Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Maria Czapska and Her Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising

The following piece about Maria Czapska and her memoir of the Warsaw Uprising was written by Ted Lipien. Mr. Lipien is an international media executive, journalist, writer, blogger, and press freedom advocate. He worked in and wrote about US international broadcasting for over 40 years, beginning as a radio announcer for the Voice of America in 1973 and serving most recently as the President of Radio Free Europe.


To house a half a century of books my wife and I collected from several continents, I built a library last winter in the basement of our house in Portland, Oregon, where we now live after many moves. As I discovered later, there was an unexpected benefit to this do-it-yourself project, which required purchasing and assembling more than a dozen of Swedish IKEA bookcases made in Mexico with intriguing names: Billy and Kallax. As I was arranging our books on the shelves, I found many Polish books that I have not looked at for years and even decades. Glancing through some of them, I rediscovered something I had already known when I first bought them or got them from friends. The refugee authors whom I had read with a great passion shortly after coming to the United States in 1970 as an immigrant from communist-ruled Poland were primarily concerned with protecting history from being forgotten.
These Polish émigré writers (I prefer to call them refugee writers) were even more worried that history was being distorted in the communist world, but also in the West. They saw history being used for hiding the truth and saw the spreading of falsehoods diametrically opposite of the historical truth. They also saw half-truths about history being used in the West for ideological battles.
I felt bad that I had not kept more of the trust they put in the printed word by doing more to share it in translation with American readers, although in the case of some Polish refugee authors, among them Czesław Miłosz and Józef Czapski, I continued to buy, read and cite their books in English translations and to note books about them written in English. But as I rediscovered, my Polish books, many of them less known memoirs published after World War II in Great Britain, France and the United States, contain much valuable information about history which is not found in English-language books. I also found many amazing links between the authors of these books and other authors and journalists, some of whom had worked with me at the Voice of America or had worked there before I joined VOA in December 1973.
One of the history books I reread this weekend was by a Polish refugee writer Maria Czapska, the beloved sister of the more famous Polish writer and painter Józef Czapski. The book, "Dwugłos wspomnień," loosely translated from Polish as "Two Voices of Memories" consists of three essays, one by him and two by Maria Czapska. The book was published in London in 1965. Józef Czapski's earlier historical account of his imprisonment in Soviet Russia and the Soviet murder of thousands of Polish military officers who were his fellow prisoners, was censored by the Voice of America in 1950.
Maria Czapska never worked for the Voice of America, but she survived the German occupation of Poland and provided vivid accounts of her underground anti-Nazi resistance work. During the war, she organized humanitarian aid to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and wrote a program for the Błyskawica (Lightning) radio station of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising which broadcast in Polish, English, French and German. English-language Błyskawica broadcasts were prepared by the future director of Radio Free Europe Polish Service Jan Nowak Jeziorański.
In her Warsaw Uprising diary, Maria Czapska also describes Radio Moscow broadcasts urging the people of Warsaw to rise up against the Germans, falsely giving credit for the launch of the fighting to the Polish Communists, who represented a tiny portion of the anti-Nazi underground movement in Poland, and later condemning the leaders of the Uprising loyal to the legal Polish government in London for leading a "fascist disturbance." Czapska also describes British broadcasts from London but never mentions the Voice of America. References to VOA cannot be found in any wartime Polish memoirs I have read, most likely because VOA broadcasts at that time were pro-Soviet, contained no first-hand information from Poland, and those writing their memoirs after the war did not want to criticize VOA after it dropped its pro-Kremlin programming and started to be critical toward Moscow and communism in the early 1950s.
Maria Czapska mentions meeting during the Warsaw Uprising the elderly mother of the Polish Government-in-Exile Ambassador in Washington Jan Ciechanowski. She could not know it when she wrote in her diary during the Uprising, but Ambassador Ciechanowski kept warning the Roosevelt Administration and members of the U.S. Congress about Soviet sympathizers being in charge of Voice of America Polish and English wartime broadcasts. These pro-Moscow Voice of America wartime broadcasters included Howard Fast in charge in 1943 of English-language VOA news. After leaving VOA he was an activist and journalist in the Communist Party USA and in 1953 received the Stalin Peace Prize. Czapska also mentions the death during the Warsaw Uprising of both sons of Wiktor Plater. They were relatives of Konstanty Broel Plater, a Polish journalist and former diplomat who resigned from the Voice of America in 1944 in protest against VOA broadcasting Soviet propaganda lies. As far as I was able to find out in my research of the Office of War Information archives and personnel files of OWI employees, Konstanty Broel Plater was the only VOA journalist who resigned during World War II in protest against VOA’s Soviet propaganda, but he did not publicize his protest for many years after the war most likely because he thought that he was forbidden from talking about it by a secrecy agreement which all VOA employees had to sign at that time.
Present in Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising was Zofia Korbońska who maintained secret radio communications with London. Maria Czapska does not mention her, but Zofia Korbońska collaborated with the Błyskawica Warsaw Uprising radio station. After her escape from Poland in 1947 together with her husband Stefan Korboński, who was the last civilian chief of the Polish underground state during the German occupation, Zofia Korbońska was later my mentor and colleague at the Voice of America Polish Service.
The second essay by Maria Czapska describes her secret trip to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 using false identity papers and her meeting with Dr. Janusz Korczak (Henryk Goldszmit). He organized an orphanage for Jewish children before the war and ran it in the ghetto also during the German occupation. He was later murdered by the Germans in a gas chamber together with his students whom he refused to leave.
While former Voice of America broadcasters like Mira Michałowska and Stefan Arski, aka Artur Salman, were helping to establish a communist system in Poland, Maria Czapska escaped from Poland in December 1945 by illegally crossing the border and joined her brother in France. Many Polish anti-Nazi underground Armia Krajowa or AK (Home Army) members were being arrested, tortured and executed by the communist regime. Some were being sent to Soviet prisons and Gulag camps. The communist propaganda accused these former anti-Nazi fighters of being fascists. One of the chief communist regime propagandists was former Voice of America editor Stefan Arski. He produced anti-American propaganda and promoted the Soviet lie about the Katyn massacre. Former VOA broadcaster Mira Złotowska Michałowska, who went back to Poland and married a high-ranking communist diplomat, published an article in Harper's magazine in 1946 in which she argued that Communists in Poland believed in the rule of law. Maria Czapska countered such communist propaganda but mostly in France.
While living in France Maria Czapska did some support work for Kultura, the Paris-based émigré journal and publishing house. I do not remember whether I had corresponded with her, but for a short period of time in the 1970s I was one of Kultura’s publicity agents in the United States. It was strictly a volunteer job which I had to give up because of increasing demands for my free time from my work at VOA. The VOA management did not forbid such volunteer work but in the 1970s looked at most outside activities by refugee journalists with some suspicion. I got the Czapskis’ book from Tomasz Dobrowolski, my late former colleague at the Voice of America Polish Service who was Kultura’s representative before me. Like Józef Czapski, Tomasz Dobrowolski was a wartime prisoner in the Soviet Union. It is very likely that Maria Czapska and I were in contact at that time, but the letters I had received from Kultura disappeared when we were changing houses.
Maria Czapska wrote about history and I suspect that in her support role at Kultura she encouraged publishing articles about the German occupation of Poland, the Jewish Holocaust, and the Warsaw Uprising. Kultura published in 1953 an article by a Polish journalist who had worked in London during the war and made an observation about Soviet propaganda influence over the Voice of America broadcasts. Stalin ordered the Red Army to halt their offensive against the Germans and refused to provide assistance to the fighting Poles in Poland's capital. He calculated that the Germans would do the work of killing patriotic Poles who might oppose his plans to install a communist government in Poland completely loyal to Moscow. The Uprising ended after 63 days. The Polish anti-Nazi fighters were defeated and about 200,000 Warsaw inhabitants, most of them civilians, were killed. The Germans reduced the city to ruins. Writing in Kultura, Czesław Straszewicz described how the wartime Voice of America ignored the 1944 Warsaw Uprising precisely because the Soviets would want VOA to ignore it.
"With genuine horror we listened to what the Polish language programs of the Voice of America (or whatever name they had then), in which in line with what [the Soviet news agency] TASS was communicating, the Warsaw Uprising was being completely ignored. I remember as if it were today when the (Warsaw) Old Town fell [to the Germans] and our spirits sank, the Voice of America was broadcasting to the allied nations describing for listeners in Poland in a happy tone how a woman named Magda from the village Ptysie made a fool of a Gestapo man named Mueller."
While Czapska's brother was censored by the Voice of America in 1950, he and she often participated in Radio Free Europe Polish broadcasts which never resorted to this kind of censorship. Another refugee writer who was censored in the 1970s by the Voice of America was Nobel Prize laureate Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. This kind of censorship was not lifted at the Voice of America until the Reagan Administration took office in 1981 and carried out management and programming reforms at VOA.
I am quite convinced that without the hard work of courageous women, Maria Czapska and Zofia Korbońska, the falsifiers of history would have had a much easier time to keep Communists in control of East-Central Europe and the Voice of America would not have been able to contribute as much as it later did to the fall of communism in the Soviet Block.
The contributions of these exceptional women are not sufficiently appreciated and false historical accounts are becoming more common in the media and even in scholarly literature. The Voice of America management today is itself contributing to the falsification of history by its own selective use of historical facts and half-truths in various promotional materials found on the web. Voice of America continues to present the first VOA Director, Hollywood actor John Houseman, as a defender of truthful journalism when in fact he saw himself as a propagandist and hired many of the communists who worked on early VOA broadcasts. One of the communists he recruited who already worked for the Office of War Information (OWI) was Howard Fast. The Voice of America management has never admitted that the Roosevelt Administration forced John Houseman to resign because of his excessive pro-Soviet sympathies.
One of the photographs from my library shows Józef Czapski's self-portrait at the Soviet Starobielsk POW camp for Polish officers. Several thousands of them were secretly executed by the Soviets in Katyn in April and May 1940. The second photograph shows Czapski's portrait of his sister Maria Czapska.
For those interested in learning more about Józef Czapski and his art, I highly recommend Eric Karpeles' book, "Almost Nothing: The 20th-Century Art and Life of Józef Czapski," published by New York Review Books in 2018. There is also a Wikipedia entry in English for Józef Czapski and a much shorter one for Maria Czapska.
Unfortunately, no major book has been written in English about Maria Czapska.
Czapskis descended from various noble families in several Central-European countries. Their ancestors were Baltic-German, Austrian, Russian and Polish. Their father was a Polish count raised in Saint Petersburg speaking French, Russian, and German and did not learn Polish until his university years. Their mother’s Polish name was Józefa Czapska, but she was born Josephine von Thun und Hohenstein. Her brother was at one time the prime minister of the Austrian imperial government. After marrying a Pole, she adopted Poland as her homeland, learned Polish, and raised her children to become Polish patriots. They grew up on their family estate near Minsk, present day Belarus. Having a German mother and speaking German could have easily given Maria Czapska an opportunity to claim German citizenship during the German occupation of Poland. Instead, she joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement and organized humanitarian aid for the Jews, helping some of them survive the war.
Józef Czapski’s biographer, Eric Karpeles, wrote about Józef and Marynia, as she was called by her family and friends, “Each was a mixture in almost equal parts of democrat, aristocrat, bohemian and ecumenical Catholic.” Karpeles wrote that Józef and Marynia were in their youth attracted to what he called "a kind of humanitarian socialism." Marynia was more religious of the two. Despite all the suffering that he had experienced and witnessed in Russia, Józef Czapski had a deep sympathy for the Russian people and was greatly pained that Russian culture was being destroyed under the Soviet system. He met and admired Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. He also met with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn after the Russian writer was forced by the Soviet regime to go into exile.
Józef Czapski was a pacifist, but he enlisted in the Polish Army to do non-combat duties. When he and his sister lived in Paris in the 1920s, he was in love with Sergey Nabokov, the gay younger brother of famous Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov. Sergey Nabokov was arrested by the Nazis in Berlin and died in Neuengamme, a large labor camp near Hamburg in January 1945 from dysentery, starvation and exhaustion. Their cousin, Nicolas Nabokov, a composer and cultural figure, worked at the Voice of America on the first VOA Russian broadcast in 1947. Even though VOA broadcast in dozens of foreign languages during the war, incredibly it did not broadcast in Russian, almost certainly out of fear that VOA Russian broadcasts might offend Stalin. Even in 1947, the first Russian broadcasts carefully avoided any direct criticism of Stalin and the Soviet Union.
It took several more years for VOA to change its policy of censoring criticism of communist regimes but it did during the Truman Administration. The Truman Administration quietly laid off many Soviet sympathizers among post war VOA officials and journalists.
Józef Czapski was one of the last victims of the pro-Soviet censorship at VOA when he was invited to record a program to Poland during his visit to the United States in 1950 and discovered that VOA refused to air the segments in which he talked about Katyń. The censoring of Józef Czapski by VOA was noted by members of Congress and their criticism of VOA’s management was printed in the Congressional Record. A year after Józef Czapski’s program for the Voice of America was censored, Ambassador Ciechanowski, whose mother Maria Czapska mentioned in her Warsaw Uprising diary, told VOA officials that their broadcasts were still “drab” and “unconvincing” for radio listeners in Poland, but they were soon improved by the Truman Administration.
When I was in charge of the Voice of America Polish Service in the 1980s, our correspondent Wacław Bniński recorded an interview with Józef Czapski.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Pilot and Girl by Danuska Blaszek

 Danuska Blaszek

Danuska Blaszek is a Polish poet who lives in the United States and Poland. Her poetry has appeared in numerous books and anthologies. Her English books Lily Equation and Mathematics vs. Poetry are both available on Amazon along with her Polish books.

Pilot and Girl

I asked Danuska Blaszek what inspired her to write the following poem. Here's what she said:

The series of poems "Pilot & Girl" was inspired by the group paralotnie.pl. I participated in one of the first paragliding courses in the 90s. Our emotional commitment was great. We were overwhelmed by the freedom to fly without medical tests, no fitness requirements, no age limits.

Krysiek Kaczynski -- my instructor, Rafal Maszczak -- the organizer of our internet meetings and Rysiek Lutoslawski, although I had never seen him on a paraglider, was our guru.  Older than us, he about flying on Migs, about clouds ... Some phrases come from him and a story about a night flight in an autumn drizzle ... This is connected with the story of Marta Berowska, about her mother's friend who killed himself on a glider.  But after reading the poems, Rysiek asked how I know that he had an accident ...

pilot and girl


you know Richard

I sometimes stand on the balcony

among white sheets smelling of soap

the sky beckons

and I don't know which to choose

wings or sails

the foam of clouds or the wave of lakes

I fear the allure of space

the magnetism of the sky


you know Danuska I've never been afraid of space, 

though only fools are free from fear, they say

only once that uncontrollable fright

a night flight in a November drizzle

over a thick layer of clouds

smooth as a mirror

outer space, my love, without God or Earth

the stars down there and the sharp scream of the Moon

the sky below and above

I followed the instruments

they helped me survive

later, an old pilot told me

it so happens sometimes that the sky is reflected in the smooth surface of the clouds

as in a mirror


we've only written to each other

we've never met

I fear our meeting

my frightened eyes look back at me from the mirror


you ask me Danuska why I smoke a hundred cigarettes a day

this is how it started


I was a child

they killed the Warsaw uprising and my sister and I

were separated from our parents in the Pruszkow camp

a kind soul took us away on a wagon filled with dead bodies

my sister and I ran as fast as we could

she was little, I not much older than her

we fell asleep cuddled

in a cargo car on a dead-end railroad in the woods

we woke up locked inside

listening to the heavy breathing of the train

trapped with no food or water

we were saved by bombs

we escaped through a hole in the roof

the locomotive breathed heavily in the ditch


I tried to earn money to buy food

a field cook found me

old Wasilenko fed me

I felt guilty

my sister died of starvation

the cook rolled my first cigarette


later in a flat taken over from a German

I played with a toy car

the cook along with other Bolsheviks died in the war

I learned how to smoke


cumulus clouds, soft as the fleece of a lamb

haven't you ever wanted to stroke them?

to taste them as you would taste cotton candy?

and lie on them like on a duvet?

tell me, why do birds avoid clouds?


Danuska clouds can be dangerous

I'll tell you about it

It was sunny

cumulus clouds were resting in the sky

I was spinning up towards the sun up, up and up

higher and higher

suddenly I entered a cloud

it started swelling

it was sucking me up into the sky

I didn't want to go there

I didn't take oxygen

a cumulomnibus was born and inside it as in another world

hurricanes from the earth to the sky

I was carried by tornadoes

aerial frenzy of winds

I heard a sound

a wing broke away from the glider


I jumped out

I couldn't open the parachute

(don't do it inside a cloud,

the cloud will catch it like an umbrella and won't let you go down to the ground)

I was waiting until my eyes could see

something other than the graying milk of the cloud

the fear grew

does this cloud, like fog, reach the ground?

the fuselage of my glider went past me

I survived

I saw grass, trees

the orange canopy of my parachute bloomed above me

the sky was black now


tell me unknown pilot

you're not like cotton candy

I have to be careful like those birds



I quit smoking

I don't want to think about it

I'm painting my room

you're saying Menet has died

one more friend gone

he still lives in my heart


we used to fly together

the charming times of pilots hooligans

we were flying over bridges and lakes

we were flying so low that the gust created by the propeller

overturned sailboats

we found that bridge in Liwiec

you know that little palace in Liwa


it was easy to escape the militia there

Menet was doing aerobatics

I managed to fly under that small bridge upside down

then Menet took our friend over Liwiec

he was a young lad but quite brash


later that youngster wanted to fly under the bridge by himself

he split up the two banks of the river

wrecked the plane

a major uproar


there were lots of flowers on his grave

and Menet and I were making new plans

fate separated us


you're asking what I'm doing

I'm painting my apartment

the walls have yellowed from the smoke


warm and caring

as if straight from my dreams

not a stranger anymore

but not familiar yet

you run into the sky

right under the cumulus clouds

and say from there

I'll come back or I won't

so I call into the cloudy night

should I only be a girl

from swirling outer space?


I was flying a Mig

guided by orders into a cloud

the weather was nice

too nice to die


the cloud looked menacing

I radioed the tower 


the artificial horizon was turning madly

I wasn't flying the plane

the wind was

it blew out the fire of the engine

fear once, fear twice

if I survive the third wave of fear

you'll be mine

I'll give you

the twisted skin of the plane

the pieces of the wings

the dislocated rivets


I put on my armour

I built a fortress around my heart

translated by Anna Sledziewska-Bolinska

Monday, December 17, 2018


Danusha Goska is a writer, essayist, and memoirist who has written some of the most engaging prose I've read in the last 20 years.  Every book and every essay she writes draws me, gets me thinking, shakes me up in some way that always finally helps me see things with the clarity she brings to every topic.

In her most recent book, God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery (available at Amazon), she does it again as she writers about a spiritual quest she undertook.  The great books about such journeys never give you easy answers.  They don't say, "Do these 10 things and you will find peace or faith or salvation." Goska knows this truth.  She has lived this truth.  As you read this beautifully written, witty, and inspiring book, you will find yourself not only following her journey, you will find yourself living your own journey.  

Here is an except from Goska's powerful book.

The Dudh Kosi or River of Milk drains Mount Everest. It glimmers in its gorge, turquoise and silver. I once trekked along it, to a spot where it joined one of its seven sister rivers. The confluence of rivers is sacred in Hinduism. I encountered a sannyasi seated in lotus position in the sand and gravel at the place where the rivers joined. Sannyasis' renunciation of the world is so severe that they perform their own funerals before taking to the wilderness. This sannyasi was naked except for ashes. His limbs were as slim and slack as jute ropes. His dreadlocked hair was piled atop his head. Once he had taken his vow, that hair was never again combed or cut. There was nothing anywhere near him except for the fierce V of mountains rising up thousands of feet from the rushing river's bed.

The rise of those mountains was an act of aggression to me. As I trekked, I felt the mountains to be my enemies, eager to cause me pain, thwart and humiliate me. And yet I adored their beauty. The Himalayas are active; they grow a couple of inches every year, as the Indian subcontinent pushes into the Asian landmass. There were no people; I was the lone other. There were only the parrots down low in the gorge, winging, carefree, from river bank to river bank, their highway air; their concern with the pitch of the mountains minimal. Then, rising higher, there would be crows, then, still higher, lammergeier, vultures that eat bone. The mountains bullied even sunlight; it visited only in slants.

The sannyasi said nothing to me, and I said nothing to him. I thought of everything he had renounced, from peanut M&Ms to romantic comedies to the contents of the Encyclopedia Britannica to crying over a broken heart to worrying about the future to telling a friend about last night's dream. What did he receive in exchange? I wondered what he knew, if anything. I kept walking. I was on my way to a Peace Corps conference, the closest thing to a Roman orgy I'd ever know. We'd eat till sick, dance, flirt, copulate. That sannyasi would be with me, every moment. I'd be thinking of him. What does he know that I cannot access?

I just googled "Dudh Kosi" to revisit this river in photos. I see that now it hosts organized white-water rafters. I wonder what the sannyasi makes of them. I wonder if he ever thinks of me; no, not really; of course I know that he has never thought of me. I think of him often.

I have long had this question: are contemplatives, the Desert Fathers, the Desert Mothers, and all those who leave society and go off on their lonesome – Tibetan monks, Hindu sadhus, Buddha, John the Baptist – are they truly holy? Or are they merely crabby misfits who couldn't get laid and are too lazy or soul-dead to engage in conventional hygiene?

Entering the wilderness temporarily to contemplate a difficult question or to realign yourself when you are off track is a necessary thing. In the Bible, Elijah left society and slept under a juniper tree. There, Elijah was commanded, "Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a still small voice."

That's where God was. God was not in the special effects: not in the wind, the broken rocks, or the earthquake. God was in the "still, small voice" that Elijah had to leave society, and enter the wilderness, to hear. A quote from the Desert Fathers and Mothers: "Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything." I respect staying in one's cell for short stretches. It's the lifelong rejection of society that gives me pause.

We tend to stereotype urban life as stressful, and country living in wide-open spaces as healthy and stress-free. My mother grew up in a village in Slovakia. I visited Kovarce in the 1970s and it was postcard-perfect. Kovarce was surrounded by fields of blue rye and red poppies. Clouds of white butterflies rose into the sky. In the hills, wild boar announced their presence with heavy pants. And the cuckoo – such a tender punctuation to the drawn-out ripple of the breeze caressing leaves. Uncle John built an indoor toilet for our visit; before that, all he had was an outhouse. He didn't even have a refrigerator. When he wanted something to eat, he didn't stand in front of a cold, white light and stare at leftovers. He went into his backyard and dug up his meal, or picked it, or chopped off its head.
My mother grew up in that idyllic, rural setting. She told me that there was one guy in the village who didn't fit in. He hung himself. She and her brother Joe peeked in the window. She remembered the corpse's black tongue sticking out of its mouth. The entire village came out for his funeral, as they did for all funerals. They marched in the funeral procession. They sang loudly, as they always did – Slovaks do love to sing – and they wailed loudly, as they always did. She told me that if anyone had paid that kind of loving attention to this poor misfit before he died, he probably wouldn't have killed himself.

I grew up on stories like that. Village beatings, murders, feuds, conspiracies, and chicken thieves – and this was just our own family. I knew that the perfect rural image is not what urbanites want it to be.

Contrary to what we moderns want to believe about our "stressful" urban lives, and rural peace and tranquility, rural people are far more likely to commit suicide than urban ones. Young, rural Americans are almost twice as likely to kill themselves as young, urban Americans. It seems that there may be something salubrious about spending time around other people, and something stressful about being alone in the back of the beyond. 

Danusha Goska's God Through Binoculars -- A Hitchhiker at a Monastery is available as a paperback or kindle at Amazon.