Rabbi Baruch Steinberg, Second Lieutenant Mieczysław Proner... There were at least 438 Jews among Polish officers killed by the NKVD.
The exact number of Polish Jews taking part in Poland’s defensive war of 1939 is unknown. It is estimated that some 100,000 Jews defended the country as part of the Polish Armed Forces, and 6 to 7 percent of all the officers were Jewish.
After the Soviet Union invaded Poland, between 232,000 and 255,000 Polish Army soldiers as well as officers serving in the State Police, Border Protection Corps and other uniformed services were taken prisoner. The Soviets placed more than half of them in POW camps. According to a report by the NKVD’s Board for Prisoners of War and the Interned of 5 December 1943, 130,242 Polish prisoners of war were held in Soviet camps in 1939-1941 – from this group 8,348 officers were singled out and sent to camps in Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobilsk, and “placed [...] at the disposal of NKVD Boards”.
In the spring of 1940, following the order issued by Joseph Stalin, NKVD executed almost all of the imprisoned officers. According to various estimations, between 15,000 and 24,000 officers killed by the NKVD were buried in mass graves in Katyn, Tver, Bykivnia, Kharkiv, and other locations.
At least 4,421 officers were killed in a forest near Katyn. The NKVD perpetrators shot them in the back of their heads, with the victims’ hands tied up or their clothes thrown over their heads. The world found out about this massacre only three years later. In April 1943, German troops occupying the USSR’s Smolensk district, which included Katyn, started exhuming the mass graves, having been informed of their existence by local residents. They set up an International Medical Commission consisting of experts from German-occupied countries and Switzerland, and also summoned the Polish Red Cross. The Germans used the information about the Soviet killings of Polish officers for their propaganda purposes. In September 1943, when Soviet troops drove away the Germans from the Smolensk region, the NKVD started another exhumation, this time aimed to falsify evidence and put the blame on the Germans.
After the war many Poles did know about the crimes committed by the NKVD against Polish Army officers, but in the times of communist Poland speaking about it was forbidden. The communist authorities claimed that the Germans were responsible for the killings. They tried to make this lie believable by showing tourists the village of Khatyn, whose residents were massacred by the Germans in 1943. Only after the fall of communism did the Soviet authorities reveal the true course of events, presented the lists of those killed and indicated the locations of the killings.
Jews from the so-called Katyn list
Jews serving in the Polish Armed Forces and other formations also fell victim to the NKVD. Establishing a list of them was not an easy task – their names were not always a sufficient distinguishing feature, and archival documents were missing. In most cases contact with their relatives was impossible as they were killed by the Germans in the times of the Holocaust.
The lists of those killed were prepared, among others, by Prof. Marian Fuks of the Jewish Historical Institute, who published subsequent names in the Folks Shtime magazine in the early 1990s. Benjamin Meirtchak’s book Jewish Military Casualties in the Polish Armies in World War II included the names of 231 Jews killed in Katyn, 188 killed in Kharkiv and 19 murdered in Mednoye. They were both active officers and numerous reserve officers who normally worked as doctors, pharmacists, lawyers or engineers.
Among those killed in Katyn was Baruch Steinberg, the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Armed Forces, born in Przemyślany in 1897 in a rabbinical family. As a young man, Baruch Steinberg joined the Polish Military Organization, and during the Ukrainian-Polish war of 1919 he took part in the defense of Lvov. He studied at the University of Lvov. In 1928, he became rabbi chaplain of the Polish Armed Forces, first in Grodno, and then in Warsaw and Krakow. In 1933, he was named head of the Chief Office of Jewish Chaplaincy, and three years later – Chief Rabbi of the Polish Armed Forces. Baruch Steinberg was a supporter of Józef Piłsudski and he often attended patriotic ceremonies.
In 1939, after the Red Army invaded Poland, Rabbi Baruch Steinberg was taken prisoner. He was kept in the Starobilsk camp, in the Butyrka prison in Moscow, and in the Yukhnov and Kozelsk camps. It is known that he organized collective prayers in the camps.
“On Friday evenings we gathered outside a dilapidated shed where hundreds of Jews, led by Chaplain Dr. Steinberg, said fervent prayers in Hebrew,”
Bronisław Młynarski recalled in his W niewoli sowieckiej (In Soviet Captivity) book.
On 11-12 April 1940, Rabbi Baruch Steinberg was “placed at the disposal” of the Smolensk District NKVD. He was killed in the Katyn forest probably on 12 or 14 April 1940. He was 42.
When on 13 April 1943, the Germans publicized the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest, most family members of the Jews executed there were already dead, killed in ghettos and death camps, which made it even more difficult to preserve the memory of the victims.
One of the recollections of the Jewish officers killed by the NKVD is an account by Israel-based Prof. Janina Godhar, a daughter of Second Lieutenant Mieczysław Julian Proner, a pharmacy doctor executed in Kharkiv.
“We spent those days waiting for a message from the Father. If I remember correctly, we received the first signal that he had survived in October (1939 – eds.). We were visited by one of the soldiers who served in his unit and was taken prisoner by the Soviets. The Soviets released all the soldiers but kept the officers. Our father sent us a message that we was fine. My mom was pleased that he was detained by the Soviets because she thought this was better for a Jew than being arrested by the Germans”.
“One day in December, we were delighted to receive a postcard from the Starobilsk camp, and then another one, in which he wrote that he was fine and asked for our photos (he also wrote he had my teddy-bear). The third postcard was written in early March. It came at the same time as a returned parcel with photos that my Mom had sent. We were upset by this, but my Mom thought that he must have been transferred somewhere. At that time we could not even imagine that he was already dead”.
Source: Goldhar J., My story, Tel-Aviv, 2012
The Polish War Cemeteries in Katyn and Kharkiv feature thousands of plaques with the victims’ names. As one follows the long paths demarcated by them, one can see names of Polish Jews every few footsteps.
Author: Krzysztof Bielawski
Cooperation: Joanna Król