Julia is of Polish descent, and grew up with stories of her family facing historic oppression and injustice. As she pondered what preserved hope in her family, she found that a famous Polish painter and her grandmother shared a strategy: they both had a habit of appreciating the good things in their lives, even if they were ordinary. Here, she explores how that habit can sustain our own struggles against injustice.
I grew up listening to my grandmother’s stories of surviving both Nazi and Soviet concentration camps and forced labor arrangements during World War II. From the age of 20, she spent five years of the war confined in some of the most desperate, death-ridden places known to humanity. She was arrested and taken to a Soviet textile factory, then moved to a German family’s home for forced labor on their estate, then transported to one of the most notorious women’s concentration and death camps in Ravensbrück, Germany.
She rarely spoke about the misery in her past because she had learned to move on: against all odds, she reconciled her experience in World War II by accepting the transgressions against her, acknowledging that she couldn’t change those wrongdoings, and focusing on the positives she could now enjoy in her freedom. She was hopeful because she was grateful — she appreciated the little things of the present moment, and the goodness she perceived kept her moving forward when she could have been overwhelmed by the darkness she’d seen.
I recently read about someone whose World War II experience was also disturbing, but who rose out of the adversity he had faced in order to build a better life for himself as an artist. Józef Czapski was born in 1896 and was of Polish descent, like my grandmother. He fought as a Polish army officer in the Polish-Soviet War (1921-1922), but when he informed his commanding officer that he would be unable to kill his foe, he was released from the army. He was a tireless pacifist and was known to emphasize compassion toward any human he encountered, even those who were enemies of Poland.
Perhaps the greatest trial of his life came in an infamous event during World War II: the Katyń Massacre. Czapski was arrested in Poland with more than 22,000 other officers, professors, priests, and Polish intelligentsia. They were deported to the depths of the Soviet Union and held in camps as prisoners of war.
Czapski was held in barracks with these men, but instead of wallowing in despair, he built up the morale of the prisoners by giving stirring lectures on his favorite French writer, Marcel Proust. By educating them and exposing them to new perspectives on the writer, Czapski helped maintain high spirits, even in a seemingly hopeless situation.
Then, in an astonishing and historic act of atrocity that would be known as one of the greatest war crimes of the 20th century, Soviet authorities signed an act to execute all 22,000 prisoners of war in early 1940. Each man was individually taken to the forest, shot in the back of the head, and buried in a mass, unmarked grave.
Graced by a stroke of luck, Czapski was one of 300 men who escaped extermination during the Katyń Massacre.
Later, he was enlisted by Polish General Władysław Anders, one of the most pivotal military leaders in Poland’s history, to join the Polish underground army. As Poland was desecrated by Nazi forces from the west and Soviet forces from the east, the country needed to be defended. Instead of bringing him to battle, however, General Anders charged Czapski with uncovering the truth behind what truly happened in the Katyń Massacre.
Czapski tried for years to discover what happened in that Russian forest where he had been held, carrying out interviews with Soviet officials. It wasn’t until 1943 that he learned the horrifying reality that they had all been systematically killed.
I think of Czapski’s life and the tragic encounters he experienced in his youth, and how similar his experience was to my grandmother’s. He endured two significant wars in Poland, and he survived a mass execution. And like my grandmother, after the war, he turned his attention to the things that gave him joy.
Instead of living his life in constant anguish and immersing his mind in distant, formidable memories, he took up painting and became an iconic contemporary Polish artist. Inspired by the work of Cezanne and other 19th century post-impressionist painters, his artwork didn’t reflect the scenes of the prisons he saw; the dead bodies in the field of war; or the starvation, disease, and freezing that he witnessed in the barracks in Russia. On the contrary, his paintings boasted radiant landscapes and lavish settings like the opera, restaurants, museums, and the sea. He painted in a vibrant palette of yellows and greens instead of settling for a dark palette of browns and blacks, which might have better suited his ruminations about his past.
Czapski went on to live in Paris where he founded the Polish cultural journal Kultura as well as the Kapist movement in art. He proved that no matter his past experiences, his history wouldn’t hold him back from using his talents, inspiring others, and pursuing his dreams.
One of Czapski’s many biographers, Keith Botsford, summarized the virtue of the artist in his book Józef Czapski: A Life in Translation: “I can recall no whining… As he’d faced all the alterations of his long life, [he] was powerfully directed towards what was actively good, to what could still be celebrated about life.”
This seeking of the good is more than just optimism. Czapski had little reason to be optimistic, given what he’d experienced of humanity. Instead, he clung to hope, which is anchored in the appreciation of what is good and beautiful in the here-and-now.
This is an example we can take from Czapski’s life. We live in a world of injustice, and we resist it for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters. In that struggle, it’s also important to sustain our spirits by seeking out and reflecting on that which is “actively good” in our lives. That goodness reminds us what we are fighting for. It keeps us rooted in hope, and resilient in the face of pain and suffering.
My grandmother took this approach. So did Józef Czapski. If we spend more time appreciating the vibrant yellows and greens around us, we’ll be better equipped to sustain our effort to create a brighter future.