Major Geographer Władysław Julian Siemek

16.07.1897 – 16.04.1940

Military Cartographer and Topographer

Adjutant of the Military Institute of Geography in Warsaw, Poland

Deputy Commander of the Military College of Topography in Warsaw

Officer of the 2nd Division of the Polish High Command

(1934 in a captain`s uniform – family archives)


The 80th anniversary of the massacre at Katyń: a family story

By Alexander Maciej Jablonski

Nepean, Ontario

80 years will pass in April 2020 since the Katyń massacre when an estimated 25,000 Polish officers, members of the Polish Police force, Border and Judiciary Guards, and other important members of the leading circles of the society, held in Soviet internment camps were executed by Soviet secret police. Investigation of this war crime had been interrupted on the orders of the current Russian authorities even though new documents were discovered in the archives of the NKVD related to lists of the Polish officers murdered on orders of Lavrentiy Beria, Soviet Commissar for Internal Affairs and First Rank Commissar of State Security, and approved by Stalin. As family members and relatives of the Katyń victims age, a number of those directly affected by this murder decreases with the passing of time. In terms of national impact, the loss of so many professional army officers and reservists, judiciary, academic and government elites, doctors, clergy and intelligentsia, landowners, police officers and border guards, was a devastating blow and irreparable loss for Poland. The full impact of this loss is still being assessed and the Katyń massacre has been etched deeply in the Polish consciousness for the past 80 years.

In a twist of fate, the Katyń Forest witnessed another Polish tragedy when on April 10, 2010 a presidential plane crash claimed the lives of the President of Poland, Lech Kaczynski, his wife, the President of Poland in-Exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, and 94 other passengers near Smoleńsk, Russia. The delegation of high-ranking officials, which included some family members of the victims of the Katyń massacre as well as a cross-section of Poland’s political, military, business and religious elites, had been on their way to attend a memorial service in remembrance of the massacre of Polish officers in 1940. This crash has many unanswered questions and it was handled in the scandalous manner by both Russian Putin’s and the former Polish authorities (led by the former Prime Minister Donald Tusk). The current Polish authorities still investigate this tragedy.

I dedicate this article to their memory in order to honour the moral legacy imparted by their tragic death to hold the torch and to inform the world about the Katyń massacre and honour its victims.

This brief account also marks the 80th anniversary of the death of my uncle Władek, in fact my maternal great uncle, whom I have never met. He was one of estimated 25,000 Polish PoWs who, one by one, with their hands tied behind their backs were shot in the base of the skull, with many finding their final resting place in the mass graves of Katyń Forest just outside Smoleńsk and in other places of this unspeakable crime.

When attending a space science congress in my professional field in Warsaw in 2000, I visited my uncle Stefan Siemek who is my mother’s first cousin and his Father was Uncle Władek, the victim of Katyń massacre. Together with his wife Jadwiga we visited the Warsaw Powązki Military Cemetery where some members of my family were buried. The white marble tomb constructed by my uncle Stefan`s parents has names of his siblings engraved: his little brother Bogusław who died in infancy, his older brother Wiesław who died as a seventeen-years-old soldier during first days of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. There is also inscription for his father Władysław known as Władek, a captain killed at Katyń. Uncle Władek was posthumously promoted to the rank of major by the decree of Lech Kaczyński, the President of Poland in 2007 (during a ceremony for all Katyń victims). We said a prayer and lit three candles. We also stopped to visit the grave of another family member, Roman Siemek, who as a young officer was mortally wounded in the defense of Warsaw in 1939 and died soon later in Ujazdowski Hospital. Then, we went to see the Katyń Cross memorial, and the symbolic grave of General Stefan Grot-Rowecki, Commander of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). The tragic events of WWII were deeply and forever engraved in my uncle Stefan`s memory: the attack of Germans on September 1, 1939, and the defence campaign, the invasion of Soviets on September 17, the discovery by the Germans of the Katyn graves in 1941, five years of brutal German-Nazi occupation followed by the nightmare of communist terror post 1945. My dear uncle Stefan died in 2004, shortly after my mother’s death.

Władysław Julian, uncle Stefan`s father was born in 1897 in a small village called Wrzawy in southern Poland. He was the son of my maternal great-grandfather Wincenty, director of a local school and Laura, who was born in a Bavarian family. The Siemek old gentry family (of clan Brochwicz) comes from the vicinity of Lipnica Murowana, about 60 km South-East from Kraków. Władysław (nickname Władek) attended schools in Tarnobrzeg and Krakow. Since 1912, he was in scouts, and also took part in the work of the independence movement called, “Mainspring – Zarzewie” in his region of Poland, at that time under the Austrian rule (1911-1914).

He also was a scout in the 1st Scout Team of Tadeusz Kościuszko in Tarnobrzeg. On August 1, 1916, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and graduated from the military infantry officer’s college. He fought on the Russian front near Stochod where he commanded a platoon and then with my grandfather Józef and his future brother-in-law on the Serbian front, in Herzegovina and Dalmatia, where he took part in defending the coastal area near beautiful city of Dubrovnik. Then, he also fought in Monte Negro.

On November 22, 1918, my uncle Władek volunteered to the Polish Army, and joined the military company from the Tarnobrzeg district, where he commanded a platoon. After a month, already as a young second lieutenant, he was sent to the Ukrainian front with 17th Infantry Regiment of Rzeszów. He distinguished himself, especially in the heavy battles of Bursztyn and Żurowa and in defence of the rail section of Brody-Radziwiłłów. For these acts of military bravery, he was awarded Cross of Valor two times.

The Badges of the 17th Infantry Regiment of Rzeszów District and 7th Infantry Regiment of Legions – the regiments of Lt. Władysław Siemek (1918 – 1924) (Wikipedia)

General Leon Berbecki described my uncle in these words in one of the evaluations:   “In battle, calm and brave. A very capable officer. ” Since May 1920, my uncle Władek was a part at the Polish Military Mission with the Government of the National Republic of Ukraine led by Ataman Petlura, and later in the command of the 2nd Army, and then he was at the headquarters of the Third Legion Division. He participated in the Battle of Warsaw and then fought on the Latvian front. In 1921, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He was decorated for the third time with Cross of Valor and received also the Commemorative Medal for Latvian Independence War (1918 – 1920) – a Latvian medal, for the war which brought a freedom to Dyneburg and Riga.

Commemorative Medal for Latvian Independence War (1918-1920) established on 12th July 1928 (in the 10th Anniversary of Independence) – awarded by Latvia to foreign soldiers (also Polish) for their support to fight Bolsheviks. Lt. Władysław Siemek was awarded in 1928 (on the left side towers of Riga, a rising sun and the row of Latvian soldiers) (Wikipedia)

In 1923, he took a course for junior officers in the Infantry Training Centre in Rembertów near Warsaw. Then he was sent as a lecturer at the Infantry Military College Command in Włodzimierz Wołyński where he was also a platoon commander.

The Graduating Class of 1924, the Officer Infantry College in Włodzimierz Wołyński (Lt. Władysław Siemek, second in the 2nd row from the right) (Photo from 1924 – family archives)

By all accounts, Władysław Siemek was a handsome man, tall with dark hair and bright blue eyes. He was very athletic, practiced swimming and rowing and enjoyed cycling. He played guitar and used to sing beautifully Russian romances, Polish insurgent songs, and dumkas, Ukrainian folk-ballads. He was fluent in several languages including, Polish, German, Ukrainian and Russian.

In 1925, Uncle Wladek married Helena Grądkiewicz, daughter of a landowner in the Zamość region. They had three sons, all of them dead now: Bogusław (died in infancy), Wiesław (killed in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944) and Stefan (died in 2004).  My mother was very close to her uncle Władek who was loved by all in our family.  

Wincenty Siemek, surrounded by his children and family in 1919

From left: Olga Wilhelmina Wicińska (nee Siemek), her husband, lieut. Józef Wiciński; Kazimiera Paulina Siemek, Wincenty Siemek, lieut. Władysław Julian Siemek (Uncle Władek); Maria Eufrozyna Broda (nee Siemek) her husband lieut. Jan Broda (killed by Soviets during 1939 September campaign) (missing in the photo are two sons: Antoni and Bogusław (killed as an officer in the Austrian-Hungarian army in 1915 at the Eastern front) and the oldest daughter Stanisława) (Photo from 1919 – family archives)

In 1924, Uncle Władek was delegated to the College of Military Topography of the Military Institute of Geography in Warsaw. He graduated in 1927, marked eighth in his year and was assigned to the Military Institute of Geography where he worked first in the Department of Cartography and then Topography. He distinguished himself for his diligence and conscientiousness. He soon became one of the best military topographers of the Institute. In 1930, uncle Władek was prompted to the rank of captain.

After the completion of specialized military intelligence courses in the 2nd Division of General Staff of the Polish Army, Uncle Wladek was appointed Adjutant of the Military Institute of Geography and Information Officer of the Second Division of the General Staff. He was also Deputy Commander of the Military College of Geography in Warsaw. He held these positions until the outbreak of World War II.  There were 150 officers in the Corps in Geographers. 70 of them were murdered at Katyń Massacre and 5 died in the September campaign of 1939.

Staff Officers at the Military Geographical Institute, Warsaw, Poland. There were 150 officers in the Corps of Geographers only – 70 were killed in Katyń Massacre and 5 during 1939 September campaign)
(photo ca. 1936, family archives)

In the days after the war broke out, the Military Institute of Geography was evacuated from Warsaw to Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine). Uncle Władek took part in fighting in defence of the city against first Germans and the Soviets. After the Soviets taking over of the city, Uncle Władek was interned and transported to Kozielsk, one of several Soviet interment camps for Polish POWs. He managed to send just one letter to his wife Helena dated November 22, 1939. In all probability, he was murdered on April 16th or 17th 1940 in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. His name appears on the transport list No. 029/1, dated April 13, 1940 of Polish PoWs ordered executed by the Soviet Union`s NKVD. His remains were never identified in subsequent exhumations of Katyń graves. The List of Polish officers executed in Katyń released by the Russians in 1990s confirmed the names included in the first list compiled by the International Red Cross during investigations in 1941. There is no shadow of a doubt that my uncle Władysław, who was only 43 years old, ended his short life filled with achievements and promise in the Katyń Forest.

Uncle Władek sent one letter only to the family dated November 11, 1939 from Kozielsk camp. A copy of this letter is presented with the English translation.

The one and only one letter sent by Uncle Władek to His Wife Helena from Kozielsk
on November 22, 1939 (family archives)
My Dearest Love Ones!
I am well
Please write me how are you doing?  
Hugs and kisses
I entrust you to protection of God                                                Władek
Hugs for Jańcia
Greetings to Friends
November 22, 1939  

During his life time, uncle Władek was awarded Cross of Valour three times, Medal of Independence, Silver Cross of Merit, Medal for War 1919-1921, Commemorative Medal for Independence War of Latvia, and Medals for Long Military Service (Bronze and Silver). In the 1960s, the legal Polish Government- in- exile in London, England, awarded to all murdered at Katyn – Silver Cross V Class of Order of Virtuti Militari , Poland’s highest military decoration for courage in the face of the enemy (equivalent to those meriting the Commonwealth’s Victoria Cross, and the U.S. Medal of Honor).

Polish Cross of Valour from 1919-1921 awarded for acts of military bravery on the Field of Glory. Lt. Wladyslaw Julian Siemek received it three times and Silver Cross V Class of Order of Virtuti Militari (VM V Class) awarded to all Victims of Katyn in 2007 (Wikipedia)

My family in Poland knew some other families affected by the Katyn massacre. Many refused to accept the reality and believed beyond hope that their loved ones would return home one day. Aunt Helena, Wladek`s wife did not live to see the list of the Katyn victims released by the Russian authorities that confirmed her husbanded death. Suffering deeply, she waited for her husband`s return until the day she died. My grandmother and her surviving sisters shared with us many memories of their childhood, and happy times spent together with their brother Wladek. My cousin Renata, who has lived for many years now in Siena, Italy, is Wladek`s only granddaughter. Her mother, Aunt Jadzia was a member of the Polish organization The Families of Katyn, in which she represents all of us, the relatives of Uncle Wladek. She passed away not long ago in Warsaw.

Few years ago, students of a primary and high school in the township of Sokolniki near Tarnobrzeg decided to take part in the initiative by the Institute of the National Remembrance (IPN) by planting oak trees to commemorate every known and unknown victim of the Katyn massacre as well as those executed in other locations. A small oak was planted at Sokolniki, about 10 km from the birthplace of Uncle Wladek. A sole oak tree planted by students is a poignant tribute to a native son of small Polish village who perished at Katyn.

The Officer’s Badge of the Military Institute of Geography (1919 – 1939), Warsaw, Poland

There are often errors made by various sources when quoting the exact number of murdered Polish officers at Katyn, for example 15.000 is often mentioned. In fact, this execution order covered exactly 14, 736 prisoners held in the Soviet POW camps (more than 97% Poles) and to 18.632 arrested and kept in prisons in the Western districts of Ukraine and Belarus (10.685 Poles among them.) The Beria`s note gives the exact number of those to be executed, i.e, 14.700 plus 11.000; in total 25.700 persons sentenced to death without trial by firing squad. In fact, most of them were killed by a single gunshot back in the head – an NKVD method of extermination. Thus, Katyn Massacre claimed, a total of 25.700 victims who were shot and not 15,000.

Helena (nee Grądkiewicz) and lieutenant Wladyslaw Julian Siemek on their wedding day, 1925 (family archives)

Among those 25,700 were officers of the Polis Army (including 295 generals, colonels and lieutenant-colonels), and of the Polish Police, Border and Prison Guards, chaplains of all denominations (including Roman Catholic, Protestants, Islam (Tatars), Orthodox and Jewish Faiths), Polish clergy, medical doctors, lawyers, university professors, teachers from primary and secondary schools, landowners and aristocracy, local government and judiciary representatives.

As a result of the Beria order a crime was committed without the precedent in the history of modern warfare. Almost 1/3 of brilliant officer corps of a well trained and patriotic army perished along with most of the government elite from the Eastern Poland, and a large Polish territory was annexed by force by the Soviet Union.

There were also other locations in Belarus and Western Ukraine where Polish prisoners were massacred by NKVD (many of them probably not known to this day). Those so far discovered and documented include:

1. Katyn:  Includes prisoners from the Kozielsk PoW camp, one transport from the camp had not yet been found, and in local graves remains of prisoners from other locations were discovered;

2. Kalinin (Tver): Place of murder of prisoners from Ostashkov. The bodies of the murdered in the NKVD prison of Kalinin were transported and buried in the pits in Mednoye;

3 Charkow (Kharkiv): We know today that the prisoners from Starobielsk camp were murdered there;

4. Kiev: this place of crime is mentioned in the same order of Beria (approved by the Politburo, including Stalin). Murders took place at 17 Korolenko Street from where bodies were transported to the pits in the Bykovni;

5. Minsk: The Poles were murdered here in the infamous prison called `An American ‘ at no. 13 Lenin Street.

This is one short account of many Polish stories. Living in Canada we should not forget those who perished from the hands of communists and their regimes. We should all help to build and support Tribute to Liberty – A Memorial of Victims of Communism in the National Capital. One of them was our dear Uncle Władek.

Polish coat-of-arm Brochwicz of family Siemek (Wikipedia)

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