The Blind Prisoner

Reviewed by Susie Linfield
Sunday, April 22, 2007


One Woman's War Against the Nazis

By Karolina Lanckoronska

Translated from the Polish by Noel Clark

Merloyd Lawrence/Da Capo. 341 pp. $26

This is a fascinating book, though for reasons its author may not have entirely intended. Written in 1945-46 but just published in the United States, Michelangelo in Ravensbruck is a memoir of the German and Soviet occupations of Poland -- but it is not the kind of World War II memoir we are used to. The author, who died in 2002 at the age of 104, was a wealthy countess, a professor of art history, a devout Catholic, a fervent anticommunist and a member of the Polish underground. In 1942, she was arrested by the Gestapo, which sent her to a series of prisons and then to Ravensbruck, the women's concentration camp north of Berlin. But because of who she was -- and who she was not -- Karolina Lanckoronska's experience, and the meaning she makes of it, differed in fundamental ways from those of Jewish camp survivors such as Primo Levi and Jean Améry. Her account is as interesting, and as valuable, for what she puts in as for what she leaves out.

Lanckoronska was one very tough dame. In the winter of 1939, shortly after Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, a Soviet officer came to arrest her. "Not just now. I haven't time," she told him. "I'm due at the university." Her interrogations by the Gestapo were cat-and-mouse games in which Lanckoronska always came out on top in terms of guts, brains and integrity. "Are you an enemy of the German Reich?" Gestapo chief Hans Kruger, who became her nemesis, demanded. "Yes, obviously," Lanckoronska coolly replied. Deposited in her first Gestapo prison, she sat on her bed, ate a hard-boiled egg and promptly fell into a good, sound sleep -- behavior so preternaturally calm that she terrified her cellmate, who figured the new arrival must be crazy.

Lanckoronska's confidence may have derived, in part, from her aristocratic upbringing -- which is not to say that most of Poland's nobles behaved likewise. Lanckoronska exhibited not only an almost breezy insouciance but, more important, a deep and intuitive understanding of human solidarity. Whenever possible, she tended to the needs of sick prisoners, shared the bulk of her rations (as a special prisoner, she was allowed huge quantities of food), and, most of all, refused the privileges afforded her. In Ravensbruck, she was given a warm apartment, fresh flowers, afternoon tea, walks in the garden and good meals served on porcelain. She despised all this -- indeed, she regarded such privileges as a form of humiliation -- and launched a hunger strike until she was reunited with the other inmates. "I should be treated in the same way as other Polish women prisoners since I, too, was an Untermensch," she insisted. When her campaign succeeded and she was sent back to the filthy, cold, communal barracks, she noted: "With great joy, I once more sewed the number and triangle on to my striped camp uniform and breathed a deep sigh of relief. . . . I was just happy being in the camp."

One can -- indeed must -- admire this; yet words like "joy" and "happy" are a key to the troubling peculiarities of this book. For a variety of reasons -- including her class status, her fluent German and her knowledge of a particular but then-secret Nazi crime -- Lanckoronska's stays in the prisons and the camp were quite different from those of most others (her protectors included the Red Cross, the Italian royal family and Heinrich Himmler). Lanckoronska knows and acknowledges this. But her comparatively mild (I use the term advisedly) treatment rested, too, on the simple but crucial fact that she was not a Jew.

The iconography of Christian martyrdom and Christian valor suffuses this book; how else to understand Lanckoronska's statement that being sent to a concentration camp was "a great honour"? Indeed, for Lanckoronska, Poland's anti-Nazi resistance was in large part a religious movement that evoked "the spirit of the Crusades" and thereby created "a firm link with the Middle Ages" (she regards this as a good thing). She never hints at the possibility that Polish Catholicism's highly vexed relationship to the so-called Jewish question, both before and during the war, may have contributed to the murder of more than two and a half million Polish Jews.

Lanckoronska, however, frames the war as a simple two-way struggle between Polish patriots and German invaders. "The persecution of all Poles aroused in our society . . . complete unity among the Polish people," she writes. This is utter nonsense. Lanckoronska knew -- must have known -- that there were deep divisions between and among Poles, and within the underground itself; that the story of the war was one of craven, sometimes eager collaboration as well as of courageous resistance; and that it was entirely possible, and even commonplace, to be a committed Polish patriot, a brave anti-fascist and a rabid anti-Semite all at once. In Lanckoronska's account, the Nazis' annihilation of European Jewry -- much of which took place in obscure Polish towns with names like Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor -- is a fairly unimportant subset of the greater Polish tragedy. Here is the book's description of the aforementioned Kruger: "In 1942, . . . [he] sentenced to death 250 Polish members of the local intelligentsia. Also responsible for the death of more than 10,000 Jews."

Yet those elisions -- that "also" -- are part of what makes this such a compelling glimpse into a vanished world and a vanished mindset. Lanckoronska was part of a prewar Polish culture that has been tossed in the dustbin of history. With its stoic code of aristocratic honor, mythologized patriotism, hatred of Eastern "barbarism" and adoration of the West, her kind will not be seen again. (For good or ill: It is startling to read, for instance, of Lanckoronska's "frenzy of delight" when Germany invades the Soviet Union in 1941.)

In an essay called "At the Mind's Limits," Jean Améry wrote that the mad reality of Auschwitz abolished the intellect: "Thinking . . . nullified itself." For Lanckoronska, the opposite was true: "Intellectual riches," she writes, were the prisoners' "one great source of strength," especially as the war wound down and the killings sped up. (The title of her book refers to the art-history classes she held in Ravensbruck.) Améry was a leftist and a secular Jew; yet his ethos was not really far from Lanckoronska's, for they were both children of Enlightenment humanism. The chasm between their understandings of what the camps did, and of how (or if) one could survive them, is based partly on who they were: Lanckoronska's faith and patriotism, both of which Améry lacked, undoubtedly sustained her. But the difference is based, too, on what was and wasn't done to each of them. Améry, like Lanckoronska, was originally arrested as a member of the resistance, but it was as a Jew that he was marked for slavery and death; Lanckoronska was allowed, at least for long periods, to think and write and read Tacitus and Petrarch. Her book reminds us that war is an individual event, even when it involves millions, and that every victim is particular in her circumstance, her strength and her sorrow. ·

Susie Linfield directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism Program at New York University.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company