A Polish aristocrat blessed with a considerable sense of noblesse oblige recalls years of resistance to totalitarian rule.
Countess Karolina Lanckoronska, who died in Rome at the age of 104, in 2002, wrote this rich memoir in 1945 and ’46. She sent parts of it to two English publishers, she writes, who rejected it as “too anti-Russian.” A few years later, she sent it to two more publishers, who rejected it as “too anti-German.” In the context of Cold War politics, the publishers were right. In whatever context, Lanckoronska describes, sometimes with considerable indignation, what life was like in Lvov when the Red Army first invaded it under the partition following the Nazi-Soviet pact; a university professor of art history and specialist in the Renaissance, she clearly considered the newcomers barbarians, easily amused by baby rattles and ignorant of how to use a toilet or shower. By her account, the Soviets were also easily misled, childish as they were, yet not without resources and the ability to induce fear: “I was expecting the NKVD every time the doorbell rang,” she writes. With the arrival of the Nazis, she found a new enemy, and so did they. Captured and sentenced to be executed for working with the resistance, she was spared by odd circumstances: One of her interrogators admitted to her that he had participated in the murder of 25 of her fellow professors, and when she brought the matter to another Nazi officer, her sentence was commuted to imprisonment. At Ravensbrück concentration camp, perhaps improbably, she organized her barracks into a miniature university and taught art history to her fellow inmates—and, summoning up the weight of her nobility, also commanded “a degree of orderliness in collective living to ensure that contact with the Germans was kept to the minimum possible.”
An unusual memoir from an unusual point of view, one that at times recalls Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind; readable and thought-provoking.