Józef Czapski

Czapski in uniform, January, 1943

Józef Czapski (April 3, 1896 January 12, 1993) was a Polish artist, author, and critic, as well as an officer of the Polish Army. As a painter, he is notable for his membership in the Kapist movement, which was heavily influenced by Cézanne. Following the Polish Defensive War, he was made a prisoner of war by the Soviets and was among the very few officers to survive the Katyn massacre of 1940. Following the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, he was an official envoy of the Polish government searching for the missing Polish officers in Russia. After World War II, he remained in exile in the Paris suburb of Maisons-Laffitte, where he was among the founders of Kultura monthly, one of the most influential Polish cultural journals of the 20th century.

Early life

Józef Marian Franciszek hrabia Hutten-Czapski of Leliwa, as was his full name, was born April 3, 1896 in Prague, to an aristocratic family. Among his relatives were hr. Emeryk Hutten-Czapski, hr. Karol Hutten-Czapski and Maria Czapska, as well as Georgy Chicherin. Czapski spent most of his childhood in his family's manor of Przyłuki near Minsk. In 1915 he graduated from a gymnasium in St. Petersburg and joined the cadet corps.[1] Czapski graduated from the law faculty of the University of Saint Petersburg, and in 1917 both joined and later resigned from the 1st Krechowce Uhlan Regiment, a Polish cavalry unit formed in Russia as part of the Polish I Corps.[2] Following the Russian Revolution of 1917 he moved to newly-renascent Poland and in 1918 entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. There he started his studies in the class of Stanisław Lentz.[2] However, already in 1920 he quit the academy and volunteered for the Polish Army.


An ardent pacifist, Czapski asked for any service that would not involve active struggle. His plea was accepted and he was sent to Russia with a mission of finding the whereabouts of the officers of Czapski's former regiment, taken captive by the Bolsheviks in the course of the Russian Civil War. He reached St. Petersburg, where he met, among others, Dmitry Filosofov, Zinaida Gippius, Aleksey Remizov and Dmitry Merezhkovsky who later became his long-time friend.[2] His mission was concluded when he found out that the officers had been executed by the Bolsheviks.[1] Under Merezhkovsky's influence Czapski gave up his pacifist ideals and, upon his return to Poland, joined the ranks of the Polish Army and fought as a NCO in the crew of one of the armoured trains on the fronts of the Polish-Soviet War.[1] For his merits he was awarded the Virtuti Militari, the highest Polish military decoration.

Art and writing

Czapski shortly before his death, pictured on the cover of Tumult i olśnienia (Uproar and Enlightenments, originally published in French as Lumières de Joseph Czapski)[3]

In 1921, Czapski entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, where he was taught by Wojciech Weiss and Józef Pankiewicz. Moving away from the classical tradition, he moved to Paris in 1924 where he helped to develop the Komitet Paryski (Paris Committee, subsequently abbreviated to the 'Kapist' movement). Czapski began to hold exhibitions of his work but increasingly moved to becoming a critic, writing essays on art, literature, and philosophy. He returned to Poland in 1932, re-enlisting in 1939. He was subsequently captured by the Russians and held in prison and labour camps; he was one of 395 who avoided the fate of more than 20,000 murdered at Katyn and similar massacres.

After the 1941 German invasion of Russia and signing the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, Czapski joined the Polish II Corps under the command of General Anders. Between 1941 and 1942, Czapski was tasked with investigating the disappearance of Poles who had been in the captivity of the NKVD and subsequently massacred. He never received any satisfactory answers as to the fate of these men, but wrote about his experiences in two books, Reminiscences of Starobyelsk (1944)[4] and The Inhuman Land (1949).[5] During that period Czapski also met Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Anna Akhmatova who is said to have dedicated one of her poems to him.

Anders subsequently removed his army through the Persian Corridor, and in Baghdad Czapski began writing for the Polish army newspapers Orzeł Biały ('White Eagle') and Kurier Polski ('Polish Courier'). He ended the war in Rome, and moved to France in 1946. Together with Gustaw Herling-Grudziński and Jerzy Giedroyc, he established the Instytut Literacki (Literary Institute) at Maisons-Laffitte, where he lived, and contributed to the Polish émigré literary journal 'Kultura'.

Czapski was awarded the Silver Cross of the Order of Virtuti Militari (1918–1920) and the Commander's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta (1990).

English translation

The Inhuman Land is the only work of Czapski's translated into English and was published in London in 1951. Because it is a first-hand account of contemporaneous negotiations with the Soviets over the missing Polish officers it became an important document until Russian guilt for the massacres was acknowledged. In the post-war period Czapski was also among the eyewitnesses of the situation of Polish prisoners in Soviet captivity and testified on the matter before the United States Congress.[6]

Notes and references

  1. 1 2 3 Joanna Pollakówna (2003). "Józef Czapski: życie heroicznie dopełnione". Zwoje (in Polish). 3 (36): 11.
  2. 1 2 3 (Polish) (English) Małgorzata Kitowska-Łysiak (2001). "Józef Czapski". culture.pl.
  3. Jil Silberstein; Józef Czapski (2004). Tumult i olśnienia (in Polish). Warsaw: Noir Sur Blanc. p. 80. ISBN 83-7392-046-3.
  4. Józef Czapski (1944). Wspomnienia starobielskie (in Polish). Rome: Oddział Kultury i Prasy 2 Korpusu. p. 63., later also translated to French as: Józef Czapski (1987). Souvenirs de Starobielsk (in French). Gustaw Herling-Grudziński. Montricher: Les Éditions Noir sur Blanc. p. 147. ISBN 2-88250-001-7.
  5. Józef Czapski (1987). The inhuman land. Daniel Halévy, Edward Crankshaw, Gerard Hopkins. London: Polish Cultural Foundation. p. 356. ISBN 0-85065-164-6.
  6. Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances on the Katyn Forest Massacre (corporate author) (1952). The Katyn Forest Massacre. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office. pp. 1230 (2362).

External links

Further reading

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