When I see the Poles boarding the Chopin Express to go back to a Poland with all the unknown horrors of martial law, I think of Litka de Barcza who, although not entirely of Polish blood, was Polish to her marrow and used to say, "Once you start being a Pole, it's terribly hard to stop."
When I read the heartbreaking statement of the defecting Polish ambassador, Romuald Spasowski, who speaks of the "cruel night of darkness and silence" that has fallen over his country, I think the worst torment for him is that he can never go back to Poland and suffer with his countrymen.
Under the pen name Alexandra Orme, Litka de Barcza wrote a book called "Comes the Comrade," an account of how she and her aristocratic Hungarian in-laws survived the Soviet advance into Hungary during World War II. It was published in 1950. I met her several years later when she and her husband Kari (Charles) de Barcza came to America because they thought the Russians were coming again, for good, to Europe.
She was a beautiful woman, with huge blue eyes, an elegantly blunt nose and the figure of a whippet. She was ridiculously accomplished. She could write, draw, paint, sew and cook. And how she cooked. She and Kari, with her "Comrade" earnings, bought a farm in Maryland, where they gave splendid lunches, which she prepared, delicately sipping from a glass of vodka placed on the stove.
She was "a cocktail of a person," Kari, her tall, courtly husband said, having the blood of several European countries but giving her whole allegiance to Poland.
Each spoke five languages. They would bicker, with enjoyment, in all of them, throwing in a little Hungarian for paprika.
Once, I remember her warning him, in French, that he would be late for church.
"The Barczas," he replied grandly in English, "have been late to Mass for 11 centuries."
Litka's first husband, a Polish baron, suffered from tuberculosis and was wanted by the Gestapo. In 1940, a sculptor friend gave her his sports car in which to flee. Litka, whose love of animals was extreme, packed up her dying husband and three dogs and took off. Her husband died soon after their arrival in Budapest.
After a stormy courtship, Litka and Kari were married, and she went with him to the ancestral mansion in Mora, scene of "Comes the Comrade." The Nazis were being driven back and, anticipating the advent of the Soviets, Litka began to teach herself and a Polish cousin to speak Russian.
When the first of the horde arrived, she was ready. It wasn't just the language she had. The daughter of a country, which has been successively squeezed to death by wolfish neighbors, understood how to deal with them--how to smile and smile, lie and lie and talk and talk and talk.
"I do not know how Daniel behaved in the lion's den. In my den, I behaved as though my lions were innocent kittens. I called them 'nice pussy' and stretched out my hand to scratch them behind the ear . . . , " she wrote.
The Russians behaved like any invading army, only more so because of their total ignorance of any culture but their own. They trashed the manor house. They burned the Louis XV furniture and saved the three-legged stools. Some of them were "alioshas," the word she used in her book to describe decent Russians. Others were brutes; one tried to rape her.
From Christmas, 1944, to Easter, 1945, she coped, rhapsodizing about the wonders of the Soviet state, telling them a portrait of Schubert was Pushkin, answering their endless questions, stilling their infinite suspicions. When they had finally gone, she told her Polish cousin: "I like them. I'm also frightened of them; I hate them, and they disgust me, and I would rather never set eyes on them again, despite all the alioshas."
Finally, she and Kari and his two children, made their way to Italy, where they settled on the idyllic Amalfi coast.
But the Soviets seemed to be making new political advances, and the family fled again. With the help of Kari's American son-in-law, they came to America. They lived precariously. She cooked, tutored, finally found a job as a teacher of French in Oshkosh, Wis.
In January, 1963, Kari died. Litka, the survivor, was momentarily lost. A year later, astonishingly, she returned to Poland for a visit.
She told me about it when she came back. "It was hell," she said, "and heaven. Everybody is absolutely together, so close, the way you would live in paradise. They hate the regime. They do everything to outwit it. They have their little victories. You are living at the furthest reaches of existence."
In April, 1973, with her Social Security and her U.S. citizenship, she went back to live, to be at home amid the intense emotions and exhilarating danger that are oxygen to Poles, to enjoy the theater, the music, the conversation that flourished despite the grim, gray government.
Two and a half years later, she died in Warsaw.
The Polish ambassador cannot go home again. Nothing worse, I learned from Litka, can happen to a Pole.