The Work of Historical Witness: Józef Czapski’s “Lost Time” and “Inhuman Land”

By Andrew SchenkerDecember 18, 2018

The Work of Historical Witness: Józef Czapski’s “Lost Time” and “Inhuman Land”

Lost Time by Józef Czapski
Inhuman Land by Józef Czapski

IN JUNE 1940, the Polish painter and writer Józef Czapski found himself imprisoned at the Gryazovets Soviet POW camp in northern Russia. His confinement at the camp, the former site of an Orthodox convent, was certainly cruel and unjust, but it was also the result of good fortune. When Czapski, a reserve officer, was captured defending his homeland against the invading German troops at the start of World War II, he was taken into custody not by the immediate enemy but by the Red Army; the Soviet Union, as Czapski would discover, had signed a secret alliance with Germany. Czapski and many of his fellow officers were initially held in a prison at Starobilsk, in present-day Ukraine. Then, between April 5 and May 5, 1940, about 22,000 Polish officers, cadets, and intellectuals were murdered by the Soviet secret police, while the remaining 400 — including Czapski — were transferred to Gryazovets. Why Czapski was spared remains a mystery.

Amid the misery of Gryazovets prison — the rotted, lice-infested wooden bunks; the inadequate diet of thin soup, which led to skin rashes and diarrhea — literature provided the sole comfort. A small library was provided, and Czapski took full advantage. “I don’t think I ever read with such attention,” he later recalled. “Books helped to awaken my ‘involuntary memory.’” Czapski’s use of the famous Proustian formulation is not coincidental. Another way that the officers imprisoned at Gryazovets kept up their spirits was by giving a series of lectures every evening on a subject of their choosing. Czapski planned to speak about the development of modern French painting, but ended up lecturing on Proust’s seven-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu instead, creating his own act of recovery by recalling explicit details and verbatim passages from a book to which he had no access.

In fact, pretty much all of Czapski’s literary efforts can be seen as an act of recovery, relying, due to the circumstances of their writing, on great feats of recall and strokes of luck. The Proust lectures, for example, have come down to us in a form considerably different from the one in which they were initially delivered. Some time after he delivered them to his fellow prisoners, Czapski dictated an abridged version to two confidantes, who then committed them to typewritten pages and preserved them throughout the remainder of the war in mysterious and somewhat miraculous fashion. After the war, Czapksi supervised a Polish translation of the lectures, which were published as Proust w Griazowcu (Proust at Gryazovets). Only in 1987 did they appear in the original French, and only now have they been translated into English by Eric Karpeles, as Lost Time, in a text based on the French edition and the surviving typewritten pages in Czapski’s archive. This volume is one of three Czapski-relation publications coming out with New York Review Books. The other two are a biography by Karpeles and Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s new translation (the first from the original Polish) of Czapski’s wartime memoir, Inhuman Land, which has its own complex relation to historical memory.

To read Lost Time today is to appreciate not one, but two acts of recovery: first, there is Czapski’s bringing Proust’s world to life with his astonishing powers of recall, then there is the text’s tortuous path to publication in English. These circumstances contribute to an enthralling, even thrilling reading experience. As Czapski admits early on, making one of his only references to the conditions of his telling,

I’m aware that in speaking about Proust, I’m filling my talk with details of his work and his personal life, but I haven’t yet managed to express, even less to elucidate for myself, what exactly the novelty, the discovery, and the essence of his work consists of. Without a single book in hand, and more to the point, in possession of virtually no philosophical learning, I’m hardly in a position to touch upon this critical problem.

Czapski is, perhaps, just being modest in speaking about his impaired critical abilities, but one of the pleasures of Lost Time is seeing Czapski work up to his subject, discovering what he wants to say as he says it. And, indeed, as he himself notes, the early portion of the lectures concerns Proust’s biography and his artistic influences, as Czapski convincingly argues that the Frenchman’s literary and philosophical orientation was entirely shaped by the cultural developments of the 1890s, not by more recent trends. One may see a parallel in this; Proust more or less ignored the world around him while writing his long novel, just as Czapski seemingly ignores the circumstances in which he is delivering his lectures. Both look to the past.

As Czapski’s lectures develop, he delves into À la recherche itself. His impressive recall (Karpeles notes the rare moments where he gets a detail wrong in his footnotes) is matched by his sensitive and intelligent reading, which often draws on biographical details, of the passages he uses as examples. In the end, he concludes that Proust’s great achievement was to describe and analyze, coolly, the scenes of his life in all their detail and multiplicity — an act that, in its dispassion, often resulted in a certain enviable “monstrousness.” “Proust shone a penetrating light into the most secret recesses of the human soul that the majority of humanity would prefer to ignore,” Czapski concludes, putting forth his method as an exemplary model, one he himself would try to follow in his postwar writing. “In this domain, as in all his other studies […] we encounter the same Proust, with his admirable lucidity and an analytic apparatus of a precision and meticulousness unknown before him.”


On July 30, 1941, Władysław Sikorski, prime minister of the Polish Government in Exile, and Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Kingdom, signed a treaty of alliance. Tens of thousands of Poles still being held in Soviet prisoner-of-war camps were released with the understanding that they would join the newly formed Polish army, to be led by General Władysław Anders under Soviet supervision. On September 7, Czapski and his fellow inmates were released from Gryazovets and embarked on a thousand-mile march to Totskoye to join the Anders Army. As a non-combatant soldier, Czapski was put in charge of the office helping new arrivals. Whenever a new soldier came in, he would ask about the fate of the officers who had been imprisoned with him at Starobilsk, as well as at two other camps, Kozelsk and Ostashkov. No one had heard anything. Frustrated by this lack of information, Czapski determined to get to the bottom of the matter, first by gathering intel at Totskoye and then by traveling throughout the Soviet Union in search of his vanished brethren.

This journey of discovery forms the bulk of his memoir, Inhuman Land, the second of two books he published about his wartime experience. (Reminiscences of Starobilsk appeared in Polish in 1944 and was later translated into French, but has not yet appeared in English.) As with Lost Time, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the text are far from straightforward. As Czapski explains in an author’s note preceding the text, Inhuman Land was composed between 1942 and 1947, “in a wide range of situations and with long intervals.” Parts of the book were composed after the war, but they are based on notes Czapski jotted down during his wartime travels. And this business of jotting things down is one that Czapski took very seriously, understanding that, in this case, personal memory was inextricably tied up with historical memory.

“The more progress I made with the book,” Czapski explains, “the more I felt that I was not free to write what I wanted to, but must write what I had to […] To be complete, a book of memoirs carries the mule of its own life after it, as well as a wealth of earlier memories of people who have passed on, and times that will never return.” When he speaks of those “who have passed on,” Czapski is referring specifically to the thousands of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets, whose legacy he must preserve. He does so bravely. When his book was first published in Polish and French in 1949, it was either ignored or dismissed as fascist for daring to criticize the Soviets; the French Communist Party went so far as to buy up as many copies as possible and destroy them. However, when it first appeared in an English translation in 1987, it began to perform its work of historical witness. Praised in the British press, the book had its biggest influence in the United States, where Czapski was invited to lecture on his experiences and testified before the Congressional Madden Committee, which recommended that the Soviets be brought to trial before the World Court.


Inhuman Land is, above all, a portrait of a man caught in the middle of history and not quite able to understand what’s going on all around him. Although he writes retrospectively, acknowledging the gap between his writing self and his self on the page, Czapski keeps the reader close to his wartime persona, asking us to share his disbelief at the scale of the Russian atrocities even as the facts become less and less easy to ignore. Although he begins to receive word of mass killings early on in his narrative, he is never able to get news from the Starobilsk, Kozelsk, and Ostashkov camps, and as he sets out to find the fate of his fellow officers, he continues to hold out hope that they have not all been murdered.

In his position as an officer, Czapski enjoys a relative sense of privilege unavailable to most of the miserable souls he encounters, and his perpetual awareness of this fact, which deepens his sense of guilt, creates narrative tension and complicates his positions as historical witness. For example, midway through the book, Czapski is stationed at a camp in Yungiyul in present-day Uzbekistan. As he attempts to work, he sees a constant parade of sick and malnourished displaced people walk past, many suffering from typhus or malaria, all of whom want something from him and his peers. “General staff had to be separated off,” he writes. “It was impossible to work amid this flood of wretched deportees without feeling a constant sense of privilege.” In order to complete the necessary paperwork, Czapski had to ignore the horrors all around him, but writing in retrospect, he remembers both those horrors as well as his own attempts to ignore them. “Meanwhile, we complained about the food,” he concludes, referring to himself and his fellow officers, “and couldn’t help forgetting about the indigence all around us.”

For all his vivid recording of this indigence over the four hundred pages of Inhuman Land, Czapski’s aims are largely conciliatory, as he looks ahead to the postwar landscape. He understands the historical animus that exists between different nationalities as well as, of course, the bloody events of recent history, but he bemoans the sort of prejudicial attitudes toward specific countries that threaten a workable peace. For example, when, late in his journey, he is laid up in an Iranian hospital, one of the nurses, a Turkish man, becomes furious when recalling the maneuvering of the British and Russians and exclaims in a fit of pique, “One Persian soldier is worth a hundred Russian or British!” Listening to this, Czapski becomes “aware of a non-existent boundary between reality and fairytale. The background to the legends I was hearing was a loathing of any invader.”

Yet Czapski himself is not immune to the lure of the same sort of prejudicial thinking, which, given the things he witnessed, is rather unsurprising. He writes, in his author’s note, that as he continued to work on the project, he “felt a rising, rather than a waning awareness that Poland and Russia are tragically opposed, in our ideologies and our historical journeys.” He later insists on the essential brutality of the Soviets; documenting their cruel treatment of prisoners, he notes that it was simply an example of “the normal Soviet attitude towards human beings, towards their own citizens too — extreme wastefulness and disregard for human life.” Although these criticisms are largely directed toward official governmental policy, by chronicling his encounters with Stalinist true believers throughout the country, Czapski makes clear that the state’s brutality is either rooted in or has filtered down to the individual character of the Soviet citizen.

This dual impulse to air one’s personal prejudices while, at the same time, noting the deleterious effect of such biases, informs the whole book. Twenty years after Inhuman Land was initially published, it finally appeared in a German translation and the editors asked Czapski to write a new section bringing the narrative up to date. This section, which appears in the current edition as Part Two, contains a strong plea to his fellow Poles not to harbor grudges against the Germans in the interest of a peaceful Europe. He admits his own knee-jerk reaction, his own “automatic hostility” when he hears German tourists talk loudly in the streets, but insists on the importance of fighting against these feelings. It may be essential to acknowledge the events of the historical past in all their brutality — an act of remembrance that Inhuman Land performs brilliantly — but ultimately, Czapski suggests, we must look past our differences and insist on our common humanity.


Andrew Schenker is a writer based in New York.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Schenker lives in Upstate New York.


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