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Review of books november december 2007 issue

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Michelangelo in Ravensbrück: One Woman’s War Against the Nazis

by Countess Karolina Lanckorońska

Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007, 341 pp., $26.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Rochelle G. Saidel
The catchy title of this engrossing memoir by Polish intellectual and aristocrat Countess Karolina Lanckorońska is misleading, because her book is much more than an an account of her two years and three months as a political prisoner in the infamous Nazi women’s concentration camp, Ravensbrück. Lanckorońska describes her arrival at the camp, located about fifty miles from Berlin, only about two-thirds of the way through her account. Before that detailed and extraordinary story of her ordeal as a prisoner in Ravensbrück, she describes the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland and their effect on her, other intellectuals, and the Polish population in general.

Her personal narrative, set in World War II Poland, offers readers a history lesson in how both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union devastated Poland and persecuted Poles. Germany entered Poland from the west on September 1, 1939, and occupied most of the country throughout the war, while the Soviet Russian Army occupied Lanckorońska’s beloved Lvov and other parts of eastern Poland later that same month.

This is not a book about the Holocaust, and the devoutly Catholic countess barely mentions Hitler’s Jewish victims. Rather, it is a heroic Polish patriot’s saga of how World War II affected her and her country. I have been researching and writing about Ravensbrück for 27 years, and wanted to read this book to see what Lanckorońska had to contribute about women’s experiences there. While I learned or confirmed a great deal about life and death in the camp from her account, I was particularly interested in the details of her pre-Ravensbrück experiences in Poland. This is a story that is much less known to English-language readers, even those who specialize in Holocaust history. Lanckorońska began her memoir in 1945, immediately after her release from Ravensbrück, and completed it a year later. “It was originally intended for publication in English,” she writes in her prologue.

I had a few extracts from the book translated and sent to two publishers, both of whom rejected them out of hand on the grounds that the text was “too anti-Russian.” A few years later I sent the specimen abstracts to two other English publishers, who turned them down, this time on the grounds that they were “too anti-German.”

The book was finally published in Polish in 2001, a year before Lanckorońska’s death, and was published in United Kingdom in 2005.
Lanckorońska’s family had been members of the Polish aristocracy since the fourteenth century. She was born in 1898 in Vienna, at a time when Poland was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her family was based in Vienna but always had a close affinity for Poland, and spent extended summer holidays in their residence in Galicia. Trained at Vienna University, Lanckorońska received her doctorate in art history in May 1926, with a dissertation on Michelangelo. In January 1936, she became the first female professor of art history in Poland, at Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov (now Lwiw, Ukraine). When her father died in 1933, the countess inherited property in Poland and settled permanently in Lvov.

A strong, rigid, and principled woman with a caring heart, Lanckorońska had little regard for either of Poland’s World War II enemies, or for Poland’s neighbor, Ukraine. Many of her colleagues were deported or murdered, either by the Soviet or the Nazi invaders, both of whom wanted to rid Poland of its intelligentsia. Threatened with deportation to Ukraine, she was warned in time to flee Soviet-controlled Lvov for Nazi-controlled Krakow in May 1940. Through the Polish Red Cross, she volunteered to bring aid to sick and wounded Polish prisoners of war. The Soviet occupation lasted until June 1941, when Germany took over eastern Poland. Lanckorońska continued her relief work in the Generalgouvernement, the part of Nazi-administered Poland that included Krakow, Warsaw, and Lublin. While officially serving as a relief worker, she was also a member of the underground resistance movement.

As part of her relief work, in March 1942 Lanckorońska was sent to Stanislawow, in southeastern Poland. “It was a thankless task,” she wrote. “The number of people in need was enormous, jobs strictly limited, imports from the west immensely difficult and the chicanery of the Ukrainians unbounded. Fear of [SS Hauptsturmführer Hans] Krüger persisted.” With good reason: Krüger had participated in the murder of more than twenty university professors in Lvov on July 4, 1941. He became Gestapo chief in Stanislawow in 1942, where he sentenced 250 Polish members of the local intelligentsia to death and was also responsible for the murder of more than 10,000 Jews. He arrested Lanckorońska in May 1942 and, believing her doomed to die, revealed to her his part in the assassination of the Lvov professors. When the Nazis moved her to a prison in Lvov, she told a more sympathetic Nazi, SS Kommissar Walter Kutschmann, of Krüger’s confession. Eventually, the text of her report reached Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, and it was most likely his intervention that resulted in Lanckorońska’s imprisonment in Ravensbrück. The Nazis preferred that the details of the murder of the intellectuals remain unknown to the Polish population.

Lanckorońska was taken from Poland to Berlin on November 27, 1942, under SS escort, and from there was brought to Ravensbrück on January 9, 1943. The Nazis’ main concentration camp for women, Ravensbrück was a brutal slave labor camp that even had its own gas chamber from December 1944 through March 1945. Political prisoners, Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, so-called “asocials” (prostitutes, lesbians, and others), and criminals from forty countries suffered there together. Of the some 132,000 women who passed through the camp between the spring of 1939 and 1945, an estimated 117,000 did not survive.

Lanckorońska was placed in a situation that I never came across in any other survivor testimony. Because of her connections to the International Red Cross and Italian royalty, and more likely because of her knowledge about the murder of the Lvov professors, she was given special protected status in solitary confinement. She was incarcerated in the bunker, or prison block, the most feared building in the camp, where torture routinely took place. However, the countess received good food rather than starvation rations, clean linens for her bed, and even fresh flowers every day and books from the SS library. She overcame her isolation in a number of creative ways and managed both to receive and pass on news to women in the camp.

After months of this VIP treatment, which she detested, her request to be placed in a standard barrack like the other prisoners was finally granted. At this point, we arrive at the reason for the title Michelangelo in Ravensbrück. Lanckorońska was one of the brave women, mostly political prisoners, who resisted the brutality of the Nazis by providing clandestine cultural enrichment and education to their camp sisters. She offered lessons in art history and ancient history to her eager students. On the limited level possible under the strict regime of the slave labor camp, culture flourished—even though punishment for these activities could be time in the bunker, torture, or death.

Extensive documentation of cultural activities, teaching, and exchanges of small gifts among the women prisoners is presented in my own book, The Jewish Women of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (2004), and elsewhere. In the Ravensbrück memorial archives is a hand-drawn atlas made by German-Jewish political prisoner Olga Benario Prestes. She used it to teach prisoners about European geography and the war situation. Austrian Jewish political prisoner Dr. Käthe Leichter and some of her friends wrote poems and put on secret plays to lift the women’s spirits. However, both of these early Jewish political prisoners were murdered by the Nazis in 1942, before Lanckorońska arrived.

While the countess was not alone in providing cultural respite to the prisoners, her lessons were a significant part of this effort. Gemma La Guardia Gluck, a Jewish political hostage and sister of then New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, recalls teaching English to the prisoners in her memoir, Fiorello’s Sister: Gemma La Guardia Gluck’s Story (2007). Gluck also describes the cultural enrichment programs provided by other women, and in her chapter “Famous Names in the Camp,” she mentions Lanckorońska, although she misspells her name. Lanckorońska was especially instrumental in comforting the “rabbits,” Polish women who had been the victims of brutal medical experiments.

Lanckorońska was released from the camp on April 5, 1945—the only Polish national in an International Red Cross rescue transport of French political prisoners. As a final act of resistance, she walked through the gate of Ravensbrück backward, facing those left behind. However, her most lasting act of defiance against those who ravaged her beloved Poland and some of its population is this remarkable and highly recommended book.

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