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A classic work of reportage about the Katyń Massacre during World War II by a soldier who narrowly escaped the atrocity himself.
In 1941, when Germany turned against the USSR, tens of thousands of Poles—men, women, and children who were starving, sickly, and impoverished—were released from Soviet prison camps and allowed to join the Polish army being formed in the south of Russia. One of the survivors who made the difficult winter journey was the painter and reserve officer Józef Czapski.
General Anders, the army’s commander in chief, assigned Czapski the task of receiving the Poles arriving for military training; gathering accounts of what their fates had been; organizing education, culture, and news for the soldiers; and, most important, investigating the disappearance of thousands of missing Polish officers. Blocked at every level by the Soviet authorities, Czapski was unaware that in April 1940 the officers had been shot dead in the Katyn forest, a crime for which Soviet Russia never accepted responsibility.
Czapski’s account of the years following his release from the camp, the formation of the Polish army, and its arduous trek through Central Asia and the Middle East to fight on the Italian front is rich in anecdotes about the suffering of the Poles in the USSR, quotations from the Polish poetry that sustained him and his companions, encounters with literary gures (including Anna Akhmatova), and philosophical thoughts about the relationships between nationalities.
About the Author
Józef Czapski (1896–1993), a painter and writer, and an eyewitness to the turbulent history of the twentieth century, was born into an aristocratic family in Prague and grew up in Poland under czarist domination. After receiving his baccalaureate in Saint Petersburg, he went on to study law at Imperial University and was present 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, and it was only in 1931 that 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 twenty-two thousand 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 (forthcoming from NYRB) and Inhuman Land (available from NYRB), 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. His essays appeared in Kultura, the leading intellectual journal of the Polish emigration that he helped establish; his painting underwent a great final flowering in the 1980s. Czapski died, nearly blind, at ninety-six.
Timothy Snyder is the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale and Committee on Conscience member at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He is the author of several books including Bloodlines, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award, the Hannah Arendt Prize, and the Leipzig Book Prize. His most recent books are On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom.
Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a translator of Polish literature, and twice winner of the Found in Translation award. Her translations include work by several of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists and reportage authors, crime fiction, poetry, and children’s books. She is a mentor for the Emerging Translators’ Mentorship Programme, and former co-chair of the UK Translators Association. She lives in London