70 Years Ago This Month
By Douglas W. Jacobson
When Krystyna Skarbek was living a comfortable life and winning teen-age beauty contests she could never have imagined that a few years later she would become one of the most renowned female operatives in the Allied Resistance. Born in Mlodziesyn in 1908, to Count Jerzy Skarbek, descendant of one of Poland’s oldest noble families, and Stefanie Goldfelder, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banking family, Krystyna’s early life was one of luxury and privilege.
But events took a turn for the worse when Krystyna’s father died and, shortly thereafter, her first marriage failed. In 1938, she married again, to the writer Jerzy Grzycki, and the couple moved to Ethiopia where Jerzy had accepted a diplomatic position. When the war broke out in 1939, returning to Poland proved impossible and the couple fled to London.
Eager to return to her home country and look after her mother, Krystyna offered her services to British Intelligence to conduct espionage and subversive actions in Poland. The British, however, showed little interest in a young woman with no experience. Not to be denied, Krystyna persisted and finally made her way to Budapest where she joined a Polish Resistance group. In the winter of 1940 she trekked over the snow-capped Tatra mountains into Poland where she tried, without success, to persuade her mother to leave Poland.
In Hungary Krystyna joined a secret courier operation, smuggling information and armaments over the mountains and conducting sabotage against the Nazis in Poland. She also met, and soon fell in love with, a co-conspirator and former Polish army officer, Andrzej Kowerski. The two of them worked side-by-side conducting subversive actions until they were arrested by the Gestapo.
But Krystyna’s wit and gift of persuasion (especially over men) saved their lives when she expertly faked the symptoms of tuberculosis and won their release. The couple then fled Hungary to Turkey. In Istanbul Krystyna again employed her natural beauty and charm to obtain travel visas to Cairo where they connected with British SOE.
Being fluent in French, Krystyna was assigned to SOE’s “Section F” under the code name Christine Granville. She parachuted into France and coordinated sabotage operations with Italian partisans and the French Maquis. Then, in 1944, two of her fellow operatives were arrested by the Gestapo. When Krystyna learned that they were soon to be executed she embarked on another daring and audacious mission. Posing as the niece of British General Bernard Montgomery, Krystyna threatened a local Gestapo officer with terrible retribution if the captives were not released. She sealed the deal with a bribe using secret SOE funds.
The end of the war, however, did not bring good fortune to Krystyna. Though awarded medals for her six years of service by both the British and the French, she was given just one month’s salary and left to fend for herself in Cairo. Unable to return to Poland, and virtually penniless, she divorced her husband, Jerzy, and spent the next several years travelling aimlessly, working at menial jobs. In 1952, after finally managing to obtain a visa, Krystyna returned to London where she met her final fate. An obsessive merchant marine steward whom she had encountered in her travels, and whose advances she had rejected, stabbed her to death in a Kensington hotel. Krystyna was buried at Kensel Green in London. In 1988 the ashes of her lover and comrade-in-arms, Andrzej Kowerski, was interred at the foot of her grave.
Douglas W. Jacobson is the Polish-American author of the award-winning book, NIGHT OF FLAMES: A Novel of World War Two. Mr. Jacobson has been a frequent contributor to this newspaper and has written a second historical novel set in Poland in World War Two, THE KATYN ORDER, which will be released in May, 2011.