The Polish flag flies at half mast at the Polish Centre, West London
Someone once asked me a really unexpected question: of all the sites of death and destruction that I had ever visited, which did I think still felt the saddest today?
It wasn’t a question I’d ever considered before – despite having traveled to many places in the world which have an extremely depressing history. Most obviously Auschwitz, of course, but also some terrible battlefields like Vyazma, west of Moscow, where I remember seeing rusting military equipment still lying amidst the trees, or the fields around Stalingrad where each spring human bones still push their way up through the thawing earth.
So I had to think a bit before I gave my answer. And in the end I could only narrow it down to two locations – each of which seemed as desperate as the other. The first was the site of Treblinka death camp. What was so dreadful about this place was the immensity of the crime committed here – around 900,000 people were killed on this one spot – combined with the scale of the camp. Treblinka was tiny. Only a few hundred meters square. And the reason it was so small was because it only had one function – murder. Almost everyone who came here was dead within a few hours of arriving.
And the other site that had the most profound impact on me was a forest near Smolensk in Western Russia. A forest called Katyn. It was here in April 1940 that the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – shot around 4,000 Polish citizens, the vast majority of them officers in the Polish Army. (Over 20,000 members of the Polish elite were murdered that April in total, since there were two other related murder sites elsewhere in Russia). Read the rest of this entry