Seldom does a book’s title fit so perfectly, so terribly as Inhuman Land by Jozef Czapski (pron. “Chap-ski”). He was born into an aristocratic Polish family in Prague, at a time when that city was ruled from Vienna as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Czapski grew up near Minsk, in present-day Belarus; he finished his schooling in 1915 in St. Petersburg when it was still the capital of the Russian Empire. He witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, but soon relocated to Poland, which had declared its independence at the end of World War I, and took up studies of art in Warsaw. During the war between Poland and Soviet Russia, Czapski undertook a mission back to St. Petersburg as well as fighting as part of a crew on an armored train. With Poland’s independence secured by battlefield valor, he returned to art, spending eight years in Paris and also adding skills as a writer and critic to his talents in drawing and painting. In 1939, when Czapski was already 43 years old, he re-enlisted in the Polish army. Much of this background is related in Timothy Snyder‘s excellent introduction to Inhuman Land.
World War II began when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Just over two weeks later, the armies of the Soviet Union fell on Poland from the east, carving up the country with its Nazi allies. The Soviets captured Czapski, as they did many thousands of other Poles. Czapski was held in a camp called Starobilsk for six months. A large share of the Polish army’s officers were held there and at two other camps, Kozelsk and Ostashkov. Snyder’s introduction continues:
In March 1940, Lavrenty Beria, the director of the Soviet secret state police (NKVD), received Stalin’s written approval to shoot the prisoners of Starobilsk, Ostashkov, and Kozelsk. They were mostly officers, and the officers mostly from the reserves: educated men, professionals, and intellectuals; physicians, veterinarians, scientists, lawyers, teachers, artists. After a quick review of their files, 97 percent of these people were sentenced to death. Czapski and 394 other prisoners from the three camps were spared and sent to Gryazovets, some because a foreign power had intervened on their behalf, others because they were Soviet informers. (p. x)
He adds in a footnote, “Czapski seems to have been spared because of the intervention of German diplomats. This was mysterious to him and remains so.” This massacre and other closely related mass executions became known as Katyn, and they weigh on Poland even today. The Soviets claimed during the war that the Nazi had shot thousands of Polish officers at Katyn, and they kept up the lies for decades, only acknowledging the truth during Gorbachev’s time of glasnost. In April 2010 an official Polish airplane carrying dignitaries headed to a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Katyn crashed in a forest outside of Smolensk. The crash killed Poland’s president, his wife, a former president of Poland’s government-in-exile, the president of Poland’s national bank, 18 members of the Polish parliament, Poland’s military chief of staff, senior members of the Polish clergy, and relatives of the Katyn victims. Katyn, already a raw wound in Polish-Russian relations, acquired new resonance for the 21st century.
At the time, Czapski new nothing of the fate of his fellow prisoners. He writes little of his nearly two years in Soviet captivity, from capture after the invasion of Poland until shortly after the Nazis turned on their erstwhile allies and attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941. Those would have been two very hard years. As enemies of the Soviet state, the Polish men would have received few rations, shelter barely worthy of the name, and the utter indifference of the authorities.
He begins Inhuman Land with the news that in July 1941, Polish and Soviet leaders had agreed that Polish soldiers imprisoned in Soviet camps were no longer captured enemies but new allies in the fight against Nazism. Polish General Władysław Anders had been released from NKVD captivity and would be forming a Polish army on Soviet territory that would then fight the common enemy. The Poles set off in high spirits, despite their previous privations. The Russian train that is supposed to take them onward fails to appear. They spend the night standing outside in the rain, as the station only has room to shelter a minuscule share of the men. Eventually a freight train takes them to their next destination.
That start proves typical for the experiences of the Polish soldiers trying to make their way to the general rendezvous. The Soviets keep their promises only partially at best, and with indifference to the effects of their actions. Indifference on an epic scale renders the country the inhuman land of Czapski’s title, and the cost in needless suffering and death is present throughout the book. To take an example more or less at random, Czapski describes some Poles who had been assigned to remove “several dozen tons of grain” from a granary that was being turned into a place for people to live. Until that job was done, they would be living under the open sky in a “season of icy rain that fell for days on end.” There were no provisions for doing anything with the grain; it would rot.
Was this deliberate ill will toward Poles? Not at all; it was the normal Soviet attitude toward human beings, to their own citizens too—extreme wastefulness and disregard for human life, and the same disregard for the tons of wheat we regularly saw at the stations along the way from Buzuluk to Totskoye. This wheat lay on the platforms in the snow and rain, not even covered, though guarded by a soldier. (p. 38)
Czapski, by contrast, is deeply, humanely interested in nearly everyone he comes into contact with. On an early train trip, he tries to persuade a Soviet railway worker of the important difference between Poles and the Germans he had taken them for. (p. 18) Czapski remembers a Russian painter’s wife in Buzuluk, a town in southeastern Russia, where the Polish general staff had its temporary headquarters. “Her husband, a young painter … had been deported to the far north for several years, but she had no idea what had happened to him, how long his sentence was, or for what offense. … Her tiny cubbyhole was hung with drawings and watercolors by her husband.” Czapski compares the works to others he has seen and locates the unknown painter within Russian traditions, praising his “new ideas, bold color combinations, and decorative flair.” He recalls another house in the same town, where “two young officers’ wives were perfectly happy; they had some new frocks and had been to see the world outside—meaning they had spent a few months in Lwów and Stanislawów; they hadn’t the words to express what a wonderful life was lived there.” (all p. 76)
“As I write [in 1946–47], I keep remembering more and more faces, more and more of what passed before my eyes.” There is Czapski’s ethos: remember and witness. He is seldom dull. From the thousands of anecdotes, he has chosen carefully and brought to life on the page many people who must have perished in the war. He is sometimes harrowing — it could hardly be otherwise given his subject matter — but never morose. He gets frustrated with Soviet lies and runarounds, but his passionate interst in the people, the life around him never flags.
The book follows him from Russia’s interior to and from Moscow as he tries to discover what happened to his massacred comrades, and the Soviets steadfastly refuse to give any useful information at all. The Polish army gradually coalesces, and moves south across the USSR, down through Kazakhstan and into Uzbekistan, where the book originally ended with Czapski crossing into Persia and out of the inhuman land.
Twenty years after the book was first published in Polish, “Czapski was approached with an offer to publish the book in German and asked if he would write an afterword to explain facts that would be unfamiliar to the German reader. The result was six new chapters, which appeared in subsequent translated editions of the book … as part two.” (Translator’s Note, p. xxv) These chapters carry his story and the army’s story forward through Iraq, through fierce fighting in Italy and especially at Monte Cassino, to the fate of Poland after the war. The Soviets kept nearly half of interwar Poland’s territory that they had taken when they were Hitler’s ally. They installed a compliant government in Warsaw. The men of Anders’ army drew their own conclusions. “Of the total tally in 1945 of 112,600 private soldiers and officers, 14,217 opted to return [to Poland]. Of the tens of thousands of soldiers who had experienced Soviet Russia, only 310 decided to return. The rest chose to emigrate.” (p. 410) Czapski chose emigration. “The soldiers returning from the West believed they would be protected because since 1939 they had fought on all fronts for Poland. But in the eyes of the new authorities in Poland, that was the main reason for subjecting them to interrogation and persecution.” (p. 411) The inhuman land had extended its reach.
Czapski’s book, though, is extraordinary in its life and liveliness. His meeting with Anna Akhmatova, the colors of Uzbek skies, wartime Christmases far from a cherished home, passing conversations, others’ epic journeys of hardship to rejoin their countrymen — all of this and much, much more Czapski relates with an artist’s eye for detail and a critical thinker’s insight. Inhuman Land is by no means always an easy book; it is, however, unforgettable.