• Panufnik’s Escape (2): Scarlett’s Memoir (2014)
Panufnik’s Escape (2): Scarlett’s Memoir
This article has not been published in any other format. It was posted on 31 October 2014.
As a follow-up to the previous article, Panufnik’s Escape (1): Berne Legation Memo, here are the relevant passages from the book published in 1956 by Panufnik’s then wife, the Irish-born Marie Elizabeth O’Mahoney, known as Scarlett. Often dismissed as a capriciously histrionic document of her time in post-war Poland and London, Out of the City of Fear (London: Hodder & Stoughton) concludes with Scarlett’s account of her role in Panufnik’s escape in 1954. She had been allowed to come to London in March that year, nominally to look after her sick father but privately in the hope that Panufnik would find a way to leave Poland and join her. He had given her the names of a few musicians in the West whom she could trust and who might be of help.
Yet Scarlett knew nothing of the invitation to Zürich until Panufnik phoned her from there on the afternoon of 10 July. Thereafter, until Panufnik’s plane touched down at Heathrow on 14 July, her only source of information was ‘K.’, who phoned her twice: on 11 and 14 July. ‘K.’ was Konstanty Regamey, the Swiss composer and ‘an old and trusted friend of Andrzej’. Regamey had been instrumental in the plan, hatched with fellow Swiss composer Rolf Liebermann, to invite Panufnik to conduct the orchestra at Swiss Radio in Zürich and then escape to the West.
In his autobiography Composing Myself (London: Methuen, 1987), Panufnik was scathing about his wife’s account.
I rashly allowed Scarlett to write this book without even a glance from myself. It was published in 1956 under the title Out of the City of Fear. It caused me considerable distress as it was peppered with minor inaccuracies, particularly about my days in Zürich before my flight to England, which she had not even asked me about, but had probably pieced together on the basis of vague comments by friends. (p.249)
This last sentence is perplexing. There may well be ‘minor inaccuracies, particularly about my days in Zürich’, but are we really expected to believe, given Scarlett’s character, that she never asked her husband for his first-hand account of those five days? And who are these ‘friends’? As events unfolded, the only other source that Scarlett had was Regamey, who had rushed to Zürich after Panufnik had phoned him, apparently before he’d phoned Scarlett. Panufnik told him all about his last days in Warsaw and arrival in Zürich, and Regamey actively assisted in Panufnik’s escape on 13 July. Rather than ‘vague comments by friends’, it was Regamey who gave Scarlett the details over the phone on 11 and 14 July. There is no reason to doubt their overall accuracy. Scarlett may be guilty of some embroidery – we cannot be sure in which ways – but so too may Regamey and Panufnik.
Scarlett’s chapters covering her time alone in the UK in March-July 1954 are written as a diary. Was that how she wrote them down at the time, therefore everything was freshly recorded, or was it the publisher’s device later on, in which case there will have been some reshaping of the narrative? Out of the City of Fear came out relatively quickly, just two years after her husband’s escape. Even fresher, though not of course necessarily truer, was the memo from the Polish Envoy in Berne, Stanisław Trojanowski, which was written at the time (15 July 1954). Panufnik’s autobiography, on the other hand, dates from over 30 years after the event (although no doubt the narrative as published was shaped in his mind much earlier). This all begs the question: what constitutes reliability when faced with recollections that are so separated in time?
The Scarlett-Regamey account, in Chapter 17 of Out of the City of Fear, tallies in part both with Panufnik’s and with Trojanowski’s. In other respects, especially for the afternoon and evening of 14 July, it diverges markedly from them both. What we are left with, therefore, until any other surviving documentation comes to light, are three intertwined variations which, from this distance in time, are impossible to disentangle and assess fully.
Below, I have interlaced the relevant excerpts from Out of the City of Fear – which are the ones that deal with the escape itself – with observations that relate to the chronologies that I have deduced from the accounts of Panufnik and Trojanowski (see the preceding article).
Chapter 17 (excerpts)
[…] I had no warning premonition this afternoon when the phone rang. And when I heard Andrzej’s voice over the wire I lost all power to speak. At first I thought he was calling from Warsaw; then the word Zurich penetrated my stupid brain and I went quite numb. […] He had managed to phone K. in Geneva, who would contact me this evening and tell me everything.
K. phoned an hour ago. He is in Zurich. He left Geneva after Andrzej’s phone call in order to be closer to him, should he need help. The puzzle fell into place as he pieced it together for me.
[…] He [Panufnik] flew to Zurich on the 9th. He was met by the Music Director of the Zurich Radio and a representative of the Polish Legation in Berne. (1) In the lounge of the hotel which the Legation had picked for him, (2) he immediately spotted the usual guardian angel and decided against making any phone calls through the hotel switchboard. (3) The next day, closely shadowed, he went to the railway station and ordered lunch in the large restaurant. (4) His guardian angel sat a few tables away. Suddenly, before his order came through, he left the restaurant, cut into the toilet and out the back way and then down a side street. There he caught a taxi to the Post Office, from which he phoned K. and myself.
(1) The reception party accords with Trojanowski’s memo rather than Panufnik’s.
(2) This accords with Panufnik’s comment that the Polish Legation selected the hotel. Yet Trojanowski wrote that Panufnik had phoned the Legation the day after he had arrived to give it his address (which it would not have needed if it had done the booking). That Trojanowski included this detail in his memo to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Warsaw implies that it had acted properly in leaving the hotel booking to (presumably) Zürich Radio. Gwizdalanka says in footnote 3 to her article that it would have been the practice at the time not only for the host (Zürich Radio) to book the hotel but also to pay for it. This last observation does not match either Trojanowski’s or Panufnik’s account.
(3) Likewise, as in Panufnik.
(4) Panufnik writes about going to ‘a rather expensive restaurant’, but mentions no railway. Were Swiss railway restaurants expensive in that sense? The rest of this paragraph is as in Panufnik.
K. said that he [Panufnik] would be busy recording until the 13th. After the last recording on the afternoon of the 13th, (5) he would return to the hotel and stay in his room until it was dark. Then, if the coast was clear, he would use the back stairs leading to a side entrance, where K. would be waiting in his car to drive him somewhere outside Zurich. If everything went according to plans and Andrzej managed to get a visa from the British Consul, then they would return to the Zurich airport in time for Andrzej to board the night plane for London. (6) But there were snags. Apart from Andrzej’s personal guardian angel, the hotel was under observation. At the moment there were two men standing guard on the street corner. (7) The question was whether they had thought of the back entrance. K. didn’t know how Andrzej would manage to get through the recording session. He was in a state of complete mental and physical exhaustion. […]
(5) This chronology accords with Panufnik’s eventual rather than planned schedule. It appears from his account that the schedule was foreshortened on 12 July, the day after Regamey’s first phone call to Scarlett, in the light of Panufnik’s alarm after the Legation phoned him about his return plane ticket. The implication is that the sessions – including recording of works by Baird and Serocki (abandoned, or was that always a ruse?) – were originally due to continue past 13 July.
(6) The remainder of this ‘plan’ outlined by Regamey is new information, neither corroborated nor contradicted by Panufnik. What papers Panufnik travelled with is not known or who arranged them (I do not know what would have been required for travel between Switzerland and the UK in 1954), nor who bought Panufnik’s air ticket to London and when.
(7) This ‘personal guardian angel’, or ‘shadow’ as Panufnik puts it, disappears from Panufnik’s narrative after 10 July, his first full day in Zürich. How present was this shadow? Regamey’s observation (at 04.30 in the morning of 11 July) that there were ‘two men standing guard on the street corner’ sounds unreal. This is spy-thriller territory. Certainly, surveillance was commonplace in Eastern Europe, but it stretches belief that Panufnik – who was trusted and valued by the Polish authorities (would they have let him come to Zürich if they really thought that he might defect?) – was ‘guarded’ day and night in such an overt and extensive manner. If he was, he would surely have mentioned it, as it would add drama to the story.
Today is our [third] wedding anniversary. (8) Will we celebrate it together tomorrow in freedom? To the end of my days I shall never, never forget these last moments before the finale. […]
(8) This is a touching coincidence, but understandably seems not to have been at the forefront of Panufnik’s mind, as he doesn’t mention it.
14th July. 4 a.m.
K. has just phoned! It’s all over! At this very moment Andrzej is riding the skies to England! If only I could be near him, watch his face, know his thoughts as this wonderful dawn breaks on a new life or us both.
Now I can laugh with malicious satisfaction as I think of the [Polish] Embassy’s frantic phone calls this evening. (9) My “aunt’ very wisely said I had gone away. She didn’t know where. But I quickly sober when I think of K’s account of those last dramatic moments which could so easily have ended in tragedy.
(9) This would tally with Panufnik’s chronology, which would have sent the Polish Legation into overdrive. Trojanowski’s memo, however, shows no sign of this: it is only 36 hours later that he becomes aware that Panufnik has disappeared. Or so he says.
At first, everything went according to plan. After finishing his recording session, Andrzej returned to the hotel, (10) where he was joined by K., who had taken a room on the floor below. (11) Suddenly the phone rang. (12) The Polish Minister [Trojanowski] in Berne wanted to know why Andrzej had neglected to make a plane reservation for his return journey to Warsaw. Andrzej stalled. He said that he had been busy recording and was tired, but would ring the airport immediately. The Minister told him to phone back when he had done so. After booking, Andrzej accordingly rang back (13) and was thoroughly alarmed to hear the Minister whispering to someone in Russian and breaking off the conversation. Somebody was evidently standing at his elbow, telling him what to say. (14) He announced that he was sending a car to Zurich to pick Andrzej up. He wanted to see him without delay. (15)
(10) This tallies in outline with Panufnik’s account.
(11) This is new information. Nowhere does Panufnik mention that Regamey was staying in the same hotel. Had he been, and if the Legation had fixed Panufnik’s accommodation itself and was watching it, would they not have tumbled to the fact that his friend had booked himself in as well and been suspicious?
(12) We must not forget that these details come directly from Regamey, who by this token was present when the Legation phoned (not acknowledged by Panufnik).
(13) Much of this meshes with the accounts from both Panufnik and Trojanowski, although not necessarily at the same time of day. Panufnik says that the Legation phoned as he was getting dressed that morning, before he went to the radio for the final session. Trojanowski writes of three calls that day, one at noon to invite Panufnik to Berne, one a few minutes later to find out when Panufnik was flying back to Warsaw (but Panufnik had by that time gone out), and one at 8 that evening when it was Panufnik who phoned him with details of his flight back. Did Panufnik actually buy a Zürich-Warsaw ticket?
(14) This is also recorded by Panufnik, but again in the early morning call.
(15) Likewise, this matches Panufnik’s recollection, although he forgets that the Legation is in Berne, not Zürich, so the following reported conversation does not wholly ring true: ‘The official said sharply, in a voice bristling with irritation, “I repeat, come NOW! At once. We will not detain you for more than a few minutes. Take a taxi here and you will not be late for your recording session.”
Something was up. Andrzej and K. decided to leave the hotel at once without waiting for dusk. They had almost reached K.’s car, parked at the back entrance, when a man in a cloth cap stepped out of the shadows. K. gave him a violent shove and sent him sprawling. Through the car’s rear window, Andrzej saw him trying to make a note of the number-plate as they swung crazily down the street. (16) It must have been about an hour after this that the Embassy started phoning me, wanting to know my whereabouts.
(16) This part of the story is at variance with Panufnik’s memory. He says that he was alone, left by taxi alone and was pursued at breakneck speed through Zürich by Communist Secret Police. (Gwizdalanka says in her second footnote that, if Panufnik was followed, it could only have been by the Swiss security services. If this is so, then it is also possible that all the ‘shadows’ were Swiss.)* Regamey tells Scarlett that he was with Panufnik, had his own car and had an encounter with a man whom he assumed was a secret agent. There is no suggestion of a car chase. At the same time, the story supports the general tenor of Panufnik’s account. Trojanowski’s memo has no trace of any of this cloak-and-dagger action.
* As an example of how the story has changed over time, Panufnik’s daughter Roxanna is quoted in 2009 as saying of the departure from the hotel: “It involved a toilet window and a waiting car. He was halfway to the British Embassy before the KGB guards realised he was defecting not defecating!” (‘Eastern Rising’, The Tablet, 7 November 2009).
This is the only mention that I have come across of Panufnik visiting the British Embassy – which, like the Polish Legation, was in Berne, 125 ams away, so going there en route to Zürich airport can be ruled out. Unlike Poland, however, Great Britain had Consulates in other Swiss cities, including Zürich, so was it the Consulate he went to? If so, why doesn’t he – or Regamey, or Scarlett – mention it? British diplomatic archives must surely contain papers that would elucidate what if any hand its Zürich Consulate had in the affair.
As to the KGB, why the Soviet secret police would be watching Panufnik is far from clear. If it was Soviet agents who were ‘on guard’, that might explain why the Polish Legation was in the dark. But this idea takes the ‘shadowing’ aspect of Panufnik’s story further into the realm of apparently incompetent state surveillance. But was it Polish? Or Swiss? Or Russian? Or even British? Or was it a complete mix-up?
K. took Andrzej to a friend’s house outside Zurich and there switched cars for the journey back to the airport. (17) He also enlarged Andrzej’s bodyguard, in case of trouble on the airfield. However, all was quiet as he and his friends formed a protective circle around until the plane climbed into the sky. (18) […]
(17) This detail, as elsewhere in Scarlett’s account, can have come only from Regamey. Where Panufnik remains in a second hotel until Regamey arrives, it is Regamey who takes Panufnik to a safe house and then switches cars.
(18) This is where fantasy seems to creep into Scarlett’s account. If Regamey ‘enlarged Andrzej’s bodyguard’, what was the size of the bodyguard before, when was it operational and why is it mentioned only here? The final sentence is, of course, absurd. What/who were they encircling while the plane was taxiing and taking off? Panufnik’s story is more measured, referring rather to standard security: ‘Even if anyone from the Legation had been watching my departure, under the eyes of the airport police they would would have been powerless. I was struck more than anything by the almost surrealistic normality of procedures as I checked my ticket and passport and went through to the plane. A couple of hours later I was in London.’
14th July. 12 noon (19)
(19) Panufnik: ‘I arrived at Heathrow early in the morning of 14 July 1954’. The delay in rejoining his wife (from his ‘early in the morning’ to her ’12 noon’) is no doubt accounted for by sustained questioning and border procedures by the British authorities.
We stood looking at each other through the drizzle of rain. The deep black smudges under Andrzej’s eyes tore at my heart. […]
As he advanced towards me through the rain, he said in English, “I’ve forgotten to bring my umbrella.”
My heart leapt for joy at this dig at the English climate. He was going to be all right. …
Finally, here is a comparative table, in which the chronologies presented by Trojanowski (1954) and Panufnik (1987) – see the first of these two related articles – are variously connected with or contrasted by the Scarlett-Regamey account (1954-56). It is quite possible that new evidence – whether primary or secondary, privately or publicly held – will emerge in due course. In the meantime I hope that these materials and observations will spur others to explore this extraordinary episode in the life of Andrzej Panufnik.
© 2014 Adrian Thomas