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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Sea, Still Life with a Bridle, King 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.
Regarded as a central part of Kapuściński’s work, these vivid portraits of life in the depths of Poland embody the young writer’s mastery of literary reportage
When the great Ryszard Kapuściński was a young journalist in the early 1960s, he was sent to the farthest reaches of his native Poland between foreign assignments. The resulting pieces brought together in this new collection, nearly all of which are translated into English for the first time, reveal a place just as strange as the distant lands he visited.
From forgotten villages to collective farms, Kapuściński explores a Poland that is post-Stalinist but still Communist; a country on the edge of modernity. He encounters those for whom the promises of rising living standards never worked out as planned, those who would have been misfits under any political system, those tied to the land and those dreaming of escape.
History of a Disappearance is the fascinating true story of a small mining town in the southwest of Poland that, after seven centuries of history, disappeared. Filip Springer (born 1982) is a self-taught journalist who has been working as a reporter and photographer since 2006. His journalistic debut—History of a Disappearance: The Forgotten Story of a Polish Town—was shortlisted for the Ryszard Kapuściński Literary Reportage Prize in 2011 and was nominated for the Gdynia Literary Prize in 2012. He was also shortlisted for the Nike Literary Prize in 2012 and winner of the third annual Ryszard Kapuściński fellows contest for young journalists. Sean Gasper Bye translation is a winner of Asymptote Journal’s 2016 Close Approximations Translation Contest.
The book consists of two essays about the city now called Liviv, in Western Ukraine. Between the wars it was Lwów and part of Poland; until 1918 it belonged to Austro-Hungary and was known as Lemberg. Wittlin (1896–1976) lived in the city from 1904 to 1922, and wrote his essay in New York in 1946; Sands’ grandfather was born there, lost his whole extended family in the Holocaust, moved to Paris, and never spoke about it again. Sands has also written a much longer book, East West Street, in which the city has a central role – several people had read and recommended it; and has made a film, My Nazi Legacy (referred to in City of Lions), about events in Poland and Ukraine during WW2, which is available online (also being shown on BBC4; 27th December, 11pm).
Grażyna read Wittlin’s Polish text online, and said his love of the city, and his humour, came across in his use of language. Tom commented on the rhapsodic ending to both essays, and Wittlin’s ornate, almost baroque style. Krystyna commented on the melancholy black-and-white photographs (historical and contemporary), while she’d been struck by the colour of the city when she visited. Magda commented on the sensual aspects of the book (aromas and food), Robin on the city’s historical layers – the example of a law professor who taught three different law codes in his career (Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Soviet).
The notes to Wittlin’s piece are necessary, as so many of the passing references are completely unfamiliar to me, and to most English-speaking readers, I imagine. In Ulysses Joyce wrote about Dublin from a distance, and often critically. Wittlin also writes his city from a distance, but after much destruction and an orgy of death; perhaps that’s why he’s more forgiving of the city’s faults than Joyce is, for Dublin remained extant. He sketches; I’d have liked more on the grand station. He brings in personal stories, yet it’s not a memoir; I have little sense of the trajectory of his life. He says the title “was imposed by the publishers”; which publisher, what sort of readership? Perhaps Poles exiled from, forced out of the city in 1945.
Sands’ text acts as a kind of Afterword to Wittlin’s, offering context and referring back to it, while also offering new material, by way of Sands’ own experiences and histories. Writing at a greater distance from World War Two, he fills in details of German policy and actions against the Jews, information unavailable to Wittlin. He’s there, experiencing the present; Wittlin’s absent, remembering the past.
Sixty years after his murder by the Nazis, Bruno Schulz, one of the twentieth century’s greatest and most enigmatic writers, is experiencing a renaissance in part occasioned by this biography by the renowned Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski. Widely regarded as the world’s foremost authority on Schulz, Ficowski reconstructs the author’s life story and evokes the fictional vision of his best-known works, The Street of Crocodiles and Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass. Including many of Schulz’s paintings and letters as well as new information on the Mossad’s removal of Schulz’s murals from Poland in 2001, this book will stand for years to come as the definitive account of the author’s tragic life. Developed for publication by The Jewish Heritage Project’s International Initiative for Literature of the Holocaust.