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  • The War Diary of Józef CzapskiThe Year in Poland
  • Paweł Rodak (bio)
    Translated by Alessandro Nicola Malusà

Józef Czapski's Dziennik wojenny was published in 2022, which I see as an exceptionally important event, for Czapski's war diary, with its combination of words and images, is one of the most remarkable diaries of the twentieth century. Czapski kept a diary almost all of his life. "To keep" is in this case a more fitting term than "to write" because Czapski used his diary not only to write but also to draw, sketch, paint, and paste verbal and pictorial elements, such as his own drawings and sketches, typescripts, photographs, and newspaper clippings. Secondly, the term "to keep" better reflects the nature of his diaries, because for Czapski a diary was not a single text to be written (even if it was his longest written work), but it was a life practice, expressed in its material equivalent in the form of a growing pile of notebooks (as Czapski himself called them). Thirdly, for Czapski, keeping a diary likewise denoted the physical act of having a diary with him, of using it and living with it.

Józef Czapski (1896–1993) was one of the most important figures of twentieth-century Poland—a painter, writer, soldier, prisoner of Soviet war camps, and emigrant activist. He started keeping his diary during World War I, when he was about twenty years old and was sent to the army, first to the tsarist Pazi Corps, and then—following the October Revolution, which he experienced up close while stationed in St. Petersburg—to the Polish First Krechowce Uhlan Regiment. From that time, the diary became a part of his life, and was present in all of the phases and places of Czapski's life: when he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków after WWI, when he traveled to Paris in the 1920s with fellow members of the Kapists (the "Paris Committee" of colorist painters), and when he lived and worked in Warsaw in the 1930s. During World War II, he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and held in a Soviet camp in Starobielsk and later in Gryazovets. During the war he searched for missing Polish officers "na nieludzkiej ziemi" (on inhuman [End Page 71] land), the title of Czapski's book on Soviet horrors published in Paris in 1949, and fought as a soldier in General Władysław Anders's army in the Middle East and in the Italian Campaign. After the war, he lived in Paris and nearby Maisons-Laffitte, and was associated with the Polish émigré community publishing the magazine Kultura. The last entries in his diaries date from 1991–1992, before his death in January 1993—in total he kept a diary for about seventy-five years.

Today, we know about Józef Czapski's early notebooks only indirectly, mainly on the basis of what he later wrote or said about them, for they were all destroyed during World War II. What we have at our disposal are 270 notebooks of his diary spanning fifty years (1942–1992). After the war, Czapski started the practice of "wyrwane strony" (tearing out pages) from his diaries, and preparing edited versions for print in magazines. Shortly after Czapski's death in 1993 an extended and corrected version of the volume Wyrwane strony was published, edited by Joanna Pollakówna and Piotr Kłoczowski. Subsequently, a corrected and expanded edition of excerpts from Czapski's diary, carefully edited by Barbara Toruńczyk, appeared in 2010 under the same title.

The 2022 edition of Józef Czapski's Dziennik wojenny covers the first four surviving notebooks of his diary from 1942–1944 (more than 600 printed pages, with over 2000 footnotes). At the time, Czapski was a soldier in the Polish Army commanded by General Anders, and serving as the head of the propaganda and education department. His work brought him to the Middle East, including Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt, and thus his diary entries were recorded in cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Cairo.

Dziennik wojenny is an extraordinary record of the tension...