Karolina Lanckoronska. Michelangelo in Ravensbrück: One Woman's War against the Nazis. Translated by Noel Clark. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, Incorporated, 2007. 368 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-306-81537-9.
Reviewed by Kyle Jantzen (Faculty of Arts and Science, Ambrose University College)
Published on H-German (April, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
An Aristocratic Account of Poland's Occupation
Memoirs of life in Poland during the Second World War generally revolve around the enormity of the Holocaust, most often from the viewpoint of Jewish survivors. Countess Karolina Lanckoronska's Michelangelo in Ravensbrück provides a very different perspective. Hers is the story of a Polish noblewoman and scholar watching the destruction of Polish culture by "barbaric" Nazi and Bolshevik invaders. Moreover, it is an account of the war years written immediately after the collapse of Nazism and the occupation of eastern Europe by Soviet forces, and not after years of reflection. Withheld from publication until after her death (at the age of 104), it remains essentially the same "report" she wrote in 1945 and 1946.
Lanckoronska's ancestors were Polish aristocrats with roots in Galicia, but who had served in important positions at the nineteenth-century Habsburg court. Thus young Karolina grew up not only in the highest circles of fin-de-siècle Vienna, but also on her family's estate in Poland. Though deeply interested in nursing, she studied art history, earning her doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1926. After a sojourn in Italy, Lanckoronska settled in Lwów, working first as a private lecturer and then, from 1936, as a professor of art history at the Jan Kazimierz University. The 1939 invasion of Poland stirred her patriotism, and the memoir begins at this point, with chapters of varying lengths devoted to different locations in which she lived (or was incarcerated) between 1939 and 1945. As early as 1940, Lanckoronska had joined the Union for Armed Struggle (ZWZ), part of the Polish resistance against Soviet and Ukrainian (and later Nazi) occupying authorities. There she worked with the Polish Red Cross, nursing sick and wounded prisoners of war released from German captivity. By the fall of 1941, Lanckoronska was working for the Main Council for Relief (RGO), responsible for overseeing the care of all prisoners in German-occupied Poland. After her arrest in May 1942, Lanckoronska was sentenced to death for her partisan activities. While awaiting execution, she heard a surprising confession from her captor, SS Hauptsturmführer Hans Krüger, who had murdered 25 Lwów professors. Fortunately, Lanckoronska was spared the death penalty, thanks to an appeal by the Italian royal family to SS Chief Heinrich Himmler.
After this reprieve, Lanckoronska dedicated herself to the quest to bring Krüger to justice, an important theme throughout the second half of her book. Indeed, a report she wrote for another SS office seems to have contributed both to Krüger's demise and to her own transfer to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in November 1942. This event marked the beginning of her permanent separation from her beloved Poland. Over the course of ninety pages, Lanckoronska details her time in Ravensbrück, including her access to and refusal to remain in privileged private quarters. It is this section of the memoir that will seem most familiar to students of other Holocaust memoir literature, as Lanckoronska describes the horrific conditions endured by women prisoners and the range of their responses to such treatment. Most of the time, she dwells on the positive side of human nature, suggesting that character and community enabled women to retain their dignity amid suffering and death. The memoir closes with a short account of her activities in Italy at the close of the war, when she sought to aid members of the Polish armed forces stationed there and to come to terms with her own exile from Poland.
Though Lanckoronska meant her memoir to function as an objective, eye-witness record and not a considered reflection, both her personality and her aristocratic upbringing shape the narrative from start to finish. Snap judgments, sharp opinions, and romantic sentiments leap from virtually every page. Lanckoronska never shies away from offering her frank assessment of the people she met or events she witnessed. Four interesting facets of her character emerge from the memoir: her Polish patriotism; her love of culture and scholarship; her quiet, matter-of-fact sympathy for Jews; and her ambivalence about her elevated social status.
Lanckoronska's robust Polish patriotism is apparent from start to finish. Romantic and at times contradictory--sometimes she trumpets the importance of character over ethnicity, while at other times she discusses racially instinctive behavior--Lanckoronska goes to great lengths to define Poland as part of western civilization, set apart from Ukraine and Soviet Russia. Adjectives like "eastern," "Asiatic," and "oriental" pepper the memoir, and illustrate Lanckoronska's disdain for what she regards as an inferior Slavic cultural tradition, if not race. She describes the differences between Poles and Ukrainians as a "bottomless chasm" created by the "700 years of neighborly relations with Western culture" that Poles had enjoyed (p. 23). When betrayed by the resistance and forced to flee, she fears that her colleagues "might be headed for the heart of Asia, or wherever else barbarity might drag them," while taking solace that "at least [she] was moving westwards" (p. 38). As she crossed from Russian to German-held territory, Lanckoronska explains that the Russian guards "were like all Red Army soldiers: dirty, unshaven and in poor-quality uniforms" (p. 39). She contrasts them to the German soldiers ("splendidly built men, looking extremely smart in their spick-and-span turnout") and remembers how she and her fellow Poles remarked, "Whatever else, this is Europe" (p. 39). This frank employment of cultural, ethnic, and racial stereotypes--seen throughout the memoir--reminds us of just how prevalent such judgments were in mid-twentieth-century Europe, and illustrates how Nazi racial stereotyping both blended into and radicalized existing interethnic relations.
Lanckoronska's patriotism is also sentimental and optimistic. Often she speaks for "everyone" or "all" the people when she describes the resolute opposition of Poles to Russian and German occupation. In this same spirit, Lanckoronska recalls that she joined the ZWZ precisely because she understood it to be a Polish-national and not a party-political organization. She waxes poetic about the immense source of strength it was for her to participate in such a patriotic act, even while lamenting the worst it brought out in some of her compatriots. Likewise, Lanckoronska contrasts the cultural nobility of J. W. von Goethe with the barbarism of the German Nazis she saw, ultimately concluding that (despite what she calls the "Asianization" of the lifestyle in eastern Poland) there was little difference between the Nazi and Bolshevik occupations of Poland.
If Polish patriotism impelled Lanckoronska to join the resistance and care for Polish prisoners, her greatest sorrow was the destruction of Polish culture by Russians and Germans alike. Frequently, she contrasts the notion of "civilization" with "barbarism," not least when describing the destruction of her vocational life or possessions. She describes the Russian-Ukrainian takeover of the university in Lwów as a severe blow to Polish culture, and campaigns persistently for justice for university professors and other members of the intelligentsia who had been murdered. Closer to home, she reports that her furniture was either burned or stolen, while her notes and reference library simply vanished. Here she laments less her own personal loss than the wider destruction of civilized life: "The more people we have among us robbed of their past, the greater the threatened decline of tradition and spiritual continuity--in a word, culture" (p. 34). This preoccupation with culture and civilization (including a deep Roman Catholic piety) shapes much of Lanckoronska's disdain for both the National Socialist and Soviet occupiers of Poland. Though she dismissed the Russians as largely devoid of culture, she believed that German civilization had essentially collapsed under Nazism. For instance, she calls Governor General Hans Frank a "madman" because he stole art and accommodations from Polish aristocrats even as he boasted about constructing new libraries (pp. 62, 64). Looting and materialism, she decides, had debased the Germans.
One of the most consistent themes in the text is the way in which Lanckoronska's love for culture and scholarship sustained her though the turbulent war years. She and her fellow scholars would offer dramatic good-byes to one another in Italian, and at the moment when she believed she was about to be executed, her thoughts turn to Homer's Iliad and Horace's ode, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which she understands in its original (literal, not ironic) meaning. During her time in solitary confinement, she preserves her sanity by mentally viewing the great art galleries of Europe: the Prado, Louvre, Uffizi, and Venice (this in contrast to the more famous "verbal cooking" coping mechanism, which she does not find helpful at all [pp. 132, 139]). While in prison in Lwów, Lanckoronska was permitted to receive books and writing materials. She eagerly began to study books on ancient Rome, Marcus Aurelius, Homer and Greek literature, and Dante, as well as William Shakespeare and Thucydides. It was also during this time that she began to write notes for a book on Michelangelo. Indeed, while in Ravensbrück, Lanckoronska taught art lessons to her fellow camp inmates (thus the title of her memoir) in an attempt to sustain a measure of humanity within a notoriously inhumane environment. Upon her release from captivity in 1945, Lanckoronska travelled to Italy, and soon began organizing education for Polish soldier-students. This deep love of culture and belief in its sustaining influence provides a glimpse into the upper echelon of Polish society in the early twentieth century, and highlights the tragedy that was the decapitation of the Polish nation through the systematic murder of its intelligentsia during the Second World War.
Although Lanckoronska was primarily concerned with the plight of the Polish nation and its culture, she also maintains a quiet, matter-of-fact sympathy for the plight of Polish Jews. For the most part, she does little to single out Jewish victims in Poland. In her discussion of the expulsions of 1939, the round-ups in Warsaw in 1941, forest executions, or deaths in Auschwitz, no sense emerges that these measures were directed significantly at Jews. Indeed, Lanckoronska even goes out of her way to mention that some Jews were active in the communist movement and participated as perpetrators in the February 1940 expulsion of Poles. Lest this information suggest the wrong impression, she immediately adds that she is happy to note that "there were also Jews of another kind," that she was raised in a spirit of hostility to antisemitism, and that she has retained that attitude into her adulthood (p. 30). Indeed, in other passages of the memoir, she laments the treatment of Jewish prisoners forced to stand for hours on end in roll calls, and documents the clearing of the Lwów ghetto and the moment of her awareness of the mass murder of European Jews. Moreover, during her time as a Red Cross official in charge of caring for Polish prisoners, Lanckoronska worked with Jewish relief efforts toward her dream of a program to feed Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian prisoners jointly.
Finally, the work portrays Lanckoronska's decidedly conflicted view of her elevated social status. On the one hand, her aristocratic sense of duty and propriety drove her to care for her fellow Poles and resist both Russian and German occupying forces. Numerous times, her frank, confident, and intelligent confrontations with authorities disarmed her opponents and secured opportunities, delayed consequences, or opened doors for her efforts on behalf of Poland. She campaigned for justice and the rule of law, not least on behalf of her murdered academic colleagues. That said, she repeatedly declares in the memoir that she did not cling to her social status for its own sake. When facing prejudice from her Red Cross superior, she briskly explains that she had had no choice about her family name, and that it placed on her a great sense of duty, as it had upon her ancestors. In contrast, under Russian occupation, Lanckoronska's aristocratic background proved a liability rather than an advantage, and it was only her educational status as a professor that earned her the important "Category 1 Passport" with which she could travel unmolested throughout eastern Poland.
In sum, then, Michelangelo in Ravensbrück sheds light on the war years in Poland from an atypical and highly interesting perspective: that of an aristocratic, patriotic, cultured, and cosmopolitan daughter of Poland. For that reason, it fills a useful niche in Holocaust memoir literature, and does so in vivid, engaging prose.
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Kyle Jantzen. Review of Lanckoronska, Karolina, Michelangelo in Ravensbrück: One Woman's War against the Nazis.
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