I Am First a Human Being:
The Prison Letters of Krystyna Wituska

220 pages,
ISBN: 1550650955

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Epistolary Contraband - bearing witness to remaining human
by Maria Kubacki

Krystyna Wituska was nineteen years old and at finishing school in Switzerland in the summer of 1939 when the winds of war were blowing over Poland. A privileged, spoiled child, she nevertheless demonstrated integrity and courage by coming home to face the imminent German invasion with her parents and sister.

The family soon split up: Krystyna's parents' marriage, as it turned out, had been an unhappy one and with the loss of their country estate in December 1939, there was nothing to hold them together. Her father and his lover found work on an estate that had been confiscated by the Germans; Krystyna's sister married her tutor and found refuge in the countryside, while Krystyna moved to Warsaw with her mother.

It was in Warsaw that she joined the resistance effort. By 1941 she was involved with the ZWZ (Union for Armed Resistance), a forerunner of the Armia Krajowa (Home Army), the military arm of the underground state responsible to the Polish government in exile in London. Being fluent in German, she was assigned to collect data on German troop movements at the Warsaw airport. She might have continued her work undetected for some time, but her name and address were found when her fiancé, who had been working with a Polish underground network in Germany, was subjected to a search of his belongings following the interception of one of his reports to Poland. In 1942, at the age of twenty-one, she was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Berlin where she was interrogated and imprisoned, first at Alexanderplatz, then at Alt-Moabit. Eighteen months later she was executed.

Krystyna's letters from prison-many of them smuggled out by a kindly guard the prisoners called Sonnenschein (Sunshine)-were edited by the historian, Wanda Kiedrzynska, and published in Poland in 1970 (*query to the publisher: why the unnecessary deletion of the Polish diacriticals?). They have been translated into German and Japanese, but were not available in English until now.

The Montreal-based writer and translator, Irene Tomaszewski, encountered them while doing research for a documentary on Poland made by Brian McKenna for the CBC's Witness series. Encouraged by the response to the letters she translated for the documentary, Tomaszewski decided to tackle the entire collection. The English translation is based on Dr. Kiedrzynska's book, as is much of the historical background. Tomaszewski also drew on material obtained from Krystyna's nephew, from one of Krystyna's former cell-mates at the Alt-Moabit prison, and from Helga Grimpe, the daughter of Sonnenschein (Hedwig Grimpe).

In one of her most candid letters, Krystyna admitted that she was initially attracted to the underground by curiosity and a sense of adventure; only later did love of country come into play. And dangerous though her work was, it was prison itself that made her a heroine-a heroism expressed in her letters as a refusal to allow the inhumanity of the Nazis to diminish her dignity. While awaiting a response to her plea for a commutation of her death sentence, she held out some hope that her life might yet be spared but knew that she must not flinch from accepting her fate: "I must be prepared for anything, that is where human strength lies, that even the worst will not break us."

She was forced to wait an unusually long time to find out the worst: she was executed fifteen months after her death sentence was passed. Prisoners were taken to be put to death every Wednesday, and every Tuesday Krystyna would wonder if her turn was next. During her long wait, she was sometimes overwhelmed by vivid memories of people and places she knew she would never see again: "Before my eyes are images of familiar places, I hear the sound of birds singing, I feel the light touch of a fresh breeze. Ahh, if only I could be there again. I can see long forgotten faces with amazing clarity, I hear their voices. My childhood and youth are passing before my eyes, like a film."

Yet she never lost her capacity to find joy in small pleasures-in the dried flowers from a Polish meadow her mother sent her; in the acacia blooming in the prison yard; in the feel of sunshine on her face during her daily walk; in good shampoo that made her and her cell-mate, Olga, look "like goddesses". ("We came to the conclusion, Olga and I, that if you are vain, nothing will change you, not even a death sentence.")

Determined to spare her parents pain and anxiety, she wrote them chatty letters in which she minimized the tragedy of her situation and emphasized these small, everyday pleasures and her good luck in having wonderful cell-mates like Mimi Terwiel, a German dissident whom she met at Alexanderplatz and who taught her to bear imprisonment and the prospect of execution with defiance and humour. Despite the miserable conditions they were forced to endure, she and Mimi laughed constantly, "just to spite them [the guards]."

Separated from Mimi at Alt-Moabit, she continued her efforts to spite her jailors with her new cell-mates, Olenka and Monika. In letters home, she compares prison to a very strict school where she and her fellow inmates are reprimanded for laughing too loudly and having too much fun. "All day long we sing, joke, and behave very much like playful girls in boarding school. We feel like we are in boarding school because there are so many things forbidden here and we're afraid we will get a scolding." At their trial the three women were, in fact, christened "Mädchenpensionat" (boarding school girls). The Mädchenpensionat kept up the appearance of insouciant good humour even on the eve of Monika's execution. The three were permitted to gather in a cell along with three other Polish girls, and the friends stayed up all night singing, reciting poetry, telling stories, and even playing bridge with cards made out of cardboard.

Krystyna was philosophical about her plight. "I am first a human being, and only then a Pole," she wrote to her fiancé's mother. As she explained, on the day of her death she wanted to tell herself that she was dying for freedom and justice, rather than merely for her country.

Yet it is not the expression of principles that makes I am First a Human Being and her letters unforgettable. Like Anne Frank, Krystyna remained herself-brave and caring, vain and full of mischief-until the end. Thanks to Tomaszewski's fine work, her irresistible voice and her indestructible spirit will reach a wider audience. As Tomaszewski writes in her introduction, Krystyna Wituska "belongs to us all." 

Maria Kubacki is associate editor of the New Brunswick Reader, the weekly magazine of the Telegraph-Journal.


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