Book Review

Michelangelo in Ravensbruck
One Woman's War Against the Nazis

by Countess Karolina Lanckoronska
ISBN-13: 978-0-306-81537-9
Hardcover, 341 Pages

Da Capo Press
11 Cambridge Center
Cambridge, MA 02142

Since the end of World War II in 1945, too many generations have grown up with scant knowledge of the sacrifices Poles made and the patriotism that made that possible. Countess Lanckoronska's book recounts her experiences from the beginning of the war in September, 1939 to April 5, 1945. It is much more than a report (as she calls it) of what occurred. It is also a spiritual journey in which she as the inveterate educator, teaches the true values of moral and cultural behavior.

The incidents she recounts are written matter-of-factly but instill great emotion in the reader. One cannot put the book down, even knowing the final outcome, one reads with great curiosity. In the end we are grateful that she was in a position to survive and recall that history. It is said that those who don't know history are bound to repeat it. So, this book should be read by all succeeding generations so that we learn from it; that we must preserve cultural behavior in order not to become inhuman.

Countess Lanckoronska offers a view of a people caught in a vice between opposing forces of the Soviets and the Nazis. An ardent patriot, devout Christian, wealthy landowner, and Poland's first Professor of Art History she chose to stay with her students and join the Polish underground resistance rather than flee to Switzerland when the Russians took control. Having been discovered as working against the Nazis, she was arrested and sentenced to death. She was incarcerated in three different prisons before being sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp-where the first familiar face she saw was that of a former student.

Though it was one of the most notorious death camps, culture flourished at Ravensbruck- due, primarily to Lanckoronska's efforts. Through her secret lectures on art history and classical literature, the women found the will to survive despite the filth and cold. She chronicles daily life in the camp, including the atrocities visited upon "the rabbits" or, as we would call it, the "guinea pigs" - women (all Polish, all political prisoners) on whom experimental bone operations were performed, leaving them with twenty-inch scars on their legs, crippled for life. She also recounts that every Polish woman who was shot shouted "Niech Zyje Polska" (long live Poland) before she died thus impressing their murderers who came to admire them.

Lanckoronska would be imprisoned for a total of five years before the President of the International Red Cross personally secured her release. She brought out of the camp with her a list of the rabbits, written on the hem of a handkerchief, which she passed to the IRC. Just three months later, she settled in Rome and began writing. As a result, the detail and immediacy of her narrative is practically unmatched in the literature of the war.

The book-penned during 1945 and 1946 - was rejected by several publishers for being either "too anti-Russian" or "too anti-German." It would not see the light of day for more than fifty years, and then only in Polish though it was originally intended for publication in English. It was finally published in the UK in 2006 on the 61st anniversary of her release from Ravensbruck and this year Da Capo Press is publishing it in the U.S.

-Mary Flanagan

Order from