War Hero Jan Zamoyski Dead
Aristocrat resisted the
Nazis, was imprisoned by the Russians,
and later emerged as a Polish folk hero
PAJ August 2002
LONDON (The Times)—During the run-up to the first presidential elections in Poland after the fall of Communism, the name of Jan Zamoyski kept cropping up,
even though he was never one of the candidates. Those calling for him to stand for President included Socialists and workers as well as backwoodsmen of the Right. This was not as surprising as it sounds, for
having been ruled for so long by corrupt, self-serving mediocrities, the Polish people craved the opposite. And Jan Zamoyski’s appeal was not just that he had been the greatest landowner in Poland before
the war, or that he was the head of a family with almost mythical status in the national consciousness; he had lived a remarkable and inspiring life as well.
Jan Zamoyski was born June 12, 1912 on his father’s estate at Klemensow in southeastern Poland. He was brought up partly in Poland and partly in France and
studied at the Conservatoire in Nancy before his father reined in his musical ambitions and prevailed upon him to attend the Warsaw School of Economics. There, followed a few carefree years, enjoyed to the full
by the handsome young aristocrat who was good at tennis, riding and shooting and whose charm was enhanced by his talent at the keyboard.
In April 1938 he married Countess Roza Zoltowska, and almost exactly a year later his father died, whereupon he became the 16th incumbent of an entail
created in 1589. The estate, by then much reduced, still comprised well over half a million acres, with a palace in Warsaw, a substantial art collection and one of the greatest collections of illuminated
manuscripts and incunabula in Poland.
A lieutenant in the 24th (Zamoyski) Lancers, Jan Zamoyski was mobilized in August 1939 and took part in the ill-fated September campaign. When it was over, he
rushed back to Warsaw, where he picked works of art and precious manuscripts out of the smouldering ruins of his palace, and stored them in the safety of national institutions and monasteries. The books he
salvaged now form the nucleus of the National Library.
He was soon picked up by the Germans, who, instead of sending him to a prisoner-of-war camp, made him run his estate on behalf of their war effort. But Zamoyski
had already joined the underground army, and this gave him wonderful opportunities to serve the cause. The Germans were nervous of going into the vast tracts of woodland, which he knew like the back of his hand,
and he was therefore able to conceal people and arms on a large scale.
Over the next five years he hid entire underground units with their equipment. Also hidden were a string of escaped Allied prisoners and airmen who had been shot
down, whom he taught Polish or German while papers were prepared for their onward escape.
In 1941 the Germans decided to turn the whole area into a German bastion in the east. Zamosc, lying at the center of the great estate, was renamed Himmlerstadt.
All the inhabitants were then removed, with the exception of the blonde-haired children under the age of eight, who were handed over to incoming German families. Zamoyski and his wife, who sacrificed all her
remaining jewelry to bribe Germans, managed to hijack a number of transports of these unfortunates, and to hide large numbers of those most at risk, particularly Jewish children, in the depths of the forest.
In the summer of 1944, as the area was “liberated” by the Red Army, Zamoyski, who had reached the rank of colonel in the underground army, was arrested
by the NKVD. He was beaten and thrown into jail in Kielce, where he languished for a year before being released, without charge.
Everything he owned had been confiscated and he had to take menial jobs to keep himself and his family alive. In 1949 he was arrested once again and brought to
Warsaw, where he was brutally tortured before being sentenced to a term of 25 years for “collaboration with the Nazis” and “espionage for the West.”
Like all the other political prisoners, Zamoyski was released in 1956, in the “thaw” which followed Stalin’s death. In 1959 he found a job as the
representative of Swissair in Poland and things improved somewhat.
As soon as he was free to devote time, he began recovering the historical objects, artworks and books that he had managed to salvage, finding appropriate homes for
them in national museums. He also began to visit Zamosc again, helping the citizens restore and revive the town. He travelled extensively to find funds for this, and managed to persuade UNESCO to list the
Renaissance city. To the people of the Zamosc area he was a hero, and he gained the respect of all who came across him further afield.
In the 1980s, he encouraged young people to take part and helped to revive the prewar Conservative Party. In 1989 he stood for the Senate in the first free
elections to be held since before 1939, and was duly chosen. Being the eldest senator, it was he who opened its first session. Despite his age, he was remarkably energetic, and attended every meeting. He did not
stand for a second term. Plagued by ill-health and failing eyesight, he suffered nobly during the last two years of his life.
It was with the sort of feeling that accompanies the obsequies of a much-loved monarch that he was laid to rest July 4 in the crypt of the Renaissance cathedral of
Zamosc alongside his forebear and namesake who founded the city in 1580. The trumpet blasts and salvos of the military were matched by deep emotion among the thousands present.
It was no surprise when the order of the White Eagle was reintroduced in Poland by Lech Walesa that Zamoyski was among the first group to be dubbed.
Zamoyski was not just a remarkable individual. His trials epitomized what had befallen Poland’s aristocracy during the long Second World War, and showed how
nobly and patriotically they faced up to the challenge. It was above all for this that he was honored.
Jan Zamoyski, Polish landowner and politician, died on June 29, 2002.
—Times Newspapers Ltd.
Back to Biographies