was Britain’s ally and, shortly thereafter, America’s as well. Neither Winston Churchill nor Franklin Roosevelt wanted to bring up Stalin’s dirty secret, although they knew full well what had happened in the Katyn Forest. Even five months after the German surrender in 1945, the official story was that the Katyn Massacre was just another Nazi atrocity. The New York Times reported in October of that year that the perpetrators would soon face judgment before the International War Crimes Tribunal. “This is but one of he many war crimes for which the majority of the German war leaders awaiting trial at Nuremburg will have to answer,” the Times’ correspondent wrote. The Tribunal quietly dropped the case.

The Katyn Massacre is a dark, bloody wound in the Polish collective memory, felt as keenly – if not more – in the Polish diaspora as in Poland itself. It is a memory of the deepest trauma; of unimaginable violence, betrayal, and the theft of their nation. After the war, American and British officials slowly, grudgingly acknowledged that this atrocity had been committed by our erstwhile allies, and not by our detested enemy. Polish Americans, in particular, demanded that it be recognized and commemorated. But a belated commemoration of the Katyn Massacre would inevitably call attention to the western allies’ complicity in its cover up. So there would be no monuments; no memorials.

It was only with Glasnost and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union that the unspeakable truth could be spoken and the memory commemorated. In April 1990, fifty years after the massacre, the Soviet government came clean, and promised to turn over the NKVD and Red Army documents to public scrutiny.

That was cold comfort to millions of Polish Americans whose national trauma had remained largely unacknowledged for half a century. When Polish community leaders announced a project to erect a memorial monument on the banks of the Hudson River, the response from Polish Americans was overwhelming. Many made contributions to fund the memorial, many others eagerly anticipated the dedication ceremony.

Northern New Jersey is home to the largest Polish American communities in the United States. Polish immigrants set down deep roots in the cities of Bayonne, Elizabeth, Linden, and Jersey City, where they worked alongside African Americans and immigrants from Ireland and Italy on the docks, in the warehouses, and in rail yards that served the thriving metropolitan economy of New York City in the 19th and 20th centuries.

These were the “huddled masses” welcomed by Emma Lazarus’s verse engraved on the Statue of Liberty just off Caven Point – but they were also the people the New York Times editorial board had dismissed in 1884 as “the human refuse of Europe,” and Senator Ellison Durant Smith described four decades later as “dumb, driven cattle,” unsuited to American citizenship.

The dedication of sculptor Andrzej Pitynski’s Katyn memorial on city-owned property at Jersey City’s Exchange Place on 19 May 1991 was thus more than an expression of ethnic cultural memory; it was a powerful statement by Polish Americans of their citizenship. This monument, the Irish Famine memorial three miles away in Lincoln Park, the Philippine war memorial a few blocks away on Manila Avenue weave the histories of once-excluded communities into the broad tapestry of American public memory. They stand in the way, demand to be seen, and enjoin passersby to add these memories to their own.

Located in the heart of Jersey City’s old Polish neighborhood, Pitynski’s 34-foot-tall bronze statue is a stylized depiction of a Polish soldier, his arms bound, stabbed through the back by a rifle bayonet. The Plinth bears the inscription “Katyn, 1940.” After a half-century of lies and coverups, it proclaims, the agonizing memory will not be forgotten. It will not be ignored.

Yet, only 27 years after the monument was unveiled, it seems that there are many in Jersey City who would, in fact, prefer to ignore it. In the intervening decades, the working-class residents who toiled in the warehouses and docks around Exchange Place have been gradually pushed out of downtown Jersey City by creeping gentrification. Where there once were rail yards, warehouses, and humble homes, there are now luxury condominiums, trendy restaurants and cafes catering to the affluent professionals who displaced the original parishioners of Our Lady of Czestochowa church a few blocks away on Sussex Street. The Polish Army Veterans’ Association is vacant; White Eagle Hall has become a hip alternative music venue.

For the property developers who have come to wield so much power in Jersey City, the Katyn memorial is an obstacle in the heart of the most profitable real estate on the west side of the Hudson River; for their target market, it’s an eyesore. “How can I explain such a gruesome sculpture to my children?” ask parents pushing strollers along the redeveloped Hudson Riverwalk. “Why should I have to look at this?”

In April of this year, Mayor Steven Fulop announced that the memorial would be moved to accommodate a waterfront redevelopment project. At first the details were vague – Was this a temporary measure? Was it to be moved to storage, or to another location entirely? Eventually the city’s plans became clear: The “gruesome” statue would be moved into storage to make way for a splash park for children.

Mayor Fulop and the developers probably did not expect the firestorm that the announcement touched off. It was like they were blithely consigning the memory of the Katyn Massacre to public amnesia once again, and the announcement became an international controversy, inviting comment from the Polish government, and mobilizing protesters.

The future of the Katyn memorial remains unclear. Jersey City thought it had struck a deal to relocate the monument to cramped location nearby, but the proposal has satisfied no one.

And why would it? At issue here is not the subjective aesthetics of Pitynski’s striking, dramatic sculpture, or even the tender emotions of neighborhood children. It is a contest over memory – over what should be remembered, and how it should be remembered. And for the Polish Americans who fought so hard for so long to bring the long-suppressed memory to light, the fear that the 22,000 murdered Poles buried in the Katyn Forest might be officially forgotten once again is almost more than they can bear.

The Memorial Project is a photographic history of American memorial practice since 1865. Using film photography to document monuments, artifacts, and spaces of collective and official public memory, the project aims to interrogate “how America remembers.” All photos © Matthew Friedman.

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Source: Memorial Project