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.
- Joseph Pilsudski, circa 1922
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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. 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. 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
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.
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
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.
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
Pilsudski's natural theatrics and
medical training (he had spent one year studying medicine before abandoning the
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
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.
Accompanied by a uniformed
prison doctor, Shabashnikov was led by several guards into Pilsudski's cell. On cue, Pilsudski shrieked uncontrollably at
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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. 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.
Revolutionary and Soldier, 142.
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
Builder of Poland, 69.
Builder of Poland, 75.
Life for Poland, 29.
Builder of Poland, 76.
and Poland, 55.
A Biography, 178.
A Biography, 180.
and Poland, 60.