David Flusfeder's new novel, The Pagan House, will be published by 4th Estate in July.


Prince Waszynski

Prince Michal Waszynski died in 1965 of a cerebral thrombosis at a dinner party in Madrid. His body was transported back for Catholic burial to Rome, where he had lived in appropriate princely splendour (heraldic crown over the door of his villa, chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce with solid gold door handles) since the end of World War II. He's largely forgotten today, but you can sometimes see him in photographs in other people's biographies – Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, Audrey Hepburn – exquisitely dressed at a starry dinner table. He had a flair for making influential friends. A homosexual, he had married the octogenarian Contessa DeFrasso shortly after his arrival in Rome. He added to his wealth by co-producing Hollywood epics in Europe. The cause of death was, I suspect, an excess of good living.

Waszynski was born Michael Waks in 1904 in Kowle, a tiny, mostly Jewish town in Volynia in the Ukraine. He moved to Warsaw in his teens, and then to Berlin where he learned filmmaking and quite a lot else under the tutelage of F.W. Murnau. When Waks returned to Warsaw, with his name transformed to Michal Waszynski, with his cosmopolitan manners copied from Murnau, people called him "the prince". It was a nickname that stuck, and grew. Micha (pronounced "Meecha") had a high-browed face, greased-back hair, pointed, slightly elfin ears, large green eyes, strong eyebrows, a tender mouth, which was a little girlish in its bow-shaped prettiness, a narrow Roman nose, flat cheeks, tending to a slight jowliness. He dressed like a dandy. But he was never an aesthete or an artist. His job was to please the producers, and if the result was clichéd, so be it – a shrug of those shoulders wrapped in soft tweed, his suit cut in a perfect copy of the English style. He directed romantic comedies (The Banner of Love), melodramas (The Seduced Woman), Yiddish films (The Dybbuk), Catholic films (Under Your Defence). He could and did work in just about every genre and style.

In 1939 he fled Warsaw and went to the USSR, where he established a theatre troupe and film unit, first in Bialystock, then Moscow (where he attended a premiere sitting near Stalin and Beria), and then to Alma-Ata, to where the Moscow film industry had been evacuated.

After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Waszynski (who had left behind his Jewishness long ago) joined up with the brigade of the Polish Free Army that was being formed under General Anders. He was commissioned and became the director of the Army's film unit, making monthly documentaries, including a feature about the 1944 battle for the monastery of Monte Cassino.

My father too was at the battle of Monte Cassino. He was younger than Waszynski, born in 1922; but their paths might have crossed a few times. My father was born in Warsaw, where he enjoyed or endured what he would later call "a difficult adolescence", and he too fled to Bialystock after the Germans invaded Poland. But whereas Waszynski spent the two years directing films and plays, my father was imprisoned for sixteen months in a forced labour camp in Siberia. My father too joined up under General Anders, and was in Italy when the war ended. Two of my father's family also survived being Jewish in Warsaw – his aunt Ruth, who settled in Brooklyn, and his uncle Jerzy, who renamed himself George, became, like Waszynski, a Catholic, and went to live in South Africa. My father remained nominally Jewish, but he too remade himself, although in a narrower way than either Jerzy or Waszynski: the teenage delinquent became a respectable engineer and businessman in New York. He might have gone further but he didn't have the advantage of marrying the Contessa DeFrasso, who when she died left her husband the entirety of her fortune. The "prince" became a Prince.

Waszynski built a studio in Spain. He flourished in a career of co-producing overpoweringly bogus epics for Hollywood studios in Europe – The Fall of the Roman Empire, El Cid. Perhaps the only decent movie he worked on in that period was The Barefoot Contessa.

You could see him as an elegant fraud of a survivor. I don't see him that way. Successfully, he cast off his unnecessary selves. He was never in exile, because, until he became a Roman prince, he had never been at home.

I doubt he suffered nightmares or nostalgia – because nostalgia is a mourning not for the self you once were, but for the possible selves you failed to become, and Waszynski became what he chose to be. He is the patron saint of all those who refuse to identify happiness with birthplace, who reject the myth of the unified self. As Kafka wrote, "What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself."



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