The Man in the Otter Collar

Aleksander Wat
Aleksander Wat; drawing by David Levine

“At Saratov station, where all of us, seated in freight cars, were waiting for departure, the doors were suddenly opened, and with the help of those near them a man was pulled in: he stood out distinctly against the background of all present since he had a fur coat with an otter collar and…a bowler hat…. And just as he stood on the car’s wooden floor, he collapsed. He was so weak that he could not stand by himself.”

The recorder of that surreal vision was a Polish-Jewish student who had just been released from a Soviet camp. The time was late 1941. Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union in June. Under the terms of Stalin’s agreement with the Polish government-in-exile, the gigantic penal empire of labor camps and prisons was reluctantly beginning to disgorge some of the two million Poles who had been deported into slavery after the Soviet invasion and annexation of eastern Poland in September 1939. The destination of the cattle-car—seething with lice and crammed with Poles and their families—was Alma-Ata. In Soviet Asia, there was rumored to be food. Almost as important, offices of the Polish government had been set up there, and General Wladyslaw Anders was gathering around his standard the nucleus of a free Polish army, nursing and feeding tattered skeletons until they could become soldiers.

The man in the otter collar and the bowler hat was Aleksander Wat, a Polish poet and prose writer whose stature is only now becoming appreciated and honored in the Western world. The picture of him at Saratov catches him in the middle of the great and transforming experience of his life, the nearly seven years which he spent in Soviet prisons and in penal exile in Kazakhstan before returning to Poland in April 1946. Wat was easy to hoist onto the train because he now weighed a mere 45 kilos (under 100 pounds), half his pre-war weight. He had just been released from the prison at Saratov, shaved and given two loaves of bread, and had spent a day and a night wandering among the thousands of uprooted, desperate people who had overrun the station.

“That night,” he later wrote, “when I was walking through the dark at the periphery of the station, I came on a woman being raped. It was a very large station. A few tramps and a woman. They were simply raping her. No one paid it any attention, and no one would have come to her defense even if she had screamed.” Wat, a few months previously, had undergone an experience of religious conversion in his cell which was eventually to permeate his whole life and lead him—born into a Jewish family in Warsaw—into Catholic baptism. But these scenes at the station did not touch him.

In the cell at Saratov I had had a vision of those great enormous expanses of…

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