Memories of Starobielsk

Memories of Starobielsk: Essays Between Art and History Book Cover

Memories of Starobielsk: Essays Between Art and History

Jozef Czapski


2022
ISBN 1681374862
New York, NY: New York Review of Books


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In the spring of 1940 the Soviet NKVD (Secret Police) murdered thousands of Polish officers who were prisoners-of-war. The prisoners were held in three camps at Starobielsk (Ukraine), Kozelsk (Russia) and Ostashkov (Russia). The NKVD gradually removed the Polish officers from the camps. They were taken by train to places of execution, shot and then buried in mass graves.

Jozef Czapski was a prisoner in the Starobielsk camp. At the beginning of April 1940 there were 3,920 Polish officers, several dozen civilians and around 30 officer cadets at Starobielsk. Only 79 of them survived the killing. Jozef Czapski was one of them. In Memories of Starobielsk Jozef Czapski writes about his time in Starobielsk and remembers the friends and comrades that were lost.

Jozef Czapski
  • Born 1896 in Prague
  • Painter and writer
  • Educated in St Petersburg, Russia
  • Fought in Polish=Soviet war (1919-20) - awarded Virtuti Militari (Polish military decoration)
  • In 1920s studied painting in Karkow and Paris
  • Polish Army Officer in WW2
  • Prisoner-of-war in Soviet Union from 1939-1941
  • One of the few survivors of the Soviet NKVD Katyn massacre
  • After WW2 he lived in Paris
  • Died aged 96 in France in 1993

Memories of Starobielsk

Jozef Czapski was captured by the Soviet army on 27 September, 1939, in Chimelek, Lvov. He and other Polish officers then endured long marches and a long train journey before reaching the prisoner-of-war camp at Starobielsk in early October.

...long days in the train...forty men to a freight car...[in] a journey lasting six or seven days we were given three hot meals...Apart from that, we were given bread and smoked fish. (p. 11)

The train crossed the snow-covered Ukrainian steppes and on arrival at Starobielsk the snow was thick on the ground. The camp at Starobielsk was a former convent.

A big Orthodox church stood there with its crosses demolished, now in use as a grain storehouse...There was another smaller Orthodox church, filled to the rafters with layered plank beds and crammed full of prisoners of war...thousands of ragged and lice-ridden people were herded together in this place. (p.14)

The winter in Starobielsk was harsh with temperatures getting as low as -35 Celsius. Jozef Czapski was fortune in that doctors had classified him as a lung patient and as a result he was assigned work indoors.

Jozef Czapski remembers many of the Polish officers among whom were:

  • Major Adam Soltan - Intent, quiet, an officer in the cavalry, a Professor of Military history, General Anders Chief of Staff, mark of a leader, deeply religious, both of his grandparents had been exiled to Siberia by the Russians, he had a childlike love for Sienkiewicz's Trilogy. Removed from the camp in November 1939 and never seen again.
  • Father Antoni Aleksandrowicz - Army chaplain, sweet nature, provided much comfort and spirtual aid, the memory of first Mass organised spontaneously on 11 November 1939 is associated with him, NKVD did not forgive him for that and was removed from the camp on Christmas Eve. Perished.
  • Lieutenant Edward Ralski - Reserve officer Eighth Cavalry Division, biologist, professor at Poznan University, a rare hardiness and serenity, tenderest of husbands and fathers. Germans evicted his wife and daughter from their Poznan apartment and destroyed all his scientific work. Perished.

The prisoners in Starobielsk received their first letters from home just after 20 December 1939. In February 1940 rumours began to circulate that the prisoners were to be sent away from the camp. Jozef Czapski received postcards from home telling him that his sisters and members of the Polish Ladies Red Cross were waiting at the German-Soviet border stations with packages to give the prisoners on their return from Soviet captivity.

In April 1940 the NKVD began to transfer the prisoners, dozens at a time, away from Starobielsk. Many of the Polish officers believed they were being sent home. Jozef Czapski had to wait for his transport from the camp.

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...how I envied my "happy" colleagues who had left the barbed wire behind to go out into the wide world. Not until May 12 did I leave Starobielsk, with a group of sixteen men. (p. 40)

Jozef Czapski and the other officers were taken by train to a transit camp at Pavlishchev Bor, near Kaluga in Russia, south west of Moscow.

Our dreams of France, of Poland, were shattered...There we found two hundred colleagues from Kozielsk, a hundred from Ostashkov, and sixty-three from Starobielsk. The latter had been sent from Starobielsk on April 25, 1940, separately from the usual group. (pp. 40-41)

They remained at Pavlishchev Bor for a few weeks before they were transported to a camp at Griazoviets, near Vologad, north east of Moscow. Conditions were better than at Starobielsk. The Polish officiers lived in an old covent building and in a few wooden houses for pilgrims. The postcards that the prisoners received from home contained anxious questions about what had happened to their fellow prisoners from Starobielsk, Kozielsk and Ostashkov. No one had heard anything from them. Where were they?

On the basis of these cards from Poland we realised by 1940 that we were the only prisoners of war from the three camps who had sent news home to Poland after April 1940. (p. 41)
None of Jozef Czapski's former missing comrades at Starobielsk was ever seen again.
The book Memories of Starobielsk contains further essays on Jozef Czapski's recollections of his early life in St. Petersburg, the Katyn massacre, together with reflections on painting, literature and Russian culture.

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