Katyń memorial row: Jersey mayor rejects Polish calls for talks

The Katyń massacre memorial in Jersey City, NJ. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Jersey City mayor makes more unconstructive comments as Polish authorities voice their opposition to the removal of the prominent Katyń massacre memorial site.

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In a widely commented post on Twitter made on Saturday, Steven Fulop, the mayor of Jersey City (New Jersey, US) announced he would not meet with Polish government representatives to discuss the contentious issue of the Katyń massacre memorial. Recent commercial redevelopment plans led to the decision to relocate the monument overlooking the Hudson erected by the local Polish community, commemorating more than 22,000 Polish officers murdered by the Soviets in 1940.

In his statement, the mayor said that the statue “is 100% being moved”, adding that he would not meet with Polish government officials who have reached out to him for dialogue, accusing Poland of trying “to rewrite history on their country’s role in a Holocaust”.

False accusations

The historically inaccurate comment was ill-received in Poland and among the Polish diaspora in the United States. Poland was the first country to fall victim to the Nazi German war machine back in 1939 and subsequently became the site of mass genocide on an unprecedented scale. The total casualties were above six million Polish citizens, including about three million ethnic Poles and three million Polish Jews, who were exterminated in Nazi German death camps built on Polish soil.

Unlike many other European countries, Poland never formed a collaborationist government and was the only country where helping Jews was punishable by death. While there were those who were too terrified to actively save the Jews and some villains who profited from the occupation, many Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours. Poland has the highest count of people recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute for saving Jewish lives during the war, with almost a quarter of all awards being held by Poles.

A war on two fronts

As a result of the secret pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Poland’s eastern regions were attacked by the Red Army in late September 1939. Stalin initiated a wave of repressions against Poland’ political leaders, army and police officers and members of the intelligentsia in an effort to break the country’s spirit and destroy its intellectual elite. One of the most well-known instances of the resulting extermination was the massacre in the Katyń forest in 1940, where thousands of Polish prisoners were murdered and buried in unmarked mass graves. The Soviet Union continued to deny its involvement in the crime until the 1990s and Russia never officially recognised its actions as genocide.

The memorial commemorating the victims of these war crimes has formed part of the Jersey City landscape since 1991. Both the Polish government and members of the Polish community have vowed to protect the threatened memorial, subjecting the actions of the Jersey City mayor to scathing criticism. The decision to relocate the monument was also slammed by the Jewish community of Poland. In a letter signed by several of its prominent members, including Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, its authors recalled that many of the officers executed in Katyń in 1940s were Poles of Jewish descent.

In spite of all this, the Jersey City mayor has remained defiant in his comments. Earlier last week he refused contact with Poland’s Senate speaker, Professor Stanisław Karczewski, who wrote to him to defend the monument, by insultingly calling him an “anti-Semite, white nationalist and Holocaust denier” as well as “a joke”.