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Book Review

A personal story of the ravages of war on Poland's aristocracy

Even as Andrew Tarnowski's family, "comfortably established members of Poland's centuries-old elite," as he describes them, joined the ranks of refugees eastward, westward, anywhere out of the paths of invading German armies, there remained for them at least the vestiges of their vanishing world.

In the caravan of cars headed from the family's baronial estate at Rudnik in southeastern Poland toward the Romanian border were "forty-four aristocrats," including his parents, Stas and Chouquette, "servants, nannies, and chauffeurs."

Tarnowski's aunt Sophie carried with her one of Poland's national treasures, a Swedish royal banner captured in a 17th-century battle near Rudnik. "The Last Mazurka" of the book's title had been danced at Sophie's wedding in Rudnik in 1937, "the last joyful family gathering," Tarnowski writes, "before the war swept them all away."

The war-clouded journey was broken several times at the estates and farms of other family members -- or to shelter in the forests where in other times Tarnowski's father and uncles had hunted wolf and boar, elk and roebuck. And the night before they crossed the border, Sophie burned her passport. As she tearfully told an understanding Romanian border official, "I burned it on purpose. I didn't want to leave Poland."

There have been many other accounts of the wartime upheaval that shook European society, but few have captured the world of its privileged members before, and after, as vividly and movingly as has Tarnowski, a retired Reuters correspondent.

"I can see them now," he writes of his aunt and uncle and his parents at Rudnik in August 1939, "living the last, long summer days of their beautiful privileged world. . . . They gallop across fields and along forest roads, their shouts and laughter rising above the gentle Carpathian foothills. It is a moment of utter clarity. They are on the edge of the abyss. In a few days their country will be overwhelmed. . ."

Several times Tarnowski refers to the life of Poland's landed aristocracy as "Tolstoyan." And his descriptions of individual family members could come out of "War and Peace."

There is aunt Sophie, clearly a favorite. She had kept a rifle in her bedroom and would shoot crows from her window to feed her pet fox. And during the war, she was in Cairo, "thriving on a heady mix of high society [King Farouk], hard work [Polish Red Cross], and exotic adventures" with "the glamorous young men" of the British special services.

And there is his father, Stas, an aristocratic libertine, having his way with peasant girls, but also a valorous soldier with Polish units fighting in North Africa and during the Allied advance into Germany.

The war destroys not only the privileged society, but also shatters their personal lives. There are affairs, divorces, and at the end, for many of them, workaday jobs like running a restaurant in a Scottish fishing village, or, for Stas, "a modest career in smuggling."

In assembling -- and bringing under control -- this sprawling story, Tarnowski had access to voluminous family documents, but his main source appears to be Sophie. There would be a leisurely luncheon, with the leftovers -- remembering her childhood pet -- being taken out for the foxes that roamed the woods in suburban London. Then, she would "settle down again and carry on. . ."

Some of those stories, and Tarnowski's recording of them, have apparently hit too close to home for the family elders.

In the November 2006 issue of the family newsletter, there is an item, translated from the Polish, reporting that Tarnowski had been expelled from the family because his book "is against the statutory goals of our Family Union. Beyond this, it has been the cause of painful memories and humiliations for certain family members."

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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