Anna: A Possible Life
By Michal Karski
Can a person's character ever be guessed at from a single photograph? I am probably by no means unique when I say that I have always found faces fascinating and am invariably drawn to the portraits in any art gallery. I don't think I'd be re-discovering the wheel if I said that people tend to subconsciously make snap judgements about others based solely on their looks and in fact I have no doubt that scholarly volumes have been written on this very subject. So when we do discover biographical information about the person depicted in a portrait, for instance, it can sometimes be very surprising.
If I say that the girl in the photo above was born in 1925, would it be possible to match her image to any of the following scenarios, on the basis of what little information is available in a single picture?
Scenario 1: Anna is from a Polish-Jewish musical family, born and raised in Krakow. She survived the first part of the war in hiding with her mother at the home of a Catholic widow, but was later captured by the Germans and sent for labour to Bavaria. After the war, she became well-known as a pianist and accompanist among the Polish emigracja in London and is now in her 89th year, loved and respected by all who know her.
Scenario 2: Anna was from a Catholic Kresy family from eastern Poland, in what is now Ukraine. After the Soviet invasion, she was transported to the Gulag with her parents and sisters for years of hard labour. Her parents did not survive. After the Sikorski-Maisky Pact, she joined the Anders Army, went through the Middle East, Egypt, Palestine and Italy before arriving in Liverpool, England. She then married and emigrated to Canada, where she raised a family and pursued her first love of photography, exhibiting her work at many Canadian and American art galleries. Her eyesight failed her in later years and she turned to writing poetry. She died in 2013.
Scenario 3: Anna, originally from Cremona in Italy had a Polish father (a former Hallerczyk) and French mother. She was a brilliant student, spoke five languages fluently and studied psychology in Bologna. She worked undercover for British Intelligence during the war, joining the resistance in Holland. In 1947 she emigrated to Brazil, where she gained recognition for her work in the field of clinical psychology. She gave her name to an institute in Sao Paolo. She died in 2006.
Scenario 4: Anna is an Anglo-Irish actress and poet who starred in many English and American film and TV productions, most famously as Madame Paderewska in "Upstairs, Downstairs". The real Polish connection in her own life was that her first husband was a minister in the Polish wartime government-in-exile. It was recently revealed that she was one of the code breakers at Bletchley Park. She lives in an actors' retirement home in Hampshire where she is visited by her many grandchildren.
Anyone who recognizes Anna Zakrzewska from the photograph will know that none of the above scenarios apply to her. I came across her name in a list of notable members of the Armia Krajowa when I happened to be reading about the liberation in August 1944 of the Gęsiówka concentration camp which the Germans had built in Warsaw.
This episode gets scant attention in the mainstream English-speaking media, although most Poles will know that it was the AK, the Polish resistance army, which carried out the attack on the camp, freeing over three hundred prisoners – most of them Jewish – in the process.
The particular unit responsible for this action was the famous Zośka Battalion of which Anna Zakrzewska was a member. Reading about her, I couldn't tell whether she was actually involved in the attack on the camp at Gęsiówka or not. Her face had caught my attention perhaps for the simple reason that she bore a passing resemblance to someone I used to know many years ago or perhaps she just had the kind of looks which would have graced magazine covers in any other age. What was she like in the days before war broke out? What were her hopes and dreams?
Wikipedia lists some notable members of the Zośka Battalion. A very few did survive the Warsaw Uprising and lived on into old age but I was struck by the number of them who were killed. All of them died at the time of life at which many young people would have been enjoying a peaceful life of study at some college or university instead of being involved in the horrors of urban warfare. The sequel to the actual insurrection, as we know, was the crushing of Warsaw and its citizens with unexampled brutality.
The little information there is available about Anna Zakrzewska tells us she was cut down by German gunfire during the uprising in August 1944.
She was just eighteen years old when, as happened with so many others of her generation, the possibility of any kind of life was taken from her.
Link to the Wikipedia article on Anna Zakrzewska here.
About the Author
Danusha asked me to write a few words about myself. I suppose I would describe myself as a Brit of Polish descent. I was born in Worcester in 1949 and now live in London. My mother was painter Halina Karska and my father military historian Tadeusz Kryska-Karski. They both found themselves in England after the war, having followed the convoluted route taken by many Polish citizens whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the events of 1939. My grandfather Franciszek Karski was reportedly killed at Katyn, although I have had conflicting information about a Franciszek Karski who did, indeed, perish in the USSR, except not at Katyn but Uzbekistan, having already enlisted in the Anders Army.
For myself, I lived in Munich, Germany from 1957 to 1966, where my parents – primarily my father – worked for Radio Free Europe. Returning to England, I studied for a German and English degree at the University of London (Queen Mary College) and after a fairly hectic and varied working life am now retired and catching up on films and books and writing the occasional essay and radio drama. I am married and we have one son.