Jozef Czapski: Inhuman Land

May 7, 2021

     Reading this book was part of my ongoing research into what my father and his comrades went through during their imprisonment in the Soviet Union in the early years of the Second World War. Almost all of them are long dead, but many accounts survive in memoirs like this one, and are very interesting to read, when you finally come across them. Czapski lectured on Proust to his comrades in the Soviet concentration camp where they spent two years; you have to admire this. And the book has an excellent contextual introduction from Timothy Snyder, who, along with Norman Davies, has currently the greatest knowledge of time and place. Antonia Lloyd-Jones, who is also Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, has produced this recent version of Czapski’s memoirs. It reads well: she’s done an excellent piece of work.

So: the nation erased from the map, the Nazis experimenting freely in the western part and the Soviets eliminating all trace of Poland in the east, deporting people in the tens of thousands as well as murdering thousands of officers and intellectuals. Then all change in June 1941 when Hitler attacks the Soviet Union and suddenly from reviled class enemies the Poles are allies, released from captivity and all striving to make their way to the middle of nowhere, where the Polish Army is reforming, and is eventually, grudgingly and with much hindrance and impediment, allowed to leave for Persia.

Czapski’s account only covers the first year of this gathering of the diaspora. There is a real sense of the atmosphere of liberation as men travel en masse to join up, tinged with the tragedy of countless deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation, topics which my father only ever alluded to very briefly. Yet in this account figure all those details he mentioned, and the places, too. And there is the attempt to piece together where all the Poles are who have been dispersed thousands of miles in every direction; in particular, just where are all those missing officers? Czapski had been one of them and had strangely, along with a few others, escaped their fate…

Czapski provides a general account which is enhanced by his artist’s eye for detail and sympathy for others. There are several interesting digressions on art, poetry and literature. He is a thoughtful writer, and not afraid to be critical of his fellow-countrymen and officers at times; he’s aware of the shortcomings of his nation and people, as well as very aware of what they face.

There is also a sense of futility and impending despair, as he’s constantly fobbed off by the Soviets in his searches; they obviously know something has happened to the missing officers. He catalogues the craziness and the misery of the countless deportations of so many peoples and nationalities for so many different reasons, and if we didn’t already feel this, we can see why his book has the title it does.

Czapski eventually comes to run the Army propaganda department as well as taking responsibility for getting education up and running for the younger refugees; he’s well aware of the need to build cohesion among Poles from such disparate origins and backgrounds. As I’ve been discovering recently, he catalogues the willing help and support for the Polish diaspora from many countries; as I know from my father’s story, disease – typhus and dysentery in particular – and starvation exacted a dreadful toll on those who survived the ‘Soviet paradise’.

There is a quite lengthy concluding section appended to this translation, written after the war, in which Czapski expresses the bitterness of his countrymen at how the Allies reneged on the promises they made to Poland. His final analysis is very thoughtful and challenging, particularly when it comes to reflecting on the relationship between Poles and Germans. I have read a good deal over the years about these times and these events, and Czapski’s account is one of the best, from the perspective both of detail and of balance.

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