“Gathered Fitfully from My Own Memory”: On Józef Czapski’s “Memories of Starobielsk”

September 7, 2021   •   By Philip Ó Ceallaigh

Memories of Starobielsk: Essays Between Art and History

Józef Czapski

JÓZEF CZAPSKI was a reserve officer in the Polish army when German and Soviet forces invaded his country in September 1939. His unit surrendered to the Soviets toward the end of that month. In “Memories of Starobielsk,” the 40-page essay that gives this collection, translated by Alissa Valles, its title, Czapski tells how he and his comrades were deceived by the promise that they would be sent through neutral territory to France, from where they could continue the fight against the Germans. Instead, they were marched eastward as prisoners of war, over the Soviet frontier:


A world apart. Ruined shabby houses, dilapidated, as if they’d never had any maintenance. As for the famous electrification you read so much about: every so often there was an electric lamp blinking a wan red light, and in the city park, Stalin’s profile in red neon — that was all.


The convoy of prisoners reached the ruined convent of Starobielsk in October. Starobielsk was one of three camps in which a total of some 14,000 captured Polish officers were held (the other two were Oshtakov and Kozelsk). These camps were under the authority of the NKVD. (As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has noted, the Bolsheviks from the earliest days had commandeered monasteries and convents to use as prisons; they had good thick walls, and religious life needed to be eradicated in any case.) The books and papers strewn around the ransacked convent library turn out to be “a life-saver” for the Polish prisoners, who slept on the ground in freezing conditions. They discovered that they were not the first prisoners to have been held there:


In one of the walls of the carriage house there was a large hole made by bullets at the level of a standing man’s head. We were told that it was there they had shot members of the local bourgeoisie in 1917; I saw a similar gunshot hole in the wall around Starobielsk convent. Apparently nuns from the religious order had been executed there.


In early December 1939, the prisoners were allowed to send messages to Poland via the Red Cross, and just before Christmas they received their first mail from friends and family. Czapski himself was deluged with correspondence. But it was all a ruse: the return addresses and other information were being gathered by the authorities as part of their plan to deport one million Poles to Siberia and Kazakhstan. This was not just a war between nations, it was a class war. About 70,000 Polish civilians were deported for being relatives of the members of the officer class, and a third of these would die of cold and hunger in the first year. In all, between 1939 and 1941, the Soviets deported 315,000 Poles to Siberia and Central Asia. About 110,000 more Poles were arrested, and of these 30,000 were executed and 25,000 more died in custody.


In March 1940, Lavrenty Beria, the head of the NKVD, sent a memorandum to Stalin in which he identified the Polish officers as a counterrevolutionary element. Within eight weeks, the nearly 14,000 officers had been shot, along with over 7,000 other Poles — former landowners, businesspeople, and government officials, among others. This wave of killing was part of a wider attempt to destroy Polish national identity. But even these figures need to be contextualized: before the war, the Stalinist Terror of 1937–’38 had targeted the Polish minority in Ukraine and Belarus; over 85,000 were executed — one-eighth of the fatalities during that wave of killing, even though Poles constituted only 0.4 percent of the Soviet population.


Of course, Czapski knew nothing of this during his internment at Starobielsk, and the essay can be read as a prequel to Inhuman Land (1949), his most important book. Inhuman Land opens in 1941, after Hitler’s surprise attack on the USSR had transformed the imprisoned remnants of the Polish army into allies of the Red Army. The Polish High Command realized that some 14,000 deported Polish officers were missing and charged Czapski with the task of tracking them down. Czapski was stonewalled by the Soviet bureaucracy, which never acknowledged that the officers had all been executed.


It would take time for Czapski to learn that he was one of only 71 survivors of the 4,000 held at Starobielsk. The rest of his comrades in the camp had been taken by rail, a few hundred at a time, to the NKVD prison in Kharkhiv, where each was killed with a single bullet to the base of the skull. The bodies were buried in mass graves. The most known of these graves is at Katyn, a place which has assumed symbolic importance in Polish history, but there were a number of such sites.


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Czapski’s Starobielsk essay — like Inhuman Land — can sometimes feel like a mere litany of horrors and atrocities. But what distinguishes “Memories of Starobielsk” and deepens our understanding of the events Czapski lived through is the vision he imparts of a Europe that the Soviets (and the Nazis) had attempted to destroy.


Czapski, born in 1896 in the Russian Empire, enjoyed a privileged polyglot upbringing and education. His father, nominally a Polish count, was of mixed Baltic, Russian, and Polish heritage, and was raised in St. Petersburg. His mother was from a similarly hybrid aristocratic Austrian background. An uncle on Czpaski’s mother’s side had been a prime minister of Austria. A cousin on his father’s side, Georgy V. Chicherin, was a confidant of Lenin, and would become foreign minister for the Bolsheviks (and later the Soviets) in 1918. (This book also contains an essay on Chicherin.)


Russian, German, French, and Polish were all used in the Czapski household; Czapski’s Polish identity and use of the language came to the fore with the dissolution of the Russian Empire and the rebirth of an independent Poland. The young Czapski was a witness to the Russian Revolution in St. Petersburg; though initially a Tolstoyan pacifist, he was drawn to the cause of independent Poland during the Soviet-Polish war of 1919–’21.


Between the wars, Czapski became a painter in Paris, and was attracted to modernist trends in art and literature. After the war, again in Paris, he would remain a central figure in émigré Polish life. A number of the essays collected in this volume cover historical and autobiographical themes, while others focus on painting. Several, written on a train from Moscow when the Polish Army in exile was in formation, are meditations on the creative process itself.


Czesław Miłosz’s The Captive Mind (1953) became a classic political and psychological study of the various mechanisms deployed by the communist authorities to induce conformity, including in intellectual and literary circles. The postwar imposition of Soviet rule in Poland and other states in Eastern Europe brought the destruction of European culture into its geographical heart — the intellectual equivalent of the physical leveling of Warsaw effected by the Nazis (an act observed with satisfaction by the Red Army, which watched from the far bank of the Vistula). Czapski’s accounts of the war years in Inhuman Land give us a picture of the first stages of this process, with its focus on the premeditated murder by the Soviets of those sectors of Polish society that would have been most capable of offering resistance to their remaking of Poland.


Memories of Starobielsk shows the victims not as soldiers but as doctors, professors, engineers, writers, translators — people of education and character, products of a civilization that Stalinism could not accommodate. Because of its size, well-developed national consciousness, and central place in European intellectual life, Poland posed the greatest challenge to the expansion of Soviet power in Eastern Europe.


“In Starobielsk alone,” Czapski writes, “there were more than 800 doctors.” He mentions neurologists, hospital directors, surgeons, and a former minister for health. The roll call of notables continues through the professions — university lecturers, heads of academies, magazine editors — with the caveat that these are just a handful of names “gathered fitfully from my own memory and from what friends have told me. I do not even try to enumerate all the prized and prominent people from these camps whom we lost.” To Czapski, they were bearers of a civilization the Soviets were determined to crush, just as they had done in Russia.


The essays gathered in this book provide a number of portraits of Czapski’s executed friends and comrades. There was a Lieutenant Ralski, a reserve officer who had been a biology professor at Poznan University. “He had for years written about Polish fauna, laboriously collecting material; his great work, a summa of long years of meticulous scientific study […] had been destroyed then and there.” Czapski recalls how this “person of enchanting warmth and strength of character,” even as he was marched eastward, starving, across the frozen steppe, continued to observe the vegetation poking through the snow with enthusiasm, grateful for the opportunity to observe a new biosphere.


Still in September, when we had to leave the road because German planes were firing at us with machine guns, Ralski told me a strange story about the bushes whose seeds had been brought to Europe from Canada and spread like wildfire on the very fields where we were hiding from fighter planes.


Another memorable figure in Czapski’s gallery is the lawyer Checinski, who was obsessed with the idea of a European Union: “He passionately tried to convert everyone to his faith, and that faith was a confederation of all countries from Scandinavia to Greece. He believed at that time that this was the idea which would triumph after the war.”


There is a moment of bleak humor, too, when Czapski’s NKVD interrogators insist that he must have been a spy during his eight years in Paris and that, by posing as a painter, he had been in a perfect position to draw up maps of the French capital to send to his superiors in Warsaw.


There was no way to explain to my interlocutor that you could buy a map of Paris for a few centimes on any street corner in Paris, and that the Polish painters who had gone to Paris weren’t spies sent to draw up secret maps. None of the interrogators ever believed me when I said you could travel abroad — for any purpose except espionage.


In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn told of how he had to help his arresting officers take him to jail, since they were unable to read maps.


Memories of Starobielsk and Inhuman Land are both available from NYRB Classics, as is Eric Karpeles’s biography of Czapski, Almost Nothing (2018), whose early chapters provide a meticulously researched presentation of Czapski’s milieu.


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Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His first two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His third collection, Trouble, has just appeared. He lives in Bucharest.