In 1940, as a young cavalry offi cer. Zdzi slaw Peszkowski miracubusty survived the massacre of 22,000 Polish detainees by Soviet paramilitary police. The mass murder . was a deliberate attempt by dictator Joseph Stalin to destroy national morale after the country's parallel invasion by Nazi and Soviet armies.
For nearly seven decades Fr Peszkowski has urged Russia to atone for the terrible crime and called on the international community to recognise his dead comrades as victims of genocide. In the 1990s, when Moscow accepted guilt after previously blaming the Germans, there were hopes that truth might finally be established.
But this March a Russian prosecutor ruled that the atrocity wasn't a Stalinist crime, making the victims ineligible far exoneration or recompense.
With the wider world preoccupied with more recent inhumanities from Bosnia to Liberia Fr Peszkowski, now 87, fears that his life's work could be endangered.
"The lack of any real response tells the world this isn't very important and this makes me extremely sad," the priest said. "The story of this Golgotha of the East is still shrouded in lies and distortions. It pains me that, through silence and passivity, we sometimes confer nobility on things which are so deeply wrong."
For post-War Polish generations,"Katyn" has been a byword for cruelty and betrayal. Few have felt this as keenly as Fr Peszkowski himself,
Born at Sanok, he was one of 5,000 officers interned in a prison camp at Kozielsk whose execution was ordered by the Soviet Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD). On the night his turn came, however, there was a violent thun
derstorm and the executions were postponed. By the time his name carne up again, Stalin had agreed to allow remaining prisoners to join the war against Nazi Germany.
Peszkowski later studied at Oxford and emigrated to America, where he was ordained a priest in 1954 at the Polish seminary in Orchard Lake.
Returning to Poland after the 1989 collapse of Communist rule he became chaplain of the Katyn Families Association and helped arrange exhumations at the main burial sites.
When a military cemetery was dedicated at Katyn in July 2000 Poland's Catholic primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, predicted the massacre site would become a "sign of peace and co-operation between nations", and help educate future generations on the permanent foundations of human dignity."Sadly, this hasn't been the case.
When the occupying Germans first excavated the Katyn site with the Red Cross in 1943, the Polish government-in-exile in London had no doubt who was responsible, But Moscow blamed the Nazis, and the British and American governments went along with the story. fearing that a Polish anti-Soviet vendetta could disrupt their wartime alliance with Stalin.
When Nazi leaders were put on trial at Nuremberg in 1945 the Katyn massacre was ruled an act of geno cide. But the Soviet and Allied judges agreed Germany was responsi ble and even hanged seven Nazi officers for it. Communist rule later made it impossible for Poles to raise the issue, while Westem governments, already implicated in the deception, saw no interest in raising it either. Even today, though the last Soviet ruler, Mikhail Gorbachev, admitted responsibility in 1990, Moscow still hasn't atoned for the crime or acknowledged the sufferings inflicted. Catholics like Fr Peszkowski think this is essential.
This wasn't an act of war, they insist, but of perfidious brutality. Sooner or later, Russia must honestly confront the truth about its ,just as Germany did after the Holocaust, if it is to build a stable, democratic future, and live at peace with its neighbours.
At least a million Poles can claim a direct link with the 1940 massacre through lost relatives. Yet many are still unable to trace or visit their burial places. Poland's influential Catholic Church has also backed demands for justice.
Archbishop Slawoj Glodz of Warsaw — Praga, who was present at the cemetery dedications in 2000, said last year: "The sentencing of these victims can be compared to the first Station of the Cross, when Christ was condemned to death.
They died alone, and those who tried to find them were threatened and harassed by the Soviet authorities, Their death was later governed by silence. lies and darkness, until the light of truth finally prevailed."
While many ordinary Russians seem sympathetic to Polish grievances, Russian politicians have made gestures too.
In July 2000 vice-premier Vilctor Christienlco spoke at the Katyn cemetery dedication, noting that Russians "well understood" Polish feelings, and hoped the name Katyn would "gradually lose its sinister significance".
In September 2002 Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov lit a candle at the Katyn shrine in Warsaw's military cathedral, accompanied by Polish and Russian generals.
Yet some Poles fear a realistic accounting with the past has become less likely under President Vladimir Patio, who has encouraged Russian citizens to look back on the Soviet era with satisfaction.
The "Great Patriotic War", in which millions died, is central to this Russian sense of pride. Against this background, Katyn is certain to be viewed as an incident of little importance.
"These controversies are
A retired Polish officer weeps at the dedication of a cemetery to slain Polish military officers itiKatyn Photo: CNS
Fr Peszkowki, right, with the skulls of Katyn. 'We're not seeking revenge," he says the work of politicians, not historians," explains Wojciech Roszkowski, a history professor and Polish MEP.
"There are honest historians in every nation, Russia included, with whom it would be easy to reach an understanding. But politicians manipulate history for their own purposes, often giving a spin to events which suits their ideological preferences."
There may be practical considerations too.
Many of the 23(X)NKVD agents who participated in the killings are believed to be still living, often with medals for past "services". The Russian authorities are reluctant to name them, let alone bring them to justice. Meanwhile, if the Katyn massacre was recognised as genocide, this could trigger an avalanche of compensation claims.
"The Russian Federation could never afford this, not only for reasons of political prestige,"says Dmitryi Babych, a writer with Proful magazine in Moscow, who has followed the controversy.
"This isn't the Soviet Union — the Soviet Union was a different country. If Russia Were held responsible for all crimes committed in the Soviet period, it would go bankrupt."
Recent stonewalling seems to confirm this. In late 2004, Putin's government refused to allow Polish investigators to travel to Moscow and said it would allow access to only 67 of more than 100 volumes on the crime. Poland's parliament, the Sejm, responded with a special resolution, asking Russia to declassify the archives.
But in March 2005 Russia's military prosecutor, Aleksander Savienkov, said he had found "no basis" after a 15-year investigation for categorising the atrocity as anything more than a military crime, for which for the 50year term of limitation had now expired.
This March, to make matters worse, the prosecutor said an examination of Russia's 1926 penal code had found no legal grounds for the executions, making it impossible to categorise the dead Poles as "victims of political repression".
The latest statement was described as an "insult" by Poland's National Remembrance Institute, which has conducted its own investigation. It also came as a severe blow to Fr Peszkowski.
Poland is home to 732 military cemeteries for Red Army soldiers , Fr Peszkowski points out, which are maintained at an annual cost of £1 million to the Polish state. Yet there were great problems when it came to creating just three cemeteries for the Polish victims_ . Even then, Russia contributed nothing and the relatives had to share the costs.
Fr Peszkowski is disappointed that Western governments declined to send representatives to the dedication ceremonies, and are still showing little interest in a crime which should weigh on their own consciences too.
Last year he petitioned the UN and Western capitals to have March 5, the day of Stalin's massacre order, declared "Katyn Day", but received no reply. When he asked the European Parliament to observe a minute's silence on the 65th anniversary, the request was rejected.
Curiously, at least 10,000 Soviet citizens also lie buried in Katyn forest, victims of Stalin's 1930s purges —a reminder that Russians them selves were the first victims of Communist rule. In such circumstances, it makes no sense for Moscow to defend Soviet policy. That it continues to do so is humiliating not just for Poles, but for Russia's own sense of honour.
In January Fr Peszkowski was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by the Polish Sejm. Come what may, he's determined to continue the struggle. "We're not seeking revenge, only keeping our promise to the Pope and Virgin Mary to ensure the truth is revealed so we can truly forgive," he explains.
"What should all the widows and orphaned families say whose hiishand,„ fathers, brothers and uncles were murdered?
"Doesn't the pain and weeping of all these people play any role at all?"