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Poland, 1920

He served in an era caught between the days of monarchs and lords that was swept up in a quickly advancing tide of modernity, a way of life that would soon be lost to time. Ambassador Jay Pierrepont Moffat began his career with the Foreign Service in 1919, as the nations of the world recovered from the events of the First World War. In September of that year he was posted to the United States Legation in Warsaw, after Poland had regained its independence as the Second Polish Republic. Moffat’s time in Poland provides a glimpse into a world that would soon vanish. The young diplomat would witness the conflict between the new Polish State and Soviet Russia, and after the war, his journal provides an interesting perspective to a diplomat’s life and work in the early 20th century. Moffat captures the celebratory spirit that pervaded much of Poland after the Soviets withdrew, and devotes much time in his reflections to his travels throughout the country. Moffat’s strong affection for the land, people, and pleasures of Poland is clear to see. These excerpts are drawn from his extensive journals and are the oldest memoirs in the ADST collection.

“I felt in Warsaw an undertone of decadence”

MOFFAT:  It is impossible to reminisce of the old days in Warsaw without evoking happy memories of a galaxy of friends. There was the old Marquise Wielopolska, who could make or break a newcomer by dispatching or withholding one of her prized invitations. She went out very little, but such was the power of tradition plus personality that her social dictatorship was accepted without revolt and without appeal. Then there were the two Princess Radziwills, Isabel and Olga, sisters-in-law who at the parties they jointly gave used to preside at opposite ends of the drawing room and hold court in friendly rivalry.

There was the Chauvinesse Walewska, ugly and misshapen, but with a wit so sparkling that she dominated any group she joined. There was the redoubtable Countess Betka Potocka, still beautiful at sixty and still claiming as of right, and for that matter receiving, the unreserved homage of Poles and foreigners alike. And there were two sisters, Countess Henry Potocka and Countess Benoit Tyszkiewicz, who to me typified all that was finest in the Polish aristocracy.

At least half of these good friends died before the Second World War, and perhaps it was just as well. Requiescant in pace [Rest in peace].

Never had Warsaw known such a “season” as the winter of 1919-1920. The great families… after having lived in the country for decades, made a point of returning to Warsaw and reopening their palaces. With their eighteenth century standards, they felt that they were testifying to their faith in Poland’s stability by making its capital for one brief winter the most brilliant in Europe.

The impact of three emotions – reaction from the privations of the past, pride in the present, and an anguished, if suppressed, fear of the future– combined to create an urge for exaggerated gaiety. Festivities were so frequent that long before the onset of Lent, many of the foreigners began to flag and grow surfeited; the Poles never. How we succeeded in feasting and dancing most of the night and doing our work the next day, I don’t know. The only explanation is youth, and the intoxication that came from living on the very edge of the abyss.

My counter number at the British Legation was Bill Bentinck. Today he is the cautious and rather conventional representative of his Britannic Majesty …; then he was an impulsive youngster, full of dash and sparkle, ready for anything that came along. We soon became boon companions. We were only twenty-three or twenty-four at the time, and the two of us were badly spoiled by our Polish friends. We flirted with the young girls, played bridge with their mothers, and called dutifully on their grandmothers. We frequented the Club des Chasseurs, except for the card room where the play was too high, and we were at the opera house to applaud the prima ballerina assoluta, la Schzolzovna, whenever she danced. There was little that we missed, but our chiefs were indulgent, particularly after the austere Papal Nuncio, later Pius XI, went out of his way to say kind things in his thick Italian accent about “mes enfants prodigies,” [My child prodigies].

Warsaw was a city where the spirit of history hovered close at hand. After some centuries of glory, Polish history became one of war and turmoil, of jealousy and intrigue, with an aura of tragedy and lost causes. There were flashes of great and heroic achievement, but success was never long sustained. The same Poles who rose to heights in times of reverse, split into selfish factions as soon as success came their way. It was the constant internecine quarrels among the Polish lords that had led to Poland’s downfall and ultimate partition.

The scions of these self-same families were still dominating the scene, for where wealth comes exclusively from the land, society remains surprisingly static. They still occupied the palaces built by their ancestors, and lived in the rooms made memorable by 18th Century political intrigue. They were resolutely determined to maintain the magnificence of their establishment and carried to a high point the “art of living”. But for all its charm, I felt in Warsaw an undertone of decadence; its culture was overripe, a hot-house growth.

“Landlord and Peasant had made common cause”

The real strength of Poland came from the fields and the forests. The love of the soil was instinctive in every Pole, and from living near the soil he derived all that was finest in his make-up. It was not until I had paid a number of visits in the country that I began to sense the true worth of my Polish friends. Life was still feudal but it was devoid of sham.

Landlord and Peasant had made common cause during the partition in resisting alien overlordship and in keeping Polish nationalism alive. This had welded a strong bond between them, despite the gulf between the perfectly appointed castle and the poverty of the thatched villages outside the castle gate. The gulf was so great that not even in imagination was it bridged. The more lavish the castle and its invariable hunt, the greater the pride of the peasants.

I recall spending the week between Christmas and New Years with the Henry Potockis at Chrzastow (seen at left) . This was a large 18th Century manor house built over the remains of an old fortress, the walls of the ground floor thus being twenty feet thick. It was set in a vast forest which was subdivided into eighty sections, where cutting and replanting were carried on in regular rotation. There were no near neighbors. Friends and cousins would harness their carriages and drive over from a distance to remain two or three days. We never sat down at table fewer than thirty or forty, the generations mixing with perfect freedom. Here for the first time I tasted some old Polish dishes, such as soup made of the hot blood of goose heavily spiced, and drank miod or distilled honey (the ancient mead of the British).

There were some ten thousand peasants on the estate, happy enough, loyal enough, but not to be tempted beyond a point. Each morning Count and Countess Henry Potocki would go to the front hall at nine o’clock to receive one by one any petitioners from the estate who lined up at the entrance. Each man or woman was free to come with his wish or his grievance. To one they would give a few coins; to another a calomel [mercury] pill; a third would be sent away with a scolding; a fourth would come to announce the birth of a child and go away with congratulations and a small present. And thus it went on for an hour or more. In the afternoon Countess Potocki would go out in a light sleigh to visit the sick and infirm in their thatched huts. The system worked, but it would only work so long as the landlords were willing to give so much of themselves.

“Many a fortune to this day lies buried in Poland”

Most of the time I played with the younger generation:  Anna, now Countess Georges Zoltowska, and her two brothers Paul and Wladek. We rode horseback by the hour through the snow covered forest; we visited the lumber mills; we drove into Czestochowa, and leaving Anna in a church nearby – for no woman unless members of the House of Bourbon are allowed in the monastery –went into the famous [Jasna Góra Monastery] and relived the famous siege of which was immortalized by Sienkiewicz in “The Deluge”.

One afternoon the whole group, young and old alike, drove into the forest to dig up the family silver which had been buried at the time the Bolsheviks were driving on Warsaw a few months previously. The place had originally been selected with the utmost care and triangulated on natural features (these were few and far between in the flat sandy-soiled woods) that could be recognized even if the trees should be burned.

Many a fortune to this day lies buried in Poland which the owner is unable to find because the landmarks were all obliterated when the fires of war passed by. Other fortunes were found by the enemy through sheer accident, such as Count Tyszkiewicz’s famous wine cellar, which was discovered by a German soldier digging a trench. The Officers altered the direction of the trench and had the satisfaction of digging up in the course of a few kilometers several thousand cases of vintage wines. The Potocki silver, however, was safe. We loaded it aboard two waiting sleighs; the housemen set to work a-polishing it, and we saw it once more in use a day or two later when we all gathered for a midnight feast to welcome in the New Year 1921.

The next day I had to return to work. The railroad station was sixty miles away and the train left at eleven o’clock. This meant rising before dawn and driving the distance behind horses. Over my coat I put a borrowed [cloak] with fur both outside and in; over my head I drew a fur helmet which came down to the shoulders with only a small opening for eyes and nose; next I stepped into a fur-lined bag which was tied under my armpits, and thus immunized against the cold I was driven through the forest. The snow muffled the sound of the horses’ hoof beats, and the stillness of the forest, during both the hours of darkness and the yellow dawn was startling. Every twenty miles or so we would stop at an inn for a relay of horses, while the peasant driver would gossip for a few moments with the landlord before climbing back on to his high and narrow seat. I was sorry when we reached the station, and stepped back into the bustling hurrying life of the 20th Century.