For one Polish Catholic priest, old age and infirmity pose no obstacle when it comes to campaigning for truth and justice.

In 1940, as a young cavalry officer, Zdzislaw Peszkowski miraculously survived the massacre of 22,000 Polish detainees in a deliberate attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to destroy national morale. The detainees were rounded up by German and Soviet armies under a secret agreement between the two to carve up the country. Most were reserve officers, but many were civilians, including scouts, police and prison officials.

The death order

On March 5, 1940, Stalin signed an administrative order with five other Communist Party bosses to eliminate Polish "nationalists and counterrevolutionaries." A total of 4,412 from the Kozielsk prison camp were shot through the back of the head and thrown into ditches at KatynForest, near Smolensk, in batches of 250 per night. A further 4,000 Polish detainees, including up to 900 priests, are believed to have been shot at Bykowna, near Kiev, a site visited by Pope John Paul II during his 2001 Ukrainian pilgrimage. The burial site of more than 3,500 more Poles is still unknown.

For nearly seven decades, Father Peszkowski has urged Russia to atone for the crime and the international community to recognize 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.

Earlier this year, a Russian prosecutor ruled that the atrocity wasn't a Stalinist crime, making the victims ineligible for exoneration or recompense. Father Peszkowski, now 87, fears his work could be endangered.

"The lack of any real response tells the world this isn't very important - and this makes me extremely sad," Father Peszkowski told Our Sunday Visitor.

Personal connection

For three post-war Polish generations, "Katyn" has been a byword for cruelty and betrayal. Few have felt this as keenly as Father Peszkowski himself. He was one of the officers interned in a prison camp at Kozielsk, who were ordered to be shot by Soviet forces. On the night his turn came, however, there was a violent thunderstorm and the executions were postponed. By the time his name came up again, Stalin had agreed to allow remaining prisoners to join the war against Nazi Germany.

In 1989, after the collapse of communist rule, Father Peszkowski became chaplain of the Katyn Families Association and helped arrange exhumations at the main burial sites. 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 backed demands for justice, and some Russian politicians seem sympathetic to the Poles. But some Poles fear a realistic accounting of the past has become less likely under President Vladimir Putin, who has encouraged Russian citizens to be proud of the Soviet era.

There may be practical considerations, too.

Many of the 2,000 Soviet agents who participated in the killings are believed to be living still, often with medals for past "services." The Russian authorities are reluctant to name them, let alone bring them to justice.

Poland is home to 732 military cemeteries for Red Army soldiers, Father Peszkowski said. They are maintained at an annual cost of $1.5 million to the Polish state. Yet there were great problems when it came to creating just three cemeteries for the Polish massacre victims. Even then, Russia contributed nothing and the victims' relatives had to share the costs.

"We're not seeking revenge - only keeping our promise to Pope John Paul II and the Virgin Mary to ensure the truth is revealed so we can truly forgive,"said Father Peszkowski.

"What should all the widows and orphaned families say whose husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles were murdered? Doesn't the pain and weeping of all these people play any role at all?"

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.