Bykovnia. Archeology of crime

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Bykovnia. Archeology of crime

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Copyright: Narodowe Centrum Kultury
Title: Bykownia. Archeologia zbrodni
Publisher: Narodowe Centrum Kultury
Photography: Maksymilian Rigamonti
Text: Magdalena Rigamonti
Text editor: Grzegorz Sobaszek
Historical consultation: prof. Andrzej Kola
Languages: Polish, English, Russian, Ukraine
Translation: Dorota Jaworska, Marek Klauziński
24 Photographs
Size: 17 x 24 cm
82 Pages
Printrun:  1000
Date of issue: 2012
ISBN: 978-83-61587-77-4

We’ve been to Bykovnia near Kiev in Ukraine in May 2011. We’ve been observing exhumations conducted by archaeologists and anthropologists under prof. Andrzej Kola leadership. At present on the area, where remains of Poles murdered in 1940 in Kiev rest, Polish Military Cemetery has been founded, called 4th Katyn Cemetery.

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On the 17th of 1939 Soviet Union invaded Poland. 250 thousand polish soldiers were taken captive. In spring of 1940, by the shot at the back of the head NKWD (People’s Commission of Interior USSR) murdered 21768 Polish citizens. Among them there were Polish Army officers, reserve scientists, physicians, artists, civil servants and teachers and also officers of State Police, Border Protection Corps, Border Guard and Prison officers. The victims were buried in mass graves in Katyn and Miednoye at the territory of present day Russia, Kuropaty in Belorussia, in Charkov and Bykovnia near Kiev in Ukraine. For 50 years Soviets blamed Nazis for Katyn Crime. On 13th of April 1990 they regarded it to be the Stalinism crime.

We’ve been to Bykovnia near Kiev in Ukraine in May 2011. We’ve been observing exhumations conducted by archaeologists and anthropologists under prof. Andrzej Kola leadership. At present on the area, where remains of Poles murdered in 1940 in Kiev rest, Polish Military Cemetery has been founded, called 4th Katyn Cemetery.


Interview with prof. Andrzej Kola, the leading archaeologist in Bykovnia.

Since 1994 he’s been managing exhumations of Stalinist repressions’ victims. Affiliated with Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń.

How many graves are there in Bykovnia?

More than two hundred including 69 Polish ones. In the largest of them there were still remains of over 70 people. We estimate that in those 69 graves rest more than 1980 from 3435 Polish citizens from so called „Ukrainian Katyn List” meaning those who were murdered by NKWD by Soviet Union main authorities order issued on the 5th of March 1940. However till the end of 2011 we set the names of only nine Polish victims buried in Bykovnia.

Why so few?

Remains of 20 thousand people murdered in Kiev mostly between 1937 and 38 by communists rest here. In 70s and 80s there was an exhumation inspired by Soviet authorities conducted on this grounds officially called „State Historical Memorial Reservation of Graves of Bykovnia”. It was aimed to cleanse the graves from all objects allowing national identification. Luckily not everything was cleansed and we still found 5407 objects of Polish origin. The most important proof of Polish officers’ burial in Bykovnia is a dog tag of sergeant major Józef Naglik, an anti-louse comb branded Matador Garantie with names of four Polish soldiers scratched on it: lieutenant colonel Bronisław Szczyradłowski, general Władysław Langren, professor Ludwik Dworzak and professor Juliusz Makarewicz.

You went to Bykovnia in 2001 for the first time, didn’t you?

Within the exhumation operations, yes I did. I’ve been managing the exhumations of Stalinist repressions’ victims since 1994. I started in Charkov where along with conservationists, anthropologists, representatives of Polish Red Cross and Katyn Families we’ve been conducting research at the place of burial of Polish officers murdered in April 1940.

When did you first come across the information that Polish officers rest in Bykovnia?

At the beginning of the 90s the Russian party admitted Katyn Crime. So we knew those imprisoned in Kozielsk were buried in Katyn. But we didn’t know the burial place of those from Starobielsk and Ostaszków. Step by step more and more truth was coming out. Soviet Union’s Military Prosecutor’s Office conducted an investigation in this case. The conclusions were that those from Starobielsk were brought to Kalinin or Twer and killed there. After immediate exhumations Polish experts were also involved in, it appeared that they were buried in Miednoje.

Have you been among the experts at that time?

No, I haven’t yet. In 1991 in Charkov during 2 weeks search for the graves there were 49 archaeological excavations made at alleged cemetery that was already turned into KGB resort. Then they came across Polish graves in two places. Afterwards the crew went to Miednoje where they found a Polish grave with 250 bodies in it. Then the Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites decided to conduct full exhumations of those places. They strived for the official consent of the Russian party but they didn’t get it until 1994. It’s necessary to recall that after Soviet Union’s fall, there were two consents needed from both Russia and Ukraine. Then I joined the works and started managing Polish expedition in Charkov.

Did you treat that as a mission?

Surely it wasn't just another business trip. We knew that we did it for Poland that it was our duty that we owed it to the families of the victims. After three years of work in Charkov we counted 4300 buried bodies in Polish graves. But it’s worth mentioning that according to available archive sources 3820 people were taken away to Charkov from Starobielsk.

Where did the surplus come from?

I suppose about 500 people in Charkov’s graves were the victims of so called Ukrainian Katyn List. It is known that 3435 people were taken away to Charkov, Kiev and Cherson from western Ukraine prisons, mainly intelligentsia including officers. Whereas in Bykovnia there are less than 2 thousand people resting there. Five hundred were taken away to Charkov.

How about the rest?

We don’t know exactly. But probably they were taken to Cherson or Mikołajew nearby.

Are you going to look for the graves there as well?

Reportedly at the grounds of NKWD victims’ cemetery where about a thousand of murdered Polish were buried, there is a housing estate built there... This is a proof for covering communist murderers’ tracks. There was a cover-up attempt in Bykovnia as well. In the 70s at the ground of the cemetery there was a bus station to be built. At present we know that graves at Bykovnia cemetery take the area of over 1.5 ha. Although Soviets marked out more than 5 ha for that graveyard – that was the area surrounded by hardened groundof 3-4 m road and 3 meter fence outside. Until now there are fragments of pillars from that fence in the ground. After the war people dismantled the palings for fuel and then encouraged they started to come to the cemetery in quest of valuable objects, gold from dentition among other things.

And that’s also why in 1971 KGB made the first exhumation, isn’t it?

That was so called tidying the terrain up. By the way they dug through all of the graves. They excavated not only bones but first of all objects which led to identification of those who were buried there. The whole output was placed in 36 cases sized 2x1x1meter which were buried 4 meters underground. And a monument was erected at that place. Only in 2007 we got to know those cases were there. I don’t know if there are only objects or also bones deposited there or is it all mixed up.

Aren’t you tempted to get to those cases and open them?

I am, indeed. Verifying this could help to disclose the truth. After Soviet exhumations 3.5 thousand cubic meters of fertile black Ukrainian soil was brought here to smoothen the forest surface, grass was sown and a monument was erected with a board informing that citizens of Kiev killed by fascists between 1941 and 43 had been buried there.

Was there any information about finding Polish graves?

Certainly not. In 1987 there was another exhumation made. It was also fictitious, as the knowledge about the cemetery was already there. In only five days some graves were dug up and down. Just to show off. That was the beginning of perestroika, so Ukrainian victims’ families started to demand the truth about Bykovnia. However it was announced again they were victims of fascism buried there. Protests of victims’ families caused that there was another, unfortunately fictitious exhumation again. Based on so called new evidence they admitted that victims of Stalinist cleansings from 1937-40 were buried there. Later the part of the memorial saying fascists were responsible for the crime was erased and until today there is only a meaningless inscription: Eternal memory.

You are not only an archaeologist and historian, but also...

We cared very much for the Polish Military Cemetery to be founded in Bykovnia – the fourth among so called Katyƒ cemeteries. And I think we essentially made it. I remember in 2001 we came across a pit with only Polish objects in it what might have suggested that the Polish were buried somewhere nearby. It held the truth only in 2006, when we came across 21 Polish graves and a year later another 33, where we counted 1488 people. Although the remains were mixed up, while counting the victims resting in graves we only considered so called countable bones such as left thigh bone or a chin bone... We also counted boots. I look at the exhumation from different angles. The first is an archaeological one based on the idea that we give our knowledge to possess the truth about what really happened. The second is a family one as they were husbands, fathers and sons dying here. Their families have been suffering for so many years. Tenacity of purpose to reach the knowledge on where their family members were killed and where are they buried is very strong in them. I think the families have the right to come to the cemetery to visit their relatives’ graves. There is a national aspect as well – for Poland it is a matter of remembrances of its own heroes. Yet those officers were not prisoners of war, as Poland was not at war with The Soviet Union at that time. They were casually arrested, kept in prisons and shot dead without a trial.

Was it always at the back of the head?

The methodology of putting to death was to shoot at the back of the head from a pistol or a revolver. It used to happen that they were low calibre weapons – 5,56 mm. Such a shot killed, but not instantly. That’s why sometimes they shot for the second and even third time. We have found a skull showing that the man had been shot at five times.

Did the bullets remain?

Usually they went out. However a skull is very resistant and a bullet had often remained inside as many examples here show. It used to happen that a bullet went out through a forehead and a man was still alive anyway, so he was shot again. In May 2011 at the bottom of one of the graves for the first time at this cemetery we found remains in an anatomical order.

With their hands tied up?

Of course. It was a principle. They were shot dead in NKWD prison in Kiev, corpses were thrown on a lorry and carried to Bykovnia. Those tracks were called gruzovik and could carry up to 1.5 tonnes and fit 25 bodies. They were covered with tarpaulin. And then the bodies were thrown to holes in the ground and buried.


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Nazwa Bykownia jeszcze 20-30 lat temu mówiła nam niewiele. Dzisiaj mamy ją zapisaną w milionach polskich serc obok Katynia, Piatichatek, Miednoje  i Kuropat. Na tym największym z ukraińskich cmentarzy ponad stu tysięcy ofiar komunizmu zidentyfikowano również szczątki polskich jeńców wojennych z tzw. „ukraińskiej listy katyńskiej”. Spoczęły tam ciała żołnierzy i funkcjonariuszy, wziętych do niewoli i zgładzonych przez sowieckiego agresora po 17 września 1939 roku.

Za kilka dni zostanie tam uroczyście poświęcony czwarty już polski cmentarz wojenny ofiar zbrodni katyńskiej. Rok temu, wraz z Prezydentem Ukrainy, wmurowałem akt erekcyjny pod budowę tej nekropolii. Mogłem wówczas ujrzeć tamto miejsce z bliska, pomodlić się oraz zamyśleć nad ogromem tej tragedii. Kontrast między spokojnym, spowitym jesienną ciszą lasem i ekshumacyjnymi wykopami to coś, co na długo pozostaje w pamięci. Trudno ogarnąć myślą bezwzględność i skalę mordów, a zarazem gorliwość, z jaką próbowano później zatrzeć ślady, zniszczyć dowody i uchronić sprawców przed piętnem wiecznej hańby.

 Eksponowane tu zdjęcia Pana Maksymiliana Rigamontiego dobrze oddają atmosferę tamtego miejsca. Dokumentują również niezwykle ważną i żmudną pracę zespołu archeologów pod kierownictwem Pana Profesora Andrzeja Koli. Dziękuję obu Panom oraz wszystkim, którzy mają swój udział w wydobywaniu na światło dzienne prawdy o dramacie, który rozegrał się w Bykowni – w tym także organizatorom tej poruszającej i bardzo potrzebnej wystawy.

 Zaś ze wszystkimi, którzy będą ją zwiedzać, łączę się w myślach słowami widniejącymi na innym polskim cmentarzu wojennym u stóp Monte Cassino: Przechodniu, powiedz Polsce, żeśmy polegli wierni w jej służbie.  

Prezydent Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej

Bronisław Komorowski