Piasecki (before 1939)
April 1, 1901|
|Died||September 12, 1964
|Genre||novel, short story|
|Literary movement||modernism, magic realism|
|Notable works||Kochanek Wielkiej Niedzwiedzicy, Wieża Babel, Zapiski oficera Armii Czerwonej|
Sergiusz Piasecki (Polish pronunciation: [ˈsɛrɡʲuʂ pjaˈsɛt͡skʲi]; 1901 in Lachowicze near Baranowicze – 1964 in Penley) - was one of the best known Polish language writers of the mid 20th century. His crowning achievement, Kochanek Wielkiej Niedźwiedzicy (Lover of the Great Bear) published in 1937, was the third most popular novel in the Second Polish Republic. Following World War II, Piasecki's books were banned by communist censorship in the People's Republic of Poland.
After the collapse of the Soviet empire, in early 1990s, Kochanek Wielkiej Niedźwiedzicy became again one of the best selling books in the country according to Rzeczpospolita daily. Another one of his novels, an anti-Soviet satire Zapiski oficera Armii Czerwonej (The memoirs of a Red Army officer), had already been reprinted several times.
Sergiusz Piasecki was born on April 1, 1901 (or June 1, 1899) in Lyakhavichy, then in Northwestern Krai of the Russian Empire (now Brest Province, Belarus). The latter date was presented by Piasecki on several occasions, probably because he deliberately wanted to mislead the authorities. He was an illegitimate son of a russifed Polish nobleman Michal Piasecki and a Belarusian mother Klaudia Kukalowicz, a servant working for the Piasecki family, whom Sergiusz never met. According to his own life story, he was looked after by stepmother Filomena Gruszewska, a devout Catholic, who openly disliked him. His childhood was very difficult also, because children at school mocked his Polish roots, calling him "Lach" (which, in loose translation, is the Russian equivalent of the ethnic slur Polack). Conversely, Piasecki hated the Russian school – as he later explained – and in the seventh grade, armed with a pistol attacked the teacher. Sentenced to jail, he escaped while in prison, and thus his formal education ended.
In the monograph about his life, work and legend, researcher Krzysztof Polechoński noted that most available data about Piasecki's whereabouts often doesn't correspond to reality, not to mention the claims made by the writer himself. Perhaps the discrepancies came from his work as intelligence agent, but there's no way to confirm many of his personal stories. Piasecki's addresses in Vilnius are not available and neither are the registers of houses in which he lived. His personal documents in possession of Piasecki's son: such as the copy of a marriage certificate with Jadwiga Waszkiewicz or the birth certificate of his son Władysław Tomaszewicz are falsifications, as revealed by Polechoński himself after a search performed in Vilnius archives. It is not possible to say whether his evacuation card is authentic. There is no photo of him in the prisoners' photo archives of Łukiszki penitentiary. There is no proof of his residency amongst the Vilnius city dwellers. He might have stayed in a hotel.
Sławomir Andruszkiewicz noted, that Piasecki boasted in "The Tower of Babel" about his many false papers, thus making it difficult even for himself to pull out the correct one every time. The researchers are unable to prove any of his family names, surnames and pseudonyms used during the war. It is impossible to explain, said Andruszkiewicz, why so many of his official statements contain made up facts. We don't know what underground organizations Piasecki belonged to as there's no proof of it.
According to his autobiographical writing, at the time of the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in November 1917, Piasecki at age sixteen, found himself in Moscow. He saw with his own eyes the barbarity of the Bolshevik revolution, and from then on, became an avid anti-Communist. Some time in 1918 or 1919, he returned to Belarus, joining the Belarusian anti-Soviet units called Zialony Dub ("Green Oak"), led by ataman Wiaczeslaw Adamowicz. When in 1919 Polish Army troops captured Minsk in the Polish–Soviet War, Adamowicz decided to cooperate with them. Thus, Belarusian unit under Polish command was created, and soon Piasecki was transferred to Warsaw's school of infantry cadets. In the summer of 1920, Piasecki fought in the Battle of Radzymin, and this experience tied him with Poland for the rest of his life. Afterwards, he was asked to join Polish intelligence, as his language skills (he spoke Russian and Belarusian fluently) were highly regarded.
Work for the Polish intelligence service
In early 1920s, Piasecki skillfully organized whole web of Polish agents, covering the area of Soviet Belarus. His supervisors were very pleased with his work, but they did not have enough money to cover all expenses incurred by Piasecki and the growing number of his men. So, the enterprising agent found another source of income – smuggling. Moreover, this was not only about the money. Foreign spies as a rule were all executed by the Soviets, while smugglers were only incarcerated for a few years. As he wrote – he smuggled cocaine to the USSR, taking furs back to Poland. This provided him with a fortune, but Piasecki did not keep the money to himself. He needed it to bribe the Soviet prison guards, as his men were frequently caught and incarcerated. These events were later described by him in Kochanek Wielkiej Niedzwiedzicy.
In February 1926 Piasecki was fired from the Polish intelligence. It is not clear why this happened. Allegedly, he discovered connections between Soviets and some Polish V.I.P.'s. Also, he was at odds with his fellow smugglers. Destitute, he found himself in a desperate situation. All that he possessed was a revolver. In late July 1926, Piasecki was wandering in the forests south of Wilno. Armed, he decided to rob two Jews, Jodel Boryszanski and Morduch Drazlin, who were crossing the forest in a cart. He stole from them 1,054 zlotys, a gold watch and other items. Later, it was established that Piasecki was under the influence of cocaine, and he needed the money to cover bail for his friend, Antoni Niewiarowicz. A few days later, Piasecki and Niewiarowicz robbed a suburban train near Wilno, and, due to Niewiarowicz's lover's confession, they were caught, tried and put in jail in Lida.
As his trial took place in the border area, the Lida court was merciless and sentenced Piasecki to death. Fortunately, his former supervisors from the intelligence did not forget about their agent, and so instead of being executed, Piasecki ended up with 15 years behind bars. His stay in the Lida prison was short. As a leader of a rebellion, he was moved to Rawicz. There, he incited another riot, and was moved to Koronowo and later to Wronki. Finally, Piasecki was transferred to the hardest prison in Poland, located in Łysa Góra near Kielce. As he was regarded a troublesome prisoner, he was often kept in isolation ward, where he got sick with tuberculosis.
Writing in prison
Piasecki became a writer by chance. Later, he confessed that many prisoners in Wronki would write, so he decided to emulate them. As his knowledge of standard Polish was poor, he would learn from a school book of Polish grammar. Some time in either 1935 or 1936, his prison prose came to the attention of a famous novelist and journalist, Melchior Wańkowicz, who toured Polish prisons as a reporter. After reading a manuscript of Kochanek Wielkiej Niedzwiedzicy, Wańkowicz encouraged Piasecki to continue his writing efforts and helped him to publish the book. The publication and resulting popularity of the book became the catalyst for getting Piasecki out of prison. The book was published while Piasecki was still in prison, and its copy was delivered to his cell. The book sold out within a month, it was the third most popular publication of interwar Poland.
Due to popularity of the book, Wańkowicz's efforts to release Piasecki were supported by other writers and lawyers. Finally, in 1937 president Ignacy Mościcki pardoned him. The day of his release was sensational, crowds of journalists were waiting at a gate, and Piasecki himself was shocked at technical novelties, such as radio, which had become common since 1926. In late 1937 and early 1938, Piasecki went to Otwock and Zakopane, to recuperate. Among others, he met Witkacy (Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz), who painted his portrait. Being a celebrity, he avoided meeting with numerous readers, neither did he like signing of books.
World War II activities
In the summer of 1939 Piasecki went to Wilno where he stayed during the invasion of Poland in World War II. In September 1939, he volunteered to the Border Defence Corps, to fight the Soviets. During the occupation of Poland, he was offered a chance to move to France, but refused and decided to stay in his occupied homeland. Even though he had never been a member of the Home Army (he said he worked for its executive branch No 2, which – like many of his stories – was never confirmed), he had cooperated with the Polish resistance, and in 1943 became an executioner, carrying out capital punishment sentences handed down by underground Polish courts. His wartime noms de guerre were "Sucz", "Kira" and "Konrad". Later, he wrote two books about his war activities. These are Wieza Babel (The Tower of Babel) and Adam i Ewa (Adam and Eve). Among those who he was ordered to execute, was Józef Mackiewicz, falsely accused of cooperating with the Germans. However, Piasecki refused to kill him, and later it was revealed that Mackiewicz's accusations had been made up by the Soviets.
Living in exile
After the war, Piasecki hid from the secret police for a year inside Poland. In April 1946, he escaped to Italy, where he spotted the Italian translation of his own Kochanek Wielkiej Niedzwiedzicy. Soon, he got in touch with Polish writers living in exile, including Jerzy Giedroyc. In 1947, Piasecki moved to England, his name can be found on a resolution of Union of Polish Writers in Exile, which urged all concerned to stop publishing in the Communist-occupied country. He once publicly declared that he would gladly take any job that would result in erasing Communism.
Living abroad, Piasecki did not stop writing. In late 1940s he came to the conclusion that humor is the best weapon to fight the Communists. So, he wrote a satire The memoirs of a Red Army officer, which presents a made-up diary of Mishka Zubov - an officer of the Red Army, who, together with his unit enters Poland on September 17, 1939. Zubov claims in his "diary" that his only purpose is to kill all the bourgeoisie who possess watches and bicycles. Piasecki became fluent in Polish as an adult. Sergiusz Piasecki died in 1964 in London at the age of 65. On his tomb, located in Hastings Cemetery, England, it is said that he was born on June 1, 1899.
Notes and references
- Tomasz Brzustowski, "Święci i Łotry." Relacje No. 11/2003, pp. 10 - 11; and, Nasza Polska (Polish)
- Andrzej Rafał Potocki, "Stoczony do poziomu literata. Sergiusz Piasecki." Życie 14 April 2001. (Polish)
- Krzysztof Polechoński, Żywot człowieka uzbrojonego. Biografia, twórczość i legenda literacka Sergiusza Piaseckiego. PWN, October 2000, ISBN 83-01-13323-6
- Sławomir Andruszkiewicz, Sergiusza Piaseckiego droga do „Wieży Babel.” Nasz Czas. (Polish)