Those Wo Trespass Against Us: One Woman's War Against the Nazis
By Karolina Lanckorońska. Translated by Noel Clark. Preface by Norman Davies, Introduction by Lech Kalinowski and Elžbieta Orman. London: Pimlico (Division of Random House), 2005. xxix + 339 pages. Photographs, index. ISBN 1-8141-3417-2. Hardcover: £14.99 in U.K. Paper: $19.49 on Amazon.com.
As Norman Davies points out in his preface, this memoir offers an unusual perspective on the Nazi war in East Central Europe. First published in Polish in 2001, Karolina Lanckorońska (1898-2002) actually wrote the text in 1945-1946, much closer to the events in question. Lanckorońska’s social position and political commitments repeatedly placed her in situations that were as useful for observing Nazi rule as they were dangerous. Before the Second World War she was a professor of art history at the Jan Kazimierz University in Lwów/Lviv, the first woman to hold such a post in Poland. She also perceived the war through the eyes of a traditional aristocratic woman, noting that it permitted her to take up again her “great, long-standing interest in nursing, which in my youth had once almost blossomed into a professional pursuit” (247). A countess, she had strong family and historical ties to her home region of eastern Poland (now Ukraine). After Poland’s defeat in 1939 she joined the underground resistance, becoming a member of the Union for Armed Struggle (Zwiàzek Walki Zbrojnej, ZWZ). In May 1940, fearing deportation or execution at the hands of the Soviets, she fled Lwów, which lay in Soviet-occupied Poland, for German-occupied Poland. Then in 1941, all of Poland was occupied by Germany. In the summer of 1941, Lanckorońska began “above-ground” work for the Main Council for Relief (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza, RGO). In this capacity she was responsible for supplying food and medical aid for political prisoners and criminals alike in German-occupied Poland. In the last weeks of 1941 as she traveled for that job to Volhynia Province, east of the General Government, she had her first glimpse of the genocide of the Jews. In May 1942 she herself became a prisoner of the Germans, first in Stanisławów, then from January 1943 in Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp north of Berlin. Lanckoroƒska’s ties through her art history work to influential persons in Italy, and intervention by the Italian royal family and her friend the historian Carl Burckhardt, head of the International Red Cross, shaped her story in an unusual way, sustaining and finally saving her in April 1945.
Lanckorońska had a wider aim as well: to set down a memorial to the courage of Poles in resisting invasion and maintaining their integrity under occupation, in prisons and in concentration camps. In her clear and sometimes truly poetic prose, she gently analyzes human frailty as well as endurance. This gift for sketching out how ruthless power imposed from above affects relationships among those it subordinates makes her descriptions of occupation and especially of Ravensbrück well worth reading. She herself served as room-leader for a group of prisoners in Ravensbrück, and claims that, as with other positions she held, she sought to use her privileges to benefit the more helpless. The book’s title refers to that part of the Lord’s Prayer that offers forgiveness to “those who trespass against us”; as a serious Christian, she is unsettled by her inability to forgive the Nazis for what she has seen (166).
Lanckorońska offers the American reader an unusual perspective in that, as a Pole, she faced two aggressors in 1939. She encountered the Soviet aggressor first, as eastern Poland was annexed by the Soviet Union. Her descriptions of the Soviet occupation, with its cruel deportations to the Soviet interior, are shocking and powerful. Her account of the Soviets’ privileging of Ukrainians over the formerly dominant Poles is informative, once again displaying her talent at showing the effect of domination on those under it. At that time she and her colleagues believed that a German occupation could not possibly be as bad as the Soviet one. Although they hoped for Germany’s ultimate defeat, they wished that Germany would first crush the Soviet Union (66), and they rejoiced when Operation Barbarossa reunited Poland under German rule (75-76).
At the end of the war, her Polish standpoint highlights another painful development: her sense of betrayal by the Western Allies. Lanckorońska experienced the end of the war in Italy, where she painfully realized that Allied victory meant her exile.
Lanckorońska’s memoir is of interest as a document of nationalism as well. In the introduction by Lech Kalinowski and Elžbieta Orman, she is quoted as answering the question “Polishness-what does it mean?” as follows: “Polishness is for me the awareness of belonging to the Polish nation. I consider we should do everything possible to provide concrete proof of this awareness, though I do not understand the need to analyse it” (xxii). This is a perfect expression of nationalism from the inside-a force that is powerful yet inexplicable to its advocates. The alchemy of a nationalism that Lanckorońska does not want to analyze can make complicated things simple: Poles who are Communists or Nazi collaborators are not genuinely Poles; Ukrainians are deeply unattractive people, but for an exception who proves the rule (157); and Jews are relatively distant figures to be pitied (99). It adds to the interest of this text that she is describing a critical moment in the forging of Polish national identity. As she herself says, indirectly drawing attention to the crippling political divisions among interwar Poles, “The persecution of all Poles aroused in our society something that nobody who experienced that occupation will ever forget-the consciousness of complete unity among the Polish people. . . there was a period of the most intense happiness, when nobody bothered about anybody else’s class origins or party affiliation” (90). In her RGO days, she fostered a vision of overcoming social divisions by offering food to Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians together, and ultimately succeeded in that provision of aid (99). Yet it is also clear that her vision of Poland is deeply Christian (e.g., 90), and does not leave much space for Ukrainians. The memoir is a rich source for examining the nature of nationalist claims.
After her release in April 1945, Lanckorońska joined the Polish Forces still fighting in Italy. She resided in Rome after the war, where she created the Polish Historical Institute to support Polish culture outside of the auspices of state socialist Poland. Her memoir is a powerful document of an unusual and courageous woman.
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