The train that didn’t go to Katyń

In April 1940, over twenty thousand Polish officers were killed by the Soviets in the forest of Katyń. A bare few hundred of those soldiers survived. The way I remember my grandfather telling the story of his capture on Poland’s Eastern Front within days of the 1939 invasion. Imprisoned for months, packed on a train, then… they didn’t go to that forest after all, but to Siberia. Years of gulag and the Soviets turned to Allies. Those Poles could join the British army, and he began a long journey south through Iran and fighting up through North Africa to Monte Cassino. Half a century later, we went to see the English Patient. It was like that, he said. He even sang – “remember… your grandad was in Tobruk…” That was one of few times he ever verbalised it. But mum said he did talk about his friend Józef Czapski, one of the handful of men who was on the other train.

So reading Memories of Starobielsk: Essays on Art and History (NYRB 2022) felt like a second chance to ask some questions. Alissa Valles’ translation into English allows my mum and many others to join that conversation.

Czapski sketches his companions in the camp who were on that train to Katyń. His memory stretches back to the war before, to the shock when Korczak’s first book came out, to his mystical peace commune in revolutionary Russia, and forward to tea with Akhmatova in Paris, to perestroika… Everywhere, he is observing, writing, drawing… He’s been in enough times and places to see beyond patriotism. His descriptions of people are fascinating. Czapski honours the memories of the lost, but is unflinching about how he felt.

That’s the history – but the art! Czapski is insightful on the creative process. He sees how long it takes to make something good, the need for space to contemplate, the “fertile indolence”, the “leaping and flying” to a vision of reality. His choices were not fashionable. He loved Norwid far more than Mickiewicz, and thought Soutine much more interesting than Chagall.

If this all sounds a bit kaleidoscopeish, that’s how Czapski’s mind feels. Valles has selected the pieces of coloured glass to put in that kaleidoscope. She packs a lot into one slim English volume. It left me wanting more, to track down his sister’s memoir in Polish, to go and look at Soutine’s paintings, to reread Norwid…

Read it! Whether you prefer the art or the history, you’ll find a bit of coloured glass you’ll want to keep. Because looking through it makes things look different.

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