The Creativity of Tadeusz Wittlin:
Polish Writer and Patriot in Exile
Several years ago I was given the opportunity to have my pick from the library of Tadeusz Wittlin, a Polish writer living in America who died in 1998. I travelled to Washington DC twice to fill up my car and came back with an odd collection of books, personal documents and manuscripts. In the course of this exploration I learned that, though I never met him, Tadeusz Wittlin had a great influence on me, through the Polish-Language publication AMERYKA that was distributed in Poland through the 1960s and 70s. I further discovered that he wrote about the Katyn massacre in 1965 when the topic was still shrouded in official indifference and denial on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition he produced a number of significant books that were favorably received by critics and several short plays, one of which was actually produced.
Who was he?
Tadeusz Wittlin was an important Polish-American author and journalist, yet he is often confused with Jozef Wittlin to whom he is not related. To start off: he was born in Warsaw on June 19, 1909 the son of Leon and Irena (nee Krajewska).
At the age of 20, in 1929, he published a collection of poems entitled "Trasa na Parnas" [The Road to Parnasus].
He studied law and the arts at the University of Warsaw receiving a degree in Law in 1932 and a second one in the arts in the following year. Though he worked in the Warsaw law courts as an assistant prosecutor (what we would probably call an assistant district attorney) after receiving his diploma, he was drawn to the literary arts, taking a position as an editor at the Cyrulik Warszawski, [The Barber of Warsaw] (a satirical magazine) during the years 1931-34.
His work gave him access to Warsaw literary circles where he made acquaintance of many of the literati of the inter-war period, such as Tuwim and Lechon. Another member of this group, General Boleslaw Wieniawa Dlugoszowski, Jozef Pilsudski's right hand man and a soldier-intellectual raconteur who was also known as the 2nd Republic's first and foremost cavalryman, would later become the subject of a biography by Wittlin written in 1996.
His literary talent was recognized early as in 1934 -- he took 1st prize for the best book of fiction by a young writer for his work, a novel, "Marzyciel i goscie" [A dreamer and guests].
There were other books: Zlamane skrzydla [Broken wings] in 1934 and
Przekreslony czlowiek [The crossed-out man] in 1935.
When war broke out in 1939 he joined the Polish army and was captured by the Russians. He spent time in the Soviet interment camps and, after the German attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, was finally released to join the Polish Army -- the Second Corps -- being formed in the Middle East under command of General Wladyslaw Anders. There he served as a Public Relations officer.
Some of his experiences in the Soviet GULAG were recounted in the Polish language book "Diabel w Raju" [The Devil in Paradise] that was later published, in a shortened paperback version in English, under the title "A Reluctant Traveler in Russia" in 1952. The Polish version of book had an interesting history, as it had the honor of being published in the Polish Underground press -- the so-called "Second Circulation Press" [Prasa Drugiego Obiegu] during the times of repression in Poland, before 1989.
As Wittlin recounts the story, a train, not of boxcars or cattle cars but of proper carriages meant to carry passengers was to take to Poles to their destination, Buzuluk, where a military camp was constructed to gather all the volunteers who wanted to join Anders' Army and then march out, by way of the Middle East, to join the British forces in Palestine and fight the Germans. While on the way the transport had a lengthy stop at a provincial town and a hungry Tadeusz Wittlin wandered out to get some soup that was being served in at the station. Sated and feeling tired he fell asleep and failed to get back on the train. Stranded in the middle of no-place he had to make his way by hopping freights and bluffing his way aboard passenger trains without a ticket. Eventually, he managed to reach his destination and join the Polish forces, at the camp that was still within the territory of the Soviet Union.
Try as he might, during his entire time with the Polish Army, he was never able to locate any of his companions from that train. This left him with the nagging suspicion that the passengers of that train were never intended to reach their destination and were disposed of in some out-of-the way place -- and that he was the only survivor of this ill fated group.
On arriving at the Polish camp, Tadeusz asked to be taken to the officer in charge of recruits. He was led into an office where he met an older man in shirtsleeves, and suspenders holding up a pair of military trousers. He reported in as a volunteer, and only after an extended conversation realized that he was talking with General Wladyslaw Anders himself. This led to an assignment as Public Relations Officer for the Polish Forces abroad, and a long friendship with the General. It was Gen. Anders who wrote the introduction to Tadeusz Wittlin's "Diabel w Raju" [Devil in Paradise].
During the stay in Camp in Buzuluk, T. Wittlin organized a puppet theater to entertain the troops. It was satirical in nature with skits, acted out by the puppets, that made fun of military routine and thanked their Russian hosts for a pleasant stay in Siberia. One song refrain in particular contained the line "the NKVD, that great old gang" and caught the attention of a Soviet officer who happened to sit in on the show. He demanded to see the script of the show and its creator. While Gen. Anders stalled, Wittlin worked all night to alter the script to give the verses an innocuous meaning. Fortunately, he succeeded and the matter passed into history. In 1993 part of the show was recreated as a historical piece, in its original form, by the "Guliver" puppet theater of Warsaw. It then appeared on Polish television within the context of a documentary film "Tadeusz Wittlin i jego Szopka" [Tadeusz Wittlin and his Puppet Show] made by Jolanta Kessler Chojecka.
In Cairo, Egypt he edited a publication "Parada" [Parade] for the 2nd Corps. A Christmas 1944 issue No. 25/44 of this biweekly magazine survived among the papers I collected. It is in a tabloid format, in Polish, with news about the progress of the war and other stories that would be of interest to members of the Polish Armed Forces. This particular issue starts off with a report about the progress of the Carpathian Division through Lombardy, a general report on the fight to liberate Europe (with photographs), several "human interest stories" about army life and a report by Tadeusz Wittlin on how he organized the above mentioned puppet show - illustrated with photographs.
Wittlin remained with the Polish Army through its entire campaign, eventually accompanying it to England. In 1946 he was transferred from the Army into the Polish Resettlement Corps an organization that was to assist in placing the Polish veterans. This assignment ended in January 1949.
During his time in the armed forces in England he produced a collection of short stories "Radosne Dni" [Joyful Days] published in 1945 and "Wyspa Zakochanych" [Island of Lovers] published in England by The Vistula Press Limited of London in 1951. The latter book was a series of humorous sketches that countered the Polish conviction that the English are formal and stiff in their personal relations. The anecdotal stories provided examples to the contrary, that like people everywhere the Britons can be demonstrative and caring. He also worked on translating the stories of J. Fennimore Cooper, "The Last of the Mohicans" into Polish.
For a while he had a job with Radiodiffusion Frangaise, Paris (Fr.), 1950-51;
In 1952 A Reluctant Traveler in Russia the English version of "Devil in Paradise" was published and he came to the United States settling in New York City.
Here is a sample from this collection of sketches in A Reluctant Traveler in Russia --
Chapter 17. Vera
After a time, I was transferred to a room in which there were sixteen beds. The young sisters who served as nurses were worthy of admiration. They did not have enough to eat and were paid very little. They helped the sick with real devotion, and when it was needed, they gave their own blood to the men.
I was in the last bed near the wall. I was not expecting to see Sister Vera Ivanovna, who was my nurse.
"How are you?" asked Vera, bending over me with her pretty face and kind, thoughtful eyes.
She wore a pink dress with sky-blue flowers on it instead of the usual nurse's dress. Her hair was beautifully arranged and she was wearing high-heeled shoes.
"I am well, thank you," I replied. "I did not think you would be working today. You were here all night. I thought you would be asleep."
"I should be, but they were giving us sweets at lunchtime. I came to give you some." She laid a piece of newspaper containing a few pieces of candy on my blanket. "I know that in your capitalist land you never have anything like this to eat."
Vera was not stupid. But because she was only twenty-five years of age, she had been educated entirely by the Soviet system.
"Thank you." I held her hand. "I must tell you, though, that in Poland every child could buy candy when he wanted."
She smiled in understanding. "You only say that because you love your native land. I know that it is not true."
Vera was not an ordinary hospital nurse, but was studying to be a doctor.
"I must go now," she said to me. "Good-bye." That evening Marfa, the kitchen maid, brought me my dinner. She who usually wore a happy smile on her face seemed sad and angry.
"Why are you unhappy, Marfa?" I asked. "I am angry at these doctors and commanders," she replied. "I wanted to ask the chief nurse for some clean bedclothes. I went to their room and there they were sitting around the table drinking tea. They told me to go away and not bother them. If you say a word to them, you are punished."
"Marfa, if we foreigners sometimes complain about conditions here--that is all right. We did not ask to come here. But your brothers, your father, husband, or cousin have fought and died to preserve these conditions and this liberty of yours."
Marfa did not reply. More furious than ever, she gave the men their dinner in silence and went out quickly.
A few days later I was standing waiting for the car which was to return me to the camp.
"Will you come and see us sometimes?" asked Vera.
"Yes, I will. Come and let us drink this wine I have here."
"If you won't even drink with me, why should I come and visit you?" I said laughing.
"My dear boy," she begged in a whisper, "if anybody saw a nurse drinking wine in the hospital -- with a foreigner -- she would be sent to Siberia. If you want to come and see me at home you will be very welcome."
She told me where she lived and I promised to visit her on Friday.
Vera lived in Krasnovodsk, a small town. She lived in a small low house, a hut almost. She was waiting for me, dressed in her white holiday dress. Her room was a large kitchen, divided into two parts by a gray blanket. On one side was a bed, chair, table, and cabinet. There were faded photographs pinned to the walls.
It was a sad and lonely home.
Vera was preparing tea, and while she waited for the water to boil, she was sewing a skirt, "It is not for me," she explained. "I will sell it. It is not easy to live on nothing but a nurse's pay. I must contribute to the library and the Red Army and pay a special tax because I am twenty-five and have no child."
"You are a good person, Vera, pretty, intelligent, and young. Why are you all alone?"
"Do you really think that I am good and kind?"
"I will never forget how you cared for me when I was sick. You were very patient and understanding with all the sick and wounded. You were kind to us, though I never saw you smile."
"I forgot how to smile many years ago."
"I am sorry. I understand you suffered some tragedy."
"I did suffer a tragedy, but it was not the kind you imagine."
Then Vera asked, "Do you think anyone can be good who has killed someone?"
"Yes, I think so," I said, surprised. "For example, I don't regard myself as wicked, but I killed a few men in the war."
"That is different," she said. She began to explain, and to hide her emotion, she turned away pretending to do something in the kitchen.
"Before I became a nurse," she said, "I worked for the Security Police. One day I was ordered to go to a place near the Chinese border. I was not told immediately what I was to do. I soon began to love the man who was my chief. I was very young at the time and I had never loved any man before. You know how it is."
"After a time, I received my orders. The person had come to get was the man that I loved. I did my duty."
"Such things happen in that kind of work," I said. "Is it true that even in a hospital there is one sister who is supposed to tell the police what the men discuss?"
"Yes," Vera replied. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I believe that I told one of them more than was necessary about myself."
"That is all right," Vera told me. "You can say what you wish to her. It is only the senior sister who would tell the police about you."
It was dark now. Vera turned the lamp on and looked at the clock.
"Eight o'clock already," she said. "I would like to have you stay, but your train will be leaving soon."
"Yes, I must go." I stood up. "Thank you, Vera. This has been a pleasant evening. Good night."
"Come again," she said. "And remember, don't say much about yourself, especially to the senior sister in the hospital."
As I left I felt strange sorrow, as though I had lost someone dear to me.
Vera, you see, was the senior sister in the hospital.
In those years he worked as a translator for the Motion Picture Service Branch, USIA [Unites States Information Agency] , N.Y.C., (1952-58), but also worked as a free-lance writer. As the Cold War began to warm up, he started writing Polish language scripts for the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. At that time he lived in Greenwich Village and saw the comings and goings of the Beat Generation.
This resulted in an unpublished manuscript of interesting observations -- short stories -- about the "beatnik" life he saw around him. A keen observer, his essays were penetrating and always had an interesting point. He entitled the collection "In the White Horse Tavern" -- then a well known watering hole of Greenwich Village -- and later retitled it as: "Left Bank New York."
Often he would wander around in the evenings. Here's a sample of his observations.
I look into McSorley's Old Ale House one of the oldest New York beer halls, where women are still strictly excluded. I order a lager beer from the tap. Some slightly buzzed actors ask me if I would join them. They have not been engaged to perform, so the conversation is halting. I propose that they join up with one of the summer stock companies that tour through the resort areas, but they rejected this idea out of hand. To play run-of-the-mill stock? Never! Apparently they have already tried to get work in those quarters -- and met with failure. I leave the tavern.
I wander into the neighborhood of the theater on Cherry Lane. Just beside it is the dark entrance to some poverty stricken tenement house that looks so woeful that it evokes my sympathy as if it were a living thing. The mail box for the renters' mail hangs out front, and is equally pathetic -- the symbol for hope and for disappointment. It can become the proverbial barrel of joy or Pandora's box. It is that magic box which one visits each morning to see if the much awaited letter of acceptance from the publisher has come -- though usually it is a rejection and a returned manuscript. It forces me to think about Arthur, the luckless playwright who gradually acquired a panic phobia for checking his mailbox, that he feared returning home, finally the mailbox becoming the cause of his suicide.
I step inside and from the top of the stairs look out the window onto a backyard which is as picturesque as a decoration for La Boheme.
Someone opens a door behind me.
"Are you looking for someone?" called out a feminine voice.
I turn. At the door stands a young woman, rather pretty. She is wearing a red sweater, a plaid skirt and black slippers. Her red hair is tied up with a blue ribbon. In her hand is a pallet and two brushes.
"If you are looking for a painter, I will gladly show you my pictures," she said with a polite smile. "Won't you cone in?"
I accepted her invitation. Her apartment, though located in this very poor area was surprisingly artistic, being a combination of a homey nook with an artist's atelier. The couch was covered by a bright coverlet, over it, on the wall, a huge straw hat with a Spanish kerchief in the background. There was a modern table with a radio, a telephone and a small sculpture. In the corner; a shelf full of books. On the walls hung many impressionistic oils and watercolors. In the center of the room stood an easel, and on it rested a canvas with an unfinished composition of fruit and flowers. The painting on which she was currently working.
"Please, do take a seat." She said and took a bottle of wine from the cabinet sitting down in a place opposite me on the couch.
"Will you be taking part in the May exhibition on Washington Square?" I asked.
"I don't yet know," she replied, pouring the wine. "Usually there are so many amateurs that being in the exhibition brings no distinction. In the fall I'd like to organize my own show at a gallery in upper Manhattan."
"You will probably sell more than one canvas," I interject. "These are really good. And I'm not saying this to be kind, but because I really do think that."
"Thank you for the recognition," she said lighting a cigarette. "And which one do you like best?"
"This one of the ocean beach," I said indicating a small oil canvass hanging near the window.
"I will gladly sell it to you," she said happily.
"How much are you asking?"
"Two hundred dollars."
"Unfortunately, I don't have that kind of money," I answered frankly.
"And how much would you be willing to pay?" she asked.
"I would not like to be misunderstood, that I might be taking advantage," I tried to explain, "but I could not afford more than twenty-five..."
"Unfortunately, I can't go that low," she sighed. "Because an artist who sells a painting for twenty-five dollars will never sell any canvass for one-hundred or two-hundred dollars. A painter who does not value oneself will not be appreciated by the critics or the public. This is the unwritten law. But, because today I am in a need of money and you are willing to spend twenty five dollars then..."
She rose, crossed her arms across the hips and with a quick athletic motion pulled the sweater off over her head. Then she unzipped the side of her skirt and stepped out, shaking the slippers off her feet as she did so.
"What do you think? Am I not well built?"
"You certainly are." I agreed. "But if you are also an artist's model then I am sorry to say that I'm not a painter, or even a sculptor."
"I had not the least thought of that," she said shaking the ash off her cigarette onto the floor. "I'm just offering a bit of fun to you."
"How is it?" I wondered. "You are unwilling to sell a picture for a low price, yet you are ready to go to bed with the first stranger? That's rather paradoxical."
"I don't see any paradox in it," she said shrugging her arms. "First of all, since you are interested in art, then you are not just any stranger." I saw that by this she was trying to build me up in her own eyes. "And then, to paint I must have a stretched and primed canvas, paints and brushes, and such things are expensive these days. On the opposite hand the other thing costs me nothing."
I noticed that her feet had not been washed for some time, and the red polish on her toenails was badly chipped. The ugly black panties with red butterflies on the front were frayed and torn, while the brassiere filled with sagging breasts showed yellow-violet marks of sweat under the arms.
She snuffed out the cigarette and with a practiced motion pulled the coverlet off the couch. Then she flicked on the radio while turning down the volume.
"I hope you will take up the offer," she said unfastening the bra. "Don't you like me?"
"To tell the truth," I said with a bit of surprise. "For twenty-five dollars I had seen girls with better breasts."
"Well, you know! You are nothing but an ignorant boor!" she shouted in anger.
"Quite possibly. And you are a most exquisite lady. Good bye."
I went out into a city that was already enveloped by the night. ...
Once he became established as editor of AMERYKA he relocated to Washington DC. He succeeded in bringing Eugenia "Genia" Galewska, the love of his life, whom he knew in the pre-war times in Poland to the United States. She was a designer of theatrical sets and costumes.
By this time he had relocated to Washington DC. He and Genia were married there on June 22, 1961. At this point he was 52 years old.
AMERYKA or America Illustrated
For 12 years Tadeusz Wittlin was editor at the illustrated Polish language publication entitled "Ameryka." A publication of the United States Information Service (USIA) it had its direct opposite in "Poland" an illustrated magazine published in the English language by Poland's Interpress agency on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This magazine was first announced in 1958 and described by Leopold Dende in his the Sept.-Oct. 1958 issue "Polonia Reporter."
"The magazine will have 60 pages between its covers and will be 10 1/2 by 14 inches, and will be printed on durable slick paper in four colors. It will be produced by the Issac Goldman Co. 636 11th Ave., New York, NY.
"Thirty thousand copies of the first issue will be put on sale through Ruch, the official Polish news distributing agency. The price will be seven zlotys a copy, comparable with the going price for magazines in Poland.
"In addition to the newsstand circulation the US Embassy in Poland will distribute 2,000 copies a month among officials, educators and other opinion leaders.
"The budgeted cost of the magazine for the first year is $818,678.
"In this connection we have proposed certain suggestions to Mr. Allen, chief of the USIA and other interested persons.
"One of our proposals would save the Government hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"At this time we are refraining from further comments, waiting for their appearance of the first issue and the decision on our suggestions.
"Incidentally, the Polish Government plans to introduce an English-language magazine POLAND in the USA.
"We were unable to learn the details, with the exception that it will be available on the newsstands."
In later issues of POLONIA REPORTER Leopold Dende promised that he would write a review of the AMERYKA publication, however despite a search of the issues that followed, no such review was found. This is a disappointment, because whatever the result, it would have been informative to know the opinion of this editor on the subject.
Whether AMERYKA actually reached 60 pages is disputable -- I remember it as a much thinner magazine.
My first experience with it came when in May of 1961 my father brought one of these magazines home. During those times, even the best mass circulation Polish magazines were printed on pulp paper. In comparison "Ameryka" was a revelation, with its glossy paper and many illustrations, black and white as well as color.
The cover was not splashy, it was in color showing some automobiles on a highway. But inside the issue contained a number of stories which etched themselves into the cortex of my brain. The center spread was devoted to the Kennedy family and featured a full size group photograph in addition to details from their daily lives. At the time Poles adored President John Kennedy and curiosity about him and his brothers was great, so this would have been a much sought for information. There was an article with detailed descriptions of some rides at the Disneyland amusement park, with color photographs, something for the kids. It read like a science-fiction description of things-to-come in the far flung future. More gritty and everyday, though not less exciting, was an article about the men whose occupation was to dislodge rocks from the sides of canyon walls to prevent these from impacting upon passers-by beneath. Also highly absorbing was a story from the movie set of "The Misfits." Though I had no idea of who the actors Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable were, all was exotic and unbelievable. It was perplexing however, to see Mr. Gable throwing a lasso onto a horse from the back of a flatbed truck, not from the saddle as I've seen John Wayne do in "Red River" which had been shown on the single channel state television some time before.
Yet despite the all the wonders within, there was one article that topped all the rest. It was entitled "When a Boy Buys His First Car. " The operant word here was "first." In Gomolka's Poland, an automobile was thing, the possession of which seemed miraculous. In a world where things were rationed and the matter of obtaining one was of the greatest difficulty, the word "first" seemed incongruous. The text went into some lengths describing the young man and his father touring the used car lots, kicking tires and checking out the "Detroit iron." At last the sought for object is selected and driven home, after the buyer divests himself of what seems a large number of dollars. On arrival at home there's the strange ritual of removing some "chrome decorations." Most inexplicable was the fact that the family in the article already owned an automobile... and that this would be the second car. The boy's "first" automobile would be the family's "second" and obviously the inferior auto. It was a bit much for my youthful imagination to contemplate.
Yet, as incredible to the average Polish reader as the information in AMERYKA could seem, it was not exaggerated. The descriptions were merely matter of fact reflections on the American situation and society. The thing that made them incredible was the gulf that separated America and 1960s Poland -- the differences in society, customs, and economic opportunity. Thus by telling the broad truths, Wittlin perpetuated the myth of America as the great land of promise. It was the fertile Polish imagination, stoked by these facts, that made the myth grow to outragous proportions.--
While living in Washington he took some lecturing assignments at George Washington University (DC), 1969-70, North Carolina College, Southwestern University (TX), McGill University (Can.).
During this period he published two books in the English language through Bobbs-Merril publishers -- [Amadeo] Modigliani: Prince of Montparnasse in 1964, a biographical novel about the Italian painter; and Time Stopped at 6:30, in 1965, about the Katyn massacre. This book was among the first main stream publications that addressed the Katyn crime when its true nature was still being denied by parties on both sides of the Atlantic. It received much recognition and appeared on the list "Best Books of the Year". It is interesting to note that the Bobbs Merrill company also published I Saw Poland Betrayed by former ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane.
After retiring from the editorship at AMERYKA in 1971 he continued to write full-time both in the Polish and the English language. The list includes:
Commissar: The Life and Death of Lavrenty Pavlovich Beria, 1972;
a highly acclaimed book, about the psychopathic Security Chief who nearly replaced Stalin as head of the Soviet Union. It was translated into the French, Spanish, and Japanese languages.
Ostatnia cyganeria, [Last of the Bohemians] 1974; a book of reminiscences
Piesniarka Warszawy, Hanka Ordonska i Jej Swiat [A Songstress of Warsaw Hanka Ordonska and her world], 1985;
An Evening with Anton Chekhov and Maxim Gorky (a play), 1987;
which was produced at the Sanctuary Theater in Washington, DC
Nad szarej Wisty brzegiem [On the grey banks of the Wisla], 1990;
A book about the colorful writer-humorist Stefan Wiechecki-Wiech and his pre-war Warsaw.
Szabla i Kon [Saber and Horse] (1996) published by Polish Cultural Foundation London, a biography of the already mentioned Gen. Boleslaw Wieniawa Dlugoszowski.
This last book is a nostalgic look back to the Poland of the 2nd Republic where Jozef Pilsudski was the final arbitrator of political life. It is also a close look at a Boleslaw Wieniawa Dlugoszowski --- a multi-faceted man who embodied some of the finest national traditions of the Polish Republic. Not only a soldier's soldier with the soul of a cavalier from an earlier age, but an extremely versatile diplomat and man of letters. And Tadeusz Wittlin managed to bring it all out as someone who was there, saw it, felt it and lived it. With this book, it could be said, that the author had made a full orbit and returned to his starting point.
He died on Oct. 4, 1998 in Washington, DC; he was 89 years of age. Like those who came before him -- he was a true patriot of the Polish cause and, looking back at his achievements, an extremely talented writer and editor in both the English and Polish language. He was a member of that special generation that grew up in a free Poland between the wars and had a great commitment to keeping Poland an independent country, and were ready to -- and often did -- sacrifice all for the homeland.
by: Peter J. Obst (January 4, 2011)