Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia, 1941-1942

A classic work of reportage about the Katyń Massacre during World War II by a soldier who narrowly escaped the atrocity himself.

In 1941, when Germany turned against the USSR, tens of thousands of Poles—men, women, and children who were starving, sickly, and impoverished—were released from Soviet prison camps and allowed to join the Polish Army being formed in the south of Russia. One of the survivors who made the difficult winter journey was the painter and reserve officer Józef Czapski.

General Anders, the army’s commander in chief, assigned Czapski the task of receiving the Poles arriving for military training; gathering accounts of what their fates had been; organizing education, culture, and news for the soldiers; and, most important, investigating the disappearance of thousands of missing Polish officers.
Blocked at every level by the Soviet authorities, Czapski was unaware that in April 1940 many officers had been shot dead in Katyn forest, a crime for which Soviet Russia never accepted responsibility.

Czapski’s account of the years following his release from the camp and the formation of the Polish Army, and its arduous trek through Central Asia and the Middle East to fight on the Italian front offers a stark depiction of Stalin’s Russia at war and of the suffering, stoicism, and bravery of his fellow Poles. A work of clear observation and deep compassion, Inhuman Land is one of the twentieth century’s indispensable acts of literary witness.

(Text taken from Penguin Random House website)

NB Czapski’s book was first published in 1949. His wikipedia page is here.

Features & Reviews

‘Józef Czapski’s Investigation in an ‘Inhuman Land’’ at (worth looking at for the images alone)

Matthew Omolesky, ‘Inhuman Land: Aleksandr Radishchev, Józef Czapski, and the Search for the Other Russia’ in The Spectator (2022)

Louise Steinman, ‘Time Regained: Reading Józef Czapski in Billings, Montana’ in LA Review of Books (2019) (focuses mainly on Czapski’s Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp)

Ukraine: a personal exploration before Putin’s invasion

Jenny Robertson Ukraine book cover

Ukraine, the edge of Europe, now takes centre stage. ​This book explores this little known land whose fertile soil has made it the “breadbasket” of Europe and beyond.

Jenny Robertson, an experienced author, brings a multi-faceted understanding of the complexities and richness of this land, where the story of the Eastern Slavs begins. She writes of her travels in Ukraine, meeting local people, discussing landscape and history, how the country has related to Poland and Russia in the past.

While located before Putin’s invasion, this book about the real Ukraine will give essential background as well as a delightful visit to a lovely country.


The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine

From award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe is the definitive history of Ukraine that helps us understand the country’s past and the current crisis

At the western edge of the Eurasian steppe, caught between Central Europe, Russia, and the Middle East, Ukraine has long been the meeting place of empires – Roman to Ottoman, Habsburg to Russian – that left their imprint on the landscape, the language and the people. The frontier between Islam and Christianity created a class of ferocious warriors known as the Cossacks, while the encounter between the Catholic and Orthodox churches led to a religious tradition that bridges Western and Eastern Christianity. Ukraine has been a home to millions of Jews, serving as the birthplace of Hassidism – and as one of the killing fields of the Holocaust.

In The Gates of Europe, award-winning historian Serhii Plokhy examines the history of Ukraine’s search for its identity, bringing together some of the major figures in Ukrainian history: Prince Yaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, whose daughter Anna became queen of France; the Cossack ruler Ivan Mazepa, who was immortalized in the poems of Byron and Pushkin; Nikita Khrushchev and his protégé-turned-nemesis Leonid Brezhnev; and the heroes of the Maidan protests of 2013 and 2014, who embody the current struggle over Ukraine’s future.

As Plokhy explains, the recent conflict with Russia is a tragic case of history repeating itself, as Ukraine once again finds itself in the centre of a battle of global proportions. Fascinating and multilayered, The Gates of Europe is the essential guide to understanding not just Ukraine’s past but also its future.

Nowolipie Street

Hen’s memoir is about growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in Warsaw during the 1920s and 30s, until the first few months of the German occupation. Nowolipie Street, where Hen lived as a child and young adult, is both the happy background and the source material for his narration. As remembered and retold by Hen with loving detail, the world of his youth regains its full shape and vivid color. This world is shattered when Germany invades Poland. The author and his family live through the horror of the incessant bombardment of Warsaw and the chaos of the next few months. Slowly but inexorably, the noose begins to tighten around the Jewish population. Eventually, the sixteen year old author makes the agonizing decision to leave his parents and flee his country.

The Life of Cyprian Norwid (1821-1883)

Cyprian Norwid (1821–1883) is today one of the most valued Polish writers. He also practised drawing, graphics and sculpture. His life was full of hardships and storms, but very fruitful artistically and literally. As a child, he lost both of his parents, but thanks to the help of his family, he gained the basics of a good education. In 1842 he went to the West to deepen his artistic studies. In 1846, as a result of a provocation, he was imprisoned by the Prussian police and after his release, he left for the West as one of the many Polish exiles of that century. In 1852 he left France for the United States, from where he returned in mid-1854, trying to settle down in England; after a few months he returned to Paris, which was closer to him and stayed there until the end of his life. He spent the last years (1877-1883) in an asylum for emigrants. This book tells about this difficult but creative life. It is a sketch of Norwid’s biography and literary and artistic output.


This page on the Polish Cultural Institute website features news of events to celebrate Norwid’s bicentenary, including Vade Mecum, a new short film by the Brothers Quay, and a translation of Norwid’s verse comedy of manners Pure Love at Sea-Side Bathing by Adam Czerniawski.

Iron Curtain

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union unexpectedly found itself in control of a huge swathe of territory in Eastern Europe. Stalin and his secret police set out to convert a dozen radically different countries to a completely new political and moral system: communism. Iron Curtain describes how the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe were created and what daily life was like once they were complete. The book describes how political parties, the church, the media, young people’s organizations – the institutions of civil society on every level – were eviscerated, how the secret police services were organized, how ethnic cleansing was carried out – and how some people were forced to collaborate while others managed to resist.

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz

For the next meeting, rather than choosing a single book, we’ve chosen a topic, or rather a historical figure – Witold Pilecki (1901–1948).

The most recent book about him is Jack Fairweather’s The Volunteer, which won the Costa Prize 2019. Below are details of this, as well as an English edition of Pilecki’s own work, and two Polish-language books about him.

Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery (Aqua Polinica, 2012) by Witold Pilecki

In 1940, the Polish Underground wanted to know what was happening inside the recently opened Auschwitz concentration camp. Polish army officer Witold Pilecki volunteered to be arrested by the Germans and reported from inside the camp. His intelligence reports, smuggled out in 1941, were among the first eyewitness accounts of Auschwitz atrocities: the extermination of Soviet POWs, its function as a camp for Polish political prisoners, and the final solution” for Jews. Pilecki received brutal treatment until he escaped in April 1943; soon after, he wrote a brief report. This book is the first English translation of a 1945 expanded version. In the foreword, Poland’s chief rabbi states, If heeded, Pilecki’s early warnings might have changed the course of history.” Pilecki’s story was suppressed for half a century after his 1948 arrest by the Polish Communist regime as a Western spy.” He was executed and expunged from Polish history. Pilecki writes in staccato style but also interjects his observations on humankind’s lack of progress: We have strayed, my friends, we have strayed dreadfully…we are a whole level of hell worse than animals!” These remarkable revelations are amplified by 40 b&w photos, illus., and maps

Rotmistrz Pilecki i jego oprawcy (Capital, 2015) by Tadeusz M. Pluzanski

Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki byl dowódca mojego ojca Tadeusza Pluzanskiego. Razem konspirowali, w tym samym wiezieniu znosili tortury komunistycznych oprawców. Ojca wypuszczono po 9 latach (73 dni przesiedzial w celi smierci), do konca swoich dni nazywal dowódce ,,swietym polskiego patriotyzmu”.

Rotmistrz nigdy sie nie poddal, nie dal sie zlamac w ubeckim sledztwie, pozostal Niezlomny.
Ksiazka odpowiada na wiele pytan dotyczacych sledztwa i procesu:
– Kto torturowal rotmistrza w mokotowskim wiezieniu?
– Czy w momencie wyprowadzania na egzekucje, 25 maja 1948 r., wiezien jeszcze zyl, czy kat Piotr Smietanski strzalem w tyl glowy usmiercil trupa?
– Dlaczego Pilecki podjal gre z szefem wszystkich ubeków Józefem Rózanskim?
– Jakie byly dalsze losy brutalnych funkcjonariuszy aparatu przymusu?
– Jak potoczyly sie kariery morderców sadowych?
– Jak rotmistrz traktowal wspólpracowników?
– Kiedy po latach upokorzen dzieci Witolda beda mogly zapalic lampke na grobie Taty?

Zycie rotmistrza Witolda Pileckiego to gotowy scenariusz na dawno oczekiwany film sensacyjny. Moze ta ksiazka zainteresuje sie Hollywood?

Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki  (AA, 2018) by Joanna Wieliczka-Szarkowa

Fascynujaca opowiesc o rotmistrzu Witoldzie Pileckim, kresowym zagonczyku walczacym z bolszewikami o polskie Wilno i Warszawe w 1920 roku, który wedlug brytyjskiego historyka Michaela Foota byl jednym z szesciu najodwazniejszych zolnierzy drugiej wojny swiatowej! Czlowiek, który na ochotnika dal sie zamknac w niemieckim obozie koncentracyjnym w Auschwitz. Zorganizowal tam konspiracyjny Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej skupiajacy ponad sto osób we wszystkich komandach. Przezyl za drutami dwa lata i siedem miesiecy. W tym czasie informowal dowództwo Armii Krajowej o dokonywanym przez Niemców ludobójstwie. Po brawurowej ucieczce, nadal zaangazowany w podziemna walke, napisal szczególowe raporty z Auschwitz, których niezwykle losy zostaly opisane w ksiazce. Walczyl w Powstaniu Warszawskim jako obronca niezdobytej Reduty Witolda. Po wojnie nie opuscil kraju mimo komunistycznego zniewolenia. Zostal aresztowany przez UB, skatowany w sledztwie w mokotowskim wiezieniu, przy którym ,,Oswiecim to byla igraszka”. W pokazowym procesie skazany na kare smierci, jako szpieg gen. Andersa i zamordowany strzalem w tyl glowy, 70 lat temu – 25 maja 1948 roku.

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero who Infiltrated Auschwitz by Jack Fairweather (Penguin, 2019)

‘Totally gripping’– Simon Sebag Montefiore

‘Pilecki is perhaps one of the greatest unsung heroes of the second world war … this insightful book is likely to be the definitive version of this extraordinary life’ — Economist
Would you sacrifice yourself to save thousands of others?
In the Summer of 1940, after the Nazi occupation of Poland, an underground operative called Witold Pilecki accepted a mission to uncover the fate of thousands of people being interned at a new concentration camp on the border of the Reich.
His mission was to report on Nazi crimes and raise a secret army to stage an uprising. The name of the detention centre — Auschwitz.
It was only after arriving at the camp that he started to discover the Nazi’s terrifying plans. Over the next two and half years, Witold forged an underground army that smuggled evidence of Nazi atrocities out of Auschwitz. His reports from the camp were to shape the Allies response to the Holocaust – yet his story was all but forgotten for decades.
This is the first major account to draw on unpublished family papers, newly released archival documents and exclusive interviews with surviving resistance fighters to show how he brought the fight to the Nazis at the heart of their evil designs.
The result is an enthralling story of resistance and heroism against the most horrific circumstances, and one man’s attempt to change the course of history.

You can read an interview with Jack Fairweather here.

And here is a radio inverview with Pilecki’s great-grandson, in Polish.

From Corsets to Communism: the life and times of Zofia Nałkowska

A biography of the Polish novelist Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954).

‘I had only one eye, I was hungry and cold, yet I wanted to live… so that I could tell it all just as I’ve told you.’
Zofia Nalkowska, from Medallions (1947)

Witness to two world wars and Poland’s struggle for independence, Zofia Nałkowska’s commitment to telling unspeakable tales is her gift to European literature. Nałkowska’s own story of ill-judged love affairs, family loyalty and survival is remarkable in itself. Yet, her determination to record other’s truth, however painful, ties her fate to a nation whose battle for identity is both brutal and romantic. Drawing on her own background as a poet and Polish Studies graduate, Jenny Robertson’s literary biography celebrates the achievements of a pioneering, pivotal female writer whose love of life, not only propelled her to fame, but gave her the courage to witness atrocity.

Miłosz: A Biography

Andrzej Franaszek’s award-winning biography of Czeslaw Miłosz — the great Polish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980 — offers a rich portrait of the writer and his troubled century, providing context for a larger appreciation of his work. This English-language edition, translated by Aleksandra Parker and Michael Parker, contains a new introduction by the translators, along with historical explanations, maps, and a chronology.

Franaszek recounts the poet’s personal odyssey through the events that convulsed twentieth-century Europe: World War I, the Bolshevik revolution, the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland, and the Soviet Union’s postwar dominance of Eastern Europe. He follows the footsteps of a perpetual outsider who spent much of his unsettled life in Lithuania, Poland, and France, where he sought political asylum. From 1960 to 1999, Miłosz lived in the United States before returning to Poland, where he died in 2004.

Franaszek traces Miłosz’s changing, constantly questioning, often skeptical attitude toward organized religion. In the long term, he concluded that faith performed a positive role, not least as an antidote to the amoral, soulless materialism that afflicts contemporary civilization. Despite years of hardship, alienation, and neglect, Miłosz retained a belief in the transformative power of poetry, particularly its capacity to serve as a source of moral resistance and a reservoir of collective hope. Seamus Heaney once said that Miłosz’s poetry is irradiated by wisdom. Miłosz reveals how that wisdom was tempered by experience even as the poet retained a childlike wonder in a misbegotten world.

The Collected Prose 1948–1998

Polish poet and essayist Zbigniew Herbert easily stands beside Nobel Prize laureates Milosz and Szymborska as part of a remarkable literary tradition. Though Herbert is very much an Eastern European writer, the urgency, vitality, and relevance of his work extend far beyond the borders of his particular region and his particular time. His fascination with other subjects–from painting to all things Dutch–enriched the scope and depth of his poetry, and made for compelling explorations in his essays and short prose pieces.

The first collected English edition of his prose work, this outstanding volume consists of four books – Labryinth on the SeaStill Life with a BridleKing of the Ants, and Barbarian in the Garden. Brilliant and erudite, dazzling and witty, these essays survey the geography of humanity, its achievements and its foibles. From Western civilization’s past, as witnessed through the Greek and Roman landscape, to musings on the artistic that celebrate the author’s discriminating eye, poetic sensibility, and gift for irony, humor, and the absurd; from a sage retelling of myths and tales that became twentieth-century philosophical parables of human behavior to thoughts on art, culture, and history inspired by journeys in France, Italy, and the Netherlands, Collected Prose is a rich compendium that celebrates the mastery and wisdom of a remarkable artist.