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The Man in the Otter Collar

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 gigantic Russia with its millions of human tragedies…and there it was before me in the flesh—tragic Russia…. The breakthrough I had experienced in Saratov seemed to have reached to my very depths, but the layers of experience are very thin. I was not moved by this spectacle; I saw these people as human manure.

He was on his way south to search for his wife Ola and his child Andrzej. They had been arrested separately, and for eighteen months he had not known whether they were dead or alive. But they had survived, working as forced laborers on the Kazakh steppe and selling their clothes for food or stealing grain to avoid starvation, and in February 1942, after discovering each other’s whereabouts, Ola met him in Alma-Ata.

Both have left a description of that moment, and that shock. Ola tells how she entered the tiny night watchman’s hut where—she had been told—Aleksander was staying. In the middle of the room was a cradle holding a dead baby, who had just died of scarlet fever.

On a stool, an old man smoking a pipe, at the stove a woman in a kerchief, girded with an apron….The old man, almost without a word, motioned his head to the right, and there in the middle of another room stood Aleksander who was jotting down something on a card. He had grown grey. I saw a large black cross under his unbuttoned shirt. He did not hear me entering since he was absorbed in writing. When I saw him for the last time getting into that black car after the arrest, he was forty. He was young and strong, he had very dark hair and large shining eyes. Now, virtually an aged man stood before me, grizzled, thin, exhausted.

Wat remembered: “Andrzej looked like a child from the Warsaw ghetto. He had the beginnings of tuberculosis, a corpse’s skull. How old was Ola then? She was thirty-odd years old and looked like a sixty-year-old woman, completely ravaged.” This was not the last of their separations. A few years later, both were arrested for refusing to accept Soviet passports. Ola was beaten up and savaged by Russian women in her cell. They were reunited again for another spell of exile in the Kazakh settlement of Ili near the Chinese border. But they had not been forgotten in their own country, and after the war the intervention of other Polish writers eventually secured their release—almost certainly saving their lives in April 1946.

The train stopped in a field, some miles from the ruins of what had been Warsaw, and unloaded the Wats “with our bags full of tin plates, dried bread crumbs, rags and other goods and chattels….” They begged a lift into the city from an official driver, who to their alarm turned out to be a chauffeur for the Ministry of State Security. But he refused to take any money. “I do not request payment from martyrs,” he said.

More suffering—political and physical—lay ahead of them. But the part of their lives that ended in 1946, the years of captivity, has until now provided most of what non-Poles know about them, and about Aleksander Wat as a writer. There are several reasons for this. One is that little of Wat’s poetry and prose has been translated. The other is the existence of three works—two memoirs and a film—which cover only their period in captivity but which are in themselves so moving and absorbing that questions about the rest of Wat’s life and his work are edged into the shadows.

The most recent of these works is the 1992 film Wszystko co najwazniejsze… (“Everything That Really Matters”), directed by Robert Glinski, which attracted shamefully little international notice but which stands in the great tradition of Polish film before 1989. It is the story of Ola Wat’s experiences in Soviet hands (the actress Ewa Skibinska plays her, and will be remembered for it), and it is based on Ola’s own account with the same title, in a series of interviews with the writer Jacek Trznadel. Published originally in London by PULS in 1984, the book had to wait until the collapse of communism to become a best seller in Poland.

The only one of the three works translated into English is Aleksander Wat’s memoir, My Century, published in the United States in 1988. * This is one of the great classics of prison experience; it can take its place beside Silvio Pellico’s My Prisons or Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead. Properly speaking, it is not a memoir but a series of taped conversations with Czeslaw Milosz at Berkeley and then in Paris, in 1964 and 1965. Aleksander Wat was ill and in too much pain to write, and Milosz decided to tape his recollections. What developed from these meetings was not so much a series of conversations as what Milosz called “seances” in which he had the “honor to serve as a medium”; and it is not too much to say that My Century is one of Milosz’s own great achievements as well as Wat’s testament. Coming from the same background, Milosz well understood what his fellow poet was saying, and what he found difficult to say. In the foreword to the book, Milosz wrote:

I quickly realized that something unique was transpiring between us. There was not a single other person on the face of the earth who had experienced the century as Wat had and who had the same sense of it as he. This has nothing to do with the cruelty of fate or history, for a enormous number of people were more grievously afflicted by it than he was. No, what matters here is a cast of mind, a culture…specifically, the culture of the Polish intelligentsia.

The taped conversations start with Wat’s literary and political life in pre-war Poland and they break off, quite abruptly (because Milosz had to leave Paris and no satisfactory substitute “medium” could be found), in Kazakhstan, not long before the family returned to Poland. They are an account of Wat’s years in captivity, of his spiritual journey to communism and then away toward religious belief, and of his agonizing guilt and remorse at having once supported an ideology which he had come to regard as satanic. But they are only part of the Wat story. My Century does not deal with his years in postwar Poland, with his struggles with the Stalinist and post-Stalinist cultural bureaucracy, or with his decision in 1959 to go into exile in France. Neither—more importantly—do they discuss in any coherent way his writing and his life as a writer.

Tomas Venclova, the Lithuanian poet and critic who now teaches literature at Yale, has filled in what has been missing. His book is in part a biography, relying on and supplementing the memoirs of Ola and Aleksander (which are not without mistakes and omissions, even within the restricted time-spans they cover). But it is also a work of literary criticism. Venclova’s book closely analyzes Wat’s poetry and prose. As he does so, he sets Wat’s development as a writer—his sudden transformations, his long silences, his indistinct and Aesopian utterances which were devised to outwit the censors, his magnificent outbursts—against the cultural and political development of Poland and Russia during the terrifying decades between the Bolshevik Revolution and the decay of Stalinism after 1956.

Wat was born on May Day, 1900, in Warsaw. His family was middle-class and Jewish, at once socialist and Polish—his parents’ first language was Russian but they were patriotic Poles. One of his first memories was of seeing his father and one of his sisters returning bloody and battered after a demonstration against Russian rule in 1905. Constantly asked in later years whether he considered himself more Jewish than Polish, Wat would reject the question as superficial: “I never felt myself either a Polish Jew or a Jewish Pole…. I always felt myself a Jew-Jew and a Pole-Pole.”

  1. *

    Translated by Richard Lourie (University of California Press); abridged from Mój Wiek (London: Book Fund Ltd., 1977).

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