Seventy years after the event, the wounds of the Katyń massacre still bleed. It was 1940 when the Soviet Secret Police murdered thousands of Polish officers and secretly buried them in mass graves deep in the Russian forests. To this day, Russia is unwilling to atone for its horrific crime.
Piotr Uzarowicz is an American-born filmmaker based in Los Angeles. The film's Producer is Academy Award winner Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. The film received the Award for the Best Non-Feature Film at the Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival.
Upon the death of his father, Piotr Uzarowicz makes a startling discovery. A forgotten safe deposit box reveals his grandmother's memoirs including old photos of an army officer and a mysterious postcard that was a link to the 1940 Katyń Forest massacres. His grandfather was among the officer's murdered and his wife and children among the one million Polish citizens of various faiths and ethnicities from eastern Poland (the "Kresy" or Borderlands) in 1940-41 who were killed, repressed or deported to prisons, forced labor camps (GULAGs) and "special settlements" in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Soviet Asia.
Filmed in Russia, Ukraine, Poland, England as well as Canada and the U.S., "The Officer's Wife" is one man's family story fused with the personal stories of survivors and interviews of the children who managed to survivor Siberia, but tragically lost their fathers at Katyń.
"Everyone wants to know about their family, their identity, what molds them and what makes them who they are," says Producer and Director Piotr Uzarowicz. "I interviewed those who were willing to share their deepest, darkest emotions in front of a camera."
The film has been described as "deeply moving" and "presents Katyń and its aftermath like no other film." Dr. Zbigniew Bzezinski, former NSA Director stated: "I watched The Officer's Wife with gripping intensity and outraged emotions. It is a most effective presentation of the overall context of the crime."
Local descendants of those murdered at places like Katyń and survivors of the Siberia deportations present in the audience will be recognized and encouraged to join in the discussion.
My Review of "The Officer’s Wife"
I recently attended a screening of the documentary film, “The Officer’s Wife” at Rochester’s Little Theater. The award-winning documentary relates the story of American-born film director, Piotr Usarowicz’s discovery of a forgotten safe deposit box containing his grandmother's memoirs, old photos of an army officer, and a mysterious postcard linked to the 1940 Katyń Forest massacres. Further study of these documents revealed that Usarowicz’s grandfather was one of approximately 22,500 Polish officer's murdered at Katyń and that his grandmother and her children were among the more than one million Polish citizens of various faiths, who in 1940-41were killed, repressed or deported to Russian prisons, forced labor camps (GULAGs) and "special settlements" in Siberia, Kazakhstan and Soviet Asia. I viewed Usarowicz’s film with gripping interest because not long ago I also discovered that some of my own family members were victims of Katyń. Usarowicz’s film gave me a deeper understanding of the events leading up to the Massacre, the struggles facing the victim’s families, and the difficulties Poland continues to wrestle with, even today, as a result of Russia’s stubborn unwillingness to admit their brutal assault on Poland during World War II was unjustified.
Unlike Usarowicz’s grandfather and the overwhelming majority of Katyń victims, Res. Lt. Henryk Franciszek Adamski had both Polish and American citizenship. Before moving to Poland in 1932, Henryk, my mother’s cousin, lived on Clinton Street as a boy and later became a teacher in Buffalo's city schools. My babcia, Aniela (Skrobacz) Adamski, was Henryk's godmother. At the Q and A session after the screening, Piotr Usarowicz stated that the horror of Katyń, while tragically the end for those soldiers and intellectuals who were so brutally murdered by the Russians, was only the beginning of many years of unimaginable fear and misery for their families. I could not agree more. Upon my learning that Henryk Adamski was a victim of Katyń, I discovered that his wife, Stanisława, and his four year old daughter, Danuta, were arrested and sent to work in the Russian camps. The film reveals how cunningly the diabolic Russians obtained the addresses of the soldiers’ families: they simply allowed the unsuspecting prisoners to write letters home. The Russians recorded the addresses on the envelopes, which were then used to locate the Polish prisoner’s families.
Details of Stanisława’s experience were recorded some years ago in the publication "The General Langfitt Story: Polish Refugees Recount Their Experiences of Exile, Dispersal and Resettlement" (available online), which recounts the plight of countless Poles that were relocated to Soviet labor camps but ultimately resettled in Australia. The General Langfitt was the name of the ship that took them – after ten long years of struggling to survive – to freedom and their new home:
I received a note from my husband from Rostov, in Russia, where he was taken with other members of the Polish army. The note was brought to me by a man who came back from Russia. The ordinary soldiers came home but all the others were kept in the Soviet Union. I received only one more letter from him asking for boots and a belt.
At the screening of “The Officer’s Wife”, it was interesting to observe the reactions of those in the audience. Many in attendance were undoubtedly Polish or Polish-American and very familiar with the Katyń subject. Some attended, I suspect, just to take in a movie on a Sunday afternoon without knowing what they were getting themselves into. Such was the case of the group of adults that made their way into my row while discussing what they knew about Poland during WWII and wondering what the Katyń Massacre was all about. Throughout the film, I could hear their gasps and groans as they reacted to not only the war, the massacre and its cover up, but also the betrayal of Poland by its allies after the war. I should mention the film itself was not gratuitously gory in any way because Usarowicz used cartoons and animation to effectively illustrate the most unsettling scenes without resorting to graphic depictions of violence. Nevertheless, the film describes tragic and disturbing events that are bound to shock the viewer, particularly those unfamiliar with this chapter of Poland’s history. After the film, Usarowicz explained that he used pencil drawings to allow one to color in the details with one's own imagination. In my case, I filled in the faces with members of my family. How stunned Henryk Adamski’s young wife and little daughter must have been when Russian soldiers burst into their home at four in the morning to arrest them and send them to Siberia, and for what crime?
Some of those in the audience apparently were unaware that Poland was not only attacked by Germany, but was also attacked by Russia from the east and had to wage a war on two fronts. I surprised to learn that, according to some of the survivors interviewed in the film, the Russian people do not consider the invasion of Poland by the Germans on September 1, 1939 as the beginning of WWII; in their view, the invasion of Russia by the Germans on June 22, 1941 marks the beginning of the war. I could only imagine, and the survivors interviewed in the film make it clear, how joyful the Stanisława and the other Poles must have felt when shortly thereafter amnesty was declared and Poles were free to leave the labor camps, but where to go? This is what Stanisława said about their experiences after amnesty was declared:
We had no choice of where to go, we just went where they took us. All of us women were taken to a place near a railway. There I suddenly saw a soldier in a Polish uniform, with a Polish emblem. We knew little of what was happening as we had been so isolated so I ran to ask him information; it almost seemed to me that it was my husband. I asked, 'Do you know other officers, someone named Adamski?' He told me that the soldiers who were taken to Rustov had disappeared. I sought out my friend Tokarzewska, she was the daughter of General Tokarzewski's brother, who came from Poland. He told us where to stay so I went with her and her daughter. The road was so muddy and thick. We stayed in this place for a few weeks and from there we were sent to the Aral Sea, near the Syr-Darya River, which means the river of life. Here we were put on a barge to Nukus, south of the Aral Sea.
The journey took three weeks and it was very cold. To go to the toilet people had to stand on the edge of the barge. There was plenty of ice and many children slipped off into the river and were lost. From Nukus it was 100 kilometres to Uzbekistan. Many people were taken there by camels but my daughter and I went by bullock cart with another woman and her daughter. Here we worked the land which was very fertile. We grew djugara, a grain you had to grind. One day this other woman came shouting, 'They have come to take us home!' Her husband had found her. I was crying, frightened and praying because without his help I would have had to stay there. He said, 'You will come too as my wife's sister. At the moment they are not looking at documents'. He was not an officer but he had a position with some soldiers under him. I paid him by giving him my husband's boots. This is how I left Russia.
Eventually, Stanisława made her way with her daughter, Danuta, to a camp in Kenya where they learned English and prayed for the day they would one day be reunited with Henryk. Sadly, this story does not have a Hollywood ending:
I found out that he was dead after I arrived in Australia (in 1950). My brother sent me a book from Poland with all the names of those killed, Lista Katynska, which I still have. My husband's name is there, Henryk Adamski.
The screening of the film and Mr. Uzarowicz's visit was sponsored by the Skalny Center for Polish and Central European Studies and The Permanent Chair of Polish Culture at Canisius College, in conjunction with the Polish Legacy Project-WWII. I would like to thank all those involved with bringing, “The Officer’s Wife” to Western New York. I would also like to extend a special thank you to Piotr Usarowicz’s for producing such a superb film that tells the story of, not only the victims of the Katyń Massacre, but also equally compelling story of their families. The reader may be interested to know that Officer Adamski’s wife, Stanisława, passed away in 2003. Her daughter, Danuta, now in her seventies, lives in Perth, Australia. I am fortunate in that I have been able to locate Danuta via the internet and joyfully exchange opłatek with her at Christmas time. If you were unable to attend the screening, I understand copies of the DVD will soon be available at www.theofficerswifemovie.com.
- Robert J. Johnson
Below: Photo of Buffalo-native Polish Reserve Officer Lt. Henryk Franciszek Adamski
with wife, Stanisława, and daughter, Danuta