First Chapter

Chapter One: The Citadel

 

I see the eyes of children wide open with surprise at the idea that there could have been times when prison, that is to say a humiliation that crushes a man to the ground, could awaken in us a spark of enthusiasm, light fires in our eyes, and bring smiles to our lips.[1]

- Joseph Pilsudski, circa 1922

 

 

 

The Warsaw Citadel had the ominous reputation as the most escape proof of czarist prisons. Built by order of Nicholas I after the November Insurrection of 1830—31, the fortress prison loomed above the Vistula River on the outskirts of town. For centuries, Warsaw had been the capital of an independent Poland, but in 1900 the city was part of Russian territory, seized in 1795 as a result of the so-called Third Partition, which eliminated Poland as a sovereign state.[2] To make room for the ninety-acre compound, the Russians cut an indiscriminate swath of destruction through a heavily populated sector of the city. All nearby dwellings were demolished, and the 15,000 inhabitants were unceremoniously turned out in the streets. As an added insult, the local citizens, including the recently displaced, were forced to pay for the construction of this stark symbol of czarist oppression in their midst.[3] Hundreds of cannons bristled from the caissons on its high walls, trained not only on the river approach but on the town itself. The Warsaw Citadel was unlike most fortresses in that it was designed, not to protect the citizens of the town it overlooked, but to punish them in the inevitable event of unrest.

Nine of the stout interior buildings located within the Citadel walls housed the Russian garrison. The tenth building served as the most secure prison in the world, essentially a jail embedded in the fortress stronghold of an occupational army. Generations of Polish patriots had been locked away or executed in the dimly lit chambers of the Citadel, which was for that reason also known as the "Fortress of Martyrs." The iron bars and thick walls of the spartan cells in the tenth pavilion were only the beginning of the obstacles confronting an escape-minded inmate. Numerous armed troops were stationed at points of entry and exit. Additional guards patrolled the hallways day and night, frequently waking the prisoners to examine their rooms with the probing light of a lantern. The cell doors had small openings with sharply slanting sides that flared toward the interior of the cell, allowing the guards clear inspection of the entire cell while limiting the prisoners' view to a small portal.[4] Moments of privacy were few and unpredictable. Even if clever or lucky enough to escape the prison building, a prisoner would still have to negotiate an impenetrable maze of iron gates and spiked cross walls populated by no less than 5,000 Russian troops. Outside the complex, mounted patrols were on constant alert for wayward prisoners. For seventy years, there had been no escape from the Citadel for thousands of Poles.

To all appearances, Joseph Pilsudski was just another in a long line of imprisoned rebels who had futilely fought for the lost cause of Polish independence. For almost a year after his arrest on February 22, 1900, he had been incarcerated in cell thirty-nine of the infamous tenth pavilion, reserved for unredeemable political prisoners. Doomed to solitary confinement in a narrow, whitewashed cell containing only a battered iron bed and a simple wooden stool and table, he could look forward only to exile and death in the Siberian wasteland. The impending show trial was merely a formality. At thirty-two years of age, Pilsudski had already spent five years exiled in Siberia on trumped-up charges of conspiracy, a surprisingly light sentence by czarist standards, but one perhaps tempered by the Russians' certain knowledge that he had been guilty only of poor judgment.

Pilsudski's most recent crime, however, was beyond dispute. Caught red-handed printing a revolutionary newspaper, he could expect no leniency. A lesser man would have faded into obscurity, slowly suffocating inside the labyrinthine Russian prison system. But Pilsudski had a plan, the result of a collaborative effort between the prisoner and a small, devoted band of outside supporters.[5] Success was unlikely and required patience, persistence, and luck.

The first major difficulty in developing, let alone implementing, the plan was the lack of opportunities for candid communication. Although on rare occasions visitors were allowed in the tenth pavilion, all meetings were strictly controlled. Two small, fine-meshed gratings several feet apart precluded any exchange of notes between visitor and inmate, and attentive prison guards directly supervised all visitations. Moreover, notorious prisoners like Pilsudski were strictly forbidden this luxury.[6]

In other prisons, secret notes could be baked into food, stitched into clothes, embedded in books, or simply written in code in mailed letters. None of these options were available at the Citadel. All items sent to the prison were thoroughly searched and routinely rejected. The rare gift or mail that made it to a lucky prisoner was picked clean of any useful information. Anyone caught sending suspicious material, no matter how tenuous the charge, risked becoming a new resident of the Citadel.

Although Pilsudski's escape seemed imposible, the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS) to which he belonged had many enthusiastic members who worked tirelessly to solve this dilemma. Even then, Pilsudski was recognized as more than just another revolutionary malcontent; he was the spiritual leader of the struggle for Polish independence, and the group was willing to risk everything to free him.

The conspirators found assistance from a most unlikely source. For the previous twenty-seven years, Alexel Siedielnikow had served as a Citadel warder. Pilsudski's contemporary biographers describe the Russian jailer as a kind, noble man with snow-white hair and warm blue eyes, superficially loyal to the czar, but secretly sympathetic to the plight of Polish patriots. It is hardly the description expected of someone who presided over the brutal tenth pavilion.

Somehow, a young female PPS recruit who worked at the Society for Helping Prisoners, Marja "Gintra" Paszkowska, was able to persuade the gentle jailer to allow Pilsudski to receive and send notes from his cell.[7] The Russian jailer was far from just a passive element in the scheme. After receiving notes from Ms. Paszkowska, he placed them in his hat or matchbook. Under the pretense of examining the prisoner, Siedielnikow went to Pilsudski's cell, and during the inspection, laid the contraband-laden item in a convenient spot. Later, the warder returned and picked up the object, now containing outgoing messages written on Pilsudski's only available stationary, the red paper from cigarette packs.[8] One of the first message smuggled to his compatriots described the details of his arrest in charming verse. The levity of this unexpected poem was reassuring. Surely a man this eloquent must be saved.

Ms. Paszkowska's persuasive powers must have been compelling indeed, as the scheme involved no small risk for Siedielnikow, who could expect harsh punishment if caught. Whether the warder was motivated by altruism or some other factor is unknown. However, since he had already demonstrated a penchant for Polish women by marrying one, perhaps Ms. Paszkowska appealed to more than his sense of fair play. In any case, he probably believed that a few harmless notes could have little effect in a stronghold such as the Citadel.

With the communication problems solved, the conspirators focused on the more difficult issue of an escape plan. Time was not on their side. It was unlikely that Pilsudski would live long once transferred to Siberia. His previous exile had been in relatively pleasant southern Siberia―but this time, he would surely be sent to a labor camp in the frozen tundra of inhospitable northern Siberia, from which troublesome political prisoners rarely returned. Although it was imperative that Pilsudski be freed before his exile to Siberia, escape from the Citadel was impossible. If only he could be transferred to a less well-guarded location―but how?

Transfers from the Citadel were granted in only two instances: medical need or insanity. Simulation of a medical emergency was unlikely to be taken seriously, and even if believed, entailed excessive risk. Transfers only occurred if prison officials deemed the situation beyond their expertise—and the Russians judged their Citadel infirmary capable of handling all but the most severe injury or illness. One frightening possibility was that the local physicians might actually try to help Pilsudski. The Citadel doctors were hardly the cream of the profession, and were not known to be overly concerned with the success of prisoners' treatments. A relatively minor injury could be easily aggravated by the healers on staff. Finally, there was no guarantee that even a gravely ill prisoner would receive medical attention of any kind; another Polish death was not a matter of great concern at the Citadel.

Therefore, a mental illness was the only reasonable solution. But like medical problems, everyday insanity was not particularly alarming to the authorities. A more virulent and compelling manifestation was required. The conspirators recognized that, to receive a transfer, Pilsudski had to be diagnosed by a specialist, and therefore, needed to simulate as closely as possible clinical symptoms recognized by the experts of the day. It was determined that persecution paranoia was the most easily identified, and hence the most likely to be believed. But the group needed expert advice to make the plan work; random, unusual behavior would not produce the desired result. The indefatigable Paszkowska sought out a local psychiatrist who, although not a member of the PPS, was persuaded by the evidently charming lady to assist in the scheme.

An expert in the diagnosis and treatment of paranoia, Dr. Rafal Radziwillowicz provided valuable information, which was transmitted to Pilsudski bit by bit on small scraps of paper smuggled into his cell. The first terse note, "Pretend madness," must have seemed an incredible solution, but the detailed instructions that followed provided a road map to paranoia, and perhaps freedom. To avoid suspicion, Pilsudski's slide into insanity was gradual. At first, he showed subtle signs of depression: general melancholy, lack of appetite, excessive sleep, and refusal to speak. After several weeks, he escalated his unusual behavior by repeatedly throwing his food at his captors.[9] Although refusing the rancid prison food might not in itself have been deemed irrational, Pilsudski's strange diet attracted attention. Claiming the jailers were trying to poison him, he refused all food except hard-boiled eggs, which he ate shells and all.

The concerned Siedielnikow, who was apparently unaware of the plot, noticed the detrimental effects of the strange diet, and, in an effort to improve his health, tempted Pilsudski with delicacies from his own table. The warder even bought a cookbook from Pilsudski's homeland, enticing the gaunt prisoner with the choicest Lithuanian borsch (beetroot soup), bigos (sausage and cabbage stew), and kolduny (meaty pudding). With the exception of a few chocolates consumed in moments of weakness, all foods other than the untamperable eggs were violently refused.[10] He started cowering at the sight of anyone in uniform, claiming that the authorities planned to murder him. Much of the night was devoted to loud conversations with imaginary visitors in his cell. His nocturnal discussions were so animated and realistic that many of the guards came to believe his cell was haunted.

Pilsudski's natural theatrics and medical training (he had spent one year studying medicine before abandoning the profession) no doubt helped make his rantings believable. The grueling charade continued for several long months, as detailed instructions and timetables designed to simulate textbook paranoia found their way to his cell.

Pilsudski's apparent mental deterioration presented a problem to the czarist authorities. Although the outcome of the show trial was a foregone conclusion, they hoped to make a high-profile example of the revolutionist. More importantly, the prosecutors were promised handsome bonuses if the carefully arranged spectacle went as scripted. Hauling a wretched, emaciated madman into the courtroom would not have had the desired effect. After all, Pilsudski's underground newspaper had circulated sophisticated anti-czarist propaganda throughout Russian Poland. Surely this was the work of an intellectual, not a babbling lunatic.

Although Pilsudski's mental failings seemed authentic, the authorities were suspicious. Other prisoners had tried similar ruses, only to be dismissed as imposters. The Russian review board responsible for transfers needed incontrovertible proof that Pilsudski was insane. The Citadel authorities watched him constantly, carefully monitoring for any sign of sanity. Often they roused him from a deep sleep, hoping to catch him unaware. Pilsudski did not let the mask of lunacy slip, but he found the bizarre masquerade difficult to maintain. The rigors of manufactured insanity began to have an effect on his health; a regimen of hard-boiled eggs and sleep deprivation was hardly invigorating. He began to lose weight and energy. The relentless strain would be impossible to sustain indefinitely.

After several months, the Citadel's doctors, again perhaps not the finest the profession had to offer, were convinced of his mental illness. However, the Russian administrative authorities were still skeptical, and required that the diagnosis be confirmed by a Russian specialist. Fortunately, the perseverant Ms. Paszkowska intervened once again.

Dr. Ivan Shabashnikov was a noted Russian psychiatrist who had recently moved from Siberia to Warsaw. The PPS operative sought him out and asked for assistance. Ms. Paszkowska explained that the unfortunate prisoner was a childhood friend whose health and spirit had been broken in the Citadel. Completely insane, he was no longer a threat to Russian authority. Could the good doctor examine Pilsudski and recommend a transfer to a mental hospital where he could spend the remaining years of his miserable life? Somehow not surprisingly, the doctor was receptive to Ms. Paszkowska's request and agreed to examine the demented inmate. Ever helpful, Paszkowska drafted a petition that was sent to the Citadel officials, signed by Pilsudski's aunt Stefania Lipman, requesting that Dr. Shabashnikov offer a professional opinion of the prisoner's mental state. The authorities refused the services of partisan Polish psychiatrists, but saw no harm in an assessment by a qualified and respected Russian medical expert.[11]

Accompanied by a uniformed prison doctor, Shabashnikov was led by several guards into Pilsudski's cell. On cue, Pilsudski shrieked uncontrollably at the offensive uniforms. After it became clear that any meaningful examination was futile under the circumstances, Shabashnikov convinced his companions to leave him alone in the cell with the madman. The ensuing interview not only decided Pilsudski's immediate fate, but had a profound impact on the subsequent history of Poland.[12]

Hopes of deceiving the Russian doctor soon faded, as it became apparent that Shabashnikov was indeed a gifted psychiatrist unmoved by histrionics. Unlike the relatively untrained Citadel doctors, he quickly saw through the elaborate act and correctly determined that Pilsudski was quite sane. But if Pilsudski's sanity was revealed, so too was his charm. The doctor and patient somehow overlooked the uncomfortable revelation and happened into a conversation of mutual interest: Siberia. It emerged that the two had hunted in the same forests, stood in wonderment at the same majestic scenery, and shared a common affection for the land and its people. They had breathed the same fragrant Siberian air, witnessed the same vibrant colors of the Siberian sky, and felt the same amazement when viewing the icy mists of sundown mingle with the Siberian night. Although not specifically a Polish sympathizer, like many Russians the Buryatia native Shabashnikov had no great affection for the iron rule of the czars and knew full well the fate that awaited Pilsudski if his sanity were revealed. Somehow he could not allow a man like Pilsudski to be eradicated by the oppressive Russian system. During that apparently irrelevant conversation, he connected with Pilsudski on a personal level. Their shared experiences did more for Pilsudski's cause than any eloquent plea for aid or elaborate political manifesto.

The doctor's subsequent report stated that the prisoner suffered from "psychosis hallucinatoria actua" resulting from solitary confinement in the tenth pavilion. The patient could be reasonably expected to recover if moved to a sanitarium. The Citadel authorities had no reason to doubt the findings of the well respected- and more importantly- Russian doctor. The recommendation represented their only hope of restoring the now certifiably insane Pilsudski to good health, which was needed to provide a suitable display at his trial. Against all odds, a transfer was authorized.[13]

The initial goal of transferring Pilsudski outside of the Citadel had been achieved after ten arduous months, but not all went according to plan. The collaborators helpfully suggested in the petition that Pilsudski be transferred to one of several qualified private facilities in Warsaw. Not only was their security much less daunting than the Citadel's, but their staff was sure to include Poles who might be sympathetic to the cause. In Warsaw, Ms. Paszkowska could be relied on to work tirelessly to open the necessary doors. If all else failed, there were enough die-hard Pilsudski supporters available to storm a smaller facility.

The Russian authorities were well aware of these considerations. A Warsaw facility would not do for their prize prisoner. Pilsudski would be transferred to an insane asylum in the heart of the czarist empire: St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg.

To his dismay, Pilsudski discovered that the large, four-story building housing the asylum at St. Nicholas was a formable prison in its own right. Worse, the PPS had no connections inside the facility and maintained only an embryonic presence in the city. Until these new obstacles could be overcome, Pilsudski was on his own.

Pilsudski had traded solitary confinement in the Citadel with imaginary tormentors for a dormitory with over fifty flesh-and-blood madmen. If he had any doubts about the proper comportment of the insane, his new roommates gave him an around-the-clock tutorial. Their ravings were punctuated by violent outbursts that were largely ignored by the staff. When the guards did intervene, their therapy usually consisted of the liberal and apparently random application of heavy truncheons. Pilsudski endured several months of this literal madhouse without any contact from his supporters, all the time keeping up the pretense of insanity. He had to have wondered if the whole effort was indeed delusional.

As Pilsudski persevered, the tiny PPS cell in St. Petersburg worked feverously on an escape plan. Little help was expected from the staff at St. Nicholas, which was largely Russian with no sympathy for troublesome Polish traitors. Although one of the twelve doctors assigned to the facility, Dr. Bronislaw Czeczot, was Polish, he was not a PPS member, and therefore could not be absolutely trusted.[14]

But once again, good fortune intervened. One of the local PPS members had just finished medical school. Wladyslaw Mazurkiewicz specialized in skin disease, and, after years of hard study at the Russian Military Medical Academy, was looking forward to a practice in Lodz. However, the needs of the party intervened; a contact inside the asylum was necessary if there was to be any hope of success. The PPS asked Mazurkiewicz if he would be willing to work at the asylum and, through his observations, devise a plan to free their leader. The request was far from a simple favor, as assisting Pilsudski's escape entailed great sacrifice and risk. Not only would the doctor's hard-earned career likely end before it began, but he would also be risking his life and freedom for a man he had never met. Even in the unlikely event that the mad venture was successful, he would be a wanted man deep inside enemy territory. Yet Mazurkiewicz did not hesitate.

After years of dermatological training, he announced that he had developed a sudden interest in psychiatry. Fortunately, his father, who probably was not apprised of the scheme, was a man of some local prominence who arranged for his son to acquire the not-so-sought-after position of assistant physician at St. Nicholas.

Meanwhile Pilsudski, unaware of the escape plans, struggled to maintain the farce. Not even sure if the PPS knew of his location, at one point he confessed to a doctor that he was really quite normal. The doctors considered this proof positive of his insanity. Fortunately, soon afterward the PPS managed to get word to Pilsudski: "Have hope." The charade resumed.

For six weeks, Mazurkiewicz was a diligent member of the hospital staff, impressing the asylum director with his enthusiasm and medical knowledge. To avoid suspicion, the young physician stayed away from Pilsudski as much as possible, not even venturing a casual conversation with the prisoner. His only contact with Pilsudski was viewing the howling wretch in the dormitory while on rounds with the other doctors. He must have wondered if his sacrifice would prove worthwhile.

On May 14, 1901, the young doctor's hard work was rewarded when he was entrusted with the management of the facility on the evening of a fair on the Champ de Mars in St. Petersburg. The staff was anxious to leave the dour environment of St. Nicholas to enjoy the festivities in town, and Mazurkiewicz was only too happy to grant leave to as many as possible.

At about eight o'clock, as Mazurkiewicz made the usual rounds, he stopped at the dormitory and pointed at Pilsudski. He told the attendents that the Polish madman was a curious case, and directed them to bring the patient to his office in a half an hour.  At the appointed time, Pilsudski was escorted into the doctor's office. "I shall have to spend some time examining this man. You need not wait, I will ring when I want you," the doctor instructed the guards.[15]

Mazurkiewicz had never seen Pilsudski as anything other than a madman, so he must have had some anxious moments when the office door closed and the two faced each other in silence. Was the man he was risking his life and career for a raving lunatic or a lucid messiah? Emaciated, dirty, sporting an unkempt black beard, and no doubt exhausted from the poor diet and strain of pretending, Pilsudski was hardly at his best.

To the relief of the doctor, Pilsudski suddenly morphed into a sane man, replete with the disarming charm that had earned him the undying loyalty of the followers who had worked tirelessly to make this moment possible. As the doctor and patient leisurely shared tea and cigarettes, they discussed the details of their imminent escape. The doctor recalled the conversation as surprisingly calm, almost lighthearted.

Mazurkiewicz had methodically assembled an ensemble for Pilsudski over a period of weeks, smuggling in one item of clothing at a time in his medical bag and hiding them in a locker in the chemical laboratory.[16] After an exchange of pleasantries, the prisoner discarded his filthy, striped asylum uniform and began the transformation into a visiting civilian. The fashionable clothes provided by the doctor fit reasonably well, with the exception of an opera hat that fell comically over Pilsudski's eyes. Laughing at its absurd dimensions, he decided to carry it in his hand.

The two calmly strolled out of the office toward the main gate. However, several guards unfamiliar to the young doctor were posted at the exit. Seeking a safer alternative, the two turned toward the side gate, but were stopped by some servants who desired to discuss a minor matter with Mazurkiewicz. Throughout the superficially nonchalant conversation, the doctor struggled to mask the growing tension. Pilsudski seemed unconcerned, calmly smoking and smiling while the doctor tried to graciously extricate himself from the discussion. At last, the servants bid the doctor and his friend goodnight. The guards at the side entrance recognized the doctor and snapped to attention as he approached. Luckily, they were just coming on duty and did not know that the doctor's dapper companion had not visited earlier in the day. Unwittingly acting as accomplices, the guards unlocked the door. Pilsudski stepped briskly into the cool night air. The man who would liberate Poland was free.[17]



[1]      Gillie, Pilsudski: Revolutionary and Soldier, 142.

[2]      Two earlier partitions by Russia, Prussia, and Austria in 1772 and 1793 reduced Poland to an impotent rump state. In 1795, the partitioning partners annexed what remained of Poland and divided it among themselves. Warsaw became Prussian territory, but briefly reemerged as part of the Napoleon-backed Duchy of Warsaw from 1807—15. After Napoleon's defeat, the Congress of Vienna awarded Warsaw to imperial Russia, which held it throughout the czarist era.

[3]      Davies, God's Playground, 1:72.

[4]      Humphrey, Pilsudski: Builder of Poland, 69.

[5]      Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 171.

[6]      Humphrey, Pilsudski: Builder of Poland, 75.

[7]      Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 29.

[8]      Humphrey, Pilsudski: Builder of Poland, 76.

[9]      Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 177-78.

[10]    Humphrey, Pilsudski: Builder of Poland, 77.

[11]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 30.

[12]    Landau, Pilsudski and Poland, 55.

[13]    Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 178.

[14]    Jędrzejewicz, A Life for Poland, 30.

[15]    Piłsudska, Pilsudski: A Biography, 180.

[16]    Landau, Pilsudski and Poland, 60.

[17]    Humphrey, Pilsudski: Builder of Poland, 74—84.