Memories of Starobielsk

AT THE time that it was cleared on April 5, 1940, the camp of Starobielsk held 3,920 Polish officers, together with several dozen civilian prisoners and about 30 officer cadets and ensigns. Of these men, 79 survived. I am one of them.

All the others disappeared without a trace, despite stubborn and unceasing attempts to discover their whereabouts.

In September and October 1939, when part of the Polish Army was taken prisoner by the Soviets, the officers and some regular troops were interned in three camps: Starobielsk, Kozielsk, and Ostashkov. In all three camps there were approximately 8,700 officers and about 700 officers of lower rank and regular soldiers at the time they began to be evacuated on April 5 and 6, 1940. Of the entire number of prisoners who had been in the three camps between October 1939 and May 1940, about 400 (officers, regular soldiers, and a small number of civilians) were found and sent to Griazoviets near Vologda in 1940 and 1941. In addition, a few dozen officers and regular soldiers were found who had been transferred earlier from the same camps to prisons, to be put on trial.

The prisoners of Griazoviets and the aforementioned group of prisoners were, for the most part, released in August 1941, after the Polish-Soviet pact. The rest perished.

When I write about Starobielsk, Kozielsk, and Ostashkov, I have in mind only the prisoners who were in those locations from October 1939 to May 1940. That is to say, I am writing about Starobielsk I, Kozielsk I, and Ostashkov.

There was also the camp Starobielsk II (political prisoners, most of them military staff, captured by the Soviets in the territory of the occupied Eastern Borderlands or caught trying to escape across the borders of Romania or Hungary), and there was also a Kozielsk II (interned Polish officers from occupied Lithuania). These prisoners populated Starobielsk and Kozielsk after May 1940; some men from these groups were later found, and most of the officers interned in Lithuania and later sent to Kozielsk II subsequently joined the Polish Army.

All the officers and rank-and-file soldiers from Kozielsk II and Starobielsk II, and many men scattered across the whole of Russia, all the way to Chukotka and Kamchatka, only some of whom were released from the labor camps in the far north, the far east, and in Russia itself, became the cadres of the Polish Army that was formed after the Polish-Soviet accord.

The main body of Polish officers under arms who were captured by the Soviets in September 1939 became the prisoners of Starobielsk I, Kozielsk I, and Ostashkov.

All of them, except the abovementioned number in Griazoviets and a few dozen from the prisons, disappeared without a trace.

In Starobielsk itself nine generals were interned. No trace has been found of Generals Stanisław Haller, Skierski, Łukowski, Franciszek Sikorski, Billewicz, Plisowski, Kowalewski, or Piotr Skuratowicz.

Among those who went missing and who were in the camp at Kozielsk were also Generals Smorawiński, Minkiewicz, and Bohatyrewicz, and Rear Admiral Czernicki.

Of army generals who were in the camps and who survived, there are only General Jarnuszkiewicz from Starobielsk, who was taken to the Lubyanka in Moscow in the winter of 1939–1940, and General Wołkowicki from Kozielsk, who was with us in Griazoviets.

General Szarecki, a colonel at the time and chief of the medical corps, a prisoner of Kozielsk and Griazoviets, also survived. Already at that time in primitive conditions, without medicine and without instruments, he operated on many of us and saved many lives.

Of the officers from those camps, the approximate losses were as follows: about 300 colonels and lieutenant-colonels, about 500 majors, about 2,500 captains and cavalry captains. In Starobielsk alone there were 600 air force officers. In Starobielsk and Kozielsk taken together there were more than 800 doctors.

Among the doctors in Kozielsk were the prominent neurologist Professor Pieńkowski; Doctor Stefanowski, Marshal Piłsudski’s personal physician; the neurologists Professor Marcin Zieliński and the eminent specialist Dr. Nelken, director of the psychiatry department of the Military Hospital in Vilnius; Dr. Wroczyński, former health minister and a man of great intelligence and principle (in Kozielsk he ran the kitchen); and Professor Godłowski, director of the neurology clinic at Vilnius University and the Brain Studies Institute.

In Starobielsk I met two of Warsaw’s most prominent surgeons, Dr. Kołodziejski and Dr. Levittoux. I had first met Dr. Kołodziejski in 1920 near Krasny on the Polish-Soviet front, when Budionny was approaching Lvov; he was then the head doctor in the Ujazdowski Hospital medical train. At that time he saved the life of my brother, among others, by removing a fragment of shrapnel from his pericardium. This same Dr. Kołodziejski, taken to a hospital in Brest by the Bolsheviks in 1939, was put onto a freight train with several hundred other doctors and Polish officers. The cars were made tamperproof and the prisoners were assured that the train was headed to Warsaw. After a journey of twenty days in horribly cramped conditions in sealed cars, the travelers found themselves not in Warsaw but in Starobielsk.

In the camps there were several dozen professors and university lecturers: Morawski, a professor at Warsaw Polytechnic; Professor Tucholski, a chemical physicist and explosives specialist who taught at Cambridge University; Professor Piotrowicz, secretary of the Kraków Academy of Arts and Sciences, from whom we heard some excellent lectures on Polish history; Engineer Eiger, vice-president of the Anti-Hitler League in Poland; and two editors from the magazine Our Review, who had appealed to Russia for asylum after escaping from the German occupation.

Eighty percent of the Military Institute of Armament Technology were lost, and eighty percent of the graduates of the armament section at Warsaw Polytechnic who were in military service also perished. No one from the Gas Institute returned; they were all taken prisoner together with their leader, Major Brzozowski. Two officers from the Pińsk Navy Military Command only just managed to escape.

The few names I’ve mentioned are gathered quite 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.

They were taken prisoner in the most varied circumstances. Many of them had defended themselves up to the last moment, fighting against the Soviet forces that were invading Polish territory, as well as against the Germans. Many of them were caught as they tried to escape and fight their way south, across the Hungarian or Romanian border. A great number of them were captured in surprise attacks by the overwhelming Soviet forces.

Retreating Polish detachments, scattered, utterly exhausted, often unarmed, met an invading Soviet Army whose representatives in many cases assured us they came as friends.

The plans the Soviet government had for the Polish detachments were carefully disguised. Perhaps the most typical example of the methods used by the Soviet Army command on Polish territory on September 17, 1939, were the negotiations conducted in Lvov by Deputy Chief Commander Timoshenko with the staff of General Langner on the matter of a few thousand Polish officers who had taken part in the defense of Lvov. On the basis of prognostications the Lvov garrison received the guarantee that after the city’s capitulation the officers and troops would not only retain freedom of movement, but that they would be able to leave for Romania or Hungary, in order to make their way to France via those countries and continue their fight. The agreement was a conscious deception on the part of the Soviet Army command; the majority of those officers ended up with us in Starobielsk and other camps.

I was taken prisoner on September 27, 1939, on the border of the Lvov district in Chmielek, together with two reserve squadrons of the Third Regiment who, without horses and almost without weapons, had been surrounded by Soviet artillery and tanks after several weeks of decamping from one place to another in a continuous retreat westward. Soviet Army negotiators took a position similar to the Lvov negotiators. They clearly had the same instructions. We were assured that the regular troops would be released (which did in fact happen), and only the officers were to be transported to Lvov and released there. It now seems the most absurd blindness that we did not realize immediately what the Soviet forces were up to. But this stab in the back was for many of us unexpected; our men were worn out by relentless fighting, or worse, retreat without a fight, with communications completely broken down, and all kinds of orders coming in, whose authenticity it was impossible to verify (such as an order not to enter into a battle against Soviet forces). Our people were devastated by the news of the bombing and destruction of Warsaw and of the Polish president, government, and chief commander having left the country (news that reached my detachment by radio only on September 27). People clutched at straws, at any shadow of a hope: perhaps the Soviets, who could not possibly benefit by a victory of Hitler’s Germany, would indeed help us at least to cross the border and participate in future battles, not in Poland, where for the moment the battle had been lost, but in France.

Thousands of political commissars tried to spread that vain hope among us in a variety of ways. And as for transporting us across the Polish border to Soviet camps, not only did not a single representative of the Soviet Army speak of it, but up to the moment of the final border crossing each and every one of them swore that there could be no question of such a plan: Vy nam nie nuzhny, they all said, We don’t need you.

I myself remember only one naive boyets (fighter) who allowed for the possibility that we were to be moved across the Soviet border, but said it would be only for a few days: “You’ll have a nice bath, a night out at the theater, and then they’ll send you home.”

The officers in my detachment were sent on long marches and then, disarmed, put on trucks to Lvov, where we were placed in ravaged barracks for a night.

We arrived in Lvov at dawn and were held for a short time in the marketplace. We were crowded into trucks, not having washed or shaved for days, unarmed. The truck had halted near some fresh fruit stalls. One of us wanted to buy a few apples and asked the price. One of the stallholders was about to sell us the apples when another one of them, a stout, coarse woman, stepped up and, shoving her neighbor aside indignantly, started grabbing all the apples she had in her enormous bronzed arms and, eyes shining with tears, began throwing them up to us in the trucks. It was a brief moment, but before the boyets guarding us could see what was happening, we were showered with apples and cigarettes by the market women and passersby. Among the latter I remember a young Jew with a briefcase who also bought apples and was throwing them to us in such a hurry that he threw his briefcase by mistake along with the apples. Then we were moved near the main post office. It was by now completely dark. We were watched from all sides by boytsy who roughly chased off anybody who tried to slip through to us, but from all sides women kept running up to us without regard for the bayonets and curses, taking from us postcards for our families, giving us cigarettes and even chocolate.

All that I saw of Lvov at that time were those few gestures by people in the street, fraternal impulses, tenderness, goodwill toward a handful of cramped, disgraced (because disarmed) Polish officers in a Bolshevik truck.

Then Tarnopol, festooned with red flags and banners. Those were the days when the majority of the Ukrainian and Jewish populations welcomed the Soviet troops with enthusiasm. We were taken to a school across from a church; the church’s doors were open, it was full. As we were taken into the school I noticed in the crush of people watching us a young couple, a girl and a boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old. Carefully groomed blond hair, humbly but neatly dressed. They stood there quietly, looking at us with grave concern, with such shame and pain that I doubt I will ever forget their childlike eyes.

When we left Tarnopol on a rainy, muddy morning, again a woman in tears drove up to us on a rickety cart and tried to hand us whatever she had with her, a warm blanket, some kind of coat. With the exception of one Ukrainian peasant who glared at us with deep loathing and swore under his breath, I don’t remember a single hostile gesture from the Ukrainian population. Often we were brought milk or bread from poor Ukrainian houses, whose stores had already been depleted by the Soviet troops.

From Tarnopol they started to move us toward Wołoczyska in trucks and later on foot. On the way we were joined by columns of officers, among them General Plisowski, the same man who twenty years before had crossed all of revolutionary Russia with his squadron to reach the Polish Eastern Corps.

By now it was hard to delude oneself. The column of prisoners on foot grew longer and longer, several men fainted on the road; I didn’t see anyone shot at that time, I witnessed only one such threat, which wasn’t carried out. We were walking along a highway across the expansive stubble fields of Małopolska with their little statues of saints already smashed to bits.

So we arrived at the border: the bridge over the Zbrucz, on one side a very high wooden cross among the rolling fields, on the other side, an impoverished little town.

The first Soviet city, Wołoczyska. 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.

In utter mental and physical exhaustion and in the bitter cold, we, approximately two thousand officers, were crammed into barns already packed to the gills with two thousand regular soldiers.

Our first night outside Poland. In that barn, the Polish Army was a crushed mass of men blunted by misery, their minds shattered. It was completely dark, and when they closed all the doors it was so suffocating that those in the far interior of the barn couldn’t stand it; whenever we tried to open a door, the cold became too penetrating for those positioned nearer the exit. Hence the coarse, vicious bickering in the darkness: “Close the door,” “No one’s ever died of a stink,” “Open the door,” “We can’t breathe,” “You animals, you must have been born in a pigsty.”

In the darkness we listened to those insults and squabbles, humiliated to the core, and suddenly someone began to hum:

Under your wing, Our Father in Heaven,

Your flock of children entrusts its fate,

In the hour of need bless and help us

Keep us from evil when peril is great.

And the whole barn started singing the song with one voice. There was a childlike strain in the singing, full of faith and tears, such an imploring tone in the last line, “For you are our shield, God our Father,” and such an instinctive unity among us, that you sensed on an almost physical level the sudden transformation taking place inside each of the men in that stifling barn, all from an old Polish hymn. How many times I later heard it sung in Russia, in the camps, in the army, in Iran or Iraq! It always brought to mind, as if from yesterday, that memory from another world, the memory of that song in the Wołoczyska barn.

We were kept there scarcely a few days, during which we spent long hours, frozen to the bone, waiting for half a tin of watery soup, while some barely literate Soviet military staff or officials took down our personal information. Amid the crowd of men I kept meeting one or another who related to me fragments of the tragic epic of 1939. All of a sudden I came upon Lieutenant Ł. in crumpled, torn civilian clothes he’d been given by some Ukrainian teacher, a total stranger, when he was trying to get to the Hungarian border. He had a red beard on his sunburnt face and he looked like a vagabond, only his very white hands revealed that he wasn’t. Even after surrendering to the commander of one of the armies he and a few of his fellow officers and their detachment carried on a twenty-four-hour artillery battle against advancing German forces. He told me of a cadet wounded in the eye who from his position destroyed three German tanks in spite of his injury, and who wept in despair when he had to cease fire for lack of ammunition. Then they had gone on foot toward the Hungarian border, making their way stealthily by night under German fire, helped and fed not only by Poles but often by Ukrainians as well. A few dozen kilometers from the border they were captured by a Bolshevik patrol and brought after many peregrinations to that same Wołoczyska. In him and in his young colleagues there was such a passion to go on fighting, such determination that we must win the war, that this had been only the first act, such indifference to their own exertions that simply encountering them sharpened and fortified your spirits.

With one exception, all of the men in that group were imprisoned in Starobielsk, and they all perished.

After a few days we were herded on. And again the waiting, uncounted hours in an endless tight column, four abreast, under lowering clouds at shivering daybreak, and then in the black-clouded night, waiting to be taken to a station, loaded on trains, and shunted off in an unknown direction.

Then the long days in the train cars. Sudden frosts and early snows arrived. In comparison with other forms of transport we were even traveling in relative comfort, because the trains weren’t being bombed, there were only forty men to a freight car, and in the course of a journey lasting six or seven days we were given three hot meals—in Kiev, Kharkov, and at some transit station. Apart from that, we were given bread and smoked fish.

Among those traveling in my compartment was Lieutenant Ralski, a reserve officer with the Eighth Cavalry Division and a biologist and professor at Poznań University. I had spent the whole of September with him in the Eighth Cavalry Reserve squadron. This man had left his wife and little daughter, and he knew nothing of their fate until March 1940. In March he received the news that the Germans had thrown his wife and child out of their apartment in Poznań, allowing them to take just one small suitcase with them. He had for years written about Polish fauna, laboriously collecting material; his great work, a summa of long years of meticulous scientific study carried out with a team, had been destroyed then and there, along with all of the specimens he had collected.

I hadn’t known him before that September. At first glance he gave a rather childlike impression, not that of a warrior at all. We jokingly called him Bébé Cadum, because his face was just like the baby’s from the famous Cadum soap advertisement. And it was he who showed a rare hardiness and serenity. He enjoyed great authority among the soldiers during the tragic weeks in September, and nothing could disturb his equilibrium.

Even during the journey to Starobielsk, when we were being driven across the snow-covered Ukrainian steppes and, frozen and hungry, didn’t know where they were taking us, Ralski studied the steppes and the tufts of grass sticking up from under the snow with a scientist’s passion. This most excellent of Poles, the tenderest of husbands and fathers, admitted to me then with a certain embarrassment that those grasses filled him with such fascination that they allowed him not only to detach himself from his immediate circumstances but to feel profound joy gazing at the unfamiliar steppes he’d always dreamt of knowing one day.

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 the fighter planes.

In the camp at Starobielsk he started writing a book about meadows and woods and in April 1940, only a day or two before he was deported to an unknown destination, he showed me, beaming, the leaves and blades of grass that were beginning to grow in the camp grounds and told me about their characteristics and properties.

If this man, a person of enchanting warmth and strength of character, was shot in the nape of the neck along with all the others, I’m quite sure that he maintained to the last his quiet serenity of spirit, which hadn’t abandoned him for a moment in the course of the hard winter we spent together.

Our transport reached Starobielsk in the early days of October. Snow was already thick on the ground. Surrounded by police dogs, we were led through impoverished streets covered in slushy snow, past the houses of the town, poor straw-covered clay huts. Some boy jumped out to hand us a watermelon and ran off. The faces of men and women, alert and full of compassion, peered at us from behind their low closed windows. I remember the devastated face of one woman, gray haired, very sad, looking at us through glasses with wise, melancholy eyes. Later I found out that many members of the Russian intelligentsia had been sent from the big cities na poselienie (to resettle) in Starobielsk.

The majority of the arrivals were placed in the buildings of what had been a convent, in the grounds of what was to become the camp, but some who had not been able to squeeze in (I was among them) were taken to some sort of office or prison building downtown.

Several hundred of us were kept there in a walled courtyard, in four tiny hutches and a large carriage house where strange old jalopies were parked and the whole floor was strewn with dirty ripped papers, periodicals, books from some destroyed library. 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 the Starobielsk convent. Apparently nuns from that religious order had been executed there. The papers scattered on the floor were a lifesaver for us, because it froze at night and it was difficult to sleep because it was so cold. My friends in the regiment and I learned to lie down according to a special system, wedged up against each other so one cot could serve for three. We spread papers on top of the cots, which kept us from freezing. But I still couldn’t stand the freezing temperature, and so I crept into one of the crammed hutches, where we were devoured in turn by fleas, where it was so cramped that if you sat hunched up you couldn’t move, but at least it was warm.

There I met an old doctor from Warsaw, Dr. Kempner. I knew him slightly from Café Ziemiańska, more for his irreverent wit than anything else. The doctor came from a well-known assimilated Jewish family and prided himself on the fact that the last meeting of the 1863 uprising leadership had taken place in his grandmother’s house in Warsaw. His father had played an important role in the positivist movement and edited its periodical with Świętochowski.1 He himself, a physician in one of the Warsaw hospitals, always had a whole trail of young writers and artists following him around; if anyone didn’t have a few złotys, he would ask the doctor, who would promptly empty his wallet of his last coins. Now I met him in that hutch at Starobielsk. He had been mobilized with the other doctors. He’d recently run a field hospital at Tarnopol and had been transported from there to Starobielsk. Uncomely, with a monumental nose and a graying, wild black crop of hair, he sat bent over with extremely thin hunched-up legs, looking like an old, sick raven. He bore these hard conditions with great fortitude of spirit. The first five rubles I ever had I got from him; he had brought a dozen or so rubles with him from Tarnopol and distributed them in keeping with his old habit from Ziemiańska.

After about a week I was transferred to the camp proper; this was an area of approximately ten to fifteen hectares. A big Orthodox church stood there with its crosses demolished, now in use as a grain storehouse. While we were prisoners there, we saw hundreds of loads of grain deposited in the church from all across the area, and in the course of the winter the whole store was hauled off, we were told to Germany. There was another smaller Orthodox church, filled to the rafters with layered plank beds and crammed full of prisoners of war. Apart from this there was a row of former convent buildings where at that time thousands more prisoners passing through Starobielsk lived and slept on the bare ground, on plank beds, in the corridors, everywhere.

It was only toward the end of October that five thousand regular soldiers were removed from the camp, leaving almost exclusively officers, a dozen or so officer cadets, and a few dozen civilians. In that snowy autumn with its deep frost, which came early, thousands of ragged and lice-ridden people were herded together in this place. At the beginning it was out of the question for everyone to sleep under a roof. Tents were put up in the same camp in Starobielsk.

During the first weeks there was not even a basic system for toilets or delousing, nor was there sufficient food.

On the other hand, creaky radio loudspeakers were rigged up everywhere, in the courtyard and even in the toilets, and just as all over Russia they brayed and squeaked bits of “canned” propaganda, anti-Polish stuff, but interlaced with snatches of Chopin. (Even over those atrocious radios the fragment of an étude, nocturne, or sonata inspired and moved us.)

The single public bathroom was naturally inadequate for thousands of people. Our clothes were sent to a delousing facility, but there the temperature was too low; the clothes sometimes came back with more lice than when we’d handed them over for disinfection. I remember friends who begged for permission to crawl under the plank beds like dogs, because that was sometimes the only place left to lie down, and otherwise they’d have to spend the night out in the cold.

The entire camp population was pervaded with despair and oppressed by a sense of humiliation. At first everyone felt alone and turned inward in his pain. We hardly even knew anything then, apart from horrifying rumors about the total destruction of Warsaw, where so many of us had families, rumors about hundreds of razed cities and villages. The only thing we were fed day in and day out by radio were countless lies about Poland and mockery of the Polish Army.

Our closest friendships were with those with whom we’d spent the worst weeks of September. Naturally the authorities cared little about this. Sometimes they deliberately split us up, so that we were constantly being moved around. I left all my colleagues of the Eighth Regiment behind in the carriage house for several weeks. In September, Lieutenant Radliński, a tough, intelligent professional officer, had been the only real military expert in the unit among us reserve officers. Then there was Lieutenant Ralski, whom I’ve mentioned, and Lieutenant Buszczyński, who perhaps of all of us suffered most later on under the camp conditions. He fell prey to a well-known camp malady to which some men succumbed like an addiction: he heard and spread the most fantastical optimistic news. When we tried to prove to him the patent unreality of that news, he would often be offended and lose his temper like a child. But that physically powerful man, full of strength and energy, was literally suffocating on our camp plank beds. In the carriage house I also left behind the very young Second Lieutenant Szefer, a lover of Gdynia, where he had been working for the last several years; in the worst days of September he had planned how we would rebuild Gdynia, and never lost his optimism. Later I found none of these men back in the Polish Army.

Separated from that group of men to whom I’d grown close, transferred to the big camp, I lived at first in a large red-brick building in a hall with a few dozen army captains. I had been “spoiled” by the last years before the war, when I had managed to create conditions in which I could work as a painter and had spent most of the day entirely on my own and the rest together with a few of my closest friends.

At the beginning, living in a constant human throng where you weren’t alone for even a moment and where the weakest or most brutal characters were most in evidence, was a trying experience. We were more oppressed by the lack of solitude than by the filth, hunger, and lice. What was most obvious was the dissipation, the moral decay of people who so recently had been proud and self-assured. It was as if, with the lice and tattered clothes, the exchange of smart uniforms for dirty and threadbare ones, or for Soviet donkey jackets, more than a few of them turned to rags themselves.

Those mornings in the captains’ hall, when you woke to the sound of squabbling and mutual name-calling . . . It was provoked by the most trivial things. In those first weeks in Starobielsk I remember thinking every morning without fail of a couplet by Krasiński,2 which I read in a way contrary to that intended by the author:

To hear afar the shrieking of those Satans,

who keep my earth in chains.

Especially in the early period we saw a succession of demoralizing scenes: two higher officers throwing punches, pulling each other’s beards in a fight over who was to be the first to pour himself a bucket of water from an ice-covered well, scrimmages and provocations in the absurdly long line where we waited for hours in the freezing cold or mud in front of the little shop where you could get a few candies, a little tobacco, and sometimes even a bun.

But my first impressions and gloomy conclusions were superficial. It was only after I had regained full consciousness, among several thousand people, that I began to see human faces that were patient and calm. In the crowd that, in the first days, went around in a haze, dulled by its own misery, I began to see faces I knew, people who knew my family and friends, and later on I made more and more new acquaintances, who in time became friends. Only then did I realize that the ones whom misery robbed of their human countenance, who lost their dignity and used all their energy to get their hands on slightly better food or a slightly warmer bed, were a loud and very limited handful of people, easily outnumbered and raised up by those with strong characters.

At that time I met amid the crowd the intent, quiet figure of Major Adam Sołtan. He moved among us always carefully shaven, wearing a belt, with his inseparable nephew, Lieutenant Grocholski, a tall blond fellow who served as his adjutant, and with Captain Kuczyński.

Sołtan was of all of us the one who most readily concerned himself with the fate of his colleagues, forgetting about himself entirely.

He made a point of trying to raise our spirits and bring us together with kindness and humor. Tall, slender, with a narrow face, beautiful dark eyes, and a little black beard, he was an officer in the cavalry; at the same time as he served as a professional army officer, he had graduated from the architecture department in Warsaw, and left a young wife there. In the 1939 campaign he distinguished himself as a fine combat officer. He was one of the first who was put on a transport from Starobielsk to a destination unknown that autumn. We deluded ourselves then that he had been sent to Turkey, as he was the grandson of one of the organizers of the Turkish Army, a Polish emigrant. He had inherited a double-barreled Polish-Turkish surname from his grandfather and even had a noble Turkish title. On the basis of that he applied to the Turkish embassy in Moscow with a request to be reassigned to Turkey. He was taken away immediately after a memorable November 11,3 which I will describe; naturally it was held against him that he had taken part in organizing this holiday, and also the camp’s “Brotherly Aid.” Nevertheless, the main reason was probably the fact that he’d tried to communicate with Turkey.

He disappeared without a trace in November 1939.

Another excruciating memory from those first weeks at Starobielsk is of listening to the radio. We were forever expecting dramatic news. There were fantastical rumors going around that the French had managed to get several armored divisions into Germany, that they’d taken Munich, that the Soviets were blocking the news so as not to annoy their Nazi allies, but the Soviet radio offered only news of minor scuffles on the German-French front.

We took turns listening to the radio; my hour was eleven p.m. The loudspeaker was attached to a telegraph pole next to the Orthodox church, under a feeble electric light whose blinking red glow lit up the black puddles, or falling snow. In that weak red light and in the penetrating cold I listened every day to meaningless news reports from the French front and long disquisitions on the occupied Polish territories, reports full of lies, provocations, tales of Polish gentlemen “in patent leather shoes” who drank the blood of the poor, of the Soviet Army’s conquest of the Polish Borderlands portrayed as such a heroic act that it could be compared only to Suvorov’s campaign, of how the entire population had been starving under the Polish government. And here in Starobielsk, marching down the street to the toilets, or coming from the station, we saw marks of impoverishment in the faces of the local residents and knew that even our meager camp diet was luxurious compared with what the local population had to eat; they tried by the most varied ploys to get out of the camp whatever was edible, above all bread, which was in such short supply in that rich land of grain.

All healthy men regardless of rank had to go out to work (those prisoners who were colonels or of higher rank were kept in a separate building outside the barbed wire of the camp and could not communicate with us). That winter was exceptionally harsh; in Starobielsk the temperature fell as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius. Regardless of the conditions, prisoners had to haul great wooden logs at the station, loading and unloading freight cars. I myself was privileged. Classified by doctors as a lung patient, I was assigned only tasks indoors, washing soup tureens, scrubbing the floors, peeling potatoes, or carrying crates and sacks.

Almost immediately after arrival at Starobielsk we began to organize lecture groups, first openly, and later on when it had been forbidden, on the sly. Among the first to speak was Lieutenant Evert, now in the Polish Army. His lectures, suffused with a passionate optimism, gathered a large audience. As a result he was sent away very quickly and after the Polish-Soviet agreement, released from prison in Moscow. Another one of the first was Major Sołtan, whom I mentioned, a professional officer and professor of military history in Grudziądz, who as General Anders’s chief of staff had traveled across all of Poland from the Mława to the Hungarian border, fighting tirelessly and pushing back the German Army a number of times, and then fighting through Soviet lines. None of us was able to speak of the September campaign with the kind of authority and gravity he possessed. There was no shade of exaggeration or facile optimism in what he said, and precisely for that reason nothing bucked up the prisoners in Starobielsk as much as his lectures, in which he pointed out not only the failures and errors of our campaign, which we hashed over endlessly with profound bitterness in the first weeks after the catastrophe, but also the heroic contribution of the commanders and troops to that uneven struggle of September 1939. I had known him back in 1920 as a lieutenant-colonel in the First Uhlan Regiment, when after the battle at Żółtańce, leading a submachine gun platoon, he was awarded the Virtuti Militari order. Both of his grandfathers had been exiled to Siberia by the Russians and his mother was born on Lake Baikal.

He is one of the people I think of when I search among my acquaintances for a person with the mark of a leader. Atatürk said that to be a leader, you have to have a heart of marble, a capacity for lightning-fast judgment, and the gift of foresight. Sołtan stood out for that kind of lightning judgment even in the smallest matters, an intellectual ability to cut to the chase that crystallizes in active decisions, a readiness to take responsibility upon oneself, combined with a complete lack of regard for oneself and total devotion to a cause not just because it’s called for but because a man is truly wholly consumed by it.

In those hard early weeks he displayed a calm, an equilibrium, and such a modest, undemonstrative fortitude that everyone close to him and even those who hardly knew him derived strength from contact with him. He had nothing, but nothing, of any Führer-like ambition, which unfortunately occurs so often in the people least cut out for it. And perhaps that is why he captivated us and taught us all so much. He used his free time in the camp to talk with us about political and social questions in Poland, in order to work through and think through every problem with a rare determination and goodwill. He had fought against Piłsudski in 1926; at the same time he was an enthusiastic reader of the marshal’s writings, all of which he knew intimately. He was able to think objectively and dispassionately, and he judged severely not just his opponents but precisely the people who were politically close to him. He was continuously furthering his studies and he used everyone and everything to that purpose, expanding his view of the world, conquering his own prejudices or biases due to class or social identity. And already then, immediately after our catastrophe, he taught us to think not in the light of this or that previous position, but in the light of the new reality in Poland that we would have to face in the future, when people who yesterday had been at odds, members of rival parties or groups, would have to work together, all people for whom the good of Poland would truly be the highest goal.

He was deeply religious in a quiet, almost secretive way, not imposing his faith on anyone, but his whole person somehow illuminated by it. He told me a lot about his sister, a nun who for the last dozen years or so had worked in the most remote provinces of China and in the leper colonies of Indochina. He couldn’t imagine a life for himself outside Poland. “My whole life has passed between Brody and Grudziądz,” he’d say cheerfully. He couldn’t stand melodramatic words and never spoke any himself, but I do remember once telling him about someone I knew who had left Poland never to return. Adam Sołtan was outraged: “I can’t understand,” he said. “I would crawl back to Poland from the end of the world if I could.”

He left a wife and three daughters in Poland.

In Griazoviets camp I already received from them an anxious query about his fate; we had not had a sign of life from him from April 1940.

Formally it was forbidden to communicate among barracks, but virtually no one paid any attention to the ban. All winter I spent my evenings in the majors’ hall where Sołtan was; the light was better there, and together we would read from the few books salvaged from the sea of the camp.

It was always Sołtan who read, beginning with Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy (two complete sets had made it to the camp and were of course read to shreds) and ultimately Carrel in Polish translation.4

Sołtan had a childlike love for the Trilogy, he knew it almost by heart. “When I read about Skrzetuski, Kmicic,”5 he confessed to me once in a whisper after one of those sessions of reading aloud, lying motionless on the plank bed, his face pressed up to the thin little pillow, “I dream of some mad act, you know . . . of some military charge, for example, in which I’d be sure to be killed.”

These shared evenings of readings, discussions, were something to which all of us who participated looked forward all day. Major Rudnicki, always energetic, even cheerful in spite of everything, Father Aleksandrowicz, and an array of other men whose names I don’t remember, even though their faces—which I sketched so many times during those evenings—and their warm fellowship were deeply engraved on my heart.

Not one of those men who took part in our Starobielsk evenings was ever seen again, apart from me.

Sołtan perished too, although from the very moment his immediate commander and friend General Anders was set free, he made a special effort on Sołtan’s behalf at the highest levels of the Soviet hierarchy.

Next to Sołtan I should also like to mention Tomasz Chęciński as the type of personality diametrically opposed to Sołtan’s. A lawyer and an officer, he had graduated from the School of Political Science in Warsaw, and worked in Silesia, then in Małopolska, in the oil industry. He was from Żydaczów, a bit of a Lvov batiar,6 explosive, with a measureless vigor, he had dozens of allies and friends from every possible camp and social group. He passionately tried to convert everyone to his faith, and that faith was a federation of all countries from Scandinavia to Greece. He believed at that time that this was the idea that would triumph after the war. He would use any pretext to urge the idea on his friends. He would get so inflamed in discussions that after a stormy conversation in which he had failed to convince a skeptic, and the person had resorted to ugly taunts, Chęciński would return to his cot weeping tears of rage. With him it wasn’t just a cerebral concept but a passion.

A few years before, when he was still a poor student in Warsaw, he had been so affected by a flood in Bulgaria that he went to the Bulgarian embassy and donated five złotys for the flood victims, to the ambassador’s astonishment. He truly cared about the affairs of each country from Scandinavia to Greece as if they were his own. He had dozens of arguments—national, economic—to win people over to his idea. He sparked an interest in these matters in friends who until recently hadn’t even let their minds stray beyond Poland. As he was at the same time the best kind of friend, ready to give away his last crust of bread or his last pinch of sugar without a second thought, and as he was a good chess player and the jolliest of company, there was always a crowd around his plank bed. And I don’t think any of the Starobielsk crowd had his gift for warm companionship.

As regards Poland’s foreign policy, he spoke of it with passion and great sensitivity, as something he had followed for years and in which he wanted to have a voice in the future. He wrote political articles on scraps of paper and believed stubbornly that he would make it to Istanbul before the year 1940 was out, that he would write a book about the federation there, and then go to fight on the front in France.

How well we could use such a fanatic of the Intermarium7 today.

He often complained that we had it too good in Starobielsk. “Nobody beats us, we don’t have to push wheelbarrows, we don’t work in mines, it’s bad, it’s shameful to live like this.” Often Chęciński’s remark would come to mind when I spoke to hundreds of people who made their way to the Polish Army from the mines of Vorkuta or Karaganda, from the snowy expanses around Magadan and Norilsk. Today the only hope that remains to us is that maybe a few or a few dozen of the men from Starobielsk who disappeared managed to survive by some miracle, pushing wheelbarrows in one of those mines.

Very different from Chęciński was Lieutenant Skarczyński, a thickset man with glasses, very controlled, apparently cool and distant toward his colleagues. He and I were virtually neighbors on a plank bed; he was a Lvovian, one of the editors of the most interesting magazine for youth in Poland, Youth Rebellion, later at Politics, a man with vast knowledge and discipline in politics, education, economics. From the first days he started organizing the economists in the camp; without books, undernourished, crammed together, they continued their work, discussions, and economic and political planning.

I see him at the same wall where the nuns had once been shot, among withered apple trees, in rays of spring sunshine. Wearing a brown scarf that his wife had sent him and a brown donkey jacket, he was lecturing, explaining something to his regular interlocutors: the young Szefer from Gdynia and the sympathetic landowner from the Kielce region, Krzyżanowski.*

One personal matter constantly ate away at Skarczyński, though he tried to hide it: the thought of his wife and his sweet little daughter, whose photograph he always carried with him. He too disappeared without a trace.

In Turkestan in 1942 I read a desperate letter from his wife, sent from Semipalatinsk, looking for her husband. Just before she was due to give birth to another child she and her little daughter and Skarczyński’s parents had been deported to a remote part of Russia in the usual atrocious conditions, and at the time of the worst frosts, two weeks after arriving at a “settlement,” she had given birth to the child, who died. Skarczyński’s old father died there also.

Among the numerous men with whom I lived in close quarters, I would like to remember a few more. Above all Zygmunt Mitera. He was the only Pole who had gone to America on a Rockefeller fellowship to do a doctorate in geological engineering. One of his brothers had died as a young man fighting with the Legions for Polish independence. Another of his brothers was an artist, a painter, editor of The Artists’ Voice, probably the most driven and devoted organizer in Polish cultural life, who had died just before the war. Zygmunt Mitera himself was the only geological mining engineer at his level in Poland. An air bombardment completely destroyed the home in Lvov where he kept the manuscript of the great scientific work he had labored on for many years. It had been written in America. He always spoke enthusiastically about his years of study there, and about his American friends and professors. That same autumn of 1939 he was supposed to begin lecturing at the Kraków Mining Academy.

We jokingly called him the Gondolier, because his job in the camp was to spend hours “paddling” with a ladle in the enormous cauldron in which they made soup for the prisoners. In the camp this man had inexhaustible force and humor; he helped us in everything, gave lectures in geology and was also a terrific singer at our gatherings in the evening.

That man of a rare quality of heart and mind perished along with the others at the very moment when after many years of work he counted on at last being able to offer his knowledge to Poland.

Of the medical doctors I would like to mention Dr. Dadej. A well-known pediatrician from Zakopane, he had for years run a large clinic on the Bystra River for impoverished children with tuberculosis, under the aegis of the Jagiellonian University.

A few years before the war a Soviet professor passing through Zakopane visited the hospital, and, writing his name in the hospital’s guest book, added that he “would like to move the whole hospital to Soviet Russia with all its staff.”

In 1931 I brought one of the most distinguished historians of modern France, Daniel Halévy, to Zakopane. We also visited the hospital. After our visit Halévy said to me, “If there were a hospital like this in Soviet Russia we’d all know about it. Why do we know so little about what you have achieved here?”

Dr. Dadej, who was the heart and soul of the clinic, was mobilized and did service as a military doctor in Tarnopol for several weeks in October 1939, when the town was already occupied by Soviet forces. One day he and his colleagues were ordered to gather in one place, under the pretext that it was necessary to take down precise statements of evidence, and when they were all gathered together they were taken to the train station and sent to Starobielsk.

All those men perished too.

I remember an episode Dr. Dadej recounted to me in Starobielsk. After the September catastrophe he was walking down a street in Tarnopol, sunk in gloom; an old Jewish man whom he didn’t know at all came up to him and said, “Doctor, why are you so sad? The country that produced Mickiewicz and Chopin cannot perish.”

He reminded me sometimes of these simple words of comfort from a stranger. Dr. Dadej, a man profoundly shaped by the West, had a terrible time putting up with that Soviet Russian world, the filth, the chaos, the contempt and arrogance shown us by the first Soviet fighter to come along.

Somber, bitter, aged about a decade, with bags under his eyes and new wrinkles from his eyes to his temples, this Polish “bourgeois” sat for hours doing nothing, he who in Poland had come up with a hundred ways not to take money off his patients, and who couldn’t spend an hour away from his intensive work. Now, fed on the preaching of naive propaganda officers and investigated by stupid, manipulative judges, he could hardly bear the living conditions.

His brother-in-law Captain Hoffman was also with us in the camp. He was a professional officer who had graduated from a polytechnic in Belgium, worked several years in Sweden, and had become engaged to a Swedish girl. He returned to Poland as one of the scarce specialists in antiaircraft machine guns. He told me how a few months before the war a factory in Poland that manufactured these guns was visited by a British general, who purchased weaponry there for the British Army.

That general told Hoffman that he had been in Poland in 1920 and would never have dreamed that not quite twenty years later that same devastated country would be able to provide the British Army with such high-quality military equipment.

Of all my campmates Hoffman bore captivity with the least fuss. He claimed that that’s what soldiers were for, to bear their fate without grumbling. He observed the cliques that formed in the barracks, the rivalries and animosities of one hall toward another or even one bed toward another. He said sociological studies should be done there to monitor the processes by which all collective, national, and party sentiment were created.

There were many priests among us. One of them was Father Aleksandrowicz. He had been through the whole September campaign as an army chaplain; he was known as a preacher across the Vilnius area. He lived in the same room as Major Sołtan. He limped around on a wounded leg with a crutch and let his beard grow long. And again in that first and most difficult period we owed much comfort and spiritual aid to that man and his goodness and sweet nature. The memory of the first Mass organized spontaneously on November 11 is associated with Aleksandrowicz. At that service, held in the dirty hallway crammed with prisoners in the red “majors’ building,” Father Aleksandrowicz translated from a Latin breviary the Gospel text about the girl whom Christ raised from the dead, about the pious Jairus who fell to Christ’s feet “and besought him that he would come into his house: for he had one only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she lay a dying.” And when the news came that the little daughter had died, Christ told him not to fear but to have faith. And Christ went to his house, where “all wept, and bewailed her: but he said, Weep not; she is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn. . . . And he put them all out, and took her by the hand, and called, saying, Talitha kumi, which means Maid, arise. . . . And her spirit came again, and she arose straightway. And her parents were astonished.”8

That Gospel, which we all knew, we now heard as if for the first time, and we shed tears of remorse for being of so little faith and having moments of doubt that the girl was “not dead, but sleepeth.”

Father Aleksandrowicz was not forgiven by the authorities for the role he played in our camp in the short period of the first three months. A few days before Christmas Eve he was suddenly deported in the middle of the night along with Superintendent Potocki and the Polish Army rabbi Steinberg. All three of them perished.

We know of them only that after a few weeks in prison in Moscow they were kept in a separate tower in Kozielsk, and then deported in an unknown direction. For those priests there were no people of differing, warring religions. There were only unfortunates who needed to be given the aid of religion.

When Father Aleksandrowicz was taken away at night, I was told he was afraid, he was very pale. The NKVD officers treated him roughly, made him gather his things quickly and leave the room in a hurry. Father Aleksandrowicz lingered, as if he felt he was never to see the colleagues again with whom he had lived these three months and become attached to like brothers.

The commander of the biggest hall in Starobielsk was the quiet lung patient Lieutenant Kwolek, a tall, very thin man with a gentle bespectacled gaze and a dark beard. Kwolek was commander of the building that had formerly been the smaller church, built next to the main large cathedral. That church was filled up to the arches with stacked-up plank beds that stood so close together that when you entered you had the impression people were living on crumbling boxes set on top of each other. I can’t forgive myself for not making a single sketch of that jungle of plank beds.

That’s where the Gondolier lived, Mitera, and just under the ceiling there was always a cheerful group of students from the Warsaw Academy. There, scrambling from bed to bed, I found an unknown fellow holding a fat volume of French poetry in Polish translation.

When November 11 came and we celebrated it in all the halls despite the prohibition, the best celebration was in “Shanghai” (we called that church, stacked to the rafters with beds, Shanghai, or “the Circus”). One of the men declaimed Or-Ot’s “Letter from Siberia,” which made a devastating impression in those circumstances, because it really seemed to have been written for us.9 Mickiewicz was also declaimed there, and even Lechoń’s “Crimson Epic.”10 Kwolek not only organized an academy, but committed a worse crime: he hung a big black cross knocked together from planks in a place where all could see it. That was one step too far. Already ill at the time, the quiet but determined Lieutenant Kwolek was deported right after November 11.

Not until I was in Iraq did I find out that he died in 1941 in one of the mines in the far north, leaving a letter for his wife, which his friends preserved.

I can’t neglect to mention Second Lieutenant Piwowar,11 a leftist poet, who was also with us in Starobielsk. I knew him from Kraków, from the Artists’ Gazette (which he coedited); he was a fanatical follower of Apollinaire and contemporary painting, a student of Peiper and Przyboś. He published his best poetry collection, Co wieczór (Every Night), just before the war.

From that time on I have carried with me a chapbook that I saved from many camp searches. A pink cover with a badly printed black sailor and the inscription RED NAVY MAN—SOYUZKULTTORG TOBACCO PAPER. Inside, a dozen or so thin sheets of cigarette paper on which Piwowar wrote his camp poems in a clear, even hand.

I turn the delicate, transparent little pages with writing that is already beginning to wear away.

In the fields ruddy patches of autumn and blood.

O song, pass by, O song, forget!

Let us dwell on in these days turned to rubble

When the heart ripened

When in these days

So much prodigious love took root . . .

That is the opening of the first poem, “From the Road.”

I turn a few more little pages:

—when the company’s heart was dying

and the enemy threw fire from the clouds

at us, tangled in a serpent’s nest of roads,

what grew was not war, but fatherland.

Our fatherland comes by every road,

from factories, from farming towns,

and death is small here, life is vast,

and over every heaven, freedom . . .

He reads me this poem standing in the wet snow at dawn on the threshold of the smoky, crowded barracks, at a time when we were still very far from being able to transform our experience into art.

How many plans and lively new projects that red-haired boy had in his head. We debated about future art and poetry presses in Poland, about his great monograph on Apollinaire, out of whom he was trying to style a new Polish Conrad. About Apollinaire’s mysterious Polish ancestry, of which none of the scholars or experts in the world knew, about how Apollinaire had found out by accident of his heritage from a relative, Kostrowicki, a landowner in the Borderlands—in fact, right near Starobielsk.

He gave a series of lectures, even found people to declaim poetry; he was trying to get the audience enthused about the least popular, most interesting avant-garde poets. To the last, Piwowar was the same man, self-possessed, always ready for a lively discussion, a poetry enthusiast, a “Red Pole,” his whole mind caught up not in recollections, but in the future.

Very soon after arriving in the camp I developed a lung infection. With a high fever, spitting blood, I made my way to the sick bay. I had been told as if in a fairy tale that there was a bathroom there, that you could have a proper bath. And indeed I was led to a little room with a bathtub. However, the tub leaked and in it stood a bowl with barely lukewarm water. That was it. Nonetheless I was given a clean shirt and when they put me in a little room with five other consumption patients, I felt as if I was virtually in paradise.

We were treated by friends, by Polish doctors and one young Bolshevik doctor, a caring and intelligent woman whom all the patients remember with gratitude.

It sounds odd, but I have to admit that those three or four weeks I spent in the hospital were almost happy.

From the beginning, my high fever gave me a kind of memory euphoria, a constant communion with those I had left behind in Poland. I drew up an account of my life, which seemed to me already over, and with a heart filled with gratitude and tenderness for my loved ones—of whom I didn’t even know then whether they had perished—I lived in a world of cherished memories. Those days were a contradiction of Dante’s oft-quoted words: “Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.12

After relentless, intense nervous tension, after days of rough treatment and life in a dense, lice-ridden crowd of despairing people, I could lie there unmoving, in a clean shirt, in a little room where there were five of us, not a hundred. This also had a great effect on my state of “happiness.”

Then the fever began to fall, my strength came back. I decided to save myself from mental degeneration, and in the evenings when my colleagues were asleep I attempted to write from memory a history of painting from David to our times. My history, which barely led up to the Fontainebleau school or Courbet, was written in tiny pencil script in a notebook that I later lost in a prison car, somewhere between Starobielsk and Griazoviets; but even so it did me a lot of good, because working on it brought many memories back.

Intellectual work without books or notes is a completely different experience from work in normal conditions. What Proust called involuntary memory and considered the one true source of any literary creation acts much more powerfully. After a certain time, facts and details float to the surface that you had no idea were “stored up” somewhere in the folds of your brain. At the same time those memories that seem to grow from your subconscious mind are more fused, organically connected, and more personal.

I lay there on my narrow bed next to a patient whose fever remained constant at 39 degrees Celsius. He had degenerative consumption in an extremely severe form. He was Major Kłopotowski. He had fought in the previous war with the Polish forces in Siberia. He knew all of Siberia and had returned to Poland via Japan and India. He had been awarded the Virtuti Militari in 1920.

I have known few people who told me the story of their lives so interestingly and simply. I had the impression that this worn-out man, already so close to death, had an uninhibited need to tell me everything he had lived through and experienced. The charm of his tale came from the fact that he never added false twists, never made himself out to be a hero, but each detail of that story showed the sensitivity, the scope, the vivid intelligence of the man. Each of his tales had an authentic pointe. He had the ability to sketch portraits of people in a few words, and truly knew and saw a great deal.

Being myself ill at that time, physically exhausted, and having an intense need for solitude rather than conversation, I was unable to listen to his stories all day. I slept a lot, and sometimes I pretended to be asleep for hours just so I wouldn’t have to talk, or listen.

The major lay in wait for me to wake up; he was upset with me for sleeping so much, and he would immediately begin to tell me more and more episodes from his life. He had left a wife and little son behind in Poland. “I tell you, my son has eyes like precious stones.” And when he spoke of his son you couldn’t hold him back anymore. His health was worse and worse, he had no news of his family, he grew more and more sad, and his haggard, fever-consumed face, triangular, a little birdlike, with beautiful black eyes, wasted away more every day.

Suddenly in March he received the news that his wife and son were alive, staying somewhere in the countryside, believing he would return. Something happened to the man that the doctors didn’t really understand—he began to return to health all of a sudden. His fever went down. With iron determination he decided to get well. In April, when the sun began to shine through, he was even allowed to go out and take a few steps in the sun among the crowds of fellow prisoners. He was full of optimism, had a smile and a joke for everyone. Bolshevik doctors told me that in the near future he would be sent home as an invalid. With Chęciński, who had found him too, he made plans, for after all he would be able to work for Poland in the future; he thought he would recover his health sufficiently.

In April 1940 he was on the list of one group of prisoners leaving the camp. Early in the morning he packed a few of his poor belongings. He looked almost healthy. But when he was taken from the hospital for roll call in the cold, empty cathedral, from which all the grain had been removed, and a few stacks of wooden plank beds had been built to accommodate the new “guests,” when he was ordered to wait two hours at the gates, we all saw how sick he really was.

I remember him at the moment when he left the camp. His face was yellow and emaciated, as if it had contracted, shrunk. When he was standing there at the gates with his little bundle of things, we had the sense he could barely walk a few paces, but we knew in what conditions he had to continue on: crammed in a prison car, with a few dozen men in a stuffy compartment behind bars, fed on herring and water.

I don’t imagine that that man, who believed leaving Starobielsk that he was being sent home as a severe invalid, can have survived even a few days in a prison car. Perhaps this saved him from a worse death.

Many years of work as a painter in the last years before the war had developed in me a vital and essentially a constant relationship with nature. Regardless of whether it was picturesque, I simply responded to light, to trees, clouds, and walls. But for several weeks from September onwards, I had had a feeling that I was completely out of touch with nature, cut off from nature. The most beautiful sunset, the strangest view—it was all completely alien. That is why the memory of the first landscape I truly felt deeply again has remained so sharp for me. It was already the end of November, and at sunrise a sky like Bengal light burst all of a sudden from behind the red walls of our building, a sky full of pink, glimmering, almost electric clouds, shot through with swathes of sharp azure blue. Against that background the high new fence constructed of hefty piked poles shone with a reddish-golden light, the wooden guardhouse, not lit up by the sun’s rays, was the color of sapphire, and beyond the fence in the distance you could see great big trees with bright blue branches, brighter than the sky, covered, threaded with thousands of black crows and ravens.

Later, from week to week, slowly, my sense of shapes and colors came back. It was a sign of gradual return to life, even to the joy of life, in spite of everything.

We were ordered to build a number of new barracks. They were ready by Christmas. Those new barracks (with the old buildings there were twenty-odd) were colder, but at least clean, not infested with bedbugs. The passages between plank beds were given street names; when I moved to one of those barracks I lived on the corner of Lvov Street and Norwid Street.

If November 11 was the first collective expression of patriotic and moral feeling, which helped us to take in hand and slowly organize the community packed into the small space of six hectares, all the more blessed was the role played throughout the camp by the Christmas celebrations. It is no exaggeration to say that that Christmas was the beginning of the new, more profound chapter of our life in Starobielsk. Another thing also had an influence: the first letters received from our loved ones, which came just after December 20; even for those who didn’t get anything, they meant a loosening of the ring of solitude around us, which had made us feel that we had already died and were buried forever in an alien and hostile world.

I don’t know where or how they got them, because I had then just gotten out of the hospital ward, but fellow prisoners had provided little spruce trees: each stack of plank beds and each hall celebrated Christmas Eve. There was even a wafer with on it a scene: the Holy Family, composed and printed on the wafers with a mold made in secret by the dearly beloved fine Polish artist and editor Manteuffel,13 who was also with us in Starobielsk.

Just a day before Christmas Eve I was living in one of the buildings called the cadaver house. It housed mainly older gentlemen, doctors, ill and often embittered people. After quite a vicious quarrel in which one fellow deliberately poured a cauldron of soup over another, soaking my coat in the process, I decided to move out of the cadaver house and I went over to Chęciński’s barracks. A narrow table in a narrow passageway between the beds, a little Christmas tree on a real tablecloth and a bread bun for each participant, three little candies and a warm, cozy mood. Each man thinking of his family and friends. We break the wafer, one of us even has a wafer from Poland. Then the whole barracks breaks out into carols, the guards and officers don’t even interfere, they just fade from view that one night. At our table, unknown to almost everyone, I am at once embraced like a brother.

Against exuberant choruses of carols that cross, meet, and flow from all the barracks and beds, Lieutenant Lesiak recites Mickiewicz—“Ordon’s Redoubt” and “Jankiel’s Concert” from Pan Tadeusz. Then suddenly the good, warmhearted lieutenant Radoński, a gymnasium teacher from Warsaw, gets up, and in a muted voice, almost a whisper, recites Wyspiański’s lines:

O God, I have done penance and spent many years in exile

Now I am in my own house and mark the earth with a cross.

I make the mark, O Lord, not to take the cross upon myself

But that you, Lord, deliver me from the agony of the cross.

and then:

O Lord, You do not know us Poles . . .

I will never forget the silence that fell after this, and the tears of the men around me.

I remember that poem from Wyzwolenie (Liberation)14 declaimed in the Teatr Polski in 1920 by the actor Osterwa, then still young; he spoke the words and real tears rolled down his cheeks.15 But in the camp in Starobielsk that poem, recited not by a great actor, was even more piercing and intimate.

When I think of our pliability and our ability as Poles to turn both toward evil and toward good, I remember that Christmas Eve alongside the song sung at night in the barn at Wołoczyska.

Soviet radio remained silent on anything that could testify that Poland had not surrendered to force. Poland had ceased to exist once and for all, that is what every Soviet citizen must have thought at the time, but right after Christmas reports started coming in (from where?) that there was a Polish government, that a Polish army was forming in France, and one of the chief commander’s speeches even reached us over the radio; the letters and cards from family that started coming in after the holidays also contained words of comfort, couched in the strangest and often naive figurative language, and promises of happy news, which gave us tremendous moral aid and a constantly renewed charge of hope, in most cases prematurely.

In spite of categorical bans, group prayers took place and there were many lectures on a variety of subjects.

The evenings were spent in a majority of barracks mostly in the half-dark, lit fitfully by scarce and dim electric lamps that were forever on the blink. It was very hard to read in the evenings outside the majors’ building, because of the light almost impossible. There were hardly any books besides the extremely meager Soviet library and the books we had carried with us in our backpacks and which were literally torn to shreds.

I remember reading Balzac’s A Woman of Thirty in Boy’s translation.16 The book had fallen apart into loose pages, it was lent to us for a very short time, and five of us read it at once, each of us egging the other on, to get the next page more quickly. Of the whole book, from which quite a few pages were missing anyway, I am left with nothing but a memory of a harried rush.

We were all subjected to repeated and most often nocturnal interrogations, which differed enormously in intensity and form. Blackmail attempts, even attempts at bribery, were the order of the day. The style of interrogation was extraordinarily varied, from polite inquiries into views within the army on the current military situation, conducted by higher officers of the NKVD who came in from Moscow, to interrogations that lasted three days nonstop, almost without rest, to the point of commiseration: “Ach, your poor young wife will never see you again, if you don’t tell us . . . if you don’t commit to . . .” As far as I know there were no beatings or tortures as there were in the prisons in Lvov, Kiev, Moscow, and so many other places.

I personally was not put through any special physical or even mental torment. The hours of interrogation, mainly conducted late in the evening, which I experienced, also had humorous aspects. (But they are humorous to me now, not then, when I knew very well that my whole fate would hang on one careless word I spoke or one impulse or mood on the part of my interrogator.) I was questioned by three men: a fat, perfumed NKVD officer, Jewish, and two extraordinarily primitive Russian NKVD men. They learned from me that I had spent eight years working as a painter in Paris. They found this suspicious.

“What indications did you give to the foreign minister when you left for Paris?” the interrogator asked me.

I replied that the minister didn’t even know I was leaving.

“So what indications did you give the deputy minister?”

“But he didn’t know about my departure either,” I said. I went to Paris as a painter, not a spy.

“Don’t you think we understand that precisely as a painter you were in a position to draw a map of Paris to send to the minister 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 but espionage.

I did not have the honor of being interrogated by seasoned experts.

In all the camps where we were imprisoned, dogs would join us and despite the rules against it, each barracks had at least one pet dog. Those dogs seemed to have entered into a conspiracy because, untutored by anyone, they all felt a strange antipathy for our NKVD guards and would bark madly whenever one of them came close to a barracks, always warning us in time.

In Starobielsk we had a shaggy black dog among our large band of brothers. One of the NKVD men kicked him so hard once that he broke the dog’s leg. The excellent Warsaw surgeon Levittoux took him into his care, made a splint, and the leg healed successfully. The Bolsheviks drew his attention to the fact that there was a war on and it was no time to concern himself with such nonsense, but Levittoux didn’t let them deter him and he even tried to explain to them that a dog, too, deserved good care.

Later, in the camp in Griazoviets, we had a big brown dog, a gentle friend to all of us. Once he was sleeping under a bed when Camp Commander Volkov came in. (His face bore a striking resemblance to that of the Grand Duke Konstantin, satrap of Poland during the reign of Alexander I.) The awoken dog jumped out from under the bed barking furiously, terrifying our “Grand Duke.” That same day the dog was taken away from us. A whole posse of NKVD men had to search for him because we were all trying to hide him. When they found him they took him off to the commander’s house on a long leash.

Three days later friends saw the remains of our dog lying in a pool of blood in the snow, tied to a pole near the barbed wire. He had literally been massacred with bludgeon blows (they apparently wouldn’t waste a bullet on a dog). I don’t remember anything in the camp that brought us to such a state of outrage, even though each of us had by then seen and been through a lot.

From February 1940 rumors began circulating that we were to be sent away from that camp. Cards that reached me from Poland had brought me the news that a number of Polish Red Cross ladies, among them Dr. Kołodziejski’s wife and my two sisters, were spending weeks in turn at border stations between the German and Soviet occupied zones with thousands of packages, waiting in the severest freezing temperatures for our promised return or transfer to German camps. Apart from this, the authorities of our camp spread rumors that the Soviets were handing us over to the Allies, that we’d be sent to France so we could join the fight there. We were even given an official Soviet document with the route of our journey through Bendery in Bessarabia. Once we were woken in the night and asked which of us knew Romanian or Greek.

All of this created such a mood of hope that when they began to put groups of a dozen or more of us on transports in April, many of us believed blithely that we were going to be freed. It was impossible to figure out the criteria used for the selection of men to be sent out of the camp. Age group, rank, profession, social background, political convictions were all mixed together. Every new party sent off gave the lie to one or another of our speculations. In one thing we were all agreed: each of us waited feverishly for the hour when a new list of departing men was announced—maybe our name would finally be on it. We called it Parrot Hour, because the arbitrariness of the list reminded us of the cards pulled out by a parrot in shows by itinerant organ-grinders in Poland.

The camp commander, Second Lieutenant Berezhkov, and Commissar Kirshin gave their word to the camp elders that the camp was being liquidated, that we were being sent to transit centers from which we would be sent home, whether it was in the German occupation zone or the Soviet. Standing on the great cathedral steps, the commander said goodbye to the parties of departing prisoners with a smile full of promises.

“You’re going where I would love to go,” he said to one of us.

From “Lvov Street” (two rows of plank beds across the whole long barracks, divided by a narrow passage), where I lived until Christmas, someone left every few days. There were forty of us, we had become close, but our farewells were joyful, each of us lived on the hope of a better future full of surprises.

Apart from me and one humble civil servant from Lvov who was already old and ill, they were all young men in our group. The Lvovian had left his family behind, he’d had no news of his son—a cadet—and he lived in the hope of returning home. He was very quiet and gave the impression his mind was slightly gone. We called him Grandpa. His bunk neighbors surrounded him with tender care.

Every night Grandpa would pack his modest belongings, an odd collection of rags, strings, little lumps of sugar saved up over weeks, and at dawn he’d already be sitting in his coat and hat prepared to go, waiting for Parrot Hour. He could be sure that way—what if he came too late? He believed he would be sent to his native city; after all, he was no threat to anybody anymore and he wished to die at home, in Lvov.

The old man was finally taken away and sent off . . . but not to Lvov.

One of those September days it was the turn of Lieutenant Radoński, the one who recited Wyspiański to us on Christmas Eve, and recounted the novellas of Żeromski and Prus, which he knew virtually by heart.

He was one of the three “radio reporters” of Lvov Street. (I was another.) Radoński adored the Polish language, and he always berated us when we committed some Russianism while translating a Russian communiqué, and we were overjoyed whenever we caught him in even the most trivial error in Polish; however, that happened only very rarely.

When he left the camp he summoned us all together and began to plead with us, entreating us to mind our language, not to tarnish it, not to neglect it. He spoke with horror of the Russianisms creeping into our spoken language, the “lagry,” “ocheredi,” “pajki,”17 and also the sloppy ease with which we expressed ourselves.

“The word ‘hell,’ for example,” he said, “that word stands in for everything with you fellows. Angry as hell, sad as hell, happy as hell—it just shows thoughtlessness and laziness; talking like that you fritter away the greatest treasure we possess.”

That was what his farewell to us was like, those were his last words before departing forever—the injunction to respect and love the Polish tongue.

Before leaving the camp, Tomek Chęciński changed his uniform for a shabby civil coat and put some odd black cap on askew. He departed radiant—on the last day he confessed softly, “I’ve put my affairs in order.” He said it joyfully and left in the belief that in that outfit he would manage to jump from the prison car, make his way to Istanbul, then to France, maybe he would do great things, maybe he would die, but he wouldn’t vegetate behind barbed wire.

There was a constant delay with my transport. Of the 3,920 men of Starobielsk only a few dozen remained behind in the camp, and the intervals between transports grew longer and longer.

I wandered around the empty barracks, sat in the sun in the empty yard that had been trampled by thousands of feet, where sudden gusts of wind lifted clouds of dust, and how I envied my “happy” colleagues who had left the barbed wire far behind to go out into the wide world.

Not until May 12 did I leave Starobielsk, with a group of six-teen men.

Already at the train station there were surprises: Our party was crammed into prison cars, about a dozen in a narrow compartment, virtually without windows, with heavily barred doors. We discovered graffiti on the walls: “They unloaded us near Smolensk.” The way they managed the compartment was brutal. Basically we were let out twice a day to go to the bathroom. We were fed on nothing but little herring and water. It was scorching hot, people fainted, and the officers accompanying the convoy showed the absolute indifference of men inured to the profession. Stopping at Kharkov, where two of us were taken off, we continued via Tula to somewhere near Smolensk, where we were taken off the train at a little station called Babynino and loaded onto a big truck, prodded and struck with machine gun butts. That truck took us through a miserable area, through villages more impoverished and devastated than any we had ever seen in Poland.

We all expected the worst. Sad emaciated old peasants with long beards, as if from the times of Boris Godunov, looked at us silently as with unseeing eyes; little children coming out of school shouted insults at us, calling us “Polish toffs” and “bloodsuckers.”

We were brought to another camp in a heavily wooded area. Our dreams of France, of Poland, were shattered. Pavlishchev Bor—that was the name of that camp nestled in the heart of a beautiful forest. There we found two hundred colleagues from Kozielsk, a hundred and twenty from Ostashkov, and sixty-three from Starobielsk. The latter had been sent from Starobielsk on April 25, 1940, separately from the usual group. It was impressed on them repeatedly that they were to stay separate, as they were being taken on special conditions.

That group of sixty-three, the sixteen I had traveled with, and about ten men transported individually in wintertime, these were the only men of those four thousand who spent the winter in the camp at Starobielsk who did not perish. In Pavlishchev Bor there were about four hundred of us. After a few weeks we were all transported to Griazoviets near Vologda, where we were kept until August 1941. The conditions we lived in there were better than those in Starobielsk. We lived in an old convent building and in a few little wooden houses for pilgrims. The ancient Orthodox church, on the other hand, had been blown up with dynamite.

At first we were convinced that our other colleagues had met the same fate that we now had, that they had been sent off to similar little camps, scattered across all of Russia. However, very soon we started to wonder about what had happened to them, because almost every postcard from home contained more and more anxious questions about what news we had of our fellow prisoners from Starobielsk, Kozielsk, and Ostashkov since we last saw them.

On the basis of those cards from Poland we realized by 1940 that we were the only prisoners of war from the three camps who had sent news home to Poland after April 1940.

When after the Polish-Soviet accord of July 1941 and the so-called amnesty of August we heard the announcement about the creation of the Polish Army in the USSR, when we all reported for duty with the army, we already suspected that we had suffered a privileged fate compared with that of the rest of our prison fellows. At that time we already started to write down names from memory and made the first list of men from Starobielsk, Kozielsk, and Ostashkov who were lost.

This list grew to more than ten thousand names; it is kept on record by the Polish Army.

It should be noted that:

(1) The rumors and reports that our friends from the camps in Starobielsk I, Kozielsk I, and Ostashkov were in camps in remote parts of Russia were always thirdhand, generalized, uncertain, and impossible to verify.

(2) From April 1940 onward—which is to say from the moment the camps were cleared—not a single direct sign of life from a single one of our lost friends reached Poland or their families, nor did any sign reach us later in the army.

(3) In the year the Polish Army in the USSR was in formation (1941–1942), when Poles, young and old, were joining us from the farthest realms of Soviet Russia, from Komi, from Novaya Zemlya, from Vorkuta, Norilsk, Kolyma, from the Chinese border, not one of our Starobielsk campmates returned to us.

*In the spring of 1941 his sister wrote to me when I was in Griazoviets: “Have you not heard any news about Włodzimierz Krzyżanowski from Cudzynowice, his eighty-year-old mother spends whole days praying, she hasn’t heard anything for a whole year.” [J. C.]

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!