Death in the Forest: who murdered the prisoners?


War and Exile, 1939-1948

The SS Viking Division in Poland

Viking Divsion in Poland
About 1400 Finns, most of them little more than boys, foolishly enlisted in the Waffen SS, the combat divisions of Himmler's infamous Schutzstaffel. Most served at one time or another in SS-Division Wiking, the Viking Division, along with Dutch, Danish, Norwegian, and especially German and ethnic German volunteers. Like the other Waffen SS combat units, they hacked a bloody path of rape, arson, and mass murder of Red Army prisoners and of Jews and other civilians unfortunate enough to be in their way. Here they are, in a snapshot by a Finnish volunteer on July 1 or 2, 1941, as he passed through the city the Germans knew as Lemberg, the Poles as Lwow, and the Ukrainians -- the ultimate possessors after Stalin had ethnically cleansed Eastern Europe in 1945 -- as the present-day city of Lviv.

The Finns are an extraordinary race. Alone of the combatants of the First World War, they repaid the loans made by the United States at that time, and in 1939-1940 they were celebrated as the "Little Finland" that took a terrible toll of the Red Army when it tried to grab off the country as its share of the booty of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. (Stalin got about 10 percent of Finland's territory in a rather embarrassing treaty, along with Latia, Lithuania, Estonia, and half of Poland.) When Germany and its Axis partners invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Finland understandably joined as a "co-belligerent" on the German left (northern) flank, in an attempt to regain the land it had lost the year before. Thus its involvement with the Viking Division.

At the request of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Jerusalem, the Finnish government undertook a study of its citizens Finns who had served in the SS combat units in Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. I can't imagine any other nation that would have done the same, or anyhow with so little window dressing. The resulting document is not an easy read, but it's fascinating, and it's a free PDF download from the Finnish National Archives. There's also a paperback edition, which unfortunately shows as unavailable on Amazon.com. Blue skies! — Daniel Ford

Poland's Daughter

Poland's Daughter The Second World War -- the worst thing that ever happened. It started in September 1939, with Hitler's Wehrmacht invading Poland from the west, while Stalin's Red Army stormed in from the east. Among their victims was a five-year-old named Basia Deszberg. The Russians shot her father and brother in the Katyn Forest, then loaded Basia, her sister, and her mother into a cattle car for a horrific three-week journey to the steppes of Kazakhstan, there to survive however they could. Over the next eight years, they would escape through Persia, Lebanon, and Egypt to find safe haven in England.

Meanwhile, I was growing up in a United States mired by the Great Depression. Europe's agony was America's windfall! I went from hardscrabble poverty to a college degree and a fellowship that took me to the English university where Basia was also a student. This is the story of our meeting, our travels, and our parting. "It's an extraordinary book, highly original, gripping, at once full of joy and of sorrow" (Cosmopolitan Review).

Available as a paperback or an ebook at Amazon and other online bookstores.

Files about Poland's wartime agony

Stalin's order to shoot 22,000 Polish prisoners
An American eyewitness to the Katyn exhumations
Operation Unthinkable: Churchill's plan to push the Red Army back to the prewar border
A voice from the grave at Bykovnia

Some background reading

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928 (Stephen Kotkin)
Ostkrieg: Hitler's War of Extermination (Stephen Fritz)
The Eagle Unbowed (Halik Kochanski) and Isaac's Army (Matthew Brzezinski)
Stalin's General: The Life of Georgy Zhukov (Geoffrey Roberts)
Exile and Identity: Polish Women in the Soviet Union (Katherine Jolluck)
The Russian Origins of the First World War (Sean McMeekin)
The Inhuman Land (Joseph Czapski)
The Polish Deportees of World War II (Tadeusz Piotrowski, ed.)
George Kennan: An American Life (John Gaddis)
When God Looked the Other Way (Wesley Adamczyk)
Revolution From Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's West (Jan Gross)
Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (Cienciala et al)
A Concise History of Poland (Lukowski & Zawadzki)
Bloody Foreigners: Poles in Britain (Robert Winder)
The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksandr Solzhenitsym)
Summit at Teheran: The Untold Story (Keith Eubank)
The Dark Side of the Moon (Zoe Zajdlerowa and T.S. Eliot)
Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg (Steven Zaloga)
The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia (Tzouliadis)

Question? Comment? Newsletter? Send me an email. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford

Poland's Daughter

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