Memories of Starobielsk by Jozef Czapski

Here is how I last introduced a book by Jozef Czapski:

World War II in Europe began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in the early days of September 1, 1939. Sixteen days later, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. Less than three weeks later, the Nazis and the Soviets had conquered all of Poland. They divided the country between them according to the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Jozef Czapski (pron. “Chop-ski”) was over 40 when this war came; he had previously served in World War I, been a pacifist for a time, thought better of it and fought against Soviet Russia when it invaded Poland in 1920. Between the wars, he had lived in Paris and pursued painting, his true passion.

Memories of Starobielsk by Jozef Czapski

In the campaigns of September 1939, Czapski was captured by the Soviets. Memories of Starobielsk begins with the titular autobiographical sketch of some 40 pages. He describes the aftermath of his capture, his march with fellow prisoners of war across parts of occupied Poland and into the Soviet Union, his time in the camps of Starobielsk (near Kharkiv) and then Gryazovets (near Vologda), and the gradual emptying of the camp in the spring of 1940, as the captive Polish officers were told they were being sent back home, whether to the German or Soviet occupation zones. But readers have known from the memoir’s first paragraph that their fate was a worse one. “At the time that it was cleared on April 5, 1940, the camp of Starobielsk held 3,920 Polish officers, together with several dozen civilian prisoners and about 30 officer cadets and ensigns. Of these men, 79 survived. I am one of them.” (p. 1)

“Memories of Starobielsk” could just as well be titled “Memorial for Starobielsk,” for Czapski uses his words to build a monument to the men whose lives ended out of the sight of the rest of the world soon after they were transported out of that camp. Though most of “Memories” is devoted to recalling the men as individual human beings, Czapski takes time in his opening pages to note what the massacre of 20,000 officers from Starobielsk and two other similar camps meant to the Polish Army.

The main body of Polish officers under arms who were captured by the Soviets in September 1939 became the prisoners of [these three camps].
All of them, except the abovementioned number [about 400] in Gryazovets and a few dozen from the prisons, disappeared without a trace.
In Starobielsk itself nine generals were interned. No trace has been found of Generals Stanislaw Haller, Skierski, Lukowski, Franciszek Sikorski, Billewicz, Plisowski, Kowalewski, or Piotr Skuratowicz.
Among those who were missing and who were in the camp at Kozielsk were also Generals Smorawinski, Minkiewicz, and Boharyrewicz, and Rear Admiral Czernicki. …
Of the oficers from those camps, the approximate losses were as follows: about 300 colonels and lieutenant-colonels, about 500 majors, about 2,500 captains and cavalry captains. In Starobielsk alone there were about 600 air force officers. In Starobielsk and Kozielsk taken together there were more than 800 doctors. (pp. 4–5)

With the mass executions of Katyn, the Soviets were not only murdering enemies, they were taking out an insurance policy against any resurgence of a Polish state and army. Barely a year later, though, they would have need of any allies they could find when the Nazi-Soviet pact fell apart, and the armies of the Wehrmacht rolled across Ukraine and vast swathes of European Russia to the very outskirts of Moscow. Only then did the Soviets release the Poles they held, including Czapski. How he became part of a Polish army assembled within the USSR and eventually fighting its way across Italy is the story he tells in Inhuman Land.

Given this background, “Memories of Starobielsk” could become a tale of impending death, but it is much more a story of humanity under terrible circumstances. He tells of captives being taken in trucks through Lwów — a Polish city between the wars, now Ukrainian Lviv — where vendors in a market, seeing that they were Polish soldiers, showered them with apples. “Then we were moved near the main post office. … We were watched from all sides by [guards] who roughly chased off anyone who tried to slip through to us, but from all sides women kept running up to us without regard for the bayonets and curses, taking from us postcards for our families, giving us cigarettes and even chocolate.” (p. 8) Then across the Soviet border, visibly poorer than even easternmost Poland.

In utter mental and physical exhaustion and in the bitter cold, we, approximately two thousand officers, were crammed into barns already packed to the gills with two thousand regular soldiers.
Our first night outside Poland. In that barn, the Polish Army was a crushed mass of men blunted by misery, their minds shattered. It was completely dark, and when they closed all the doors it was so suffocating that those in the far interior of the barn couldn’t stand it; whenever we tried to open a door, the cold became too penetrating for those positioned nearer the exit. Hence the coarse, vicious bickering in the darkness: “Close the door,” “No one’s ever died of a stink,” “Open the door,” “We can’t breathe,” “You animals, you must have been born in a pigsty.”
In the darkness we listened to those insults and squabbles, humiliated to the core, and suddenly someone began to hum:

Under your wing, Our Father in Heaven,
Your flock of children entrusts its fate,
In the hour of need bless us and help us
Keep us from evil when the peril is great.

And the whole barn started singing the song with one voice. There was a childlike strain in the singing, full of faith and tears, such an imploring tone in the last line, “For you are our shield, God our Father,” and such an instinctive unity among us, that you sense on an almost physical level the sudden transformation taking place inside each of the men in that stifling barn, all from an old Polish hymn. How many times I later heard it sung in Russia, in the camps, in the army, in Iran or Iraq! (pp. 9–10)

Czapski remembers clearly, neither downplaying the hardships and the cruelty as the despair and bickering among Poles, nor forgetting the individuality of the men and the thousands of ways they showed the spirit of life in the camps.

Among the numerous men with whom I lived in close quarters, I would like to remember a few more. Above all Zygmunt Mitera. He was the only Pole who had gone to America on a Rockefeller fellowship to do a doctorate in geological engineering. … Zygmunt Mitera himself was the only geological mining engineer at his level in Poland. An air bombardment completely destroyed the home in Lvov [the book uses the Russian spelling of the city’s name] where he kept the manuscript of the great scientific work he had labored on for many years. It had been written in America. He always spoke enthusiastically about his years of study there, and about his American friends and professors. That same autumn of 1939 he was supposed to begin lecturing at the Kraków Mining Academy.
We jokingly called him the Gondolier, because his job in the camp was to spend hours “paddling” with a ladle in the enormous cauldron in which they made soup for the prisoners. In the camp this man had inexhaustible force and humor; he helped us in everything, gave lectures in geology and was also a terrific singer at our gatherings in the evening.
That man of a rare quality of heart and mind perished along with the others at the very moment when after many years of work he counted on at last being able to offer his knowledge to Poland. (p. 24)

The quality of “Memories of Starobielsk” never flags. Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s most famous movie director, “admired [Czapski’s] ability for cinematic framing. In a museum, Wajda said, Czapski saw not only a painting but also the people looking at it.” (p. xiv) In the camp, he saw the suffering, the bright spots, the men who quarreled and who later came back together to make a western Christmas or who commemorated Poland’s independence though in 1939–40 it must have seemed lost again, as it was for more than a century. He saw how the prisoners contrived to keep dogs despite strict prohibition by the Soviets. He saw doctors who kept people alive in the camps, he saw men whose strongest thoughts were for what Poland could become, others who loved literature. He saw them all, sketched many of them on whatever paper could be had, and wrote about them.

These shared evenings of readings, discussions, were something to which all of us who participated looked forward all day. Major Rudnicki, always energetic, even cheerful in spite of everything, Father Alexsandrowicz, and an array of other men whose names I don’t remember, even though their faces—which I sketched so many times during those evenings—and their warm fellowship were deeply engraved on my heart.
Not one of those men who took part in our Starobielsk evenings was ever seen again, apart from me. (p. 21)

If “Memories of Starobielsk” were the whole of the book, it would be slender but unforgettable. Instead, it’s barely the beginning. The rest of the collection of essays and other writings ranges across the whole of Czapski’s extraordinary life. He was born to immense wealth as a nobleman and scion of a landowning family in what is now Belarus. The children had a live-in tutor, a Mr. Iwanowski. When Czapski wanted to learn to sculpt, his father arranged for one of Poland’s leading sculptors to send a letter of instruction; he also set up a studio in their home’s attic and brought in an artist to teach Czapski about sculpture and his sister about drawing. When, years later, Czapski joined the army, his father ensured that he had a fine horse. That’s the kind of wealth and connection that Czapski came from, though he wears it very lightly in his writing.

In 1911, at age 15, he and a brother went off to a military school in Petersburg. He was in the Russian imperial capital throughout World War I, though he only mentions that briefly. He became a Tolstoyan, a pacifist, and when the Revolution came, Czapski, one of his sisters, a couple of cousins and some friends somehow set up a Christian commune amidst the tumult, convinced that they were going to convert multitudes and that Antek, their saint, would perform miracles and maybe usher in the millennium. How that was all going to happen they weren’t too sure, but Czapski’s recollection of the events more than 50 years later captures the fervor of the moment, and the incongruity of what they thought they were doing in the collapse of tsarist autocracy. These “Recollections,” a transcript of an interview conducted in the early 1970s, also detail how he fell in and out of pacifism, in and out of the Polish Army as Bolshevism gradually won in Russia and then invaded Poland in 1919–20. Czapski’s social class and school background ensured that he would be an officer, despite his periodic pacifism and cluelessness about leading men in battle. It comes to him quickly enough, though Czapski also tells of his good fortune in that the enemy had already abandoned the first village his unit was ordered to capture. His ending might have come much sooner.

But Jozef Czapski lived to an advanced age. He was born in a time of European empires, when Poland was divided and conquered. He lived through two World Wars, Communist Poland, and eventually died in a suburb of Paris in 1993, when Poland once again counted itself a free nation. The writings in Memories of Starobielsk only go through 1987, when the Communist system still seemed durable, at least from the outside. Czapski, however, had had an inkling of what might bring it down, and had written as far back as 1956 that telling the truth about Katyn, about the men whose stories populate the first pages of the book, might echo very loudly.

If we judge these rehabilitations … the attempts by leaders who bear joint responsibility with Stalin for the Stalinist era to separate themselves from Stalinism, if we judge these as certain marks on a monolith, then these facts may bring with them unpredictable consequences for the leaders themselves, and they may prompt fundamental changes in further development and in Soviet foreign relations. (p. 104)

Indeed, sir. All of that and more.

Though Czapski witnessed and participated in extraordinary historical moments, he always considered himself primarily an artist, a painter. Memories of Starobielsk contains more than a dozen essays on different aspects of art, and opinions about artists and writers. Some were composed for publication, others were Czapski writing for his notebooks, discovering what he thought by setting it down on paper. What it takes to be a good painter, the effort in distinguishing between productive indolence and simple languishing. How can an artist know when to keep working and when more effort actually reduces quality?

In Inhuman Land, Czapski details an evening with Anna Akhmatova in Central Asia, an encounter of sharp artistic minds that was hindered by Soviet surveillance and censorship, very much including self-censorship. Memories of Starobielsk tells of a second, final, meeting decades later in Paris. “She simply felt a different air talking to me, a greater freedom, an absence of the fear that at that time throttled every breath, everyone’s, absolutely everyone’s.” (p. 132)

Czapski saw all of it, and the frame around it, and the people looking. He couldn’t write everything down, but in Memories of Starobielsk he wrote enough.

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