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I Am First A Human Being: The Prison Letters of Krystyna Wituska    edited by Irene Tomaszewski order for
I Am First A Human Being
by Irene Tomaszewski
Order:  USA  Can
Véhicule Press, 1997 (1997)

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Krystyna Wituska was born in May 1920 to Feliks Wituski and Maria Orczechowska of Wartheland (in western Poland), on the family's country estate, Jerzew. She and her sister Halina were home tutored, then taught at a convent in Poznan. Krystyna suffered from a respiratory disease and was sent to study in Switzerland, in the hope that the mountain air would help her condition. She returned to Warsaw just weeks before World War II began. Her father entered the War as a reserve officer, returning home after the capitulation of Warsaw. When Poland was partitioned between the Russians and the Germans, the Wituski estate fell into German hands, and the family was ordered to evacuate. They sought refuge wherever they could find it.

In October 1942, Krystyna was arrested while living with her mother in a rented apartment. Wituska was active with the military underground - 'ZWZ' (Union for Armed Resistance). She spoke fluent German and, in a Warsaw espionage cell, collected information on German military activity at the airport, including the locations and number of squadrons, as well as the names of officers. The information was passed to the Polish Government in Exile located in London. From the time of her arrest, Krystyna did not allow her spirit to be broken and believed that 'the noble that is within us will not perish'. Krystyna was kept in a number of prisons in Berlin, including Alexanderplatz, Alt-Moabit, and transferred to Halle-Saale for her final months. At times she was transported to Szucha, the Gestapo interrogation center in Warsaw.

During the last year of her life, Krystyna wrote over sixty poignant letters to family, and friends. Prison guard Mrs. Grimpe, nicknamed Sonnenschein (Ray of Sunshine), befriended Krystyna and other inmates. Grimpe secretly carried Krystyna's letters to family and friends, as well as letters between Grimpe's sixteen-year old daughter Helga and Krystyna. In a letter to a friend's mother, Krystyna revealed, 'I wouldn't want to exploit the idea that I am a patriot who died for her country ... I always consider myself first a human being and only then a Pole ... prison life taught us to detach ourselves from the minor things that enslave people on the outside. Nobody can imprison our souls unless we ourselves lock them behind the bars of narrow prejudice ... As for death, it is a great comfort to know that when we are gone from this earth, nothing will end or change. The sun will continue to shine, the flowers will blossom, autumn will follow summer.'

At Krystyna's request, Mrs. Grimpe held a last letter to her parents to be delivered after her death. That letter says in brief: 'Dearest parents, You will receive this letter after my death ... Prison was for me a good, often difficult school of life, but there were nevertheless joyful, sunny days ... I grieve over every one of your tears. But when you smile, I smile with you.' Wituska's letters are a loving and compassionate memoir of sustaining the human spirit even through adversity and torment. In the remaining time left to her, Krystyna took pleasure in learning languages, cherishing fellow prisoners' poems, and in sunshine. Krystyna's letters tell of the affection and concern she had for other prisoners, more than for herself, as the death of her friends was a source of great pain. She herself was executed at age twenty-four.

Irene Tomaszewski first translated a portion of Wituska's letters for a documentary on Poland for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She refers to Wituska's voice 'as one of the most distinctive I have encountered in any literature.' Tomaszewski interviewed more than one hundred survivors of Germany's occupation of Poland. She met with Krystyna's nephew Tomasz Steppan in Warsaw, was provided with family photos, and his mother's (Krystyna's sister's) unpublished memoirs. Additional groundwork was garnered from Wituska's cousin in Quebec, journals of various Polish publications in Warsaw, and testimony from a woman who shared a Berlin cell with Krystyna. I Am First A Human Being is a must read for anyone with a heart.

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