Józef Czapski (1896–1993), a painter and writer, and an eyewitness to the turbulent history of the 20th century, grew up in Poland under czarist domination. He received an education in Saint Petersburg and was in the city during the February Revolution of 1917. Briefly a cavalry officer in World War I, decorated for bravery in the Polish-Soviet War, Czapski went on to attend the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków and then moved to Paris to paint. He spent seven years in Paris, moving in social circles that included friends of Proust and Bonnard. In 1931, he returned to Warsaw and began exhibiting his work and writing art criticism. When Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Czapski sought active duty as a reserve officer. Captured by the Germans, he was handed over to the Soviets as a prisoner of war, though for reasons that remain mysterious he was not among the 22,000 Polish officers who were summarily executed by the Soviet secret police. Czapski described his experiences in the Soviet Union in two books: Memories of Starobielsk and Inhuman Land (NYRB Classics, 2018), the latter of which describes his continuing efforts to find out what had happened to his missing and murdered colleagues. Unwilling to live in postwar communist Poland, Czapski set up a studio outside of Paris. He died, nearly blind, at 96.
The Work of Historical Witness: Józef Czapski’s “Lost Time” and “Inhuman Land”
Andrew Schenker celebrates the recovery of “Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp” and “Inhuman Land” by Józef Czapski....