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Christine Skarbek: Konstancin

Konstancin was the turn-of-the-century playground of the Polish wealthy and elite.  Weekend trains would bustle the chic out of Warsaw to their palatial country mansions and the casino directly across the walkway from the train station.  On the other side of the casino, a short walk away was the gently flowing Jeziorka, a tributary of the Vistula.  Manor houses sprung up nearby like mushrooms.

The economic engines of the area were the health spa, one of the dozens that were all the rage among the rich in Edwardian Europe, and its offshoot, the Rehabilitation Center that so many had need of during and after WWI.

Not all of the mansion owners were Polish, of course, because at that time Warsaw and its environs were part of Mother Russia, and as a cosmopolitan town, Konstancin attracted wealthy Jewish bankers and Russian magnates.  The Polish aristocracy did manage to assimilate to its new reality as best it could and was both an abettor to Russian hegemony and its major opponent.

The yin-yang of the political situation did cause a certain split-personality among wealthy Polish intellectuals.  For the less well-off and far less fortunate szlachta (Polish gentry), whose first love was freedom, this was never a problem.  The Russians persecuted my side of my clan and made them emigrate to the States.  They never looked back but embraced a wide-based democracy.

Others were of the Konstancin sort, willing to wink and nod as long as they could maintain their affluence.  In essence, the well-heeled had their own nation of sorts: no matter where precisely they were born, they could always find friends and relatives in other countries.

Imagine their shock when the Tsar was imprisoned and he and his entire family were assassinated.  It was worse than the French Revolution because it was so immediate in both time and geography.  Still, the Polish moguls and their Russian neighbors in Konstancin played out the game until Hitler’s Germany overran the country.

By the time World War II came to an end, the Polish financiers, intelligentsia and ruling class were wiped off the face of the earth.  The tiny rump of the szlachta gave way to apparatchiks and they became the new owners of Konstancin property.

Copyright 2021 Christine Skarbek.

Christine Skarbek is an American expatriate writer living in Poland. This passage is drawn from her new memoir.

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