Vladek Sheybal Online
The Eyes and The Voice
The Memoirs of Vladek Sheybal
Sorry for my chaotic talk. Funny, I am looking now at my painted cupboards in the kitchen. I painted them a sort of orange-red with some flowers on them. My kitchen looks very Polish; my house in London is very Polish too I think. My mother once said when she came to visit me that it's a little replica of our country house in East Poland, Ukraine as a matter of fact.
My thoughts have to go back into my paradise, into my childhood - it was so happy. Otherwise I wouldn't be able to survive this asylum, this exile, this situation - it would be too difficult. Now everybody I loved has gone. My parents are gone, my beloved sister, Janka has gone. I will never forget them.
I remember the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. I remember it vividly, because it was the time in which I had to go to my acting classes in our 'underground' college, which took place only in private apartments, like the old studies in Warsaw were conducted in private apartments. It was in that part of Warsaw, which was far away from the centre. When the ghetto uprising started, the tram which ran next to one of the walls of the ghetto had to stop before it reached the ghetto itself because the Germans were shooting at the ghetto. Jewish people, who were taking part in the uprising, were shooting back at them from the ghetto too. This meant that people had to walk quite a long distance, at least one and a half miles around the outside of the ghetto, then board another tram on the other side of the ghetto - which would take people to this district where my classes were being held. The atmosphere in Warsaw was very grim and depressing, and the people of Warsaw really went through hell with this uprising. The Germans were fighting street after street, house after house, burning the Jews and killing them. It had a tremendous affect on us. We were completely helpless - we couldn't do anything at all.
The Germans brought in tremendous amounts of arms, and completely surrounded the remnants of the Jewish ghetto. Some of our Polish boys were fighting arm by arm with the Jewish people there. One of them was Urick Zelfan - a great friend of mine, who killed himself when he didn't have any choice to escape; a typically Polish gesture, ridiculously fantastic but also chivalrous and tragic. When the uprising was just ending its tragic existence, and shortly before he died Urick pulled a few Jewish friends out of the ghetto, taking them as far as The Povonski Cemetery in Warsaw, trying to save their lives as well as his own. Once they reached the cemetery they were to be redirected to some private apartments, or the forests outside Warsaw to join the Polish Partisan army. Suddenly they realised they had been surrounded by the Germans, who knew about certain people from the ghetto running away to the nearby cemetery and then on to further destinations of safety. They started shooting at him and he was shooting back. Finally he shot out his last bullet. He didn't have any more bullets, so he just took the gun of his Jewish friend who was standing next to him and said.
“No, I can't do it” his friend replied.
So Urick shot himself - just like that.
Strangely enough, Urick's Jewish friend survived and later on the story trickled into our family. My mother adored Urick. I met Urick's parents in London later on and I told them his story. They only knew that he died, but they didn't know the circumstances. So he died like that.
The whole of Warsaw was absolutely horrified by this uprising and all our lives became subject to what was going on in the ghetto. First of all you heard shooting all the time, then you smelled burning houses and burning bodies as well. A huge dark cloud of smoke filled the whole of Warsaw giving us a reminder of what was going to happen to us, and indeed it did happen, a year later the Warsaw uprising started. It lasted 63 days, in which the whole of Warsaw was then almost completely destroyed.
The Polish Underground army had an agreement with the Russian army which was already on the outskirts of Warsaw - when we started the uprising, the Russians stopped advancing. The playing of music was cancelled, parties were cancelled and people were praying for the Jews in the Churches.
In their incredibly sadistic way the Germans built two 'merry-go-rounds' at the side of the ghetto. They wooed the children with sweets to get on, the music was playing and the happy children were going round and round on the roundabouts. When the parents tried to take their children off the merry-go-rounds, the Germans threatened to shoot the children. It was all absolutely ghastly. Obviously the Jews heard this merry music outside. God knows what they were thinking. Some of them most certainly were thinking that we on our side, were enjoying them dying in the ghetto!. In order to counteract this kind of German sadism, the Polish people, women especially, built lots of little altars all around the ghetto and masses of people came to kneel in front of these altars and pray. Priests came too and were giving mass. People were singing songs, church songs and psalms as a way of encouragement to the Jewish people in the ghetto as a way of saying that we think about you, and we are praying to God for some kind of miracle. The Germans tried to stop it all but then they gave up. The merry-go-rounds were dismantled too. I had to be there three times a week because of my travelling to classes. Life had to go on. The show has to go on, we say. We've got to get on with life in spite of the ghetto tragedy. This was especially true when we knew that the next turn would be ours, and indeed it was. So this is my little tragic account about the ghetto uprising - my recollection of what I have seen myself, and I have to add a little episode which has imprinted itself on the core of my brain. One da,y travelling to my classes I stopped at one of these altars, to kneel down and to pray with the people for a miracle for the Jewish people. Suddenly in one of the windows in one of the burning houses inside the ghetto (I think perhaps it was the fourth floor), I saw two people; a man and a woman. With a tremendous yell, and holding each others' hands they threw themselves down into the flames and certain death. We all gasped. A year later, during the Warsaw uprising I saw similar scenes happening in Warsaw. We are linked with the Jewish people in this incredible inhuman martyrdom of dying - for what? For black and white? For Jew and non-Jew, or Catholic and non-Catholic? I never understood it. I never will.
I see today is 11th February (1990?). Anatol Sharanski has been exchanged to the West on the bridge in West Berlin, and flew to Frankfurt to join his wife who hadn't seen him for 12 years. Then he flies on to Israel, as a symbol, as a hero and as a human being as well. I feel very deeply moved, and I can understand his feelings of being deeply moved when I saw him on the television screen. A kind of diminutive man with clothes much too big for him, he was smiling but it was a strained smile. He was walking into the free world after years of gulags; after having been a prisoner and a harassed man in the Soviet Union. Within a few hours (it can only happen nowadays with modern techniques) he's whisked from this cold winter and snow of the gulags and Russia into freedom. Into a warm country, into Israel. They wait for him there in his new home country. I thought how I felt when I walked from my concentration camp during the war and into freedom. Then how I felt the second time when I left my country in 1957. Away from communism, away like a mad man and how I felt when finally my train crossed the border between Czechoslovakia and Austria and into freedom. I know exactly how he must feel. Very moved. I am very happy for him. For this development. For Anatol Sharanski.
Then, as he walked from the plane in Israel led by his wife, onto the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv (which I knew so well), his face already was kind of having a colour in the shape of the sun. He was turning into the sun. Sun came into his life.
My kitchen downstairs in my house in London has a very intimate atmosphere with this red lamp on the table, my cardigan drying above the radiator and here I separate myself from the world by drifting into this kitchen. Whenever I walk into my kitchen, I walk into some friendly surroundings. This is not just a kitchen, but a space which has become broken into positive fragments. The image of the concentration camp has gone. I don't know. My kitchen has become something special, a new world for me, funny
Halina Dohotska and her sister.
Both were Jewish ladies, and both women survived the whole of the German occupation and they were always smiling, always looking very elegant and beautiful. They were living in the same apartment that they both had before the war in Godgera Street, not far away from where we were. Everybody in the street knew that they were Jewish and nobody ever moved a finger to harm them. Halina would be coming into our flat to talk to my auntie Sophia, who used to be a singer, they were very close friends, doing their shopping in the little shop which was just round the corner. One day while getting drunk, our caretaker started threatening my father, saying that he knew there were lots of Jewish people staying in our flat and started threatening the security of Halina Dohotska and her sister as well. My father was very angry with him.
“Please I advise you first of all not to get drunk” he said, “secondly not to talk about these things, because you know what the reaction of our underground army will be … it could become dangerous for you.”
The caretaker got a bit frightened, but after a while he got drunk again and again started threatening us as well as Halina and her sister. My father decided to convey this to our underground army and one morning we learned the corpse of our caretaker was lying in the field nearby. On his chest was a piece of paper which stated that he was executed because he wanted to denounce the Jewish people.After this execution, of course, there was the fear that the Germans would come and round up our district and start taking us one by one for shooting. After two days the body disappeared. Apparently our resistance army wanted to make a kind of spectacle of him, and also give out a warning to all other possible denouncers of the Jewish people. Then they removed his body in order not to endanger the whole district. Years later, in my flat in London, Halina told me that she was also blackmailed by a Jewish friend of her father.
In 1939 with the beginning of the war, everything collapsed and the whole world went dark.
Here I am, again in my capsule, my kitchen with the lovely glow of this red shade on the lamp and whenever I have to go upstairs, with every step up, I feel I'm reaching freedom. I'm going out of my concentration camp. It's a funny feeling, I already condemned myself again in 1986 in February, again to the concentration camp, to imprisonment and to this awful inhuman experience of not being able to be an individual. These were the Dark Ages for me, but in the end, what ever matters is what is inside us. I think you can always carry it with yourself as I did. Now I understand how much I did carry with myself, my own sense of justice and independence.
All the professors of our college in Krzemieniec were being arrested by the Gestapo and shot, executed. The Germans were getting rid of the Polish intelligentsia from a list prepared by the Ukrainians. My father was not on the list, thanks to his very humanitarian attitudes towards all minorities and especially towards the Ukrainians. So the Ukrainians showed their gratitude towards my father by not putting his name on the list, but they warned him and he had to leave Krzemieniec. He lived in hiding with some friends in the country.
The Warsaw uprising started 1st September 1944. I will always remember this moment and this day when I saw from the balcony of our flat a girl, her name was Oscenia. She was pointing to something first left, then right with her hands going like a sort of windmill as though she was directing traffic. The shooting had started. It appeared that the girl was from our resistance army who was really pointing to certain people, where they should go, in which direction, and in which street and whatever. And then Warsaw went through 63 days of hell, 63 days of desperate fight. We were utterly powerless - not having enough arms and being constantly bombed by German planes. They were flying very low, almost laughing at us and simply dropping their bombs. At the same time the German artillery destroyed houses, and these awful new weapons; we were calling them mooing cows. They were making this incredible noise like 200 or 2,000 or 2,000,000 cows and then spitting out about 30 or 40 mines or bombs which were falling onto three or four blocks of flats at the same time, and destroying them completely. Towards the end of this 63 days I was desperately looking for some medicine for my father who was very very sick in the cellar, literally dying. He had typhoid, he was dehydrated already, his tongue was hanging out of his mouth and my mother was praying. Her face was white and in her eyes was a beautiful expression which suggested the only hope and justice is in God. I went to another district of Warsaw where there was a doctor friend of ours, to get some medicine for my father. The only way to get there was to climb the mountains of rubble in the streets, take a chance on being burned by the fire from burning houses on both sides of the streets, and run across squares which had Germans shooting from both sides. There was no choice but to run and hope that no bullet was going to hit you. Finally, you would have to go down into the cellars. Warsaw became like a rabbit warren underground, and down in these cellars there were signs for the streets above. There was a complete underground city. Certain streets could be reached by the trenches which were built under the streets. Finally I found this doctor who I hoped would give me some injections for my father. Suddenly, out of the blue, I was caught by the Germans who appeared from a doorway of one of the houses.
That is what street fighting is all about. We were here, Germans were there. We were around the corner here, Germans were round the corner there. It was all very flexible and interchangeable, constantly. When I was caught by the Germans I was shifted along with another 200 people who had already been collected, we were all being kicked and hit by their rifles and guns. The Germans were always shouting and making incredible noises. More crowds caught, people appearing from left and right like rivers, into one big river. After a few hours of this senseless run with the Germans pushing us like cattle, we stopped on a big plain in the centre of Warsaw. A huge student house dominated this plain. It had been a student's house built before the war but during the Warsaw uprising it was turned into Gestapo headquarters. This huge plain was covered with grass and streets were all around it. You could say it was a square, but it wasn't a square, the only description is a plain. There were already thousands of people caught in Warsaw and of course some of them were in an awful condition. Some of them were wounded and some carried parcels, possessions. Some of them didn't have anything, like myself. We were all instructed through loudspeakers (in Polish) to sit down on the ground and wait. We knew that outside Warsaw there was already a kind of transitory concentration camp for millions of Warsaw people and here I am going to make a digression:
During the 63 days of the Warsaw uprising, half of the population was killed or burned. Warsaw counted two million inhabitants before the uprising and one million inhabitants were killed during those 63 days.
We knew that we would be selected but of course we didn't know our fate, we didn't know what they were going to do to us. According to some stories coming out of Warsaw (which was looming in the distance and was full of smoke), we heard tales of fires, shooting and explosions and people dying - and here on the German side, perhaps just one mile away, we were sitting on the grass in the sun and waiting. It was September and it was very very hot, not a cloud on the sky. Unfortunately, like in 1939 the whole sky was cloudless and therefore German planes could absolutely ravage the skies and the ground, throwing death with their bombs everywhere, without anyone or anything to stop them.
Radar had not been invented then or wasn't known, so the only times there was no bombing, during the Warsaw uprising in 1944 or at the start of the war in 1939, were the nights when the planes couldn't fly. We knew that eventually we would be taken to Prushkov, a big transitory temporary concentration camp and from Prushkov, God knew what was going to be our fate.
I was sitting on the grass and kind of looking around taking in a little bit of sun, but my heart was very much in Warsaw. I was thinking about my parents, especially my father. I was absolutely sure he didn't have any hope to live. I was looking at this blue sky and then I was looking at the sea of heads, at the people. Somehow I don't remember if people were crying or talking. We were all sitting in silence, an apocalyptic silence. It was the silence which moved me so much, there was a closeness in it. This silence was already sculpted by the powerlessness and hopelessness of our situation. There wasn't any room for tears anymore, there wasn't any room for words anymore. There was only room for beating hearts and for thoughts, and perhaps for fear, though I don't think we feared very much. We went through such hell that fear didn't exist anymore in our hearts - rather keep your head straight and show this to these Germans that you have a style and your dignity. I was looking at this big house so far away in front of us with the big steps leading to the middle of the big wooden prison-like gate; it would open and close from time to time. It all looked to me like a Fellini film: The entrance to heaven or the entrance to hell. Behind this gate were the headquarters of the Gestapo, and there were a few Gestapo soldiers standing on these huge steps with rifles at the ready, watching us - this silent crowd of slaves who were waiting for God to make the little sign with his big finger, and determine what would happen to us. As I was looking at the house I suddenly had a very strange feeling as if my thoughts were detached from me, as if they flew out of my head and went forward to this big gate, because there on these steps was standing a person, a Gestapo officer with a big dog. The officer looked at all of us. He couldn't possibly have thought about seeing me or spotting me, this little tiny speck somewhere in the middle of this crowd, and yet my feelings and my thoughts jumped up out of my brain and hit him. There was a kind of strange and frightening vibration which went from him into myself and hit my heart too. My heart stopped beating and I stopped breathing for a second. I got frightened for the first time and I didn't know why. An uncanny feeling. Similar things have happened in my life before and I decided not to provoke anything. Anyway he was so very far away, he was a tiny little figure there in the distance by this huge gate to hell. And yet I realised that I had to look at the grass, I had to look at the earth underneath me. I shouldn't send any vibrations towards this person because he was going to represent doom, the fate in my life. He was going to become somebody important in this very moment, in what way important I couldn't fathom, but he would change my life. Something was going to happen because of him. After looking at the grass for another hour or perhaps two, like an empty inanimate object, I looked up once again and I saw this Gestapo officer with his dog already inside the crowd of people. He was stopping, looking at everyone as if he was looking for someone in particular. The dog sniffed the people too. The Gestapo man asked some people questions and I saw them handing him their documents. He would read them, and then give them back to the people. With tremendous trepidation and fear, I realised that he was walking nearer and nearer to me and I knew something was going to happen. I knew he was my fate.
Another half an hour of agonising waiting; I began talking myself into not being afraid. Stubbornly I looked at the grass and the earth underneath me, trying to take the freshness from this nature into myself but I was already paralysed with some kind of strange uncanny fear. Suddenly I heard the dog sniffing very near me. I didn't dare to look up and then I saw the big black boots stopped next to me. Then I had to look up and this man was standing above me and looking at me, holding the dog on the leash and the dog was looking at me as well.
“Can I have your documents - Kenkarte?” he spoke in perfect Polish. (Kenkarte was the German word for document).
A quick thought: In my photograph I had no spectacles, I handed him my Kenkarte and I took off my spectacles. I remember that when the Germans were pushing us in front of them through the streets of Warsaw, a few hours previously, I had put on my spectacles. I had been short-sighted all my life and I wanted to see the whole horror of destruction of Warsaw and to see the faces of the people, to be witness of this apocalyptic inhuman scene. A scene from hell, from Dante's hell, a scene which was all in grey and black; there was no other colour. The Gestapo man looked at me.
“It doesn't specify in your Kenkarte that you wear glasses as well.”
“No it doesn't” I said.
“Why doesn't it?”
“Well, simply I didn't have glasses then, I started wearing glasses quite recently.”
He handed me back the Kenkarte and he said to me, in a kind of very detached way: “Will you please get up and go to the main gate.” He pointed at the big house and the huge gate - to heaven or to hell , already looking at the other people, victims that he might prey on. He didn't repeat his instructions and moved on. I understood every single word and my stomach turned, my heart sank. I got up and I saw the other people looking at me with compassion. The orders were in the air, the orders were inside me. I thought I could do something, I could kill myself now for instance, because I had been arrested, and yet I was like a stupid idiot going through the crowd of people sitting down on this green grass, to this big gate and I am going to be singled out and perhaps shot or killed or tortured, or whatever. Of course, I didn't know what all this was about - with the Germans you never knew. You never asked them what this was all about, you were a Pole and that's that. That was the accusation; like being a Jew. I stopped by the gate. The Gestapo soldiers who were standing there at the ready didn't even look at me, and I was the only one on the big steps standing by the door facing the whole plain with the crowd of people from their side - from the German side. Now I understood my fears. I was afraid that I should look at the whole scene in reverse, like in the mirror and here I was on these steps, standing - the only person there, except for these Gestapo soldiers. I was facing the whole scene from the German side, from the German point of view, sort of like Jesus on the cross already. I stood there for about an hour perhaps and then I saw him - this Gestapo man with the dog coming back very slowly and deliberately. He made a sign with his fingers to his Gestapo soldiers, one of them saluted him and yelled.
Then he opened this big gate and my German Gestapo officer pointed at me, gesturing at me to step inside. I went inside the courtyard and the big gate closed behind me. This was the end of my life, I thought. I had been parted from my people with my likes, with my soul, with my blood, with my Warsaw, with my everything and here I am on this fearful territory which is German Gestapo territory. The officer with the dog was standing near me, he never looked at me properly, he was just treating me like an object. He spoke to me in Polish again, looking at the wall, not at me.
“Would you follow me please?”
So I had to follow him. There was this big courtyard and there was some kind of little wooden shed in the middle of it. He led me across the courtyard to the side door leading to other floors and offices. I could hear the typewriters and some muffled German voices inside the house. There was nobody in the courtyard except for a woman and a man sitting on the steps by the entrance to the side door. My Gestapo man left me there by the entrance. He walked inside the house and here I was looking up at the blue sky with my heart already stopped beating, knowing that this presumably is the end of everything in my life. I had already said goodbye and I remember that I had a thought - I was very near a wall. If I jumped the wall, there were houses on the other side with no people in them. In this part of Warsaw there were no people because they had been thrown out or evacuated, shot, killed or burned out already. Then if I start running - then came another thought - no, don't do it, because if you start doing something, immediately they will start shooting and obviously you are dead. I tried to stop my heart beating too fast. Suddenly this woman who was sitting there spoke to me, in Polish.
“Did you know him?”
“Ah” she said, “you have been arrested.”
“We are not arrested” she said, “we - my husband and myself, we came here - we ran from the Warsaw uprising - we came here to meet our friend who works with the Gestapo, he'll help us to get out of here safely.”
I thought they must be these collaborators I had heard of.
The vast majority of the Poles were fighting the Germans fiercely, but of course there were some collaborators.
She looked at me again.
“You are frightened, aren't you?”
“Reasonably” I said.
“I know” she said “you must be a Jew.”
I decided not to answer this question, what was the point?
“Ah, you see” she hissed, “you are afraid to talk.”
At that moment my Gestapo man came out without the dog and he looked at her, then he looked at me and he said again in Polish.
“Will you come with me.”
He led me to another door and up the staircase to the first floor. I saw the corridor with the doors and locks like in a prison, yes, it was a prison. He said something in German to one or two Gestapo soldiers who were guarding these doors and they led me to the third or fourth door. They unlocked it with a big clink-clonking sound - typical of a prison - and they pushed me inside a cell. Then the door was locked behind me.
* * *
Back to my kitchen in Fulham. The fridge is murmuring peacefully. The red lamp gives a nice warm glow, and yet - I feel scared. I have the urge to lower myself down to the floor and diminish myself to nothing. There is still in me this tremendous insecurity. Fear. If, at this moment, somebody knocked on the front door, I would presumably jump up with fear and yet I know I have this tremendous power - an invisible camera in front of me filming my close ups, my thoughts and feelings. That's how I went through all this experience without such fears. I was acting. Acting in a film ... constantly.
There were two men in the cell, one was a Yugoslav. How he got into this cell in Warsaw, nobody knows. The other one was a Polish man, he also avoided answering how he found himself in there. They were both frightened. They were both very typical prisoners, as I always imagined they would be - thin and unhealthy looking. There were two iron beds in this room. No mattresses, only wire mesh, but not the dense kind. There were big gaps between the mesh.
There was no stool. There was one bucket which stank, which of course was for urinating and for defecating. Very soon I realised that the Polish man had severe diarrhoea. There was a peculiar little wooden box underneath the tiny window, which was quite high above the ground of course, with the iron bars. I tried to get on this box to reach this little window; although both men were angrily watching my attempts they didn't say a word. I had grasped the iron bars with my hands and I pulled myself up, I was on the same level as the lower edge of the window now.
I could see the same plain where I had been sitting among the people about half an hour earlier. I could see the crowd of people following instructions from the Germans, getting up slowly and leaving. They were being pushed and hit by the Germans but they walked out slowly. They were transported to their next destination, a transitory camp in Prushkov near Warsaw ... from which ... who knows, perhaps Auschwitz might be the next destination. I asked my cell mates what our position was, and at the same moment I heard somebody start knocking gently on the wall, my cell mates started knocking back. Obviously they had been here for quite some time and they knew the prison language well. My men asked me who I was because they wanted to tell the people in the next cell. They were asking them about me. We've got a new prisoner here etc and I asked them again what's going to happen to us. They stood up rather uncomfortably and said.
“Well tomorrow is our turn.”
“Our turn for what?” I asked.
“Well, they are shooting, executing cell after cell, we are in touch with all cells here. The previous cell was shot this morning, so tomorrow we've got to be prepared that they are going to shoot us.”
“What for?” I asked rather stupidly, “no trial, no nothing?”
They looked at me sadly and didn't say anything. Suddenly I remembered that I had some little pieces of paper - the documents in my trouser pockets. They were showing my various names. Almost all Poles had their identities changed, and I also had some pieces of paper on me which I had used to register myself at certain addresses in Warsaw before the uprising, which also showed the different names. They might question me, tomorrow or even tonight. They mustn't find anything on me. I moved to the darkish corner in the cell and I carefully took out these pieces of paper. My cell mates didn't notice anything as I ate all the pieces of paper, I swallowed them up one by one. Somebody tried to open the door from outside. My cell mates told me that supper was coming and it arrived. It was some kind of soup. Later on when I was in the camp, I knew it only too well. It was water with a few floating pieces of white or red beetroot; no nourishment at all. They gave you a small piece of bread - one inch by half an inch perhaps, so we ate this.
The Polish man started with diarrhoea again, he would sit on this bucket rolling left and right because of the pains. I think that he had typhoid, he looked as though he had a fever. There wasn't any paper to wipe himself off, so he did it with his bare hand. My cell mates explained to me that the following morning the Germans would come in with either breakfast, or execution orders. If the latter, they would take us into the courtyard and shoot us against this little wooden hut I had seen before - built there in the middle of the yard for that purpose. They told me that if they opened the door and beckoned for me to go with them and they didn't have any bread to give me (a loaf or half a loaf of bread), it meant they were going to shoot me. If they handed me a loaf of bread, it meant that (surprise, surprise) a fantastic great bonus in my life - I am a lucky man because it means that I am going to be sent to Auschwitz or to any other 'star' concentration camp. So, bread handed out meant transport - concentration camp, to a new lease of life; no bread and it meant shooting. Funnily enough I was thinking now that I started ‘memorising’ this cell, like Greta Garbo in her great film of Queen Christina after the night she spent with her lover. Next morning with this funny and rather hypnotic music, she slowly walked round, touching everything. At a certain point her lover asked her what she was doing.
“I am memorising this room” she replied.
Little did I know then that several years later I would meet her at a dinner party for a German producer. I laughed then as I thought how life, or fate, always gave me film cameras. So I memorised this cell, not walking and touching, but watching and looking at it. I remember I saw some bullet holes in the wall. Somebody was shot in here. I saw a lot of inscriptions, little letters: ‘Here I am, I am dying tomorrow, please, if you meet my wife, Maria etc etc ... please, tell her that Marek was killed here,’ then the date and so on. My first night in the cell was empty and lonely, in spite of these two people near me. They both took the two beds with no mattresses, and I sat on the floor against the wall.
Feelings? yes, of course I was frightened, and of course I was expecting the worst, but somehow I was getting acquainted with this feeling, reconciling myself with the thought that this might be the end. I had to be prepared. There was one moment in the middle of the night when I suddenly started crying, yelping like a little dog, and it woke the two men (they’d both been snoring and farting in their sleep). The stench from the bucket was penetrating the air with a pain, like a knife, cutting the night in this little room, cutting through my heart. They were very annoyed with my yelping. Perhaps it evoked their fear. Their panic. “Don't do it, don't do it, we don't do it here” they were whispering. I knew from them that they had already been in the cell for three or four days, but these were my first hours and obviously there was a tremendous difference in age - I was only just out of my teens, they were already grown men! The morning after my nightmares, I woke up with some kind of inner jerk and fear. I felt like I was hooked on an iron hook and hanging in the air with my limbs and my arms waving for help and yelling inside. Silently but yelling, I learned then how to yell silently.In the morning they brought our breakfast, some black coffee, a tiny piece of bread and a little piece of marmalade, a sort of little cube, a dice. We ate this breakfast in silence and the Polish man made a bitter remark.
“Not yet, not yet our turn, they always shoot on an empty stomach.”
Then he started having diarrhoea again, moaning and groaning and shouting, yelling with pain. Suddenly I realised that I could hear a noise outside the window, a kind of constant boom. I realised that the plain in front of the building was being filled again with thousands of Polish people from Warsaw, waiting for their orders to their next destination. The next stage of their journey into the unknown - German metaphysics. As I was listening to this noise, I had an urge to pull myself up on the window bars and to look at this plain and the people. I heaved myself up and I saw them. Thousands of people like yesterday just getting orders to sit down. They were sitting down, slowly and with trepidation. I looked down and I saw a very strange scene. Two, three or four Gestapo officers standing underneath my window, almost on the steps leading to the building, as a matter of fact the same steps where I was yesterday where I was waiting my fate. In front of this big gate leading to heaven or hell. One of these officers looked familiar. I recognised him from the photographs which had been printed on leaflets dropped from planes on Warsaw. The famous General von den Bach. (General von den Bach was a man who was singled out by Hitler to conquer, to squash the Warsaw uprising, and he started the propaganda by dropping these little leaflets from planes). The leaflets said that if you decide to walk out of Warsaw, with your arms up, then General von den Bach himself will guarantee by his sword of honour, your safety into freedom. We all ignored these leaflets, they were scorned by the Polish people and nobody would leave their positions in Warsaw. I wonder now if it was all worth it, this indomitable attitude, I wonder now. So many thousands of people were killed within only 63 days of that Warsaw uprising. 63 days it lasted and it left all Warsaw dead. In ruins. Some people are doomed right from the beginning; some people are destined to go through a life of luxury; some are destined to go through communism, and some are destined to go through the humiliations of war. I was born to be a minority. All my life as far as I remember, during German occupation I was anti-Nazi. In the communist regime I was a minority because I was anti-communist. I was always in a way, outside the law, always. Then I began a life as an actor, a jester. I never treated life seriously, even now in England I am a bloody foreigner. As a matter of fact being always outside gives me a good warm feeling of my own dignity, consciousness, style and power. I enjoy being a minority, it gives me a force to act and I can hear my invisible film camera buzzing and floating above me. As I saw this face of General van den Bach, my force prompted me. It did happen several times in my life that suddenly, unexpectedly, I fell outside myself and I would watch my action, or hear my voice saying something that I couldn't help. It was me saying it, and yet it wasn't me. My inner force was pushing out of me an action that otherwise I wouldn't undertake, and yet it was me who was undertaking this action. I simply shouted to General von den Bach standing there down below. My German was very good, because ever since I was a child I spoke quite a lot of German with my mother who was born in Vienna. Our parents taught us languages - French and German.
“Her Generale: - Ich bin hier immer ferchefted” which means “My general, I am still arrested here”
“Vardom?” - “Why?”
I used my full voice because of my urge to convey this message to him. He was in this moment the God of every single moment, of everything that was happening, moving, jumping, dying, crying, smiling, laughing, making love everything - he was the God of everything. The General was surprised, he looked up, yes he was looking up straight into my window - he was looking at me! Then I heard him saying towards me.
“Ich come gleich drauf” which meant ‘I will come up immediately.’
At this moment I heard a yell behind me. My two inmates were trying to pull me out of the window, shouting.
“What are you doing, you stupid little bastard, you stink, you idiot - they are going to kill us all immediately, how dare you.”
They pulled me back and down onto the floor. They started kicking and hitting me, and spitting at me. Finally they got tired, and I was just sitting there like an idiot, waiting. What was going to happen? After a while the Polish man asked with trembling voice.
“So what … what did you say to him?”
I told him, and he replied puzzled: “What did he say?”
“He said I'm coming up.”
“And this was General von den Bach himself?”
“Yes” I said, “he looks like a squashed frog, he's got round thick glasses on his round puffy face, I remember him from the photographs on the leaflets they were throwing from General von den Bach, I'm sure.”
“And did he say he was coming?” The Polish man couldn't believe it.
“Yes” I said again, “he said he was coming up.”
The men smiled, full of hope, perhaps there is hope for all of us. In a situation like that when you are in a condemned cell, you start clutching at straws, you start believing in all possibilities, and experience feelings of optimism. You start telling yourself little stories that enable you to smile, and have a positive outlook on your future. They thought I had saved their lives and perhaps the general would free all of us. Then, as if in answer to their silent thoughts and prayers, the door started opening with all the same horrifying metal hard clinks and clonks and clanks, and there was my officer who arrested me yesterday. There was no dog this time, just Gestapo soldiers; he pointed at me and beckoned at me to go out. I looked at his hands, no bread. So I turned to my friends, and by this time I felt sorry for these two men.
“God bless you” I said.
They just looked sadly back at me. Then I was outside in the corridor and the door was locked behind me. I was led by my Gestapo man down the stairs and back to the same courtyard where he led me to this little wooden house.He asked me to stop against a little wall, it was riddled by bullet holes. Now I understood why they built this house. After each execution they would change the wooden planks. Behind these planks on the other side there were presumably sacks with sawdust to muffle the sound, and prevent the bullets from going outside and hurting the German people who were walking in the courtyard. We approached two Gestapo soldiers, and my officer spoke something to them in German, then he disappeared. Both of these soldiers had rifles and one of them handed me a piece of black material, a kind of ribbon.
“What is that?” I asked.
“That is something we give you here.”
He told me it was to be put around my eyes, because they were going to shoot me. It sounded so normal, so incredulous, so ludicrous that I didn't grasp the meaning. I always thought that if by any chance one day I would be in front of the execution squad as I was then, I would look at the sky, I would say goodbye to the world. Some kind of music would play inside me or for me, or perhaps I would pray to God, or perhaps I would shout: “Long Live Poland.”
But nothing like that happened, absolutely nothing, just a complete emptiness, a void with no feelings whatsoever. The only thought I remember I had was that I didn't want to feel any pain. I wanted it to happen instantly so I just dropped this cloth, this piece of material on the ground. Then one of the soldiers spoke to me.
“Yes” I said, and I still couldn't grasp it. I couldn't comprehend it, it didn't register inside myself, inside my system. Then I saw them aiming at me, and a voice behind this little wooden building would say “Ein” they were getting ready and taking aim, “zwei” (which means two) and “drei” or three, obviously when they got to three they would shoot. But before they got to three, there was a long long pause. Then suddenly these two soldiers started laughing loudly. After the laughter I looked at them. I just didn't understand it. I replayed in my mind scenes from films I had seen. In one I saw Marlene Dietrich (in one of her first films) when she was before a firing squad. As they were taking aim she would put lipstick on and look in a mirror to make herself more beautiful. With complete contempt for the German soldiers, she would simply ignore the execution squad - or she would have a cigarette, she would take two puffs and then she would say in her German accent. “I'm ready.” I suddenly saw all those little scenes from the films. Then it started dawning on me that this was it; this was the end of me. Then this hidden voice, once again, he shouted: “Ein, zwei.” Again they were aiming at the ready to shoot and before “drei” (three) again they had a good laugh. They repeated this three times. By this time I realised that I had no energy left anymore in my muscles, and my muscles simply gave up. I felt I was sliding down along this wall and I thought this is what it looks like, what it feels like to die. I didn’t feel any fear, but I am giving in, I am giving up physically. I can't bear it any longer, I want to die.
A psychologist once explained that death is very much the feeling of human nature. In certain circumstances you feel that its unavoidable, you've got to die. You stop being frightened, you want death to happen as soon as possible, to close the chapter. It is simply a need of nature, so I felt like that.
Suddenly, this voice from behind the little wooden house shouted. “Get up. Enough.” My officer appeared, again with the dog, and I realised it was he who was giving the orders. For the first time he looked directly at me with some kind of smile I saw on his face. The first time I saw him looking at me. He spoke to me in Polish again: “Follow me.” I followed him to the big front gate, which opened as we approached. I stepped out of hell with him and once again into the outside world, into the blazing sun and the crowd of people sitting there. I could feel their eyes upon me, looking at me with great curiosity. Then he pointed at the crowd of the people and he said to me, again in perfect Polish.
“Will you please join this crowd of people, sir.” He was calling me sir (or zee which is the equivalent of sir in German). I didn't move because I didn't know the meaning of it. I didn't understand, the penny didn't drop. He spoke again.
“Well, I am not going to repeat this a third time, but I will repeat it a second time, will you please join this crowd of people - you're free.”
Then I understood, now the penny dropped. I walked down the steps, those few big steps, got back into the crowd of people, and started submerging myself. Diving down, trying to get myself as small as possible - smaller and smaller and smaller. I think I should be like a mushroom. First cut the head, then the stalk and make it shorter, and shorter. I should be cut down into a tiny little size, finally to become grass. Again I smelled the aroma of the grass, and I touched it once again, and I thought why can't I be this grass, this blade of grass, all this grass here? I was almost sniffing with my nostrils on the ground, imagining myself to be a small as a speck so that nobody could pick me up and once again put me through this ordeal, this torment.
As I was sitting there, almost in the same place as I had been yesterday, in the golden glow of the sun I became a nobody. I had already disintegrated completely into nature, or at least that was how I felt. Suddenly over the loudspeaker came the order.“Everybody up.” Slowly, we moved along the streets of the suburbs of Warsaw - through streets full of burned empty houses.
I realised that looking through the windows of these houses could be horrifying and frightening, because windows without people inside, the staircases without people inside, are houses which are haunting and haunted.
Along these haunting and haunted empty streets of Warsaw, the thousands of Warsaw people, we the Poles were pushed away, step by step out of Warsaw. Although I couldn't believe my luck and my happiness, I was still a prisoner. Still under German occupation. I felt free once again with a strange sense of freedom, even though we were all looking back at Warsaw. We could still hear bombs exploding, and of course we could see the heavy clouds of dark smoke above the city. We thought about Warsaw being slowly annihilated, bit by bit and people dying. Many of us there had tears in our eyes. Eventually we reached some fields filled with onions and tomatoes. I remember the people running into the field with great joy and the Germans didn't pay attention to it. Rather than sleeping, we were eating tomatoes and onions because for so many weeks we didn't have any vegetables or any vitamins. There was the urge to bite, and get into our system some fresh fruit, fresh vegetables. It is incredible that I remember this so well. I was eating fresh smelling tomatoes, onions and cabbage - everything that was green and everything that was fresh, everything that was made by God.
Later, we reached a train station. It was a slow journey, and from the station they pushed us into a train and within 20 minutes or something like that, we were in Prushkov, a temporary concentration camp situated on the premises of some sort of disused factory. It was a huge building like a plane hangar on two or three floors. It had huge empty rooms and a staircase and people were just lying there waiting for transport by train. There was another train station just next door to it. The misery was unmistakable. People were crying while other people were eating, some were cooking something on the floor, having created some kind of cooking facilities. The whole of the German occupation made us Polish people very loyal towards each other and we felt like one entity, one organism. We felt the need to help each other, so the people would share their pieces of bread, their food, their everything in Prushkov, in this concentration camp. Then suddenly I heard somebody calling me by name, Vladek, or Vwadek in Polish. I looked back and I recognised the man immediately - Staspoznanski. He was much older than I was, and I remembered he had been a pupil of my father’s. Staspoznanski was with his very beautiful young wife, a beautiful woman. He told me that we should stick together as another friend, Fradek, was there also. So we found ourselves in this camp knowing that on the next day we would be pushed into the train transport - of course it was the great unanswered question - where would the transport go? We nicknamed Staspoznanski, Stasz. He was in the underground resistance, and was a very experienced man; he knew how to survive, everything. So he immediately became a kind of General, our Commandant.
“Look” he said, “we've got to watch where we are, we've got to stick together by all means. Presumably there was pandemonium in front of the train, but we've got to stick together and so we've got to watch where we are going. I've got a compass with me which is hidden, if the Germans search me they wouldn't find it, and we will see if the train is aiming towards Auschwitz or towards Buchenwald, towards Germany or wherever and accordingly we will act. Either we will go further by train, or we will try to break the walls and jump out if by any chance there is a danger that we are aiming towards Auschwitz - ok?”
The next day we ate something, and then the huge hall filled with people. We were ordered to get up and go out to the nearby station. When we got there we saw cattle trucks. The Germans started selecting people in a very brutal way, and then they would count them. I can't remember how many people were selected for each truck. The trucks were filthy as you can imagine; the conditions were absolutely appalling. Stasz decided to smuggle his wife aboard (again the old Partisan, you know?). It seemed that nothing could stop them being parted. He had her wear men's clothes and hid her hair under a huge French beret. She didn't wear any make-up, and she tried to assume the walk of a man. As we were just reaching the big sliding door of one of these trucks and getting onto it, a German stopped us, shouting.
“Aus, aus, nicht ein mann?” - 'You are a woman, you are not a man.'
Stasz pulled her inside the wagon to hide her, but it was too late and this German pulled her out and I witnessed one of these scenes which were everywhere on the station, of people being parted, people crying and children being left by their mothers because they were pushed by the Germans into one train, and the children into another one. She was very brave as this German soldier pulled her out. There was no way Stasz could do anything about it. He just shouted after her.
“God bless you, we'll see each other again.”
“Yes” she shouted back at him as she was pulled by the Germans in a different direction.
Stasz found his wife again after the war, and they lived in Warsaw with two children. Stasz died a few years ago, but she is still alive. She was here in London, a very beautiful lady. So, we were locked in this cattle wagon - there was no room to sit down because it was so crowded with people, and then the journey began. We were travelling along and stopping every so often. Some people were praying, some were defecating and farting. Others were hating each other and quarrelling, while others were loving each other and helping each other where they could, it was pandemonium. Dante’s inferno - totally encapsulated and made by the Germans here as if they had waved a macabre magic wand to enact itself again. Stasz, with his compass, was by a tiny little window watching the terrain, the landscape and checking up the distance. From time to time, he would say things to us. “Now watch this next turning, if we turn to the left, we are definitely going to Auschwitz.” But we turned to the right, and then we turned right again, and again. Then we headed north, Stasz continued: “I am sure they are taking us to Skinomind.” Skinomind is in East Germany, and because he was a partisan, Stasz knew the place in which they had already started producing the V1 bomb. He already had news from the headquarters before the uprising, that the Germans had started preparing some sort of new weapon. Indeed, the more we were getting into the landscape into North Germany, the more we saw through the chinks in the cattle wagon, big holes in the road from bombing. So Stasz, a knowledgeable man, told us that the allies, that the Americans were bombing. The holes here looked quite new. About three days later after our trucks had been loaded onto a train, we continued to travel along, quite slowly. An alarm would suddenly sound, and we knew the sound quite well by now - the sirens for an air raid. The train stopped but they didn't unlock the trucks. We saw the Germans running away to the field and lying down. The planes passed by, and we prayed for them to start throwing their bombs. Although we were in danger, we still had this fighting spirit inside ourselves. After the air raid ended, we continued on and stopped at the next station, and here an incredible performance took place. At the front of the train the Germans pulled us out in their usual brutal way - with typical shrieks and shouting. On the road at the other side of the station were lots of trucks such as the big lorries. They transferred us from the train to the new lorries, and on the way we had to go between two rows of German women who would spit at us, and point at our cattle trucks. We noticed with a shock that the trucks had the words Polniscz ban bitten von vashav (or Polish bandits from Warsaw) written on the sides. So these women spat at us, kicked us, and shouted invective and abuse. “You bloody ban beaten, the Pole and ban beaten from Warsaw.”
We looked at each other, and Stasz told us that the soldiers were indoctrinating these women. We are bandits to them, we are not fighting our cause, we are the ban beaten.So that was it. We were transferred to the lorries and Stasz, Fradek and I managed to be on the same lorry. We travelled on, along smaller lanes. I must say the landscape was absolutely beautiful, and perhaps because I am Piscean, and secondly perhaps because I am Polish, I really never give in. I always have this power, this incredible resilience and feeling that I have to start again. I have to once again dust myself down and pick myself up and go into life. I wonder if I still have this spirit - for so many things, including my career as an actor in this country - have broken this spirit.
I was watching myself last night on the television in the film “SPYS” with Elliott Gould and Don Sutherland - big film stars, and I was playing a funny part. I was really funny, and it was made in 1974. I quite liked myself in that part, I was very elegantly dressed and I was the Russian Ambassador. I was thinking, Christ, downstairs in the kitchen, there is a tape waiting for me, steaming and oozing the story of the concentration camps and here upstairs watching myself, I am screening with the big Hollywood film stars
After several hours journey, we reached a kind of crossroads. Certain lorries were turning to the left, directed of course by the Germans out on the road, and certain lorries were being directed to the right. We were directed to the right, and Stasz told us it was okay as we would be going north. After a few more hours, evening settled upon us. Again this beautiful end of September and it was already cold in northern Germany. We crossed some kind of incredible bridge, not above rivers, but above the sea - it looked like the sea, and everywhere there were holes in the ground from fresh bombing. Finally we reached a field and I will always remember it, and the crowds of people upon it. The Germans always collected crowds of people, then disposed of them. Here, we had to disembark from the lorries, holding onto each other all the time. Stasz had instructed us that we all had to stay together, no matter what happens, we've got to be together. People were sitting on the grass, again under the sky. We knew that we would spend the night there because of the gossip, and little stories that go on always in the camps and in the crowds of people - it was incredible; there was always somebody who knew best - there was always somebody who had overheard a conversation and whatever. So this was the evening in which they brought us all some kind of soup. Actually it was the water (which I’ve mentioned previously) with a few floating beetroots in it. I have to say that the Germans were organising these things absolutely perfectly well. In no time they distributed to the crowd of thousands of men (only men were there), pieces of bread and soup and then suddenly again I heard somebody calling my name - Vladek.
It was Mr Goshinski [*] who was a Polish Jew, and during the German occupation, he and his two sisters were living not far away from us in Warsaw. His wife Frena was the daughter of the very famous Jewish film director before the war: Polidenski. So this Kosdjienski [sic] was there, and he called over to me, saying he was very pleased that we could see each other. In these camps people would make pacts so that if they got out and we didn’t, they would tell our families what happened, that you saw me in this and this place in the Pomorian fields. Pomoria was the district where we were then. So many people asked me to do these things during my journey through this darkness of Germany. Then we had to sleep, so we cuddled each other, literally. There were no improper things, just people warming each other's bodies. We cuddled together, embraced each other like that and tried to assume the most relaxed position to create as much heat as possible. That is how we went through this night. In the middle of the night I would wake up and look at the sky. At a certain point I saw Stasz doing the same thing, and I knew that he was thinking about his wife, and Poland, the war and the Germans and everything.
Even with this tremendous gigantic power of destruction rolling like huge tanks over our heads and our bodies, there was a beautiful sky at night with September stars in the middle of northern Europe.
In the morning, the Germans started organising us. They started calling out professions, such as painters, carpenters, locksmiths etc. This was towards the end of the war and they needed specialists to work in their factories. This created chaos among all of us, because some people were very willing to say: “I am a carpenter” in order to get out of the degrading work, because the next step after this could be the crematorium. Nobody knew what was going to happen next after this stage, or the next minute. I had a great temptation to say that I was a photographer because I knew something about photography, and Stasz warned me not to do that, we must stay together. Koszinski* decided to enrol himself as a carpenter, so finally he said goodbye. He was sent to a factory in Germany and he worked there. He survived after the war and so did his wife, I think they had a son.
* It is assumed that Mr Goshinki/Kosdjienski and Koszinski are one and the same person - merely spelling is changed as Vladek alternates between languages.
After the selection of craftsmen was completed, the rest of us with no jobs were pushed into several lorries. We went still further north into a beautiful pine forest with sand dunes near the sea; you could smell the sea, and seagulls were flying above us. I was always looking at the birds and flies and thinking, why wasn't I a fly? - why can't I fly out of this hell? - why am I not a seagull? You have a curiosity of nature - you think certain parts of nature are involved in making death. Even in this death making camp of German Europe, certain parts of nature are still free - like the seagulls and other birds. We arrived at the barracks and that was it, that was our concentration camp. We were selected into barracks, hundreds of us. We were hundreds of Poles from Warsaw. We were shoved into this big corridor, I think there were about four rooms on each side, and a huge latrine with the holes in the floor (for defecating) at the end of one.
In each room in this house we had straw bunks on the first floor and the ground floor, and that was how we were left to sleep. We were very much aware that we were completely cut off, and as I was the only one who really spoke German, I overheard the Germans, our guards talking from behind the barbed wire. This place was called Fernichtungslager - (Fernichtung in German means to exterminate, to annihilate) - so we were already dead. Soon we realised we were only being kept alive to do some very useful work. We were brought into the most dangerous spot which was bombed quite often and we were pushed into the front lines; they didn't even make a list of our names. Even in Auschwitz they kept some kind of files. If somebody died for instance, the Germans would send a letter to the relatives saying the person had died of pneumonia, when in reality he had been battered to death or whatever. So here in Fernichtungslager we didn’t even have our names. Over on one side of the barbed wire fences were the French prisoners of war, and across the other side near to us were Russians. The Russians were treated in the most appalling way, much worse than we were. They were simply starved to death. I saw them eating the earth, literally, because they were so hungry. They would eat earth and then they would die in contortions, in pain, yelling and praying, cursing.
Stasz was a conspirator, and he had his methods and knew what to do; he knew best. Knowing that I spoke French very well, he immediately arranged that I would get in contact with the French prisoners of war. They were being treated much better than we were, and it was arranged that I would hand them a list of our names so that if we died and the war ended, final judgement would be proclaimed and pronounced upon the German people. Our names would be added to the accusation with our dates of birth etc so that people knew we died here. So we made the list, and I passed it to the French prisoners of war after Stasz undid one plank in the latrine close to the few taps providing cold water. On the other side were the latrines for the French. I spoke to one Frenchman and I gave him the list - that's all we could do. Then we knew that we were in Fernichtungslager - the camp for the dead - people who were already dead and thus our lives began.
The Germans would take us in the morning when it was still dark. We were always put in groups of fives, and after breakfast we would march. Breakfast at least was hot - some kind of tea, coffee - imitation water. We were given a piece of bread, marmalade and margarine for the whole day. Some people would eat the food immediately, some people would keep it and would bargain with other prisoners; trade was going round. Some found mushrooms in the forest, but not even knowing if the mushrooms were poisonous or not, we would trade them for a piece of bread. The hunger was unbelievable. For the first time in my life I realised what hunger was. Physical weakness set in slowly upon us, and morale needed constantly boosting. Stasz helped greatly with this. For instance, there was another man whom I remembered had the corner bunk on the first floor of this stuga (which means room) in our denomination of this house, and he would read in the evenings; he had hidden on himself a little book on Polish poetry. Stasz would speak conspiratorially with him, then he would come back and tell us that the man was a Jew, and that he was afraid that someone, out of spite, or being degraded by the Germans to the animal level, would, in order to gain some favour from the Germans, perhaps a little piece of bread to appease this appalling hunger, eventually point at him and say he was a Jew. Indeed there was one man that we were very much aware of. First of all, he was very near me when I was sleeping on my bunk and he would masturbate very loudly, and he would talk about this being the only thing that he was left with. He was fat, he was awful. We were put together with the worst element - lower middle class on Warsaw - the people who spoke this foul language who hated intelligencia, yet Stasz and I were from the intelligencia, and they depended on us because we knew better and we could lead them into something, into freedom or into living better, cheating the Germans. On the one hand they very much respected me for that, and I was the youngest one. On the other hand they despised me for the fact the orders from the Germans come through my mouth. I was being used as the dolmeitscher, the interpreter. This fat man started saying things like: “We know we've got one Jew here, and we will know what to do with him.” So Stasz had a conference with him and the other prisoners; they decided just to scare him. They said they would club him to death if he squealed, if he squeaked a word about this man. So again a loyalty between us developed, but I was so frightened of this man, and I slept very near him. I found a wooden club in the forest and I slept with it, in order to defend myself in case he attacked me. I had incredible dreams as I was falling asleep, knowing that I only had a few hours to sleep. In the morning the Germans would yell, and immediately we all had to get up. We had to stand up and wait for the Germans to come to inspect, to count us. Then we were allowed to go to a cold water tap for a wash. Stasz's instructions were always that we should shave under this icy cold water, and wash our bodies in the evening after coming back from work. The Germans kept cleanliness in this barracks. They were paranoid about disease, especially about tuberculosis (which later on proved invaluable for me to penetrate this fear in their minds and helped me to escape). Later on, hunger got hold of the fat man and he became a very humble and a very different man. He kept closer to all of us because he knew that only in closeness could he gain some injection of something positive into the mind. I also remember the corridor would be cleaned once or twice a week with water and some kind of suds, I don't know what it was. I remember that one morning I was delegated to clean the latrine. There was all this faeces floating on the floor and blocking the holes. I had to unblock it, and this German was standing almost on top of me giving the orders. I remember the first time I did this I threw up, but one gets used to everything. It was unbelievable, I was wading in this mess, and with my bare hands I was unblocking the holes, then taking these lumps of stinking wet faeces to a wooden barrel and taking it outside. The guards took it to their quarters to nourish their fields, hoping that the next spring it would mature as manure. I didn’t have any feelings of disgust towards the dirt and mess as you may imagine. Instead it became part of life, part of living and we tried to keep it as clean as possible.
We would be marching until it was dark, and as we marched near the barracks, near the German quarters, we would become aware of the smell from the Germans urinating. We would steal from the dustbins, and one would steal anything that was there. Just one split second, you opened the bin, your hand went down and you dug out whatever was there. I remember once I dug out fish entrails; fish guts, which were smelly. I kept them on me, in my pocket all day when we were working in the forests. I brought them back in the evening, I washed them and I shared them with Stasz and Fradek. Our little meal was absolutely delicious, but then of course we had diarrhoea. Stasz was very clever in his methods of survival, and I was grateful for him being there. I was more emotional than most and people are not used to these things, but I was the youngest one. I remember my phobia about barbed wire; I couldn't bear it. I would walk outside the barracks sometimes when we were free, and just look at these wires. I would think that they would disintegrate, and that I would be able to walk across the fields somewhere into freedom. I remember once that a pigeon perched on our windowsill. All of us started watching this pigeon, it meant ‘bring us luck, bring us freedom.’
In the forest the Germans had camouflaged the barracks. It was our job to build big halls with blocks and bricks, presumably for storing the V1 rockets - although we never saw one. The Germans never showed us anything that was deep inside the forest, but we were building these barracks. My job was to carry bricks on a wooden contraption which they put on my back. After the first day of work I suddenly broke down and I started crying. All the prisoners were just looking at me; nobody said a word. Stasz and Fradek were far away, and one of these older men who was also a prisoner, said: “Don't do it please, it won't help you, it won't help us. You've got to develop toughness, that's all I can say.” I will always remember that. I remember too how they treated us. For instance, when they discovered that I took one brick too few (we had to carry five or ten at a time but I don’t remember how many I had on this occasion), they would beat me with a wooden club, asking me to take off my shoes. They would beat my heels, and later I developed gristle in my heels which gave me tremendous pain, and that is how they injured me. It healed unevenly, and later I had to go to Krakow to see my uncle, a surgeon. He had to operate on me because I couldn't walk, he had to straighten this gristle or scrape it off. After walking about half a mile I used to be in pain, and to this day I cannot walk properly on flat shoes or barefoot. I have to wear heels which have been slightly raised. The Germans would frog-march people, shouting at them to jump in a crouching position, this way, that way, backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards and that is how they were killing some of the weak people. We would see some of them dying on the spot of a heart attack, these people would just be clubbed and frog-marched and made to jump like an idiot up and down. When these people inevitably died, we had to bury them. We had to bury them in the sand dunes and I remember people saying: “I don't want to be buried in this sand, I don't want to go underneath the sand, I want to buried in the proper earth.” This was another thing - the urge to be properly buried. I started to understand this. First of all you wanted to die in your own country, and be buried properly like your fathers and grandfathers and great grandfathers. You wanted to go through the same ritual. Human nature is very very funny in that you get accustomed to certain things and you don't want to give them up, even when facing death and destruction. Then I remember the bombing in the air raids. We were always very jubilant about these, though of course we couldn't show our feelings to the Germans. They were petrified when the sirens started wailing, they ordered us to abandon our work and to run with them. Although we were jubilant, we were also in fear of the bombing, we were all equal. The Germans would run with us to the forest and lie down under the trees. The bombing was never near us, it was happening further away but the allies knew exactly where the bases were for the V1s. We did not suffer explosions where we were based. We camouflaged the barracks that we were building very carefully with trees that had been cut down - with branches and leaves every evening, so that the next day from above, it still looked like a forest. The forest was beautiful and this was the source of some of my positive feelings from this concentration camp. The intake of oxygen and the smell of the sea. Seagulls were flying overhead and were constantly calling. The forest in which we were working was a pine forest.
I still feel the need of this smell in England, especially when the sun is shining. In Scotland they have pine forests, but here in England we don't have any pine trees.
September gave way to October with beautiful weather all the way through, and in the forest we saw animals, rabbits mainly. Sometimes we managed to catch them, and even eat them raw with all the entrails and everything. Stasz with his 'survival kit' helped us use the skins to make gloves, however clumsy they were - just to cover up our hands, with the fur inside. We found mushrooms too, which were fantastic. We would also pick up lots and lots of twigs so that we could make a fire in our barracks. We had a little iron stove with a big pipe to take the smoke outside. We were allowed to cook a little in the evening, so we had some things out of tins which we had found. The world is full of treasures lying around you, but if you are spoiled like we are now spoiled, you don't see them (I am now here in this lovely warm kitchen of mine). When you are induced like an animal to fight for your life, every scrap of metal, every nail on the ground, every twig, every tin thrown away from the kitchen you use and you treasure. You wash it very carefully and you make soup, mushroom soup. The inventiveness of people is incredible. I remember we invented unbelievable tools, one of which was a wooden pole, at the end of which was a little nail. You would carry it with you and use it as a fishing rod, for fishing from dustbins. Wherever there was a dustbin, you would simply ‘fish’ some great treasures for eating or storing, as you passed by. I had many things under my bunk which were treasures. Some of them were stolen; some of them were traded for other things. So this was the life in our concentration camp. The fat man always used to play with himself during the night and I remember thinking, Christ, he has the energy to think about sex. I was devoid of any thought of sex. The driving force was to keep alive. You always thought of that, that and what could you eat? – things like that. My methods were different from those of Stasz. His were to survive; he was trained like that. I wasn't trained at all; I was always going by instinct. My instinct was to run away, to escape. He knew about this because we had been talking about it. “My God” he would say, “you will land in a gas chamber, or in a furnace somewhere, Germany is riddled with concentration camps. You don't have to go to Auschwitz to be burned; try to survive.” I would say to myself, no I prefer to be killed, but at least killed while I was running away, while I am in action. I could not stand being inactive, giving in. So I started building up slowly, little by little, the possibilities - dreaming out my possibilities of escaping. I always was a dreamer ever since I was a child; I was different from other children. I would talk to the flowers, I would dream up incredible stories. Every five minutes I would be somebody else. I know the pain of being a fish, I know the pain of swimming into the deep murky waters and staying there, hiding. I am so susceptible to surroundings, to the environment. They affect me so much, that all my life pain is with me. I know the pain of walking from one room to another, because I have to shed something behind me, and I have to leave something different in this room, and I have to put on something new in this or that room. I know the pain of talking to different people. Every person affects me with his or her personality. I know the pain of listening to different music, that's why I don't have any music in my house. It is silence, because music immediately directs me, originates the feeling that it is in the music, not in me. I have to listen to the music inside myself. It sounds terribly highbrow, but perhaps that is the only explanation I can give. I go through pain talking about myself – a self-defence mechanism as they call it in England.
When I stopped just outside my concentration camp, my little lovely kitchen, I made hamburgers with mincemeat and egg and breadcrumbs and onion. I put them in the fridge and they are waiting to be fried. I am going to have supper very soon - ha ha.
I remember that one day the Germans sent me to the kitchen, their canteen kitchen in which they were preparing our 'meals' - our watery soups and pieces of bread. The canteen in which they were cooking normal food for the Germans, those who were working on the V1 site and guarding us. The smell from the kitchen was absolutely marvellous. There were three fat cooks, all German ladies. I was asked to clean potatoes and as I was sitting doing this, I was stealing the potato peels. These were a great treasure and I put them into my pocket, thinking that we were going to cook some fantastic soup in the evening. I was going to share it with Stasz and Fradek. Suddenly I saw a piece of raw meat, a piece of pork. One of the cooks was very hard with me. She never smiled, she knew that I spoke German so she would give me orders - do this, do that. I had to run some water into the buckets and I had to wash up things, but when I saw this meat, I couldn't think twice and it disappeared. My hand just went towards it, covered it up and it disappeared in my pocket. This fat cook saw it, she came up to me and started hitting me, putting her hands into my pockets and taking everything out, including the potato peelings and shouting at me. “You bloody Pole, you bloody bandit from Warsaw.” When she had finished I suddenly felt again like a child, abandoned, especially as I was beaten up by the woman. This woman looked like my mother herself and I started crying again, yelping, yelping for help like a little dog. This woman shrugged her shoulders and she went about her job. Another cook came up to me, and just for a split second she put her hand on my head just to make me feel calm. I was so terribly grateful, then she suddenly handed me something - it was the same piece of meat. I quickly put it into the pocket of my trousers and then I stole a lot of potato peelings as well. In the evening Stasz, Fradek and I had a fantastic meal, and some other people tried it as well. That's why perhaps I like the kitchen, because when I felt so terribly insecure, the kitchen with its smell, the kitchen with pieces of bread, with a fire burning, with the soup being made, with people rushing about preparing the food (food after all is the strength of life) gave me perhaps a strange kind of security. This was the blessed time for me whenever I was sent to the kitchen, and this was because I spoke German.
I have to go back to the crossroads where our lorries divided. Some of them went to the south, some to the west and we went to the north. Before we re-boarded our lorries, the Germans ran us across a field to a little village. It was already autumn and the afternoon was very cool, rather cold with lots of mist evaporating from the trees. There were no clouds, just a blue sky, and the still sunshine was very hazy with an extremely beautiful landscape - undulating, hilly. We were at the edge of a village. I saw the housewives cleaning their carpets outside, and going for shopping with their baskets.
Again I had this kind of glimpse of pain in my heart that I am not given freedom, that I am here on the other side, although we are the same people, the same blood and bones and brains and minds. No, minds are different, because I think the German minds were different then than ours, but still we are all people and yet there was this invisible grenzer as the Germans say, borderline. So I was on the condemned side of the borderline. They took us to this village because there was a communal bath there. It was in a big bathhouse, which obviously served for all sorts of prisoners who were scattered around. We couldn't possibly know how many people were brought to this district, nor how many were in the factories, and how many were on private estates with the farmers and their work. This bathhouse was definitely the centre from which they would be sent, after their baths, and on to their destination; either to the camps or to work. The Germans didn’t care about our cleanliness, and we were only allowed to bathe here and wash back at the barracks because they were paranoid about catching diseases. Lice were abundant by this time, and all of us were growing lice all over our bodies - in our shirts, our collars and everywhere. There were hundreds of lice. Sometimes we made a kind of sport taking off our shirts and catching lice and killing them – asking each other things like how many did you kill? - but one gets completely used to it. The bath was there just to disinfect, and it looked rather grim. I don't remember if we knew already about the burning in the concentration camps, but I think Stasz may have told me. He told me now, here, to watch out - the Germans may start throwing from the showers the killing gas, the cyclon. This was the gas that they were using for killing the Jewish people, committing mass murder. Again there were three fat women wearing white coats, and the place looked like one huge bathroom. Of course the women gave their orders in a very brisk manner. They were a very rowdy group of healthy women who took tremendous pleasure in seeing us men undress. They would point at our genitals, shouting: “Which is the bigger, which is the smaller and don't be afraid, don't cover this up with your hands,” while they were laughing very loudly all the time. Finally we all pushed into the middle of this big room, and this blessed shower started running and cleaning and cleansing us. We were given a special kind of soap which we had to rub into our hair all over our bodies, in our crotches etc, so as to kill the lice. It was a blessing, but at the same time, it was an unbelievably haunting picture because the big doors on both sides of this room were wide open, so you could see out onto this undulating landscape. You saw the mist outside, and on the right hand side was the village, and here we were. Presumably they wanted to get rid of the steam, but at the same time it was very very cold. It was freezing, and I immediately thought back to my childhood. If I sneezed only once my mother sent me to bed straight away with hot lemon and honey, milk and garlic and whatever, and here I am exposed to this, eventually catching cold. I always will remember these wide doors being open and this landscape coming in, or we could have been floating towards the landscape, and here underneath these huge showers, this roundish object below the ceiling throwing hot water at us. The women were still shouting and joking. They took great pleasure in flipping our genitals with some kind of stick. This all was part of the programme, it was humiliation. Show complete lack of concern towards us humans, but these women saw hundreds and hundreds, or thousands of prisoners every day going through this bathhouse. After this one visit to the bathhouse I remembered that we never went back there again. We had no more baths, or any disinfecting for lice in the concentration camp later on.
I would like to write now about this unbelievable German who was our guard. He was called Fotefethell, which meant corporal in German. I am not going to mention his name; it is sufficient to call him simply Fotefethell B (corporal B).I think this man is still alive in Germany, and he should not be retraced because I don't think he was a Gestapo at all. He was only one of the guards, one of the soldiers who was quite happy to be a guard at the prison in this beautiful landscape among the pine trees and dunes. One thing that I would like to mention here is the fact that we knew we were in Altvarb because our address in German was ‘Altvarb kreis begoverminde pronvinsse stetin.’ We knew the address because Stasz climbed a very tall tree during the first day when we were sent to work; he orientated himself and drew a map. I remember in the evening that he discovered with the help of his own map of Europe, which he had hidden somewhere on him, he was able to locate us and he said, yes this must be the famous Altvarb. I can see already the pattern emerging of these stories, and I have a few stories like the bathhouse or this Fotefethell B, which I am going to tell you. I will stop at certain points in certain stories, or I will just cover up certain periods without specially caring about the full picture. I merely want to tell the facts as they developed.
Back to Fotefethell B. He was a young man, I think he was in his 20s, perhaps 24 or 26. He was the one who never did as much shouting as the other ones who would bark their orders like wild dogs. He was quite a handsome man, of course he was wearing a uniform, but I didn't know very much about uniforms. There were so many different kinds of German uniform, and I think that he was just a field soldier who was sent to this very delicate place with all these V1s being built somewhere. We never got to see the rockets but we knew about them, and sometimes we heard explosions. Towards the end of my stay at the camp, the Germans started shooting up the V1s and they were falling down almost vertically into the sea; perhaps they were conducting trials. I saw this myself at the end of my stay, but not at this particular point. So this was Fotefethell B. We walked towards work when it was still dark, in silence. Nobody spoke to anyone else because we were all so terribly tired, weak and hungry and it started to be terribly terribly cold. He often walked beside us, and one very early morning he suddenly started walking next to me and he said. “Sprechen Deutsche” – “Do you speak German?
I replied that I did, and he said I spoke German very well. I told him my mother taught me, and that she had been born in Vienna.“Oh” he said, “she was Austrian?” “No - she was Polish, but she was born in Vienna, and brought up there and educated with all our aunts and uncles. My mother very often spoke German, especially as she wanted us to speak several languages.” “That's very wise, of course” he continued, “and now you see the beneficial results of that, because you are treated a little bit better because you are a dolmeitscher” (translator). “No, I'm not treated any better” I told him, “I was sent to the kitchen sometimes for peeling potatoes, then some other prisoners were being sent to the kitchen sometimes as well.”
“You seem to be a very intelligent man - who was your father?” I said my father was a Professor of the History of Art and he was eine Mahler, meaning he is a painter. The guard sort of stopped in his tracks. “Ich bin eine Mahler" - 'I am a painter as well.' From this point on we both felt a sort of loose connection, a slight thread, I wouldn't say of sympathy, but of understanding. He looked upon me differently, I was the son of a painter and this guard was himself a painter.
Several days passed by, and he usually managed, as we were walking to or from work, to be next to me and to ask me a few questions about my mother and my family.
Then one day in the morning when the soldiers burst into our barracks shouting, he was waiting behind these soldiers, and then he said something in German to one of them - then he beckoned me and he asked me to go outside with him. He led me through the gate. I always loved passing this gate, and I loved leaving behind me the barbed wires. It was this psychological break which meant that the pain was behind me, and the illusion was inside me and in front of me. I knew this was not true, but that I am free, I was clinging to this illusion of freedom. Then I remember that usually my head went up, as I looked at the pine trees and the sky and I felt yes, I'm floating. I'm floating away from here in air, slowly languidly moving my arms in the air. Back to Fotefethell B. He took me to the headquarters barracks and we went through one door, there was a corridor and lots of doors. He opened one particular door, apparently to his room, and said. “Das is mein stuger" - 'this is my room, mein … and you clean it. I leave you here, and you clean it.' He showed me where the broom and the dusters were and so on. I remember the radio was on - playing light music in German. The guard was very brusque about it, very sort of matter of fact and he locked me in from outside. First of all I sat on an armchair and I looked around the room. It looked normal enough, there was a comfortable looking bed in it, and it had a kind of lovely bedspread on top of it. There were cushions on the chairs, and photographs of his family on a table, photographs of women and children, and his father with the moustache. There was also a record player in the room which had one of those old fashioned yawning tubes; there was a carpet on the floor and a radio was playing. The music immediately threw me into a completely different world. I started dreaming that I was free, that I was with my parents - it was like when I was falling asleep in the concentration camp. Almost immediately, I would escape into the scenes with my parents, my beloved ones. It was so automatic, and it was such an incredibly powerful self-defence of my organism that I didn't even hesitate a moment. I closed my eyes and fell asleep. Immediately directing my inner being in the sleep into a complete and almost physical contact with my parents, with my father. It was such a realistic experience it was almost tangible. I was back at home sleeping back with them, I was strolling in the garden, we were talking, we were chatting, we were laughing, we were joking, we were loving each other, we were embracing each other. So it was such a shock to be woken up suddenly by the Germans shouting from outside. So, in this room of Fotefethell B I suddenly felt secure and thrown back into my dreams, but obviously I had to start cleaning the room. I was used to physical work but this was very light work, and as I worked, I noticed one of his wardrobe doors was half open. I was curious and I opened it a little bit wider. There, on the shelf inside was a big piece of fresh bread which smelled so beautiful that I almost fainted. There was also a big piece of German sausage on the shelf. I couldn't resist it, I just didn't think twice, I didn't think for a fraction of a second, and my hand just simply went to it and I grabbed it. I started ravenously eating, biting at it and eating and swallowing it until I finished the whole thing. Then I sat down and I got frightened. I thought he will discover what I had done and he will shoot me, or at least he will beat me up. I didn’t know what he would do to me but I knew at least that I would be punished. So I cleaned the room as neatly as I could, at least to make up for my awful deed of stealing this piece of bread and sausage, and for not feeling hungry for the first time in as long as I could remember.
After about an hour the door opened, and he stood there in the doorway. He asked me to go with him and he took me back to the barracks, then I was taken back to work and nothing happened, he did not say or do anything regarding the food I had eaten. The following morning, the same thing happened. He told the other soldiers that he was taking me to his room, and he did. I went to his room three or four times a week, cleaning his room. Every single time (surprise surprise) there would be a big piece of meat, bread, marmalade and margarine. I started understanding that this was his way, his silent way, of helping me save my life by giving me this food. After a few days of eating so ravenously, so vociferously I started to feel guilty because my friends Stasz and Fradek had no extra food, so I put some bread and sausage in my pockets to take back to them at the barracks, and told them about this story. Stasz was immediately suspicious, and told me to be careful. “I warn you, because he will want something in return for that.” Up to this point however, nothing happened. One day as I was sitting on an armchair in his room, and taking in this atmosphere of peace and quiet, the music from the radio was playing, I cannot recall the name of the artiste - but it was a famous Swedish singer of the time - who collaborated with Hitler, and who was in Germany making lots of films. Her voice was being broadcast in loudspeakers all over the streets of Warsaw. The Germans were deliberately creating this kind of atmosphere of the ‘lovely occupation of Warsaw’ with this singing on the streets. It was a beautiful voice though, and as I was eating this bread and sausage, the tears started running down my cheeks. Suddenly and unexpectedly the door was flung open, and he stood in the doorway once again. He walked into the room now in a completely different way. He was aggressive. He stopped and closed the door behind him, locking it with a key.
I stopped eating and he looked at me, barking at me to eat.
“With whom?” I asked.
“Eat” he said, and he looked at me as if he wanted to strangle me. He was breathing very deeply. I was really frightened and I started eating.
“Schneller" - 'faster' he shouted at me, 'eat it - bite.'
I started eating it, biting it like a dog.
“Yes, eat it like a dog” he shouted.
Suddenly something I never thought of happened. He unbuttoned his flies.
“Eat it, bite at it” he carried on shouting.
Then he started masturbating and looking at me all the time, eating this bread and sausage, biting at it like a dog.
I knew that this was some kind of very special sexual pleasure for him, but I had never seen or heard of anything like that in my life. I felt that perhaps this was the saving factor, perhaps this saved my life.
Unfortunately, he called me another two or three times to clean his room. There was always some food prepared, and he masturbated every single time as I was eating. He never touched me, and when he finished he would take a kind of newspaper or something and cleaned himself, then he washed his hands and then he would take me very briskly back to the barracks. His attitude towards me changed soon afterwards (in the barracks as well). When he looked at me aggressively, I started feeling frightened of him. I told Stasz everything that had happened. “Well, you're lucky you're still alive” he said, “because he might be one of those degenerates that we hear about. There are lots of them in Germany, practically and deliberately induced in the Hitler schools.” I did know of these places, these schools where Gestapo people would be trained to eat faeces, and to be completely immune to any squeamishness. Then Fotefethell B stopped calling me, and then he was not leading us to and from work anymore. I saw him sometimes far away, perhaps he was posted to another job, but that was the end of his story in Altvarb in the concentration camp.
I must now jump ahead years later, and I make this big leap in the space capsule forward to 1961 - London. I was then under contract with Granada Television - directing a few plays. One of them was ‘Ronyon Genette’ by Anhouil with Diane Cilento who was then living with a completely dashing and beautiful young man - Sean Connery, unknown at the time but later to become famous as James Bond. At Granada, I did one Russian play with the famous actress Mary Morris, who is still a great friend of mine. Forgive me but I cannot remember the title of this play.
I had to do quite a lot of pre-production work, and my offices were in Golden Square - I think they were on the first floor. All of the directors had a little cage each, partitioned off with desks etc, and in front of these cages were our secretaries - my secretary's name was Rosemary. Pre-production work to each production usually took 6-8 weeks, and then afterwards we would start rehearsing the play. I was a drama director, and in London there were several kinds of drill halls all over the city, and they would be hired by various television companies. Then, after a period of about two or three weeks of rehearsals we would go to Manchester to Granada studios to record. The studios we used at the time were the same ones used by Coronation Street, and I used to see the actors from the show in the lift sometimes. I remember I was very well paid at the time, and I had my first studio apartment in Roland Gardens, SW7 near South Kensington station. I felt very comfortable and very secure, and for the first time I was not anymore a poor student in Oxford at the Oxford University where I was before, but earning my money and I could afford a luncheon. So I would go to either the Greek Tavella [sic] which was somewhere near Carnaby Street or I would go to Wardour Street to have my lunch. There was a Swiss restaurant - Samoritz [sic] - with a very long corridor-like room. You would enter the restaurant immediately from the street and there was this very long room, which stretched back almost into darkness - in spite of its very intimate electric lights. I started going to the Samoritz restaurant, and the staff of Swiss girls already knew me as a customer - but not as Vladek Sheybal, actor and director. My face wasn't yet known as it is now - as an international film actor. When I went in for lunch, I would usually take the table by the door in the corner, with the window on my right-hand side looking out on the street. One day as I was eating lunch, I noticed that at the very end of this room there was a man. This man was sitting far away at the dark end of this restaurant, looking at me. At a certain point I started feeling my intuition was telling me that this was going to be something important, this was going to be something that I should be a little afraid of. It was the same feeling I had with the Gestapo officer and his dog in front of that huge building in Warsaw, after the Warsaw uprising - I had seen that officer so far away, and yet I knew he was going to play some vitally important part in my life. Now I was having the same feeling with this man. I checked myself, I thought to myself that this is ridiculous. I am in a free country, I am in London. I am a Director for Granada Television - what could happen to me?
I was still aware that this man was looking at me. I would look at him sideways, hoping that he wouldn’t notice that I was looking at him, but he was too far away and in darkness. I am short-sighted and so I couldn't see his face. At a certain point he beckoned the waitress and he asked her a question, kind of nodding in my direction. I watched the waitress as she shrugged her shoulders, obviously telling him she didn’t know who I was. So then I knew definitely he was looking at me. He paid his bill, and like the soldier Gestapo officer with the dog in Warsaw, I felt him coming toward me. He started getting closer and closer and closer. Again I almost froze. I felt my life is always full of inevitable things and I can't stop them - why can't I stop them? I thought I should pay the bill immediately, and I shall leave as I don't want to see this man. As with this officer and his dog in Warsaw, I first saw his legs by the table and then I looked up. He had stopped by my table and he was looking at me. By this time I didn't have the slightest doubt, it was Fotefethell B from Altvarb, from the concentration camp. I think my heart stopped for a second. I assumed a polite smile, and asked him in English, if he wanted something.
“I think I have a feeling that we have met before” he said in perfect English.
I remember once again this feeling that I didn't say these lines, but I heard myself saying a very wise line as a matter of fact.
“I don't think that you are in the position to ask these questions.”
“I know now” he paused for a moment, “Altvarb.”
“That's right” I said.
“What are you going to do now?”
I suddenly realised that perhaps I could call the police and perhaps they could arrest him. He was a war criminal - but was he? I was terribly confused. I don't have in my blood or my mind a feeling of vengeance. Anyway, it was so many years after the war, and here I was in London. Here he was in London, and perhaps he had been a war victim too. All these thoughts crossed my mind immediately.
“Well why don't you sit down and we'll have coffee together” I heard myself saying.
“Thank you” he smiled and sat down.
He looked older - obviously. But he was still the same Fotefethell B and slightly greyish. He was wearing civilian clothes, looking like a businessman and indeed he was.
“I am so happy, and I mean it, that you survived that hell. I am so happy to see you alive” he said and I believe he meant it.
“I am happy that you are alive as well” I told him.
“I am sorry for you know … ” he said, “for what I exposed you to in Altvarb.”
“Don't be sorry” I said, “after all, all this saved my life - didn't it?”
“You are a very wise man” he smiled then.
“Yes” I said, “I'm an old wise sparrow, as we say in Poland.”
He told me that he came to London on business now, and that he had been completely exonerated from any accusations in the war. He told me he wasn't Gestapo, that he was there in Altvarb just because he was very good at technical things concerning the V1 etc. I was very curious to ask if he still did those kinky things like asking young men to eat ravenously like a dog, and then masturbate - but I didn't dare.
I saw in his eyes a kind of fruity look at a certain point.
“You haven't changed much” he said, “why don't we meet tomorrow for a drink or something?”
“No thank you” I refused, “I am busy.”
“Shall we exchange our addresses and keep in touch? I live with my family in Germany. We could see each other sometimes when I am in London, or you are in Germany.”
Then I knew absolutely without any hesitation that I didn’t want to see him again and I said:
“No, no I don't think I would like to see you again, I wish you all the best, but no.”
“As you wish” he said as he got up.
I paid for the coffee and told him it was my pleasure, and he simply said goodbye and that was it, the end of the story of Fotefethell B. I never came across him again, but I am sure that he must have seen me on the screen several times in my films in Germany, and that he must think about me, and those strange masturbation scenes in Altvarb.
It is really this kitchen that keeps me alive. I look at this Zurek, this white Polish borsch that I am making in the jar. It's on the right-hand side, I can see it above the radiator. There it gets warm and sour. A lady called Jane is coming this afternoon at two o'clock. She owns a restaurant in London and she wants my recipe for Zurek, so I am going to show her how I make it.
Back to Altvarb - the concentration camp. As I have already stated earlier, towards the end of my stay, we started seeing the V1s being launched almost vertically into the air, and then falling somewhere into the sea - unfortunately our view was obstructed by trees and we had no idea of exactly where they fell. Stasz was terribly interested about it all and he was already making plans to inform the French of all that he knew regarding the V1s, and he was also trying to find a way to get his information to the allies. Did he manage it? I don't know. I heard later on after the war that allies did get very detailed information about the V1. I would like to think the information came from Stasz. I made my plans to escape from the concentration camp, I had no choice but to leave friends behind, including Stasz and finally I left him behind in Altvarb. He stayed there until the American or Russian army liberated him. I saw him again after the war, and before he died of course. The family lived in Warsaw - he and his wife and their two little children. Years later, when his two sons were grown up, they came to London and stayed in my apartment in Old Brompton Road while I was out of the country on holiday. I realised quite early during my stay in this concentration camp that the Germans had a paranoiac fear of diseases, especially diseases coming from prisoners. The main disease they were frightened of was tuberculosis as there wasn't any cure for it at that time, and those prisoners who were coughing were isolated in one room in our barracks. A doctor's examination had been lined up for all of us, and the Germans were sending us in for this examination in groups of a few people every morning. When those who had been examined came back, I asked them what happened in the room. They told me that everybody had to spit on a piece of glass which the doctor placed under a microscope. I realised they were checking the spittle for traces of the tuberculosis bacteria which was called ‘Koch’ after the name of the German Dr Koch who first identified the tuberculosis bacteria, so that is why they were called Koch bacteria in the camp.I asked the people again, very carefully this time, if there was an X-ray machine inside the room and was relieved when they said no. There was however, an old Polish man in the isolation room who definitely had tuberculosis and he was slowly dying. I started watching him closely to get an idea of how someone with the disease behaved. Unfortunately, he died later on (in incredible circumstances) but while he was alive he hated all of us because we were healthy. When he was coughing he would spit his phlegm directly at us, hoping that we too would catch the disease. He was a very vengeful, very bitter, cold man in his sixties. I decided now on my plan - (I mentioned already I was determined to escape) - I was not determined to survive like Stasz, and this is how we differed. We started growing apart in the ideas of survival. My idea of survival was by all means to run away, to escape, to find a way, to concoct, to conceive of a way of being free myself, even at the cost of being shot, burned, executed or caught. My intuition had started telling me that perhaps this is the point in which I could make the first move. I didn't yet have the whole plan in my mind, but I knew that I was looking very much around the courtyard as we were walking to and from work for one of those treasures that can be used - a piece of string, or piece of wire, or a piece of wood for making a fire. I found - (surprise surprise) - a great treasure - a little piece of paper that sweets were wrapped up in. It was the kind of paper impregnated with some kind of material so that liquid would not seep through, perhaps greaseproof or waxy paper. I took it and put it into my pocket immediately, knowing that when my turn came to be examined by the doctor, I would take the spittle of the old man as he spat at us, and I would get it into this paper. Also in my pocket was St Antonio - given to me by my mother in the last moment when we parted in Warsaw, and a few prayers as well to St Antonio and to the Sacred Jesus Heart. Prayers for courage and for not losing hope - written with the hand of my mother, written by her. I still have them here in London.
Now, I went to the isolated room of the old Polish man. He was lying on his bunk, and I knew that when I approached his bed he would spit at me, he never wanted to talk. As I approached him he spat at me, but it missed me and went on the floor because I jumped clear. Here was my chance. I carefully took it from the floor into my special paper, I didn't do it in any kind of conspicuous way because I didn't care what he thought as I did this. When I had enough, I wrapped it up in this little piece of paper and put it back in my pocket. Fifteen minutes later, we were called for our examinations, there were ten of us in our little group. We were led to this little room which was very clean and it was warm inside. Outside it was already Autumn, it was very cold outside, but the weather was still beautiful. Inside the room there was a nurse in a white coat and the doctor. He was asking all his questions in German, treating us as if we didn't exist - we were already Fernichtungs - extermination camp. We didn't count any more so we were not treated like live people. I remember the doctor asking my name and the Polish custom is to say your surname first, so if I were in Poland I would say: “Sheybal, Vladek.” “You see what an uneducated people they are” he said contemptuously to the nurse, “I am asking them their names, so they should say their Christian name first, then I would ask for the surname.” The nurse laughed with him at the ignorance of these ban beaten from Warsaw. Then he examined me - he listened to my chest, counted my pulse, but it was a very superficial examination. He looked at my throat and my teeth. Finally he gave me the piece of glass.I was waiting for this moment with bated breath. I still had my little piece of paper with the spittle in my right trouser pocket, and in the left pocket I had St Antonio and all my mother's prayers. My heart was beating like a really frightened bird inside my chest, and I was trembling. I turned my back for a split second from the doctor and I dislodged all of the spittle from the paper onto this little glass, while at the same time making the sound of spitting - ptugh. I handed the glass back to him, and he handed it to the nurse. The nurse put it under the microscope and I knew immediately from the look she gave the doctor what she was going to tell him. “Was is das?” he said. “Ich kochen” she replied almost in a whisper I knew then that the first stage of my escape had been successful, and I touched St Antonio in the pocket and my mother's prayers to thank them very much. I was taken back into the barracks, and within fifteen minutes I was in the isolation room with the old Polish man who was spitting at us. There were a few other men with the disease in the room also.Now I was facing the possibility that even though I didn’t have tuberculosis, I might contract it from them. I had no idea how long I would be kept in this room with these men, I didn't know what the future held now.I wondered what might happen now, would they shoot us, poison us or would they just gas us? - anything was better than previously, but it was inconceivable for me to survive in these conditions. I knew that if I could get out through these damned barbed wires I would seek the next step - the next stage. I would run out to a train, car, or lorry. I did not know what would happen until I got out, and then could see what I could do in order to escape completely in order to save my life. Now that we were classed as having tuberculosis, we were not sent out to work anymore and we were locked up in this room, this isolated tuberculosis room. We were very apprehensive that something was going to happen to us. The other men would ask me what was happening, because I was the only one, so to speak, who was intelligencia – an intelligent or educated young man. I would simply tell them that I didn’t know what was happening. At this time, Stasz was still around and when the door was open in the morning, I could see him and we spoke now and again. After this kind of non-existence, I relaxed a little bit – well quite a lot actually - lying on my bunk. I missed Stasz and Fradek very much, but the little conversations we had in the mornings were comforting to me. I told Stasz about my plans and he didn’t like them at all. He warned me that I might be pushing myself into a very dangerous position, but I couldn't care less. I had to get out from there.
Then one night it did happen.The front door of the barracks was opened with the usual amount of noise, shouting and yelling from the Germans. Six, eight or ten soldiers with rifles invaded the barracks and banged the door of our isolated room very loudly. We were told to get dressed, pick up our belongings and get out. As we were leaving, I saw Stasz run from his room towards me and I remember he gave me a picture. “This is your will, this is your way of expressing your freedom, and I pray for you that you will be all right” he said softly and embraced me. He handed a little coloured picture of St Yese who killed a dragon with a big sword - this is the Saint of Power, of no surrender, of unequivocal bravery. “This will teach you and it will help to keep you alive, please pray for me as well.” He had tears in his eyes and I had tears in mine. Fradek looked awful by this time, he had lost the will to live completely - this was the worst thing that was happening to prisoners. You saw them losing the will to live and submitting themselves to the dying process, and finally dying because they didn't have any energy to fight it - yet I would not submit, I had this incredible energy to find ways of freeing myself. The Germans now started pushing us onto lorries, and I will always remember that the lorry moved on, taking us through the main gate. I saw the lights of the concentration camp where all of the French and Russian people were. The lights searching around, the barbed wires and everything getting smaller and smaller, retracting away from me and I was stepping into the new venture, the new world. I saw it like a film. I never had any sort of feeling that I was doing some kind of heroic thing at all. I was simply going through the next fascinating stage of my life, freeing myself and feeling this tremendous release that my plan had worked so far. Our lorry speeded up along the roads in Germany. It was the ‘night dark’ they called it, and I had eight or ten Polish people from the camps with me on this lorry. They were all somehow dependent on me. They would ask me questions - perhaps I would know more, and better understand because I spoke German, perhaps I was intelligent, educated. They were just suburban tormented Warsaw men from the Warsaw uprising - from the concentration camp - with tuberculosis going somewhere in the middle of the night, perhaps going to the furnaces to be burned. Even so, my soul was singing and now I really wanted to sing but I had to stop myself from singing aloud, of happiness, because a new venture was beginning to take shape.We stopped in front of a station and I saw Ankam. I remember it very well, there was already a train in the station waiting for us.
Naturally, we were all hurried onto the train, it was a passenger train but on one side of the wagon seats had been reserved for us - the trickling of business. In the other half of the wagon there were mostly women going to the market, because it was just the end of the night and the dawn would begin very soon. The women were chatting amongst themselves in German and looking at us - the condemned men - with great curiosity. They were free people, and perhaps they did not realise (or perhaps they did) that the end of the war (and Germany as she was then) was imminent. I was watching these women with great curiosity as well. Wherever I was under guard, in chains spiritually speaking, I would always watch the free people on the other side. I would try to adjust my mentality to being free with them so that I was with them, free as well.
We were all going by train, except that we didn’t have to buy our tickets - the Germans did. The journey dragged on and I remember I dozed a lot. We eventually arrived at a station called Stargadt. We were taken off the train and walked along the street to a very big building which looked like a big hospital or school and we were pushed into the main hall there. The hall itself looked like a kind of reception, and it did look more like a hospital than a school. The German soldiers who were escorting us saluted us in a strange manner as they left. “Auf Gasein” they said, leaving us in this hall with the receptionist, who was wearing a German uniform as well.
“Where are we?” I asked. “This is a hospital for all the German war camps” the receptionist said, “there are several nationalities here in this hospital, under the surveillance of the German doctors and of the other doctors of other nationalities. Here you are prisoners of war - not any more of the concentration camp.” “Why are we coming to this particular hospital here?” I went on. The receptionist consulted his notes. “I have here on paper that you have tuberculosis, all of you, so you have got to be cured here in the hospital.” He was quite friendly towards us. I was absolutely astonished, and I repeated my conversation to the rest of our group and they couldn't believe it either. The receptionist continued: “Somebody will come down and take you upstairs to your beds.” I remember that there was a big stone staircase in the main room, and finally we were taken away. We were taken to a ward. It was very warm inside, and some people were already sleeping in some of the beds in this room, but some beds were free - so I took one. I looked around the room at the other inmates, and my curiosity was aroused - who were they - from what nationality? were they ill? and if so, what were their illnesses? As I was thinking, one of these men suddenly got up and came up to our group. He introduced himself and told us he was Italian. I realised then that the other men in the room were also Italians - Badolists they called themselves - (because I think it was the name of the man who started anti-Nazi, anti-Mussolini military movement in Italy - his name was Badolio). These men were sent to the war camps (soldiers' camps, officer camps) and some of them were sick. The Italian man told me that two of his friends had rheumatism, somebody had something else, and they were sent to this huge hospital building. The windows had grilles of course, so it was a prison, but a very free prison. Later on and after I had chatted with this Italian man, I tried to dig out of my mind as much as possible the Italian words so that I could converse with him in his own language. They were all very friendly towards us. They gave us some cocoa from their thermos flasks which we drank, and some chocolate from some American parcels, or they just helped us when we needed help. I don't know how they had all these things - perhaps it was help from the International Red Cross. I went to bed tired that night, and in the morning we were woken up. There was a table in the room and the Italians were already sitting there, eating breakfast which was some hot milk and cocoa, and a little bit of butter for the bread. It was completely different from the concentration camps, and I still couldn't believe that anything like this would happen to me. The Italians warned me that the guard assigned to us would come in making noise, and he did that because he needed to show his power over us, he would kick the shoes from under the beds, and make a tremendous amount of mess - very noisily. Once the guard had been and left, we would work to put everything in order, but within fifteen minutes he would come again and criticise, and kick everything out and shout at the people, but it wasn't really very serious. Now I felt that we were all under the wings of the Red Cross, but I still couldn't understand why we had been transferred from the Fernichtungslager to this rather free hospital. During the day we would be sent to the showers, and of course we were given this sort of special soap to rub into our body hair to get rid of the lice. We were given clean shirts, clean trousers, underpants and socks. We put all these things on, and we felt like civilised people again, and then we went back to the room where we would be locked in. I passed the time by lying on the bed, chatting with these Italians, sometimes playing some sort of card games with them. The whole day passed by like that. My curiosity all the time was working inside myself - what is going to happen to us?
The night came and the evening meal arrived, which was very modest but fantastically adequate for us after Altvarb. Again we went to bed with clean sheets, and I fell asleep. Suddenly in the middle of the night I heard somebody by my bed. I opened my eyes quickly and there was a young man kneeling on the floor, making signals to me. “Speak softly” he said. “Who are you?”
“Are you Polish?” he asked me this in Polish.
“Yes, I am” I said, “who are you?”
“I am one of the Polish officers, we are here on the second floor. I got the key and I opened the door so I could come to you. I would like you to wake up because we are all waiting for you with lovely coffee, with cakes and chocolate and we want to hear from you because you are from the Warsaw uprising. We heard about the Warsaw uprising, and we want to hear from you - the whole story because you were there.”
“I was there” I said.
“You are the only intelligent man who is educated here, so we chose you. Will you come back upstairs with me? Don't put on your shoes.”
He gave me some sort of dressing gown and I put it on, and we tiptoed to the door. This man and the others already knew how to get about in the whole building, and we went easily from my floor to his. He opened the door very softly and silently with the key, and we walked into this big room where the other Polish officers were already sitting on their beds in their dressing gowns, waiting for me. We spent the whole night talking about the Warsaw uprising. I told them everything I saw and everything I knew; they were all very moved. “Welcome to the family” they said as I finished speaking, “why did you come here from the Fernichtungslager? we can't give you any explanation, but we already knew before you arrived that you were coming here, that there will be some Polish man from the Warsaw uprising. We were waiting for you, we tried to find out more about you through our internal spying system, and we think there is only one explanation - the war is definitely ending. There is tremendous confusion in the whole of Germany and this confusion could be dangerous. They could suddenly send us to Auschwitz, out of the blue, because they simply don't know what to do with us. They haven't got the facility to kill you off in Altvarb, although they could shoot you in the forest, they are now very much aware of all these crimes and the counting out of the corpses after the war, so they don't want to dispose of the people now as easily as they would have done two years ago.”
“Thanks to this confusion you are here, but definitely it's temporary, it's transitory. I don't think they'll keep you here. While you are here though, try to benefit of what is here - the warmth and the good breakfast and fruit, and try to eat as much as possible. We are seeing each other often, and we will always be pleased to see you. So now go off to bed.” I went back to bed very happy, and the next morning we had some sort of exercises out in the big corridors and these Polish officers were exercising as well. They came up to me and this time there were English officers and French soldiers there as well. We mixed together especially because I could speak in French as well. My English then was almost non-existent, but I knew French, German and Polish of course. So we had lots and lots of sessions stopping by the windows in the corridors and smoking cigarettes, just chatting all the time. I felt secure and safe, and I think I was in this hospital for about seven days.
On the third or fourth day of my stay something incredible happened; it was uncanny and completely incongruous. The Polish officers told me that one of them had had an operation for appendicitis (his appendix had developed an infection) and had died two days previously. His funeral was to take place the following day, and the Germans were allowing the Polish officers to attend the funeral. We would go outside the walls of the hospital (which is the camp hospital, or hospital prison), but we would go under heavy armed escort to the cemetery in Stargadt. When we arrived, we were to pay the tribute to, and salute this Polish officer. It's a German gesture - they wanted to show that they were doing these things. So it would be a gala performance for an officer prisoner of war. There would be a delegation of officers: English, French, Italian and Polish officers as well - and one from the Warsaw uprising - me. Everyone in the whole building was already talking about the Warsaw uprising - which was so famous and reverberated with news - all over Europe and the concentration camps. Their spying systems knew quite a lot of things, and hidden radios would enable them to listen to London to the tune: ‘Da da da dum’ - BBC radio. I was asked to dress very carefully, and they gave me a kind of elegant suit, shirt and tie. I shaved and attended the funeral of this man. I had to salute him in our Resistance Army fashion, which meant that I had to take off my hat, and salute with my head naked when the coffin was being lowered in this beautiful afternoon. Again the sun was shining and it was very very cold. The leaves were already yellow and red on the trees and lovely. As the coffin went down, we all threw a little bit of earth on it. I did it as well and I prayed for the soul of this man, this officer. I was very very moved and I looked at the Polish officer who was with me, from the Polish delegation. He touched my hand. “You've gone through quite a lot, now” he said, “you never thought about attending a funeral of a Polish officer under the German guards in Stargadt from the hospital for the war prisoners?”
“No” I said, “I had never thought about that.”
Then we came back to the building; waiting in suspense as to what the authorities had decided to do with us. As always it seemed, in the middle of the night, without any warning, the German guards walked into the room and woke us up. They asked us to put on our clothes and the Partchovi said goodbye to his Badolios, the Italians - Ari ve derchi, Ari ve derchi [sic]. They were very moved these Italians - I always loved the Italians very much. Very superficial people but good hearted. We asked the Italians to tell the Polish officers about our sudden departure, and that was that, I never saw the Polish officers again. Although I had very strange encounters later after the war with some people from these times - my encounter with Fotefethell B in London was a case in point - I never came across any of them again. So, again we were taken to the railway station and put on a train. We rode north for about two hours - I already knew from Stasz, how to locate the directions of the Earth - north, south etc. We were going north - towards a town called Kiel I think, I can't remember now. We eventually arrived at another concentration camp. It was of course, much worse than the hospital; and we were pushed into this camp. Already they were treating us like prisoners, but the strange thing was that we were shown into one room with bunks and after about five minutes a young man came into this room, smiling at us. He told us (in Russian) that he was our doctor, that we were still being treated as ill, and that he would try to cure us. We would not be expected to work in this camp. There were plenty of things from the Red Cross for the prisoners, and of course there was food. The doctor started distributing from the big sack that he was holding, all the tins of steak, soup, coffee and concentrated milk. So all of us had a few things each, and quite a few people had conversations with him, and I told him of the Russian prisoners being treated so badly. He said he knew about it. “What are you doing here” I asked him, “a Russian doctor in a German concentration camp?”
“Well, they need doctors” he replied, “and you know, I deserted. I simply deserted from the Russian army, and I decided to say ‘hello’ to the Germans, and here I am. I don't want to fight any more, I don't believe in communism, I never did, and here, I am the doctor. I hope that I shall survive the war.” I wonder how he survived the war because I know that Kiel was taken by the Russians. Presumably they arrested him and sent him immediately to Siberia where he would rot away, or he would be killed off in one of the Russian concentration camps. However, at this moment he was alive. He started paying special attention to the very old Polish man (who was still spitting sometimes when he didn't feel well) - spitting at us to try to infect us with tuberculosis. The barracks were again surrounded by the pine forest, and the dunes; lots of sand and sun. It was already late Autumn and very cold indeed. We were not treated badly there, and we were given some more food and tins. I remember this old man started suddenly smiling at me from his bunk. He couldn't walk anymore. So I started getting close to him and he would whisper to me because he couldn't speak with a full voice anymore. He would whisper to me: “Please when we are free after the war, could you remember or write down my name ... will you tell my wife if she is alive, my daughter, my son, my children in Warsaw that I died here.” I cannot recall his name now. Then one day he started crying - crying that: “I don't want to die here, Mr Vladek” as he had taken to calling me, “I don't want to be buried in these sand dunes. I want to die and be buried in Warsaw. That is where I belong. Why should I die here alone?” It was absolutely heartbreaking. He stopped spitting at us after that. He was preparing himself. He was already talking with God, and it was in his eyes.I told you earlier that I remembered how he died in incredible circumstances. Well, it was an unbelievable little scene, he whispered to me to come close to him, and he asked me to give him all the tins from the Red Cross that he had. I put them very carefully under his bed. He was always afraid that somebody would steal them.
“Are the tins still there?” he would ask me quite often, “how many are there?”
“About five” I said.
“Yes” he would acknowledge that nothing had been stolen. He asked me to put all the tins on his chest from underneath his bunk, which I did. As I put them all on his chest, he embraced them, very delicately, like caressing them almost with his very thin hands. He sort of smiled at me and his happiness was glowing in his eyes, that he's got his tins, that he could have opened one tin just now and he could have his condensed sweet milk or some nectar, something very good and he can feed. He could have the food for health to go back to life. All of this was in his smile, and that's how he died - embracing the tins of food on his chest with his beautiful smile and wide open eyes looking at me. Then I called other prisoners and I told them he had passed away. “We've got to close his eyes” one of the others said. We didn't have any stones or anything heavy to put on his eyelids, so I had to hold one eyelid and another man held the other one and we prayed for him. We held his eyelids like that for a while and then we released our fingers and the eyes opened again - the eyelids just flopped back. So once again we had to do it for a much longer time and this time his eyes remained closed. When the doctor came I told him what the man had told me - that he didn't want to be buried here in the sand, he wanted earth. How funny - people want to be buried in the earth - the earth is calling us - calling us always to end our journey there, inside earth. That's why I am against burning the body - it's completely against nature. I want to be buried normally in earth. The doctor said he would take him away and to bury him somewhere. He couldn’t promise whether he will find a piece of land for the earth, but he will try to do his best. Later on I asked him and he said: “No, we had to hurry up because my Commandants were very eager to dispose of his body because he had tuberculosis, so he was buried in the sand.” So much for him - goodbye my dear friend.
One day, the doctor arrived with news for us that we were being transferred to yet another camp.
“Which one?” I asked.
“I can't tell you” he replied.
“Well are we going to go further to the north?”
“No” he said, “there is no camp there as far as I know. So the only way for you is to go either to the west or to the south.”
The south I was dreading because south would be Auschwitz. But still, we didn't have any choice. I was still kind of postponing in my mind a last resort, such as my jumping off the train to escape, but everybody knew that the end of the war was coming; we had already smelled it in the air. Everybody was talking about it, that the war was going to end soon. Yet as we neared Poland, I felt that if they sent me to the south, then before we reach Auschwitz, I would jump off the train and start walking towards Poland. I never thought about walking towards the allies - which was perhaps my greatest mistake. I should have done it but I never thought about that. All I was thinking about was reuniting with my family and my country - funny. So, again we were put onto the train and again we started trundling along. We travelled along beside fields, and through some fantastically beautiful scenery which was shrouded in mist. There were trees with their beautiful yellow and red leaves already shedding and the wind was blowing. Then suddenly out of the blue, after about two hours journey, we felt an explosion outside the train. We suddenly realised that we had just arrived at a tiny little station which was being bombed viciously by masses and masses of planes - obviously English and American. Huge planes throwing the bombs onto this train, onto the station and all hell broke loose. All our guards ran away immediately, so we ran as well. We ran from the train and everybody tried to flatten themselves to the ground. I remember that the power of the explosion, and of the air being shaken was so immense that I had to hold onto something sticking out of concrete. I found a piece of metal and I held on tight, I was being shoved left and right, almost with my legs and feet flying in the air when the bombs were exploding. I thought by this time that this was the end of my life, but at the same time my heart was singing - believe me I was singing - the allies were bombing the Germans! I didn't feel the fear that I would die, but felt that I was witnessing the end of the war, and the allies' power. The Germans were petrified and running away, and we were free now. When the bombing ends I thought, I can walk across the field, I don't have any guards any more, because they left us alone. They were so frightened to lose their lives. I even remember that at a certain point I wanted to wave at these pilots and to say: “Hello. Please throw more bombs and do your job. Do it, do it.” The spirit of fighting against the Nazis was so profoundly inside me. The bombing lasted about five minutes, no more than that and I realised that I was free. I could do whatever I wanted to do and this was the moment I was waiting for. God gave me the opportunity to run away, so towards the end of the bombing when a few bombs were flying (with the sounds that I knew so well from the Warsaw uprising) I got outside the station and I just started running. I hid in the very tall grass behind a tree waiting for the bombing to end, and then I could assess the whole situation more easily. The bombing ended. As quickly as they arrived, the planes, God bless them, zoomed off into the air. I saw, from my position, that the whole station was completely reduced to dust - there was literally nothing left. I realised that my guards had all been killed, but the train strangely enough, was still there.
People started coming out from behind the ruins of the station, and a few people were talking to each other in German. I completely lost track of my friends, but I think they all went across the dunes. As a matter of fact I met one or two of them later on in my journey, in another concentration camp when I was recaptured by the Germans. One of them told me that he just started running across the fields, not thinking about what would happen to him - that is the human reaction - once you're free, you're free. Once you feel the feel, you feel the feel. When you are in touch with God, with the air, with the trees, with nature, you eat it up. You think that all is inside your system. You don't wait for people, prisoners and guards to come with rifles and say you are not a prisoner anymore. You don't wait for them - you're free. I decided to remain where I was in my vantage position behind this bush. There was not a soul around me. After about two hours had passed, a locomotive came to the station, and I could clearly see the Germans loading the bodies of their comrades killed in the air raid onto it. Then they started clearing the other track, so I thought there was going to be another train coming. I learned from Stasz, God bless his soul, so many tricks and so many signs and signals to survive. The survival kit as we call it here in this country - that you have to know what to do - you have to know what to do. You have to expect. You watch very carefully around you - the whole thing, every detail and assume that now upon one thing happening, a reasonable conclusion can be reached, and eventually I could use it. Indeed I stayed the night behind this bush. I was frozen and hungry, and in the morning I dusted myself off beautifully. I was still wearing the suit which was given to me by the Polish officer - quite a presentable one. Once I had dusted myself off, I combed my hair by running my fingers through it. I remember that Stasz once said to me: “If you are running away, you can't stick out. You've got to look more or less like the people around you. Look in the mirror. Look at your face. Is it dirty, is there dirt on the face? Dirt on the fingers shows immediately.” So I found a piece of glass somewhere in the grass and somehow I was able to put my hair in order and to find that my face was not that dirty. Later in the morning I heard a train approaching as it travelled towards the station. I couldn't believe it. There was not a soul on the station.
The train stopped and I saw the people on it - civilian men and women, German soldiers, all looking out from the windows and commenting on the bombed station and on our train being completely useless - standing there and not being able to move, because the track had been damaged or something. Then I noticed that some workmen arrived by car and they eventually began repairing the track, the rails in front of this passenger train. People were talking to them and I understood a few bits and pieces of conversation. They were saying that it would take them a few hours before the track could be repaired; then the train could continue its journey. The repairs took up the whole day, and towards evening when dusk was already falling down slowly and languidly, I heard them shouting that everything was all right, everything was ready and we could move. Luckily enough again, God helped me. The darkness was already falling and I made a dash toward the train, I didn't think for a split second what I was going to do - I knew what I was going to do. I dashed across towards this train, towards the last wagon and I jumped onto the step. I couldn't believe the door opened easily. There was such a commotion with everybody looking out of the windows and commenting to each other, very excitedly. They were telling each other that they were all right now, the train was going all right and everything was ok, and nobody noticed me. Of course the first thing I did was to go into the lavatory. Again I had the mirror, so I looked into it and washed my face. Again I combed my hair with my fingers and dusted myself off. Slowly I came out of the lavatory, and already the train was moving fast alongside the fields. The light was dimmed inside the train because of the fear of allied bombing, but the corridor was already empty. People in the compartments were falling asleep, reading or talking, whispering, chatting to each other. Already you felt the whole of the German impudence being diminished - diminishing itself and turning into a kind of nervousness and anguish. They felt as well that they were losing the war. I had no idea where this train was going, so I stopped in the corridor and looked out through the window at the dark landscape. Suddenly one of the doors to a compartment opened and I smelled perfume; it was very beautiful perfume. Then, a young blond woman was standing next to me looking through the window. She was smoking a cigarette. I looked up at her and she was really very beautiful, very clean. She was wearing a white blouse with a cardigan round her shoulders. She looked at me and smiled, so I smiled back. She didn't have the slightest notion that I was a prisoner and I was petrified now. I thought that if she started talking, and if by any chance I couldn't make myself speak German without any trace of my Polish accent, then I would be in trouble. You see when I was in the concentration camp I could have an accent, although I spoke German well enough - I could have an accent there; it didn’t matter. If I had an accent here, it would give me away. The next second I really trembled and my heart stopped because she spoke to me in German. “Auch na Berlin?” - 'are you going to Berlin as well?' I was sweating with fear.
“Jabuhl” I said, as that was all I could manage. She looked at me a little bit strange and then there was silence. She drew on her cigarette again. “You know that we are not able to reach Berlin station because all is destroyed, so we are going to stop outside Berlin.” She mentioned the name of the station but I can’t remember it now. “Zer gutt” I said, trying to make myself sound German as much as possible. Thank God for my mother teaching us German. I was making lots of mistakes in German like I make lots of mistakes in English, but I could make the accent (like I make the French accent) completely, with no foreign intonation. I could speak with the German accent if I really wanted to. “Gut nacht” - 'good night,' she smiled at me and went back to her compartment. I didn't dare walk into a compartment, and after a few hours I was still standing in this corridor. After a while I started walking along the corridor, I didn't have a ticket and I didn't know what would happen if a guard came to check up. I didn't know if there were any tickets available during the war in Germany, or whether people were going freely. I knew for certain that we were going towards Berlin, and this was the fast train. It stopped at one or two stations along the way. After walking for a while, I sat down somewhere near the lavatory and eventually I started dozing, but whenever I heard footsteps I got up and pretended that I was just looking through the window. We stopped at a station. It was still night. This was the last station before Berlin, so I got out of the train and started walking along the platform. I walked towards Berlin and after about three hours, I reached it. I was terribly hungry but I found some apples on some trees and I ate them, then I found some tomatoes in a garden. Finally I remember when I started to see the bombed houses, I knew that I was then definitely in Berlin. As I was walking towards the centre of Berlin, I saw the signs and names of the streets. People already looked very much like people in a besieged town. Although Berlin was not yet completely ruined by the bombing, it had still been heavily damaged. It very much started reminding me of Warsaw. I felt very tired, and I was walking aimlessly. Although I was terribly hungry, I wasn't defeated - I didn't feel defeated at all. I was still in very good spirits as I looked around me, to the right and left - taking in the bombing, the ruins. I didn't care about being captured again. I simply felt I knew that everything would be all right. I came upon a bench on a little square and I sat on it and relaxed a little. I saw people walking here and there, and some cafes were already open very early in the morning. Life was going on, in a way.
I continued walking, and after about an hour I decided to stop somebody and ask if I could get some work, anything to earn my living or whatever. As I was thinking about that, the bombing started again. The same massive, gigantic bombing by the allies. Again, there were hundreds of planes in the sky. They called it 'teppich' bombing which means carpet bombing. Simply one carpet of the allies' planes were covering Berlin, throwing bombs, then another carpet was coming and whatever. Wherever you were you had to find a shelter. I ran across the street and into some kind of courtyard. People were running in every direction; shrieking and yelling. The Germans behaved very badly during these bombing raids, they were very hysterical and I was just thinking how we behaved during the Warsaw uprising, being exactly in the same situation, being bombed like mad - like hell. I dashed into a cellar, a few people were already inside. Some were crying, some were praying and of course everything was shaking. The noise was absolutely of that kind that you can’t describe it, it is simply there - gigantic and frightening. All the time we could feel the tremors going on, and the ground shaking. As I sat in the corner of the cellar, I was once again watching people in hysteria - absolute hysteria. They were shouting against Hitler, against the Ferruchter: “Deutschland Ferrucht. Hitler Ferrucht” - 'he is a mad man,' and things like that. I felt that the whole house above me was falling to pieces, so I didn't stay there any longer. I ran out into the street and I saw in the same courtyard, literally the wall, about five or six floors high, falling apart - into pieces and these pieces were already flying in the air, falling towards the ground. I ran faster across this courtyard, and reached the door on the other side. I ran down into the cellar and as I reached the corridor, I saw only one other person - a woman. She said something to me in German which I didn't understand, and I behaved rather stupidly then, because I think I answered her in Polish, saying that I didn't understand. It was just a conditioned reflex. The woman disappeared, and I couldn't get out because the bombing was at its heaviest. Then she appeared once again and she looked at me.
“Du bis ein trichtlinger, eine gefangener” - 'you are a prisoner, aren't you?' she came closer as she spoke, “you are not kein deutsche” - 'you are not German.' I was very tired by this time, and I must admit I just gave up. “No, I'm not German” I said (perhaps I trusted her - I don’t know).
“Come with me” she said. She took me to her own cellar which contained her bed, a lamp and table and lots of candles. She told me that the electricity was being cut off every so often, and then she asked me to sit down, which I did.
“You must be very tired” she said.
“Yes” I said, “I'm very tired.”
“Well, I'm not going to ask you any questions now, you must eat.” She gave me some potato (kartoffel) soup then, and I had no idea of the time, perhaps it was ten o'clock in the morning. After I had eaten the soup, I became dreadfully tired and needed to sleep, so she put a little mattress or cushions on the floor and asked me to lie down. She gave me a blanket and I slept until the evening when I woke up. The woman was just sitting there and looking at me all the time - I thought she was looking at me like I was the prey. The electricity went off and she lit two of the candles. “Don't be afraid” she said, “I am not going to denounce you. Would you like some more to eat now?”
“Yes” I said, and again I was given more soup. “I am just going to get some hot water, and if you would like to wash or take a bath, you can” she said as I finished the soup, “no-one will bother you here, this is my cellar. Anyway, they think I'm mad - ever since I have lost my child, my son.” A little later on I took this bath (which was absolutely unbelievable for me). Then we just sat and talked. She told me that she noticed me in the corridor and immediately her intuition told her that I was not German - I behaved completely differently. Then she told me that she had lost a son on the Eastern front, and that it wasn't that long ago. But long ago she started hating Hitler and the Nazis, and everything that was going on. She had been a servant to a dentist who had lived and worked a little bit further away from this room, she told me it could have been on the fourth floor. This cellar belonged to this dentist, but the bombs had destroyed the whole floor where the dentist lived, and he and his family were all killed. She was saved because she was downstairs. When the bombing stopped she dragged a few things from the dentist’s house and arranged this cellar for herself, and she had been living there. A little while later I felt I had diarrhoea and I had to go to the toilet. I asked her where the toilet was.
“Ein keeble” - 'the bucket' she said, “it's outside, but you can't go outside in case someone sees you. They might know you are not German and I don’t trust German people anymore.” So she brought the bucket inside, and of course I was very embarrassed. “Do whatever you have to do” she said, “I'm not looking at you … and don’t worry about the smell.” When I had finished I asked her if I could throw it out.
“No” she said, “I shall do it.”
She went out with the bucket and came back without it about ten minutes later.
“Whenever you want to use it again then I will bring it back in again. You must rest now and go to bed.”
“I’ll sleep on the floor” I said.
“No, you can sleep in the bed with me.”
“Oh” I said.
“Don't worry, I'm not thinking about what you're thinking” she said, “you are like my son, although you are younger, but I just feel very lonely.”
Berlin was a very strange place back then. People were already talking in different terms than reality, because reality didn't exist in Berlin anymore. This was a condemned city and this was a condemned nation - a condemned country. Everything was slightly larger than life, like in a big novel by Tolstoy. The sweep of the woman's statements were full of daring. There weren't just sentences and full stops, and when she said: “I feel lonely” she sounded as if she was quoting from the play by Chekhov. Strangely enough I accepted it, then she embraced me.
She undressed then and wore a long night dress. She was in her early 50s or late 40s perhaps. Her name was Annie, or Anna or Anhian, like some people called her.
She embraced me again, and I remember this first embarrassment so clearly when I was falling asleep. The smell of her body, the softness of her breasts, the warmth of her body and everything suddenly created an erection.
I didn't want to do anything about it, but she was embracing me and sleeping in such a way that I felt that she must feel it.
“I know how you feel” she said, “don't feel embarrassed. You are just a little boy. Well, we will sleep.”
She started stroking my cheek and finally my erection subsided and I fell asleep in her arms.
In the morning I washed, and she gave me some milk, bread, margarine and marmalade and I began eating. Then, another air raid started. Without any word she put her arms around me. She was a very maternal, very lovely, beautiful German peasant woman. She told me she was from Bavaria and because of that her German accent was very strange; she told me that my German accent was very strange as well. She said I should be very much aware of it as the Germans might recognise immediately that I was not German; although I always thought I had a very good pronunciation, very good accent.
In this air raid, people were heard yelling and crying from outside the cellar but nothing happened to us, nothing happened to the cellar, but after this air raid which lasted for about an hour I think, the teppich (the carpet bombing) started.
When it finished she said to me: “What do you want to do?”
“I want to go back to Poland” I said, “I want to walk, I want to find a way.”
I started crying again, she told me that the only thing she could do for me then was to give me another clean shirt.
“You have got to shave” she said, “there is my son’s shaving kit here, and I can give you some better trousers so you won't stand out too much. I will tell you which way to go. You can walk across Berlin - there is a station outside Berlin which I know is open, and you may find the trains taking you to the east, to Poland.”
“But what else can I do?” I asked, “I can't stay here with you.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, you can't” she replied, “I can keep you here, but you might be spotted by the people outside and you will be arrested.”
As she said that there was a knock on the door.
Somebody was shouting: “Annie, Annie.” I can't remember what her surname was.
She had to answer the door.
“Stay here” she said, “don't move, I'll try to talk to them.”
So she opened the door, and there were two policemen. They said they were looking for a man who came to this cellar, and they would be keeping watch, day and night. They told her they were looking for allied spies (which apparently later on I learned, that there were quite a number in Berlin at this time) - they were doing very effective work, signalling to England and telling them which parts of Berlin were damaged and the extent of that damage.
Then the men saw me and they pointed at me.
“I can't help it, I'm, terribly sorry” she said to them, “I didn't know anything about him. He's not an ally. He is not English, he was hungry and I gave him some food.”
Then they took me away.
Later on after the war I learned what had happened to Annie, and I will come back to that later.
I was taken away to a police station where I was interrogated. They were trying to find out if I was English or American, so I didn't lie to them. I told them I was Polish and I was in the Warsaw uprising, that I had been taken to Altvarb and I escaped from there during the bombing.
I understood from them that they didn't know what was going on in Germany any more, there was just complete confusion. They told me I could sleep on the floor of the station, and they would decide what was to be done with me the following day. I felt then that I was terribly lucky that they didn't just shoot me. The next day, they took me by car to the outskirts of Berlin. I was then put in a kind of detention (not camp) house. I spent two or three days in this house with some other people, and there were some Poles in the group as well.Then they took us by lorry to a railway station, and again I was put on yet another train. It started moving towards the East and although the Russian front was still far away, at that time the Russian front was not in the territories of Poland, and the Germans were still fighting inside Russia. We travelled as far as Luc, a Polish town before the war. It wasn't in occupied Poland, but that part of Poland which the Germans turned into the Deutsches Reiche, which means into Germany. There were lots of Polish people still living in this city and we were taken to a disused factory: a huge empty building. There again, on the first floor, were these huge rooms. I always remember these huge rooms with mattresses on the floor, and of course it was dirty. People were sleeping, and beetroot soup was being distributed. Once again I was suddenly behind bars.
There was this very strange Polish woman who was very beautiful but completely immoral. She would sleep in the same big room on the bed - she was the only one who had a bed. I remember that when we were falling asleep the first night, the men were making very dirty jokes with her in Polish, and she would answer in such a foul language; I had not heard anything like that in my life. The next morning I knew that I would have to try to escape again. I knew I would have to ask this woman if she would be able to help, because she was very knowledgeable about everything. I learned from the Polish people that she was the mistress of two German guards who were sleeping downstairs. They would make love with her, and she was saving her life just because of that. I got to learn that she wasn't a bad woman at all. She would ask some kind of favour, then she would do something for you. So before I could ask her help I knew I needed something to trade with; then I remembered that Annie had given me a kind of leather belt for my trousers. This belt had a very good buckle, perhaps it was brass. I showed it to her and I said: “Can you sell this for me?” “Why?” she asked, “do you want money? - you are in the concentration camp here and they will just send you on somewhere else. This is only the detention place, this factory. Perhaps you have a plan to escape?”
“No, no, no” I said.
“Well, don't lie to me” she told me, “give me this belt. I will see if I can do something.”
About an hour later she came back.
“Yes, I can give you something for this belt, but not money - food. What about that?”
“What can you give me?”
“I can give you a loaf of bread, I can give you some butter, a bit of sausage. Take it, believe me, take it.” So I accepted it.
For the next two or three days I would hide my loaf of bread, because people would look at me when they could see I was eating something. We were all hungry, and the atmosphere was completely like in Kafkhar - an incongruous novel. This woman would still be talking in foul language, yet all the time she looked so terribly handsome with blonde hair, groomed, and looking so clean. As a matter of fact, as I was thinking about her, she was taking a shower downstairs with the soldiers or whoever. I very often think about her and wonder whatever happened to her. Where did she end up and how did she get into this position of being a kind of kapo? She was a kind of kapo to all these detained men in this transitory detention house. After a few days there, I was terribly cold. All the big windows had been broken and the wind was howling inside, all through the house. After a couple more days, some of us were taken to the railway station, and once again boarded the train. This time the train journey was very short. We were being taken to Abienitze, a small village near Loritz where there was another detention camp waiting for us. I had decided finally about my fate and my future - this camp was to be my final camp.
Before I go into that I would like to go back to 1979 when I was in Berlin for the first time (after this last story about the bombing in Berlin). I was shooting the film called: ‘The Apple’ with Menachem Golan as the director of the film, and Grace Kennedy (who hadn't yet become the great show-biz singer, Grace Kennedy) - she was just starting in a tiny little part playing in this film. Unfortunately the film itself was a complete flop, but my part was very good. I was dancing and singing songs.
I wasn't filming every day and so had some spare time. We were staying at the Untsor Hotel, (the Zoo Hotel), which was in Korfostiendam, in the centre of Berlin. Very often when I was not filming, I would just walk along the streets in a kind of dream. I had never thought that I would again be walking these same streets, the same pavements as I did then, in the war. Of course Berlin was completely different then during the war, because it had been bombed, almost to the point of devastation; there were very many weeds and much rubble. Now though, Korfostiendam was spick and span with neon lights, and restaurants next to each other. There were rows of cafes and night clubs with porn and prostitutes - male prostitutes and everything and anything - like a little island which was still menacing behind this wall of Berlin. There was a very strange atmosphere then and I also came across a strange Polish restaurant which was called, I think ‘PJashav Warsaw.’ I went inside it once to have a meal one evening and I came across this very strange Polish man, a Berliner. He lived in Berlin and I was a little frightened to see him but he insisted on meeting me. One evening when we met in the bar he got a little bit drunk and started asking me about communism.
“I think it stinks” I said, “it's foul.”
“What do you mean it's foul” he shouted back at me, “here we are very close to the communist wall and we've got to cope with it, we've got to make up the understanding, even mutual understanding.”
I simply put down my beer on the counter and I left the pub, and I haven't seen him since.I would often walk along the streets in Berlin, and reminisce about the bombing. I was grateful now to just be enjoying life. One grey afternoon as I was walking near my hotel in Korfostiendam, I suddenly realised that a certain house on the corner reminded me of something. I walked over to it and through the main gate into the courtyard. As I was in the courtyard I realised that this was the same house, the same courtyard in which I had been sheltered during the allied bombing during the war.I was just standing there, looking very carefully at the upper windows. It looked to me as though the house had been rebuilt completely. An old German woman carrying a shopping basket came up to me.
“What are you doing here?” she asked me in German.
“Nothing special” I replied.
“Funny” she said, “because Berlin is the kind of city where you come across people who suddenly stare at houses or windows, and I just wonder, because these people usually have been in Berlin during the war. Have you been here before by any chance? There was something in your face that made me stop and ask you this question.” She sounded very friendly.
“Yes” I said, “I have been here during the allied bombing, in this courtyard.”
“Have you met anyone here?”
“Yes, a woman whose name was Annie or Anhian.”
The woman nodded.
“Yes, she was the servant to the dentist who used to live on the fifth floor.”
“That's right.” I said, amazed that I had found this place again after so long.
The old lady called upstairs: “Annie, Anhian.”
A woman appeared in the window.
“What do you want?”
“There's somebody here who wants to talk to you.”
“Well, ask him to wait.”
She came down after a little while, and I couldn’t believe it - this was my Anhian. She was very very moved, and very pleased to see me as I was to see her again. She told me she now had her own little apartment with her son who lives most of the time in Munich. She is an old woman now but I had to ask her: “Are you free?”
“Yes” she said, “I am free.”
So we went on to Korfostiendam and to a café. We had a long talk. She told me that after I left, the police started interrogating her. They interrogated her in her cellar for a few hours, but finally decided not to arrest her. She told me then she often wondered what became of me. She remembered the night we met and she remembered my appearance.
“I'm so terribly happy that you are alive.”
I told her that I was glad she had survived as well. I told her what I was doing now and why I was here, that I was filming and that I was staying in an hotel. I asked her for her telephone number.
“Can I invite you to dinner in the restaurant Anhian” I made reference to her number, “I will call you.”
So I rang her up, and we had dinner together. She was a very dignified little lady, rather pugnacious. I remember we both had tears in our eyes as we remembered together the horrors we had both gone through. She said that after the war she decided not to remarry, and her second son (I didn't know that she had two sons), also came back from the war. To cut a long story short, what was the significance? - well, after I said goodbye to her, she walked away from the restaurant to where she lived. She suddenly stopped and turned and said: “Listen, I wanted to tell you that you did make a mistake.”
“What mistake?” I asked, puzzled.
“That courtyard that you walked into a few days ago and you thought it was the one we were in - well it wasn’t ours. Ours was the next courtyard.”
“What was the significance?” I asked.
“The significance is that you were still in the wrong courtyard and you were thinking about me and what happened in the war, yet we were still able to meet each other again.”
“Why didn't you tell me right away, from the beginning?”
“I felt a little bit embarrassed, I don't know because you confused it, and anyway I thought it's fate again. You confused the courtyards. When it was bombed everything looked the same. Now your intuition was leading you into the right direction, into the wrong courtyard and yet we met again.”
Well we saw each other a few more times after that, and once when I was in London she telephoned me and told me she would be in Munich soon and would send me her address there, but she didn’t and I never saw or heard of my Anhian again. I later came across somebody who told me that she died of cancer or something like that - I can't remember now, but again I thought this was one of those incredible stories that happens in one's life. I wanted to emphasise the fact that my story is not an unusual one for Polish people. My story wouldn't even make the news in Poland, because almost everybody went through something like that or even worse - much worse than I went through. We would be bored in Poland to listen to these stories, because everybody in Poland had a story to tell. So there is nothing unusual or extraordinary in this story, and I never thought about myself in this respect. I very seldom spoke to my English friends about my past. Some of them knew fragments, but this is the very first time that I am really opening my soul and pouring out certain memories and certain pictures I can see engraved in colour - always in colour.
Now I must go back to the detention camp (in Pamienica), which was quite a big camp. It wasn't a concentration camp, it was a detention camp. The Germans were shifting people from all over the place but nobody knew where anyone else came from. Stories were being told of Auschwitz - in every camp there was gossip going on all the time, and there were always people who knew best. Then there were always people who didn't know anything, and there were always the ignorant, and the wise people. The stories were that some people were shifted to Auschwitz or some other concentration camps. They were of course always looking for Jews and we would all be closely inspected; even the private parts of men were inspected in this concentration camp. We had a bath again, and we had to wash our hair, and all bodily hair for lice. I was in a big room with quite comfortable bunks and even sheets, and we had blankets to cover ourselves. There were lots of people from Warsaw, and one of them was the kind of red haired man who was with me in Altvarb. I can't remember his name now; he was in his thirties I think. He was a very handsome man, a working class Polish man, and a man who was very much left wing, a communist. He was very much expressing his disagreement with the government and the conservative policies of the government before the war in Poland. For the first time I came across somebody who was criticising my Poland, and for the first time I made a mental note that what I thought was a paradise - was not a paradise for everybody else. He was a very poor working class man before the war in Poland, a young man; he must have been very young. One day, while we were coming back from having pieces of bread and food distributed to us, we had to queue. There were little streets between the barracks, lots of people and the conversation was in several languages. I came across this very strange French lady, she was plumpish, and how she had come to be in this concentration camp, only God knows why. I learned in Germany during the war that there were strange nationalities, strange people like Badolio (Italians) in this hospital, like the French woman, and some other instances which I can't recall at this very moment. This French woman clung to me because I spoke French. She spoke Polish a little bit. She said she had somehow found herself in several concentration camps, and I thought she was Jewish, but to this day I don't know. She was very talkative, and we had quite a lot of time together because we didn't work in this camp, so we were talking and talking. One day she brought this very nice young lady with her. This lady was very beautifully dressed for the concentration camp, (or detention) camp. She was wearing some kind of blue blazer, and she had a lovely face with a lovely smile. Her name was Janina. I remember that Janina started coming to our room quite often, and would sit on my bed. We would talk and chat, play cards and joke. I even remember that one day she felt a little bit cold, so she decided to get into my bed at the opposite end to me, so that she would be facing me.Sometimes in the evenings we could kiss each other in the alleyway. We would do it very furtively with great embarrassment. I was never surprised about the variety or possibilities of making love to each other in people's imagination, or even in realisation in physical facts. We really loved each other, and obviously we were longing to have sex together, but we contented ourselves with what we had.
One day I decided to contact somebody in Zgierz. Zgierz was a little town near Pagonita, and Zgierz, as you may or may not know, is the town in which I was born. My parents had lots and lots of friends there. In this camp, there was a woman not unlike the woman at the disused factory in Luc, who sold my belt to get me food. This lady was half-German and half-Polish, and again I looked up to her, (not looked at) because she was a kapo. This detention camp was not a real concentration camp - it was not like Altvarb or anything like that at all. I asked this woman if she would help me contact friends in Zgierz.
“What is the name?” she asked me, “and why would you want to contact them?”
“Because if this family is still living, they will bring me food” I told her.
She nodded and I told her the family's name was Ortchuvski. So she wrote it down, and then within two days she told me she had contacted them, and that they would arrive the following day to visit, and they would bring a food parcel. Then this Mrs Ortchuvski, who was a friend of my parents and her daughter arrived. They brought lovely things to eat - meat, ham, bread and honey. Although we were all allowed to get these parcels from outside, I was the only one. I think it was because no one else knew anyone on the outside. I would share food with the French lady (I can't remember her name now; it will come back to my mind one day). So I was kind of feeding my two ladies. She spoke French with me all the time like that, she was a little jealous I think - un petit jalou, parle Francais comme ci comme sa, tous tendent avec moi. Then I had these visitors three or four times - Mrs Ortchuvski and her daughter with a parcel. Then I conveyed to them one day that I would like to escape again. The spirit of escaping was so strong in me all the time, and I must say that in spite of being in the detention camp, I felt so comfortable there and so secure. I had Mrs Ortchuvski and her daughter coming to visit me with the parcels. I had this French lady whom I liked very much, and there was also a red haired working class man there, who became a friend while I was in the camp. He would listen to my stories and to my speaking French and he would say: “You see, you were lucky because you were educated and I wasn't educated.” Then one day I told Mr and Mrs Ortchuvski that I really had to escape.
“You’ve got to help me” I said. So they started thinking how it could be done, and the following week they came back. They told me that they had very good information from inside occupied Poland (because they still had contact with the Polish resistance front) - although it was Reich, I mean Germany - not occupied, but the Germans proclaimed this part as such. The Ortchuvski’s were Polish and were very underprivileged, but they had contact with the resistance army, and they knew that we were all going to be sent to Krakow. I asked if we were going to be sent to Plasov [Plasov was the very strong and very much feared concentration camp near Krakow]. Like some people become the stars and some people could be much better artists and they are never stars, the same thing was with concentration camps. Auschwitz was a star concentration camp. Everybody nowadays, if you mention the word Auschwitz, knows about it, but nobody knows the existence of this concentration camp near Krakow, which was called Plasov.
Plasov was very much feared. There were many Polish people there, lots of Jewish people, Ukrainian people, and gypsies. There was quite a large concentration of gypsies around Krakow. Lots of people were exterminated, gassed and killed in Plasov. It was a very fearful concentration camp. I asked if we were going to be sent to Plasov, but people just didn’t know. I was told that we would probably go to Krakow, and from there we would be sorted into groups and taken to one of several places in Germany where we would be put to work with the local peasants, or whatever. Eventually people would be set free. I decided I would not escape this time. I decided instead, to be taken by the Germans, to wherever it was we were going.Our journey was again by train, and it was terribly cold. I remember it very well because it was just before Christmas Eve. We were sitting hugging each other in the compartments, absolutely frozen to death in this train struggling along through this countryside, full of snow near Krakow. I hadn’t told Janina, or the French lady that I still planned an escape. I wanted to be as near as possible to Krakow and as near as possible to my aunt Lula - (my father's sister who lived in Shuski Street in Krakow) and I knew exactly how to find her residence - before I did anything. Finally, we arrived in Krakow on Christmas Eve. In spite of the Russian front being very near, and in spite of this very grim occupation of people in Poland, Christmas Eve is Christmas Eve. People tried to buy presents.
During the occupation, people would still do the Christmas tree especially during the war, it was very much more observed. It was uniting families together, and uniting families in hope together. We were taken off the train, and into the hall of the huge central railway station in Krakow. There were about 200 people there, and we were pushed into one corner of the room, and guarded by around fifteen or twenty Germans. These Germans would stand there looking around them at people outside our group, the free people, the Polish people who were rushing and running across the station to the trains, some with parcels, some with preparations to be made for Christmas Eve. It was already three or four o'clock in the afternoon, and it was already getting dark. Suddenly as we were waiting for the lorries to come and perhaps to take us to Plasov, I did something incredible. I decided to just walk out of the railway station - as simple as that. I left Janina and the French lady behind; I didn't even say goodbye to them. They didn't realise (even I didn't realise) what I was doing. I decided only to speak in German with no accent whatsoever, and it was a moment of surprise to me - just as it was to one of these German guards. I just came up to him; he was not facing me. He was facing the main hall with his back to me, so he didn’t see that I simply walked away from the prisoners group.
“Enschrugen zie” I said to him.
He looked at me surprised and I said: “Dateine zie.” Both phrases mean 'Please, I beg your pardon.' Completely taken aback he said to me: “Bitte" - 'Yes please.'
I passed him, and walked into the crowd of people. Mentally, I dived into the crowds, like when I was in that big plain in Warsaw with the Gestapo officer - when he said to me: “You're free.” I dived into the crowds, and I wanted to diminish myself to a speck, to nothing, to a poppy seed, a tiny little spot. In my mind I felt the machine gun in my back, but I didn't look back and I was pushing myself gently through the crowd to the main entrance onto the street, onto the back street and then I started walking very fast - and faster and faster and faster.Finally I reached Shuski Street, and I saw my aunt's house. I walked onto the first or second floor and I rang the bell. I heard footsteps inside the apartment and the door opened. It was my father. I couldn't believe it, because the last time I saw my father was in the cellar during the Warsaw uprising. He had been dying, yet here he was - alive! The moment was so poignant, so moving, so pregnant with everything and anything to human beings loving each other. There was not a word uttered, except that he said: ”Please do come in.” So in I went and sat in the first room we came to - the dining room. My father sat next to me and he only touched my hand.
“Where is mother?” I asked, fearing that my father would tell me she was dead, but instead he told me that she was in the church.
“She is all the time in the church praying to God so that you will come back safely, and your brother as well.”
Within two minutes my mother opened the door and with a kind of madness in her eyes, she said: “I heard that Vladek is here, I had a feeling as I was praying in front of Jesus Christ, Mother, the statue in the Church - Kreminski church. I would say to her everyday: ‘You see you've got your child in your arms, and where is my child … where are my two children?’ - your brother as well, he was in a German war camp - and suddenly you are here.”
She wanted to know how I got there, and so I told her that I had escaped from the station, because we were prisoners transported to Krakow.
“My God” my mother said, “we are being registered here, because we had to be registered from Warsaw under our name, you under your name, yes Sheybal.” She told me that the Gestapo would be there soon, and that I must hide again. Immediately she telephoned next door where a friend of my father was living, the professor of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. A lady named Hanka. My mother spoke only a few words and after she had arranged things she took me out with my father, and we all went next door onto the top floor. Hanka had a big studio and she said with open arms: “Welcome, now you are going to have a hot bath, and you are going to stay here.”
“You must go, and you must go to bed and rest” my mother and father said, and then they went back downstairs. I had a hot bath and I felt so happy and so safe and so secure, but then I started feeling fever coming over me, the power of a fever taking me completely over. When I finished the bath I almost fainted. Hanka led me to the bed, and I lay down and fell asleep. Within one hour of laying down I sort of half woke up again. I had a very high temperature, and all my joints were inflamed. It seemed like every joint in my hands, legs, and knees were inflamed and swollen; the skin was red and terribly terribly painful. I was in pain. I showed her and told her what was happening. She said: “Well darling, this is the reaction, now you feel safe, you can indulge in being ill. Before, you had to brace yourself inside, you had to fight any sign of illness coming.”
Then I lost consciousness. I was unconscious for at least twenty-four hours. When I came round a doctor was there; my parents had asked the doctor to come. My temperature was subsiding after two or three days of eating better and lying in this bed. I felt much better and the swellings were subsiding, and so was the pain. I was taking some pills, some powders - I don't know what they were, just that they were some kind of seed I remember. The doctor had said I’d had a kind of rheumatic inflammation of all the joints, caused by deterioration during the concentration camp period, with lack of proper diet and my nerves being raw all the time. Then my mother told me that I would have to move again because it was too dangerous to be there, she was also afraid that the house was being watched. So they took me out of the house to the Hankavutska studio, and about half an hour after they did that, the Gestapo arrived! My father told me later that when the Gestapo arrived, my mother acted beautifully. When they mentioned my name and asked her where I was, she started shouting: “He has run out. He is free. I am so happy.” She wasn’t answering their questions, but she acted as though she was only now learning of my escape from the concentration camp, and that wherever I was, I was alive, I was free. She told them she was so grateful to them to let her know that I am alive - somewhere.
They believed her, and after a while they left.
Once the coast was clear, my family came to the Hankavutska studio.
“Everything is so late now,” my mother said to me, “you are going to go to hospital, and you are going to be under a false name.”
We the Poles, during the German occupation were fantastically organised. All of the doctors in the hospital were alerted to my arrival, and the Red Cross transported me there, to the centre of Krakow. I was swathed in bandages over the whole of my body. First of all I was still swollen, and secondly the purpose was to cover up my face as much as possible. I can't remember now what name I used because I had had so many names during the war. Names changed so many times and so did the names of my family as well. I am completely confused with all these names! Once in hospital, I stayed in a ward with about 20 really sick people. My mother would come to see me, and my doctor who was a friend of my parents, also came to see me; they came every morning. None of these sick people in my ward knew the real reason I was there, and that I wasn't really sick. I was only covered up with bandages, because I was in hiding. It was very cold, and outside there were terrific frosts and snow on the trees, so I think perhaps it was January. Around that time we could hear the sounds of the artillery confronting the Russian army. The fighting was getting closer and closer, and I was hoping then that the Russians would liberate us. Later on, when they allowed communism to flourish they showed their absolutely evil, and their devilish-like manipulation of human beings. However, at this point we were waiting for them to come because we were waiting for the Germans to go. My mother still came every day and fed me. My father though was very weak, but he managed to come to see me. He told me not to worry, as the Russians would be there in a few days time, so if the Germans didn't kill anybody or dynamite the hospital (like sometimes they were doing before leaving), then I would be safe! I was waiting for this moment to come and as I learned in the war, the front would be constantly changing hands. Now, there were Russians, then there were Germans. As you have already previously read, during the Warsaw uprising, I was suddenly caught by the Germans on the street (and I thought I was on the street with the Polish people). Everything happens so quickly that you don't even realise that you are in German hands, and suddenly a split second afterwards you are in Russian hands, and that’s how it happened now. One morning about 10 o'clock, one of the really sick men in the ward walked to the window in his dressing gown. He stood there for a few moments and then he said: “We have friends, I can't believe it, there are already Russian tanks on the streets.” Almost all of these sick men who could walk, put on the dressing gowns, and rushed to the windows and I heard them shouting: “Jesze Russians. We are free. We are free from the Germans. Look there are Russians on the street, Russians are walking here on the street.” I sat up in bed and started undoing all of my bandages, unwinding myself. One by one all of the other men turned and looked at me with surprise and astonishment.
“What are you doing?” they asked.
“Well, I'm undoing my bandages.”
They were puzzled, but they asked me what I wanted to do and I asked them to call a nurse for me. When the nurse arrived I asked her to bring my suit, and then I got dressed.
They all looked at me with dropped jaws, not believing what they saw.
“So you were not sick?”
“Well, half sick” I said, “but I'm all right now.”
“Where are you going?”
“Home, to my parents” I said, and that was it. That was how the 'liberation' by the Russians started. That was how I finally regained my freedom, at least for the time being, before I started feeling depression from the inhuman pressure of communism. I was feeling much better with my parents, with my mother and father looking after me.
Of course, when the Russian Army arrived so did the Polish theatre, and I went there one morning while they were rehearsing a very famous Polish play, forgive me but I cannot recall the title. I saw a few of my professors there, young Kretsma and Visikovski. These were the professors from the drama school which I had attended during the occupation, and that's how I started working my way up in theatres, playing tiny little parts and slowly, little by little, I became a star in Poland a few years later. On television I saw an interview with Terry Wogan who was interviewing Eva Kapor [sic] from Hollywood. She was of Hungarian extraction - an extremely beautiful lady - the sister of the famous Zsa Zsa Gabor. The three sisters Gabor came from Hungary to Hollywood, and made for themselves huge careers in the film industry. I watched the interview in its entirety, and I remember thinking what a beautiful woman she was, and how she was ready to answer every question to soothe him, Terry Wogan, to flirt with him and with the audience as well - all in the very kind of languid sexy, but not too vulgar fashion, I just thought she was lovely. Here I was, looking with incredible astonishment at her, and thinking that she has got this unbelievable built-in sense of professionalism. She developed a profession of womanhood. Her being a woman is her profession - I'm not suggesting anything else - I'm suggesting her being a woman is the most fantastic, fascinating profession. As I was watching this interview, I saw she was beautifully groomed, and her hair was beautifully combed, fantastically laid out. Her shoes were beautiful and accentuated her legs perfectly, everything was so unobtrusive, so within the frame of perfect respectability. Then I remembered that three weeks earlier I had seen the great Barbara Cartland interviewed, but I cannot recall the interviewer. Barbara Cartland was another, another ready-to-kill lady. I remember that she wore an incredible organza pink dress or perhaps it was some kind of light velour. It was beautiful, glittering, it was 'at the ready' - she was 'at the ready' and she had this immaculate hairstyle with immaculate make up. She was talking about love - that's what people need - romantic love, and she is known for writing in her books about romantic love. She sat like a queen, and she is related to the queen - through Princess Diana (we know all about that). She knew best and she knew which kind of book to write and indeed she was a great success. Once, I knew she had been at a function with other writers and had been heard to say: “Gentlemen, you are all fantastic, fantastic writers. I am not a writer, but I am a success.”
Her books are translated into dozens of languages and she's got millions. How can you fight that? But at the same time I thought there was something very hard in her - something that she was trying to cover up with her smile, perhaps covering up her novels, her writing. In this profession of show business, you can't become successful, and I mean really successful and sustain it for so many years for a whole generation, without being hard. A hard person, either a woman or a man, without being able and capable, without any remorse to push unwanted people - people who might obstruct your way or even obstruct you, just push them gently down and away from you. Then I wondered how Barbara Cartland or Eva Gabor would relate to the concentration camp. I do admire Eva Gabor and Barbara Cartland. I think I prefer Eva Gabor, but still the comparisons are inevitable. Because my women from time, from my country and from the time of the war and the concentration camp were embodying femininity and womanhood; oozing beauty and fantastic sex appeal, but in a completely different way.
Janina found me again. Somehow she found my address and we started seeing each other. She had decided to become a teacher, and she went to a little town to teach children in the school. She would come to Krakow or I would go there to this little town, but I can't remember the name - I was only there once. Now that we were free and able to make love freely, we didn’t. Somehow there was something in her that told me that our love was of a different kind. Our love was much more, our love was friendship, our love was the touch of hands, our love was the greatest of joys, of being able to survive together a concentration camp. Our love was tremendous understanding and support, and our love was an eternal promise that whatever happened to either one of us then the other would support, and carry the burden. Then, one day I found that the tuberculosis, which she had suffered before the concentration camp, had recurred. She never told me that she loved me, but her eyes, her incredibly beautiful eyes were suggesting it all the time. Her pupils were filled with me. She told me simply one day that she was sick, my poor girl. The disease had left scarring in her lungs, but it had healed and now it had again become active. She told me she was having treatment and has to look after herself very well, she needed to eat well and have plenty of rest. She told me not to worry, but she needed me to know the truth. I felt this very great tenderness towards her and insisted we see each other more often.She stopped inviting me to this little town where she was still teaching in the school. She didn't want me to be with her at this time, she had her own rhythm, her own vibration, her own kind of wavelengths, or waves. I had to follow it, I felt it intuitively. Some time later, she came to visit me. She did not want me to go to her - perhaps she was afraid to show me that she lived rather poorly - I don't know. She didn’t say that this would be the last time we would see each other but there was some kind of concentration of her life. Her fate which she couldn't help, was gathering momentum above her personality, above her inner life, taking it over, taking her over. She was sort of swimming on the wave already, although she was standing next to me and there was this incredible gentle sadness and slight tremor, a quiver in her eyes and in her heart.Finally, she said: “Well, darling I must go back. I must catch my train” and we went to the station. She got on the train, and again I felt this quiver, this tremor coming out from the whole of her body and especially being concentrated in this sadness - immense gentle sadness in her very beautiful green eyes. And that was it. She wrote me a few letters after that, telling me that she didn’t feel very well. She would beg me not come. Instead she would say: “Well, in two months time, or in three weeks time I will feel better and I will look better, and you will see me.” I would write back to her and then one day the letters stopped coming. I didn't go to find out what had happened; I felt that she wanted it that way. She wanted this, our relationship to dissolve in this way without any shocks, without seeing each other in the coffin, or being in the cemetery during the funeral or saying goodbye, or crying. She wanted it to happen this way, to die in a very natural and sad way. A sad way filled with love and understanding, there you are. Where is Eva Gabor? Where is Barbara Cartland?
Another very important woman in my life was always my mother. This is another example of this incredible form of womanhood. My mother was born a mother, she was mother in everything that she did. She was mother in all shades of relationships towards people, towards my father, towards me, towards my brother, towards my sister. She came to London to visit me after the war and the first thing she would do, would be to come down to the kitchen because she would have to cook for me, because I needed mother's food. There on this plate she was putting in front of me, was the whole of her heart - her love, a mother's love. My mother never did anything for herself. All of her life she would only think about other people, and how to do things for other people. She would never ever do anything for her own gratification or for her own reward. It was quite obvious to her that she had to give; she didn't demand anything and she didn't ask anything in return. My mother told me just in a very simple way the story that happened to her and my father when he was dying in the cellar in Warsaw. I left my father for dead the last time I saw him. His tongue was already without any muscle power - it was hanging out of his mouth and he had complete dehydration and that's how I left them there. Of course it was a great surprise to me, and joy and happiness that my father was alive and my mother as well.My mother told me her story. When the uprising ended two weeks after I was caught by the Germans, the whole of Warsaw was in ruins. The whole city did not exist at all. One million people died in 63 days. The whole of Warsaw died, and my mother heard the Germans telling everybody through loudspeakers, that all citizens of Warsaw must leave within 24 hours, otherwise they would be shot and burned in the cellars.My father couldn't walk. I thought he was dying, but he was still alive. My mother found a wooden plank and she knew that no-one would help her, so here was this frail woman putting my father onto this plank of wood, she found some rope and put it around his body, roping him to the plank. She put the other end of the rope around her neck and pulled my father out of the burning Warsaw - up through the mountains and down the valley of Rago. Warsaw was burning - some times so hot that it would burn the body. My mother had to pull my father out like that for several miles, until she reached the outskirts of Warsaw. Then they went to the same detention camp where I had been until finally, thanks to my mother knowing German, and being able to bribe a German officer with a few roubles, she got my father out. Then she telephoned my aunt Lula for help, and my aunt immediately arranged for a doctor from the Red Cross to come and see my father. The doctor arrived by ambulance, and he went with my father in the ambulance to hospital in Krakow. Shortly after my father was settled into hospital, all of his friends, all the painters, professors of the university and Academy of Fine Arts all concentrated their efforts to save his life. For about two weeks my father was on a drip to nourish him as he was very weak, too weak to eat. Thankfully soon afterwards he was able to eat light meals, and eventually he became stronger, and that is how he came back to life. Now I’d like to go back to this incredible scene with my mother pulling my father out of the rubble. I was always imagining my mother pulling my father behind her on the plank with the rope around her neck. I remember talking to her about it.
“It must have been terribly heavy?”
“Yes, it was darling” mother replied, “it was very very heavy.”
My father was a small man, but when he was so sick he was very heavy. I suppose that bodies are heavier when one is sick, or dead. My mother knew all about that as she had seen many people die during the war, perhaps some had died in her arms, who knows?
“But how did you manage this physical strength to pull him out?” I asked.
“Oh well, I doubted once that I shall never leave him, but I couldn't leave him. I had to do it. In order to gather some strength I was just singing sounds. I was singing Church songs, and praying loudly; and that's how I pulled your father out of the flames and out of Warsaw to safety, and he is alive and we are together. We always will be together - until death do us part.”Well, it's an apocalyptic scene. I could imagine everything going on around her, people staring, and here was this woman pulling a wooden plank behind her on a rope.It impressed me so much that I even wrote her a poem: I called it “Vanessa.” I’ll let you read it in a little while.
I remember that I once read a book written by a Professor Herschfield, who was a famous Polish Jew and a very wise man; a great professor who was proud to be Polish, and who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, helped by the Polish people. He wrote all about it and the Polish people with a tremendous tenderness and gratefulness, and about several people in particular who had helped him in his time in the ghetto; when he was hiding in the forest during the uprising. Somehow, I felt positive about his personality and I felt very positive towards this book and towards the story of his life, towards his great wisdom and personality. But I couldn't help thinking that there was something in the Jewish mentality that I would never understand, and will never comprehend, because when it comes to the point in which he starts writing about the ghetto, he becomes Jewish, and he is not Polish anymore. Finally when he is in the forest and he talks about the Warsaw uprising, and Warsaw being burned, he sees it from the forest. He doesn't even cry. He just takes it for granted that there was a Warsaw uprising and that the Poles fought. To him the most important time was the last moment of the ghetto uprising - not the Polish uprising. This is so transparent that he can't hide it.
Now here is the poem which the Warsaw uprising and my mother and my father inspired me to write:
By Vladek Sheybal
It was a stupendous view. All was happening like it would in a fantastic film, right on cue.
All houses were burning, the whole town, all in flames, all at the same red and hot
Was it not?
Piles of ashes all around and the ashes were red hot too - it's true - true.
And the people as well I think were red or not. One tends to forget, so quickly to forget.
Perhaps the people were all lost, lost, lost. Lost somewhere among all ashes,
so red and hot, red hot.
Between the houses there were patches of rubble, huge patches of rubble,
rubble, mountains of rubble. Would you be able to climb them
up and down again and again? To climb them to save your life?
Away from the stairs down would you be able? Red red, up up, red, down down.
Up and down, up and down to save your life - outside this accursed town,
Would you be able?
Now who is touching the ground? The ground was touching the cloud
Up and down red piles, ashes to ashes, around. he cloud was touching the ground.
The ground was touching the cloud. Unit of all elements devouring the
town - people and themselves, and into consideration that the town was
immense - immense - immense.
It was strange that somehow one couldn't see a soul around - nobody. Empty.
Roaring flames and wind a-crackle of crackling coal, but somehow one couldn’t see a soul.
There was this huge silence. No people at all, immense fuel of flames. That's all - all.
But you see there was an old woman there. She appeared from a house half burned.
I mean the house was half burned, not her. Thank God, not her. No, she was alive!
And around this neck was a rope tied very tightly to her neck, around her neck.
The woman was constantly looking back, for behind her she was pulling a plank on this rope.
A simple wooden plank and the rope from her neck was attached to it behind her back.
A man was lying on this plank, tied up to it. The man was also old. He seemed half dead.
Perhaps he was dead, or maybe he was just wounded. He slightly bled.
Anyway she was pulling her man through all this smoke.
All those dense black clouds, out and out, up and down,
out and out, out of the flames, away from the burning house.
Actually the house was already croaking, cracking, cringling,
falling and crumbling so she had to pull her man fast.
Her dry lips were mumbling.Desperately they were mumbling.
She had to step so carefully on all those bricks and piles of stones.
They all used to be some people's homes, some people's homes.
It was so long ago that I simply can't remember it all. So this rope was cutting into her neck
as she was pulling her treasure behind her back. Her white hair was also red or grey.
Yes, it seemed to look red at the time. Grey and red, strange.
Grey in this red light. She was small, she was frail, but believe me,
she was managing ok.
Now I remember she was singing a song, a prayer. Perhaps a psalm.
Something to give her weakness a little more strength, perhaps calm.
She was singing like this:
“Hey, hey oh people why do you do it, why? Hey hey oh people don't do it again.
You see, you see he is my treasure, my man. And I once vowed to him, I am his, he is mine.
I have to give him back to life. I vowed I would never leave him alone.
Where I go he goes. Where he goes, I go, but we've lost our home.
Hey hey oh people why do you do it all? Hey hey oh people, when will it end - at all?”
All this happened some years ago, the time passes so quickly by and this story is all true.
What I mean is that I don't lie. Anyway this old woman pulled her man out of the burning town.
She saved his life. They both lived. They are still alive. They settled down.
As a matter of fact they are both living here.
London is their new home town. And you know where they live in London?
Listen to me my friends, it is too funny for words, but of all places,
and we know that London is immense. So of all places they live in a district
which is called World's End.As far as I remember it, it is London SW10.
They are now both very old indeed. They are slow, timid, fatigued, but they get on.
They live, they read. She sometimes knits, he sometimes thinks.
They eat, they walk sometimes, they both like drinking tea.
Believe me she was always making tea.
One day this woman with her man, with her treasure went
to Trafalgar Square just for a walk, for pleasure.
A young blonde woman was speaking from the platform. “Hi.”
She was standing like an angel appearing straight from the sky.
She looked like a dream, she was radiant, clean. Yes, she looked secure, but clean.
Beautiful she was, and so clean. Her eyes were blue or perhaps they just looked clear and blue.
It's all true. Anyhow she was speaking against something strange.
She was full of revenge.Full of hatred and vengeance and the revenge was this blonde angel.
How strange - angel, hate and revenge.
She was protesting against something. She was protesting.
People were turning around her - silent, pensive, interested.
They also looked all groomed and clean.
Yelling to the people that their lives are dead and bad.
They are cheated, they are beaten. They can't plan their lives ahead.
They live like scum, exploited, they are. They live in dirt, the country's bad.
There is no future for them instead. There's even more dirt, slump and poverty for them instead.
They have no freedom, they live like in prison. Their country's prison - prison, prison.
There is no happiness here at all. They should go to the East, where people live
in happiness and bliss. Bliss and the East. The gist of it was that in the East, that there
in the East, she said, freedom and happiness exist.
Our old woman looked at her man. He looked at her. He looked so sad.
They went back home and they sat in their tiny room they sat. He started reading.
She started thinking. Then she got up to make tea.
She was very good at making tea - you see.
After the tea, she started to knit and as she was knitting she sang like this.
“Hey hey Vanessa, why do you do it all? Hey hey Vanessa, what do you know?
Because in wealth and sheltered bliss and warmth - no hunger, no cold - health.
Hey hey Vanessa, we can tell you all. In the East freedom does not exist
and there is dirt and slavery. There is.
We went through the burning town. They burned it all down.
They burned it once, they burned it a second time,
they would burn it three times and even a hundred times too,
if they knew that there are still people who want to live free - true.
Lady Vanessa your eyes are so blue. Why don't you come to us one day.
You can learn from us the truth. I believe you have a beautiful comfortable life
at home and another one somewhere, and another one in Rome.
But why don't you come round one day to our modest room,
to have with us some tea - at half past three? You see I can make delicious tea.
We are happy here and free to make our lovely tea.
When you come round Vanessa at half past three.
Come, I promise I'll make you delicious tea.”
© Vladek Sheybal
I was hesitating. I was thinking. I felt nervous and inadequate. I couldn't write my autobiography. I couldn't write it because I didn't know how. I felt lost. How to begin? I felt I didn't have the vital clues to the real reasons, causes, motivations, which planted me so deeply in acting; and acting after all, had become the sole quintessence of my life. But why? Why? I knew that I started acting very early in my childhood, but as I tried to put together all the pieces of this puzzle, they finally didn't fit. There was a block,. some powerful block deep inside my mind and soul which was saying: “Don't delve too deeply in your childhood. You might find out something you wouldn't like. Something that would frighten you. Something that might create deep wounds which wouldn't heal.” The Americans go to psychiatrists or psychoanalysts, and they do the job for them. We all know that everything begins in childhood. Yet, life conditions us to be blind and deaf to all those early traumas, and life has to go on. We become self-indoctrinated. We feel things and we know that something doesn't click, that something is wrong, but we push it away ... we dispose of it as if it were some invisible dirty substance; we don't want to know it. I knew that I had to do my own psychoanalysis before writing my autobiography - but how? I tried again to put ‘the beads’ on the string but there were still missing links in this chain. Then something uncanny happened in my life. Funny, but through the whole of my life I always depended on the powers of fate, or on some weird coincidences which were bringing surprising discoveries, even revelation, and this time it happened just in the same way; my usual pattern of coincidence. After many many years, my brother who is older than me, decided to come and visit me in London. I didn't know then that this fact would become a vital material and profound clue in my self-analysis. It was when I suddenly remembered what my mother told me once when she had visited me in London. My brother, at the tender age of three, liked nestling himself on her lap; especially between her warm thighs. One day my mother's stomach started growing with something hard moving and strange inside her, and started pushing my brother away from his favourite position. He was becoming more and more annoyed facing this new and unexplained situation. Surely there was something somebody there inside my mother's stomach. One day he had enough of it. He jumped up and wanted to box this intruder. Then my mother gently took him off her lap and never allowed him to get into this - his - position again. My brother was throwing tantrums, rebelling and crying. He felt deeply unhappy and hurt. He would not hear anymore the soothing rhythm of the ‘music’ of his mother's heart; a sort of zoom - zoom - zoom as her blood went round and round. In these visions I was inside my mother's womb. I was seeing through her skin, the orangey-yellow glow from outside her skin, and I suddenly realised that my own paintings are full of orange and yellow because it must have reminded me of the peace and security of her womb, which obviously I don’t experience anymore; the paradise lost for ever. Suffice it to say that my brother and I were never close.
In my school there was a little theatre; it came to me at the right time and I started playing in all school plays. It saved my life as I started turning into somebody else. What a relief: That's why I became an actor. I should be grateful to my brother as he inadvertently pushed me into it, and I stopped needing him. Consequently, as far as acting is concerned I feel proud that I belong to this incredible race. We are the troupers. We don't need any nationalities. We all should have ‘Actor’ written in our passports as our Nationality.It helped me greatly by becoming a regular actor, and by getting into the skin of my stage characters and thus forgetting my own life and Poland, which I never felt was my country. I know for certain that all those years in Poland, up until my flight to the West in 1957, was just a mere stagnant existence. The war years were traumatic, but perhaps due to having no other choice but to live through the dangers and tragedies, my personal sensitivity had become diminished. I simply put the war outside me. Living under the bombs during the Warsaw uprising, then my tragic time in a German camp, then my escape from it, which sounds a terribly heroic and brave deed to do, yet it had nothing to do with being brave; I was never brave at all. God invented an invisible camera above me, and I was simply ‘filming’ my ‘film.’ It became the total saving factor. The mantra that: ‘The show must go on’ had already had become the most important driving force within me. All actors know that a high temperature, flu, pains, toothache, etc, all disappear during acting on the stage, or in front of the camera. After the war during the ridiculous period of communism, I was already ‘drowned’ in the theatre, and I was then only waiting for the first opportunity to leave Poland. I never was capable of adapting myself to all those Polish patriotic indoctrinations, to those masochistic feelings of martyrdom; and for me it was all a waste of time. When I crossed the border to the West in 1957 I already knew it was a moment I was waiting for all my life. I knew I would never go back, and I didn't.
In recent months some very significant things happened in my life. I was invited to dinner at my friends, the Batchelor's in London. There was nothing strange about this as I have been invited to their dinners over a period of years. One of the dinners in particular I liked very much, and I will expand on this later. The Batchelor's are a unique family with their own very special brand of magic, and I always felt very much at home there. The actual atmosphere and background of this family, freedom of expression, total acceptance of your personality, relaxed smiles, heaps of warmth, excellent food and wines were like the soothing touch of real friendship. It reminds me so much of the atmosphere of my parent's home in my childhood. My father was a professor of the history of art, and we were surrounded by all sorts of intellectuals, artists and strange individuals who even appeared when not invited. Food was also excellent and in profusion. There would be lots of vodka and wines, talks and discussions, and even a song or opera, the arias were sung by my mother's sister (who was an opera singer and whom I adored). When she was performing professionally, she would take me to her dressing rooms, and then to back stage where I would watch her on the stage in action. I believe that the magic, the smells and sounds of the theatre started to interest and influence me at that young age, and no doubt led me to become an actor myself. Of course at a certain point of the dinner, and to our great chagrin, my father would give us the children, a significant look. That meant we had to say goodnight and go to our bedrooms upstairs. Ellie Batchelor is the widow of the famous English journalist Denzyl Batchelor. He was supposed to be full of wit and an exceptionally colourful raconteur; a personality larger than life. Unfortunately I arrived into the Batchelor's lives after Denzyl's death and so never had the opportunity to meet him.Ellie had two sons; David who is a writer, and Christopher (I never knew exactly what he was doing). The boys were married and eventually had children of their own, then grandchildren, but I eventually lost count of their numbers and whereabouts, births, divorces etc of all the members of this fascinating family. At this particular dinner there were only Ellie, David and Christopher, then myself and another guest and friend of the family: the wife of the famous English actor Anthony Hopkins. An intimate dinner one could say. Some extraordinary thing developed as the dinner progressed. David and Christopher, as usual, were trying to top each other in wit, versatility of words, moods and facetious remarks. They were talking very fast and in half sentences, which were always started by one and half way through handed over to be finished by the other - just like the Beverley Sisters, but the Beverley Sisters divided their sentences in four parts, each of them taking over from the previous sister and then handing it to the next one and so on. Like a never ending sparkling family chain - I have seen people like this before; they must be a mysterious extension of each other. I always thought that David and Christopher should have been twins as they behaved like twins do; as one body, mind and voice, but Christopher was a few years younger. So the bond had to be an uncanny invisible umbilical cord that held them in one piece. I drank a little bit too much wine at this particular dinner and afterwards I didn't like myself and my behaviour a bit.Anthony Hopkins used to ‘watch’ my acting classes at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. This was during the distinguished ‘principality’ of this school by John Fernall. John was graceful and wise, and he had around him an immense space of horizon. Years later Anthony and myself met at Pinewood Film Studios in a star studded film: ‘QB7.’ Also starring in the film was Lee Remick with her Modigliani-like long and slender neck and never ending legs. Then there was charming, fatherly Ben Gazzarra with his unique face, looking like his features had been chiselled from some dark marble. His father, an Italian, was still making his own wine in his wine cellar in Manhattan. There was also Leslie Caron, and I remember her constantly knitting something while waiting for her scenes. In films, most of the time is spent (or wasted) sitting in the studio, or in the dressing room and waiting. She would also talk non-stop and when she found I spoke fluent French she would tell me long stories about her family and about ruthless ‘Hollywood.’ She would insist that I must eat liver for breakfast: “Any liver - but every day of your life.” Her voice was very authoritative and she would stand no nonsense. When her children came out to be with her on the set they didn't utter a word in her presence. French Mama was taking court, and she would always introduce them to people emphasising their second name: Hall. They were Peter Hall's children.
Her knitting needles would click fast and in all directions, and it reminded me very much of those famous French ‘Tricouteuses’ who would knit while sitting around the Guillotine during the French Revolution, and watching the heads of the ‘mighties’ being chopped off. She would tell me: “Well thanks to the liver for my breakfast I survived years of my stardom in Hollywood, which you well know is hell.” She would knit now in Hollywood style - faster and more glamorously.
“Thanks to the liver” Leslie continued, “I look so well - see?” She would stop knitting and smooth her skin on her face with her slender fingers from chin up to her forehead, and here I refrain from my comments. As a matter of fact I saw her, years later on the street in Paris and I must admit that after so many years when we met in Pinewood she looked much better and younger then; I don't think it was due to the liver for breakfast though. While we were working on ‘QB7’ Anthony Hopkins came up to me one day, and said that after watching me working out a scene with my pupils at RADA (it was the entrance of Solyony in the second act in Three Sisters by Chekhov), he learned a number of things from me. First of all I made him aware how vitally important all ‘entrances’ and all ‘exits’ are on the stage. They have to build up the expectation of the development of the character. The audience must be always riveted by the entrances and exits. Anthony then smiled kindly and said rather timidly that he hoped I didn’t mind but he used ‘my entrance’ from my acting classes in his first entrance in his TV part as Andre in ‘War and Peace.’ I said I was delighted, I felt moved. I found it very generous of Anthony to tell me that. So, during that dinner at the Batchelor's we were chatting about a current Anthony success in the theatre in London in the very original play ‘Madame Butterfly.’
Anthony’s wife asked me if I had seen it and I told her no, I hadn’t - but I told her I knew the play as I’d seen it in New York. This part was a sort of discovery for me, I remember I had telephoned my agent immediately after I had seen it and told him that I badly wanted to play this part in London. Well, I didn't; Anthony plays it. Obviously I was too ‘small fry’ back then, and certainly not a West End name.
“Anthony by all means is a West End name and he is an excellent actor indeed” I said, “but he needs now a little ‘kick’ ... some fresh injection as I think he's becoming a bit predictable in his parts; even dull.” At this moment, I wanted to kick myself; alas I didn't. To make matters worse I went on: “Why does Anthony not contact me. I would be very happy to coach him, I mean to work with him on his future parts, free of charge.” I added. I didn't intend this to be overtly pretentious but unfortunately it did sound like that. Then again to my horror I heard my voice saying: “He was even too ... I mean he lacked the elements of surprises in his recent King Lear. Perhaps it has something to do with his method of working. He learns all his lines automatically before the first rehearsal of a play. You see this method might pre-empt the surprise element. This might block the freshness of discovering the character bit by bit during rehearsals, with his partners discovering their parts too.”
Silence prevailed. This is what I call my utter and total stupidity in life. I always speak out what I feel. I am not envious at all, but I feel I have a sort of ‘duty’ to be critical; constructively critical to improve the actor's performance. Just like I criticised my pupils in class, but in this case ‘my pupil’ happened to be a big star: Anthony Hopkins. Needless to say the consequences of this behaviour were sometimes disastrous for me. This ‘honest’ trait destroyed my working with some directors, or actors on a few occasions. I remember that Michael Caine had exactly the same trait. He would instruct actors around him how they should play their scenes, or their parts, for that matter. He would also be glad to give his remarks to the directors on how they should direct the film. He would do it in a very friendly and ‘as a matter of fact’ way with no anger or malice intended. It was just very friendly. The most amusing thing was that he almost always was right, and he was lucky to shoot up to his super stardom very fast. There wasn't enough time to squash him down to the ground for his behaviour. There is a certain code of behaviour and a certain collusion of the privileged in Hollywood and indeed in the whole of the film world. If you ignore this code you perpetrate a crime. Your career could be ruined for ever. It is a miracle (and I believe also it is the prayers of my dead beloved sister from up there) that in spite of my constantly and brutally kicking this code aside - I'm still here. But it is definitely one of many, many reasons that I have never become a star of Michael Caine’s magnitude. Though, as Ken Russell said to me recently: “You haven't done badly at all.”
Years later, I saw Anthony Hopkins in some more films. I thought he was an outstanding actor with quite an amazing technique. Technique? It is a weak and dangerous word in describing acting, almost a derogatory word. Technique in acting and dancing, should be invisible, almost shyly pushed away. When I was watching Celia Johnson recently in her part of an English ‘Raj’ lady still living in India, I was astounded. The variety of inflections, intonations, and subtexts were filling her speeches in all possible vibrant colours. The effortless lights of changing them almost every second. The richness of surprising elements falling like a smooth and fresh rain. She reached this bright mastery of acting. She was able to change her intonations two or three times in one single line, together with her pliable body changing its positions, and together with her inner feelings, gave her total charm in movement, feeling and intonation. To me. it was the ultimate effortless, invisible mastery of art. The same, almost arrogance Michelangelo must have had when he was painting his masterpieces; he must have ‘acted’ from inside and on through his arm, to his fingers, then to his brush to create his colours and compositions. Then I saw Anthony Hopkins in his recent film ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ He was tense, inflexible, he was using his usual ‘natural’ tricks. A piercing thought struck my brain; I discovered that in all his acting, everywhere, he was imitating me! I saw my eyes in his, my movements in his, my intonations in his. Now I understood it all - that's why he was afraid to contact me. He never will. After a long and rather embarrassing silence at Batchelor's table, David suddenly said: “Vladek, you must write your biography.”
I was astounded; why did he say that at this very moment? I felt defensive.
“Your life has been full of incredible experiences ... you mentioned once something about being in a German camp” David went on, “then all your experiences in the theatres, films ... all over the world and in Hollywood. Your knowledge of acting, directing ... you arrived in England thirty years ago not knowing anyone ... hardly speaking English ... and look how well you have done.”
“Rubbish. I've done nothing” I said angrily, “I've done crap.”
I looked apologetically at Ellie: “I am sorry” I said.
Then Anthony's wife said quietly: “Vladek, I shall certainly convey to Anthony your kind offer - he truly admires you as an actor and teacher.”
I got up then, I had had enough wine. I felt very embarrassed at this disgusting behaviour of mine, after all this wonderfully typical English generosity - I had to go. I hugged them all good night and I left. Naturally Anthony never got in touch with me. Why should he? Though I do think that I could have helped him, maybe inject into him ‘something’ special and perhaps wild. This ‘something’ which makes this vital difference between good and even excellent acting and ‘magic.’ Perhaps Anthony is afraid of it? Perhaps, he's afraid of me? So many people are.
Ellie Batchelor told me recently: “After your premiere as Gustav Mahler here in London, I was sort of helping a friend to prepare a party celebrating your premiere for you and the actress who played Alma your wife.”
The play was a two hander, and Ellie went on: “I saw you that evening for two hours on the stage as Gustav and you managed to move me deeply and yet the moment you entered the party I was petrified of you.”
“Why?” I asked, “tell me why … surely you aren't petrified of me now?”
“Oh no, not now … not anymore” she said, “we've known each other for so many years already and we are friends. But then there was something distant in you, something menacing in your eyes and especially in your voice ...”
Bette Davis explained this to me one day: “Naturally. You have star quality. In your eyes, voice and movements. They see a leader in you.”
People are always petrified of me too, and look how mild and kind I am. I thought that I could not even comment on that.The day after the dinner party, I phoned the Batchelor's to thank them for the evening. David answered the phone.
“She hated me” I said, “I mean Anthony's wife.”
“Nonsense” David said, “after you left we were all talking about you and how much we all admire you, and this very special and interesting way you say things. All you have said was like a very interesting play, although last night you were not acting. Listen” he said quickly, “we all agreed last night, including Anthony's wife that you must write your biography - you must write it, I will help you. Say yes.”
“OK” I muttered, “I shall try … thank you David.”
During that day I was walking up and down in my house in London. How does one write a biography - one's own biography? A prospect of getting deep inside myself, my thoughts, reactions, feelings, all my past which sometimes was traumatic, resurfacing and reviving it all over again,. all this frightened me quite a lot. How does one begin? From the beginning? From childhood? There had to be some - my own - very personal approach - Vladek Sheybal's approach. I couldn’t just write a banal story. A huge part of my life is my artistic work and my philosophy of work and of life. Wouldn’t this be boring? I felt lost. In this moment yet another extraordinary thing happened: My telephone rang.
“Hey Vladek” I heard this deep voice in the receiver, “this is Gil. Gil Gibson. Do you remember me? I have my own literary agency, remember? Well - listen, I have an offer for you to consider. I want to write your biography.”
My hand with the receiver shook a bit. It was suddenly as if this had all been prepared for me, perhaps even before I was born - by some invisible force. These circumstances were like the affirmations of the Thai religion: Never try to push your life … it will retaliate. It will turn into a solid wall and push you back and close all doors. All doors will open to you when the right time arrives. Don't wait for it as you will never know which door will open first and when it will open.
“Listen Vladek” Gil continued, “we have recently completed Barbara Windsor’s biography and she mentioned you in our conversation. She also mentioned how many of your quotations, remarks and opinions have been printed in Glenda Jackson's biography.”
I looked up at my shelves. Glenda's biography was there. Actually I was amazed when I read all my remarks about Glenda in print, more amazed even than reading those of Ken Russell's whom Glenda and I both adore so much. I was cautious.
“I have here in front of me your curriculum.vitae” Gil continued, “it is extremely impressive. Even I didn't know that you have made so many international films with so many stars: Peter Ustinov, Glenda, Omar Sheriff, Marcello Mastroianni, Elliot Gould, Michael Caine, Oliver Reed etc and that you have worked in so many languages in so many countries in the world.”
“But I have not really made it as a real star.” I tried my defences.
“Of course you did, and in your very special way … you under-estimate yourself. You are in ‘Who's Who On The Screen’ and there is also a photograph. You are right up there with Omar Sharif, Brooke Shields and Jean Simmons."
“That’s only because all our names begin with the letter S” I said.
“But the size of your photo is larger than that of Jean and Brooke” Gil retorted, “you forged for yourself your own very special niche. Similar to Victor Spinetti.”
This brought back fond memories of Victor, and I knew him quite well. He even introduced me on stage in one of Joan Littlewood's meetings in her theatre in Stratford, when she asked me to sing a few of my songs in a programme in which hundreds of actors, singers, dancers, tight rope walkers, and fire eaters would be performing. Victor introduced me as: “One from the white snows of Siberia or from the Ukraine, from the romantic steppes ... who will sing for you ‘The Black Eyes’ in Russian.”
We had very good times together.Although Victor never became a star himself, he worked with so many stars that his recent one man show is based on all of them. Gil intimated that I could do the same by including memories of all the stars I had worked with in my biography.
“But it will still have to be a biography of my life” I said, “who would be interested reading about my life? I still think I am nobody, I am just a joke.”
Gil laughed: “Then write about yourself as a joke, it is a very good idea.”
It is the story of my life that I always tried to push the offers away as being unworthy of them. The more I tried to find the arguments to support my belief that I shouldn't do it, the more the organisers, directors, producers were trying to talk me into it.
“By the way my congratulations for your reading of ‘Dvorak's letters’ on the South Bank Show” Gil said, “your voice was haunting.”
My voice is haunting - my face is sinister - how boring I thought. I remember now that whenever the London Academy of Film and Television advertised my acting classes, they always printed the advertisements in the papers with a photo of my face. I must say they never had any worries about the number of students. I also remember that Bette Davis once said to me: “You are in a unique position Vla-deek” (that's how she pronounced my name). Well, they always say I'm in a unique position. I wish I wasn't, I thought.
“A little bit like our Celeste Holm in Hollywood” Bette went on, “at the beginning no-one could ever remember her name, but everybody remembered her special kind of face. Then, like you, she became a star by the simple fact of appearing or showing her face with numerous stars, as a supporting character actress.”
Gil interrupted my train of thought: “The only thing is that I don't think we are interested in your career in Poland, you might mention it and then your war experience. For our public here, the important part is the day when you boarded the train from London to Oxford thirty years ago with only £10 in your pocket, to improve your English.
Then how not knowing a living soul in Oxford things started happening, which led to your future career. The rest became history.”
“We want to hear about your films like ‘From Russia With Love’ about your work with Sean Connery. ‘Women in Love’ Glenda Jackson, Ken Russell, John Boorman etc. You see how many films and names are already there?”
“Yes” I reflected, “I am already a has-been.”
“Precisely” Gil cut in, “and you have all reasons to deserve it, think how many actors here can't even dream of being a has-been.”
I was still full of doubts. Then other strange things happened. Suddenly there was a demand for my voice! In my profession one telephone call can change your life. Things begin to happen, and start unfolding like a colourful ribbon in front of you. And you know that you have to grab it. For instance, a chauffeur driven limousine stops in front of your house, and a few hours later you are up in a Jumbo Jet in the luxury of first class, flying across the globe to Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro or somewhere that exotic. You are whisked to a first class hotel complete with air conditioning, and you start your new work smelling new smells, seeing new colours, hearing new languages, eating new foods. The impact and the sheer assault of all these elements is such that for the next month or so, you are running to the loo every five minutes with a ghastly upset stomach. This is when you start dreaming of the silence of your Fulham home in London, and longing to eat freshly boiled potatoes with a knob of butter. How can you explain all this to your dear civilian friends? You just say on the phone: “Yes, I just came back from Sri Lanka. Filming. Yes it was all right.”
What else can you say? - after all, this is your work. You still have to get up at five am to work in whatever city you are filming. You see the streets while you are being driven to the studio, and they all look the same. Workmen, with little shoulder strap bags containing their sandwiches and thermos flasks, are walking, bicycling, filling trams or trains - to work. How the various scenes in my life nowadays evoked those horrifying little flashbacks to the war, and my running to work early in the morning during my years of the Bolshevik occupation, and then the desperate years of the Nazi occupation. Peeling potatoes in my kitchen, amidst my secure life in London could suddenly trigger off with a painful twist of my heart, memories of risking my life in the Nazi camp, where I would run to a Nazi kitchen dustbin to pick out some potato peelings to eat them raw right away. Those peelings were more important than a possible German bullet through my heart. I was watching TV one day at home in London when I saw a girl drug addict from Edinburgh being interviewed. She was asked how she felt about the risks of getting aids from used syringes.
“When you have withdrawals” she said, “you don't care about getting aids” and I immediately thought about my potato peelings in my camp - the same sentiments exactly. And now in London, this new search for my voice originating after so many years brought on a tragic flashback chain reaction. In the camp during the war, where the old man was dying of tuberculosis in his bunk, he would ask me to speak anything to him because as he whispered and wheezed, he said I had such a beautifully sounding voice, like the angels in the sky. He said it would make him less frightened to die, and less frightened to be buried in those German sand dunes. So I spoke to him for a few hours until he died. Another friend, Patrick Keiler, over the telephone expressed the same sentiments when he asked me to narrate a commentary on one of his very individual films for TV.He started to say: “Your voice is sounding so ...” but I didn't let him finish the sentence. I started talking fast. I felt scared but asked him to please send me the script. This job was not going to be like many of the others, no first class Jumbo Jet to Tokyo. Instead, his rickety car took me to a cheap dark studio somewhere in Kilburn, the district I hate. It's dirty, spooky - but the work is the work, is the work. I adored Patrick's film and his rather intricate, but beautiful text, which I had to narrate. My heart filled with joy, and on my way back home, even Kilburn looked almost beautiful. One thing lead to another and Patrick's film was shown on TV. A few days later my phone rang, it was my agent: A young man, called Peter Hunt wanted my voice to read the fairy tales for his puppet film for children’s TV. I asked him to show me his film and I loved it. I loved the fairy tale as well. It was called: ‘The King and The Beggar.’ We recorded it in a private little kitchen-cum-studio in Islington. A sudden thought went through my mind - although I had already been to Rio, I had never been to Islington before. That's how I met the owner of the studio; a struggling young composer by the name of Simon Davison. He worked on a few of my song-lyrics, and we planned to do some concerts together. ‘The King and The Beggar’ was shown at an Animation Films Festival in London. As a result of this, Melvyn Bragg's ‘South Bank TV Show’ asked me to read a very moving private letter from the famous Czech composer Dvorak. This was supposed to be Dvorak's ‘voice’ against a background of a TV film about his famous 'Cello Concerto’ (this is what Gil Gibson also mentioned to me in his telephone conversation). The South Bank Show has a very high, and perhaps a slightly snobbish reputation. So I wasn't surprised when, after Dvorak's progress was released, I received an offer from a musical duo, already established in the business -
The Conway and Garcia Duo (playing the flute and guitar). I was asked to do some concerts with them and read from the stage, some classical English poetry - between their music. I asked them for the tape, and I found them to be very fine and professional musicians. They said that they worked in this way with the well-known English TV Broadcaster Richard Baker, but he was not available and so they needed another person. They needed another known face and voice - me, again. The face and the voice, I thought to myself. It repeats itself like fate itself. Like doom, and I have to grab it. You see, in our profession there are so many bends and twists and corners. You can be walking on your way as usual, when suddenly on the left of this twist, or behind that corner there is a completely new project - a new opportunity and you must not miss it - you have to develop it. This is the sign that the ‘old’ things you have been doing begin to get exhausted. Life in its infinite wisdom offers you this new thing. It means you are ready for it. Ken Russell taught me that you have to have several projects in your mind. Like having lots of loaves of bread in the oven. If you see one of them starts to mature, don't hesitate - work on that one. It means you're ready for it, don't hesitate with your decision, work on it immediately. So I accepted the Conway and Garcia Duo offer. One thing that I had noticed now was that people had stopped talking about my English ‘accent.’ During a studio session with Patrick Keiler, he commented: “Your English Vladek, is not foreign English anymore - it's Vladek Sheybal's English. You astound me with so many surprising interpretations of my own script.” After seeing me on stage recently in London, in the part of Nietzsche, Fenella Fielding told me: “I don't hear any accent in your voice darling. You simply developed your very own and original way of interpreting English. Like Edith Evans' English, like Sir Ralph Richardson's English, Martita Hund, Dora Brian, Joan Greenwood”
“And Fenella Fielding's English” I said, and we both laughed.
I think this all boils down to my acting training back in Poland. Technically, the voice production must be placed in the right place on the palate to make it sound vibrant. Your diction has to be perfect. Each word must have its beginning and its end. I heard that Edith Evans, in the very last year of her life would exercise her lips, saying: “The lips get lazy so easily and I want the public to understand every single word that I am saying on the stage.”
But the main point lies in the Stanislavski Method in which I was trained in Poland and in Russia. You have to act the subtext, the intention beyond your lines. Lines as such are not that important. People do understand the words, but they also have to understand the intentions, the feelings behind them. I think that due to being so thoroughly trained in all those principles of acting that the language in which I'm playing is not important any more; I simply apply these principles to acting in any language. It sounds very simple, but how many actors don't know how to do it? How many actors in the USA have been ruined by their typically American approach to the Stanislavski Method? They even call it a different name in the states - there it is known simply as ‘The Method.’ I saw some of these acting classes, and I thought with horror how they had vulgarised the Stanislavski Method; how easy it was to make the Americans believe in something when you charge them exorbitant fees. Even Marilyn Monroe used to attend these classes, but they could not ruin her talent. There's another thing that happened in the relationship between me and the English people - my voice together with my interpretation of English, sort of clicked. The English liked it. Long ago on the set of ‘From Russia with Love’ at Pinewood Studios, Terence Young, the Director said to me, and then, Ken Russell: “We like your way of speaking English.”
God only knows why.
There are some chemical things that work with some people and voices that appeal to other people, and some do not. It’s like whenever I played in an Italian film, in the Italian language. The Italians would say to me: “You have this special Venetian accent.” Why? Nobody knows. I certainly don't. It must be some subconscious combination of my personality and the position of the muscles of my throat, tongue and my lips. Therefore in Italian films I am always offered roles playing impoverished Venetian aristocrats. In French films I play pathetic ageing Frenchmen who fall hopelessly in love with the pretty young pretty girl. The French would say it was because my eyes looked so romantic, and my French was so softly sad. Et voila! Personalities and voices are like wines; they don't travel well.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, in the English language, I became a star only because of my intonations and my face - even my smile, look, and my sound of being menacing. People compare my whispers, pauses and sometimes threatening intonations to those of Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt. I didn't do this deliberately at the beginning. As a matter of fact, I found acting in English and going through the lines, words and inflections too difficult, almost impossible. I had to resort to long pauses, mysterious looks and smiles before I could go smoothly through the next difficult word combinations. So my style was a desperate act of necessity to survive the pronunciation of difficult words, and those impossible English ‘th's, o's and awls’ and hundreds of other vowels and consonants. So, when people would praise Vladek Sheybal's style of acting with his ‘famous pauses, long looks and his very own ways of suspending his voice’ that was the reason behind it all. But this is how things often happen in life. Picasso's famous ‘blue period’ originated also from necessity as blue paint was, for some reason, the cheapest to buy then and Picasso did not have money at that time. In the acting profession, mainly in international films, you have to be lucky enough to be explored and exploited in one way; this is known as ‘type casting.’ Actors grumble at it. They would like to play all different kinds of roles, and they are right. The deep actor's essence of expression is to turn themselves into many different characters, but not so in high budget films. Screen image has larger than life close ups which can almost be touched by the audience. The ‘old’ Hollywood system, based solely on box office returns, had to manipulate the type casting system to their best financial advantage. They created the ‘types’ and they made the audiences get attached to them. Every time Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard etc were on screen, the producer made sure that they did not step out of their ‘types.’During her public interview at the National Film Theatre in London, Bette Davis was once asked: “Did you always play bitches?”
“Half and half” she replied, “but the people accepted me as ‘the bitch.’ Now, they like it, and expect me to be ‘the bitch’ that they simply couldn't see me playing an angel, and I played many ‘bitches.’ They still saw me as their beloved bitch.” When I got an offer to play in ‘From Russia with Love’ I was quite happy directing at the time for ABC TV, and then Granada TV. I didn't have to become an actor again I thought with horror, not any more. I decided (tactfully) to leave acting in England to English actors. Why should I try to do it in their country - they can do it better than I. I was quite happy being a director, and I think, more satisfied than being an actor. I saw directing as a more serious profession for a man; there was always in me an element of being slightly embarrassed by being an actor. It's certainly not the work for a man compared with, say, working in an office or bank. If I were asked what my profession was in any public place with people around, I would whisper: “Actor.” Little did I know then what fate had in store for me: Acting, international acting, James Bond. The rest was history as they say and the first international villain - Vladek Sheybal was born. After ‘From Russia with Love’ I started getting offers to play villains, so something clicked; but I didn't want to take them. Then one day Bette Davis told me that she had seen me in the film: “I saw you in James Bond, you electrified me with your first close up. What a face. What a personality. What a fantastic villain I thought. As a matter of fact, you reminded me of Abraham Lincoln.”
To this day this comparison is a mystery to me. I only know that she played Lincoln's wife. “Well, my dear Vla-deek” Bette continued, “you wouldn't have the slightest chance in international films to play a lead. You’re too late. You're too old. You have an accent and you have no connections. There are many actors with this ‘fight and kill for the role’ mentality in Hollywood, and even in London. But how lucky you were with your first appearance in James Bond. You asserted yourself in your type. You showed the industry that there is no one like you in the whole of the film world in this type of an elegant soivre, a proud and condescending villain. You must keep up with it. Develop it. You must fight for the parts of villains. Make them your own personal sophisticated choice and brand. Always keep your neck short like in James Bond. People love pride and style. Class. Fate is giving you a great opportunity on a plate and you want to reject it? When I started playing opposite the bitches in my early days in Hollywood, I went to Mr Warner (I always went to the top) and I told him that I didn’t want to play bitches. He looked me up and down for a long time. Then he said the same thing to me that I'm now conveying to you. Being born an American, I didn't wait for him to finish his speech. I understood my chance. I went out and started fighting for the parts of bitches. Whereas hundreds of other actresses were waiting for their leading parts and perished for ever. You've already been noticed, your villain Vla-deek, makes you stand out, makes you dominate, makes you a lead. Otherwise you would disappear, back to obscurity. Anyway you could always go back to directing if you don't like being an actor.”
So I took Bette’s advice and I started improving and immortalising my villains. It was easy.
“Look at your face Vla-deek” Bette continued, “you only have to narrow your prominent eyes, lower your voice and speak more slowly, be sophisticated, proud and chic. That's all. It'll be our personal trademark. Look at my face, I have the same prominent eyes like you, a low and menacing voice and this is all one has to have. To be a good villain is a great privilege. A good Iago will always outshine Othello. Who, for instance, remembers Macbeth, the lead? Lady Macbeth only has three or four scenes in this play and she steals the show because she's a murderess. People love villains, they are the most rewarding parts. And if in the future you play a good guy, always give him some sinister injection - don't ever lose it.”
How right Bette was. Later in my career I played a good priest in a TV children's series. I found him so boring that after the third episode I asked the producer and director to let him lose his temper at least once.
“He is becoming unbearably boring in his goodness.” I said.
They agreed and the scene was written in. I, as the good priest lowered my voice to a menacing whisper, narrowed my eyes and it electrified the series; and thus I saved the part. I played a lot of positive characters later in my career, and unless I tried to inject into them some sinister characteristics, like in my part in the film ‘Leo The Last’ with the unforgettable Marcello Mastroianni and the great director John Boorman, the part was ignored by the public, the press, and finally forgotten.
Now I am facing this utterly new period in my career - my classic poetry recitals. Naturally I included two sinister poems during the evening: ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning with that famous line about his former, very flirtatious wife: “I have command, and all her smiles stopped together” - meaning that he killed her. Naturally, I included Iago's monologue from the second act of Othello: “And what's he then that says I am the villain” - all mystics [sic], chin up, condescending expression, whisper and half smile. The audience loved it, and they even laughed
In the reading of Dvorak's letters, I also found a great deal of his cruelty, and I emphasised it towards his wife. Dvorak loved his own wife's sister all of his life. But to top it all I was asked, and started playing ‘The Greats’ during the last few years. This had become a completely new departure for me, and a new trademark of Vladek Sheybal on the English stage. I have already played Gustav Mahler and Friedrich Nietzsche. I’ve also played Oscar Kokoshke (a great German painter) then Diagilev in a new two hander play with Nijenski, a one man show about Casanova; in fact I’ve already played Casanova (with the late John Gibson directing), many years ago in a BBC TV film shot in Venice. All these new twists in my life made me think. I came to an astonishing conclusion that I can play ‘The Greats’ successfully because I know how to play the villains. It is astonishing how strong these selfish, cruel, and egocentric powers are in every great genius like Nietzsche, Mahler or Diagilev.
It all makes me laugh, because I use ‘the villain's tricks’ while playing ‘The Greats.’ I narrow my eyes, I lower my voice, sometimes to a sinister whisper, I make long thoughtful pauses, I ignore and don't look at my partners when I am supposed to give them all my attention. Obviously every genius and every villain I play, I try to make him different. They also have different reasons to live on the stage. But certainly if you have the guts and the presence to play a successful villain, you can have all the same elements to be a successful genius. Thank you Bette. What a pity you have disappeared from my life completely. I know it is my fault as well. I didn't contact you when you were so terribly ill, but I still have your lovely little letters, which you sent to my hospital bed with fantastic flowers years ago when I was ill. Thank you so much, and also for your overspilling multi-love bouquet of flowers. It caused a sensation in this grey London hospital and I blushed.
I was still unconvinced that there was a reason for my biography to be written.
Vladek Sheybal is not after all, a real international ‘star.’
I have read the biographies of Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Hildegarde Kneff and Edith Piaff [sic]. They were the real stars. I was still convinced deep down that I am physically a sort of monster. How presumptuous of me to throw my boring book about Vladek Sheybal at the people. People want to read about the glitz and readily manufactured, instantly remembered names. But I asked a few friends, and people from our business, their opinions about this project. Their reactions surprised me; everyone seemed to be positive, even enthusiastic about it.
“There is so much mystery about you Vladek” some would say, “and so much hidden sexual innuendo - we want to read all about it.”
Funny, I had never imagined myself as having a sexy image. Well, later in my career I found out that the response to my acting was always based on an expectation of sex from me. Well, we know that trick ... lower your voice, whisper, make pauses and given them very long silent looks. It happens continuously, and everywhere in life as well. Women would come up to me at Sainsbury's for instance, to say with a lurid smile: “Oh it's you, you are so sinister.”
Then they would try to touch my genitals. One even got hold of them and twisted them hard with her hand. You can imagine how painful it was. And the letters? Well, I didn’t receive many but I still receive them from my fans. Nearly all of them are based on ‘sinister and sexy.’ Perhaps when Bette Davis compared me to Lincoln she meant sex. As his ‘wife’ she must have thought about it quite a lot.
The letters from women almost always read ‘we.’
‘We were watching you while already in bed’ for example.
Well, after all your image on the telly does walk into people's bedrooms, and these women would write as though the letters were coming from her husband as well as herself, when in fact it was just the woman who was writing. One particular woman (with her husband as a usual shield of course) was watching one of my first films - ‘Debussy’ with Oliver Reed, directed by Ken Russell. I played a wild film director in it; I was practically a lead. My character was not a villain at all, and it was before I had the good advice from Bette, but he was very powerful. I always played powerful and stinkingly rich people. Two advantages came out of this fact: they are always dressed in terribly chic and made to measure suits. My wardrobes are now bursting with fantastic double breasted, waistcoated suits and elegant shoes. I always buy them after the film has ended for one third of the price, and I never wear them except perhaps now and then on some very special occasion, like a gala premiere at Leicester Square cinema. Back to the lady letter writer - one of her letters said: “I especially liked the scene in which you danced with a girl and ping pong balls.”
Later on this scene turns into some kind of Ken Russell almost voodoo wild dancing. The woman writes: “You are being photographed in this scene from the waist up, you’re twisting your body like mad and your face is contorted with pain and insufferable pleasure. I was wondering what was happening there out of shot. Especially as the camera didn't show your girl anymore.”
As far as I remember nothing happened out of shot, but I recall it being very hard work to get that scene into the can. I never thought this film had any of those connotations, but who knows?
Later, I made more films with Ken Russell, and I started suspecting that he made a bold sexual suggestion in that scene deliberately. I asked him about it one day and quoted this woman's letter. He was delighted and intrigued but he simply said: “You know me Vlad” (that's what he calls me) “I never explore sex on the screen” and he gave me one of his 'innocent' grins.
My work with The Conway and Garcia Duo was fast approaching, and we decided that we would meet in a few weeks' time to decide on the concert programme. Then we would plan to put it into operation in about six months. But, as always in our profession they phoned after three days (it was a Friday) they said that the person who was appearing, Eleanor Bron, could not read with them for some reason.
“Can you take over?” they asked.
“Thursday next week. We will send you the poems and perhaps you will add something of your own choice.” I received the poems and found them beautiful. There was ‘My last Duchess’ by Browning, which I’ve already mentioned. Hilari Belloc's ‘Tarantella’ etc. I added my Iago - of course! - and a few days later, I was ready with my interpretation. When I arrived at Oxford station, my heart was literally beating with excitement. The day was sunny and simply beautiful. Quite the opposite to the day when I arrived in Oxford with so little money and in pouring rain thirty years ago. The cycle was completed I thought. Thirty years ago, Oxford started my career in England. Now it begins again after thirty years - my totally new line in artistic expression. The boys waited for me at the station with their car, then we went to a beautiful pub on the riverbank to have some lunch and to talk the programme over. I’m assuming that you all know of the charm and special atmosphere of these country pubs in England - beautiful. Then we went to Dorchester Cathedral with its beautiful and elegant English Gothic interior, with the typical calm of the green lawn around it. I felt deeply moved, and my thoughts were filled with memories of thirty years ago.
I felt that today something important was going to happen. It must have been written in ‘my book’ somewhere up there in this endless blue sky. It could not be a coincidence to take me back to the same place after my thirty years journey in ‘snows, winds and storms’ with my body aged, my mind matured (yet perhaps younger) and with my head that is ‘sometimes asking but always unbowed.’ No time for rehearsal. But I am a ‘trouper.’ For me it was just another ‘show must go on.’ We fixed the microphones. The audience filled the Cathedral and we waited in a sort of sacristy. The female organiser of this concert announced the change in programme to the audience.
“Unfortunately Miss Eleanor Bron could not be here today. However I am sure you will not be disappointed. Instead, we have with us a very well known international film actor. He will recite the poems tonight.”
She stopped for a while then she exclaimed quite desperately, “Oh dear, I can't quite remember his name.”
The boys looked at me amusedly as the lady continued: “I am sure you'll immediately recognise his face as soon as he appears on the stage, well, anyway whenever I talk about him with my husband (there's always a husband) we always say … you know ... that one ... the eyes and the voice.”
Somebody in the auditorium shouted: “Vladek Sheybal” and laughter followed.
“That's it” said the announcer, “wasn't I right?”
As I entered the stage I was greeted with thunderous applause. I smiled to the audience and I bowed. As they went on applauding, I knew the reason I was sent here by those invisible forces which always danced with me my ‘life-tango’ where I began thirty years ago.
I am going to write my biography, and its title will be ‘The Eyes and the Voice.’
I have always been pushed in my life to do many things. One of which is to materialise for the public my inner creative ‘performances.’ The rest of the world - the world outside my inner creations didn't mean much to me. I have been pushed to do things by my friends, art directors, colleagues or the need to earn money, but never had I any need to express my artistic yearnings in public. I have an enormous amount of my own inner imagination, and constantly play my inner ‘performances’ to satisfy my creative longing. When I receive a letter from somebody I answer it in my mind and that's that. Then I would be reprimanded - you didn't answer my letter.
“Didn't I?” I would say totally surprised, “I can swear I did.”
I seem to remember all beautifully rounded and witty sentences, but of course I did not put pen to paper - I didn't have a need to do so. So there you are, once again I had to be pushed by people, notably by David Batchelor and Gil Gibson to write this biography. Their influence also expressed the uncanny, inexplicable chain of events, which so often forged the way in my career, but I never liked reality being imposed upon me. I felt I was being painfully indoctrinated, that's why, I am sure I became an actor - to escape reality, to live the lives of other people, to express myself as someone else. Actually I started acting very early in life. The first part I ever played was that of a mushroom in my school play. Later on I moved on to play people. Still later on, I have realised that to play a character you have to play the whole world with its people, trees, birds, clouds, winds, snows and rains. So I became the ‘world watcher.’ I realised that you have to know reality in order to escape from it into another reality, the reality of acting. It sounds like a paradox, and indeed acting is all about paradoxes. Later on this ability of ‘acting life’ saved my life through some traumatic times. The war, for instance and the Warsaw uprising, the bombs falling on us for sixty three days non-stop. My period in the concentration camps and the succession of my escapes from them. I recall that I never experienced a feeling of fear, and I cannot say that by nature I am a brave person. I did all these, incredibly brave things as they seem to me now because I always felt that there was an invisible film camera in front of me - filming my actions in long shots and in close ups. In 1992 I was already sixty-nine and in difficult moments I still experience this ‘camera feeling’ in front of me, filming away. Ever since I was a child, and all through my sixty-nine years of life I was unintelligent, street unwise, insipid, outright stupid. But I would say that my intelligence was different. It started working when I read a script for instance, or when I wrote one, when I was directing a play or a film, or when I was working on a character in a play or script, and then when I was playing it. They call it artists' intuition - I call it an artist's wisdom. It is a known fact that actors are not intelligent, and yet they possess the whole world of deep and intimate knowledge coming out from secrets in hidden nooks and corners, and creaking steps inside their intuitive layers of being. I was born out of emotions and for emotions. Not from, or for an intellect itself, but these emotions become a part of my life. They created and orchestrated an inner sublime knowledge of facts, people, their characters, the world around me with all its sounds, shapes and smells. I can give my invented names to the plants, trees, clouds, chairs, and houses because I can feel their characters, emotions and frustrations. I can smell their smells, I can hear their cries, their laughter, and the sounds they emit. I remember from my childhood how I suffered when our lawn in front of our house had been cut. I could not sleep the whole night as I heard the grass crying in pain.
There were always people, even within my close family who would laugh at these feelings, so I had to hide them and I felt I had to guard them as well. I felt this was my only possible link with life. I am incapable of any other links, and in spite of my ‘life stupidity’ I always knew that all of those emotional attributes were my own unique traits, and that perhaps you could call it all a touch of genius. These traits helped to build my acting parts, my paintings and scripts. They supported all my artistic activities. But above all, I discovered that of all these creative talents, one in particular, is a very special one: I am best at being a teacher, a teacher of acting, and a teacher of life - as these two are inexorably linked with each other. I feel as if I have been struck with a sharp vision when I work with my pupils, or direct the acts. Almost unmistakably I can see through them; I can sort of cut through them. I can open them and then I can guide them. I can read inside their hearts, minds, emotions, and inside their guts. I understand why the Japanese say: “The truth is in the guts.” Whenever we feel some strong emotions we intuitively put our hand over our belly - our guts. That's why the disgraced Japanese, or unhappy people, even those in a moment of some inner cataclysm, used to commit the ritual disembowelling act known as The Hara Kiri. It sounds almost like the music Ha-ra-ki-ri? They are, in effect, saying to the world: “Read the truth from my spilled out guts.” President George Bush Snr said: “Read my lips.” But the lips don't have the same weight nor consistence as the guts, nor indeed their smell. My ability to read through people's minds and emotions frightens me somehow. All through my childhood, I heard my parents, aunts, uncles, friends and teachers saying: “Vladek always imagines things, he lives in an artificial world. He exaggerates, he lies.” Later on in life they saw my achievements in art, and I became the only member of my family who achieved some international fame. Consequently, they were beginning to change their views about me. I remembered that during the horrifying days of the Warsaw uprising when we were bombed non-stop by German planes, and the whole of Warsaw was slowly turning into mountains of rubble and a burning inferno, that my sharp intuitions or premonitions enabled me on a few occasions to save my parents' lives by ordering them to move immediately to a different cellar in a different house; the previous house was destroyed by a bomb only a few minutes later!
Today is the 14th of July 1989, and I am writing this in my little flat in Paris. Outside, people are celebrating the Bicentenary of the French Revolution of 1789 - I think it’s disgusting. People dancing on the streets, all pomp and parades. Even the Metro is not stopping at Concorde Station as above it there are people marching. Heads of state are in attendance, including George Bush Snr, and Margaret Thatcher. Jesse Norman is there on a huge wooden pyramid affair, her enormous voice singing ‘Marseillaise.’ All this because the French chopped off so many heads with their own smart invention: the Guillotine. I find it painful: Imagine people dancing on the streets with joy to celebrate the death of millions in the concentration camps, or in the war.
My agent in Paris, Cindy Brace, has just telephoned: I have an interview in store. Tomorrow I have to go to Le Grand Hotel near the opera. Cindy says it is for a very important part (agents always say this). I know only too well what these interviews entail. They are always held in a plush hotel in London. I know all these hotels by heart now: The Dorchester, Cumberland, Connaught, and Claridges. You are usually ushered into a room with two or three American top producers sitting down, impassively gazing at you with their fat faces, and large cigars in their swollen lips, with money written all over their faces, considering whether or not to buy you. You are being introduced by a casting director - this very special and strange breed of women. They smile and try to be polite, but they always give you an impression that either they hate actors, or have a great contempt for them. It's obvious that they themselves are failed actresses. It is exactly the same with the critics. But, this is like a bad joke upon which my profession is based, a kind of ‘Danse Macabre.’ Casting Directors are always running and twisting their bodies and brains to please these producers, it is sad and pathetic; it is all a joke. One of the most powerful casting directors (internationally) from London is Rose Tobias Shaw. I always knew how to read her thoughts. Had I got a part or had I not? Usually a nice smile from her meant ‘you’re out.’ The other day she contacted my agent and wanted to know something, but you see in this system of our ‘artistic business’ there is a strict pecking order. They all have to earn their money. They have to be recommended, and accommodating to one another - otherwise they will be crushed out of business. Anyway, my telephone rang: My agent's voice was full of foreboding, he knows me only too well.
“Vladek an audition - but please don't create any difficulties this time.”
“What difficulties?” I asked, “I never ...”
“You know what I mean” my agent said with a little tremor in his voice.
“Did she tell you anything about my last interview?” I asked straightforwardly.
“Who?” my agent sounds evasive.
“The casting director” I said.
“Well she told me that you always give them an impression during your interviews that it is you who are interviewing them.”
I know, and he’s right. Whenever I enter a hotel room (they all look the same these hotel rooms all over the world) and I see those mysterious faces and I hear their American twang, I start asking them questions: “Who is the director here? Are you a producer? What part am I supposed to play?” and so on. On this occasion then, Rose opened the door with a charming smile (I must admit that she is a beautiful woman) affectionately touching my hand. Trouble, I thought.
She introduced me: “This is my beloved Vladek.”
This was grave trouble!"
Four pairs of unblinking eyes looked at me, sizing me up and down.
“We greatly admire your work Vladek” one of them said suddenly.
Red lights flash in my head and bells start to go off. I think perhaps I shouldn't bother and go out, but Rose gives me a friendly sign with her beautiful blue eyes, so I decide to stay.
“Do you know anything about your part?” another one asks.
“No” I say, “my agent simply mentioned that he's a wounded man during the war.”
Here I start asking them questions about the script, the part, and who would be directing it etc. Rose interrupts: “Vladek don't waste our time,” and she hands me a page from the script. I know that they are in a position to buy me, or to send me on to a scrap heap, but I cannot stop thinking in my own way. I know that in films you don't ask, you just do what you're told. You don't waste their time. Time's money; you cause trouble - you become a nuisance. This is why I say I am stupid and ‘street unwise,’ and I know that I have missed many opportunities because of it; the boat simply sailed away without me.
Some actors never make their own decisions; they wait for their orders. Every time I make a decision I know that I take great risk. This is true. I can be crushed and rejected, not only in this film but in lots of others in the future. The moment Rose handed me a page from the script I know that they (she and my agent) had misled me. At the present stage of my career, I am not supposed to read the part during an audition. This is just another example of the ‘pecking order’ in my profession. I only agreed to come in for a chat, but they want to see you in the flesh. They want to assess what it would be like to work with you. How would you seem to be in this part? That's all. Rose knows all this, but she also knows me. Her hand, holding a page from the script trembles slightly, she doesn't dare look at me, so I decided to play her game. I could absorb it easily; be above it all; show them my style.
With a smile I take the page and say to them: “I am ready.”
“Won't you read it first?” they say, “take your time.”
I glance at the page. I know these kind of lines by heart. They are all the same in these scripts; I’ve played them dozens of times and they earned me lots of money. It's always the trash, which earns the money.
“I am ready” I say again, “who's going to read it with me?”
“I am sir” I hear a feeble male voice with an American accent on my right. I look at him; I didn't notice him before; a very nervous young man. Of course, I know this type well, he's an American actor ‘resting’ and living in London. He gets himself hired to read parts with auditioning actors, the producers pay him little money of course, and I feel sorry for him and I try to sound polite: “Why do you call me sir?”
Silence. All four American producers look at each other, then at Rose. Rose casts her eyes at the ceiling.
“Never mind” I say, “let's get going.”
We start reading. The young man starts acting away like mad. Obviously he hoped to prove himself so that maybe in the future he'll get a part. I’m not sorry for him anymore. He is a typical American chutzpah, fighting for himself with no scruples at all. As a matter of fact his ‘acting’ intonations make my reading impossible, so I stop and say to him: “I can't read with you.”
Rose sighs. I ignore her, and look over at the producers - the ‘consortium.’
“Which of you gentlemen is a director?” I ask.
A man in the middle of the group looked at me in surprise: “I am.”
“Would it be a tremendous trouble for you if I asked you to read it with me?” I said, “that way I can look into your eyes, like I would be looking into the camera.”
A slight hesitation in his yes, then: “All right Vladek I will.”
Rose can't stand it anymore, and leaves the room. The director and I read through the whole scene. My character has no legs, and so I have to ask: “From the scene I gather he's, I mean my character, has no legs and he's in a wheelchair. How are you going to do it, technically?” He smiles rather ironically I think: “Well you'll have to be sitting in your wheelchair on your knees.” I smile and get up. We shake hands, the usual: “Thank you for coming Vladek” and me: “Thank you for asking me.” I ignore Rose, and the young American idiot. As I leave, I think to myself: “That's that, I blew it.”
Two hours later my agent rings: “You're on, they want you to do the part.”
I am really surprised; but there are always surprises in our profession. I shall never understand the ‘psychology’ of the auditions. My agent goes on: “They want you for two days filming in Rome. Three days in Rome altogether. First class flight and a first class hotel in Rome. Transportation to and from the studio or location. Yours will be the first name in the billing just after the stars. Rose suggested £2,500 sterling ...”
“Howard” I say, stopping him mid flow, “it is going to be very difficult to film. You know that I am supposed to sit on my knees all the time. I am supposed to be legless in a wheelchair. If they pay me (I pause) £5,000 I shall do it.”
Howard is not amused but he knows me: “All right, I’ll ask them.”
Ten minutes later he's back: “As a matter of fact, Rose didn't like it at all. Not at all, she was shocked, she said they can pay you £3,000, but no more.”
“Five” says I. Five minutes later, Howard is back: “They can't pay you five; it's final. Rose said that your kind of behaviour is very unprofessional, she is going to mention your attitude to all the casting directors next week during their monthly meeting.”
“So this is a sort of blackmail” I said, “I am being sort of blacklisted.”
“No,. I don't think so,” Howard didn't sound certain though and next day I started having second thoughts. I've lost £3,000. I've lost three days in Rome, and I love this city so much. Then I started counting (I always have to count on one third of the earned money only) my agent’s commission is 12.5%. After tax I would only earn £2,000, and I can afford to lose that. Even though I was disgusted by Rose's threats, I was not afraid. I once faced a German execution squad; why should I be afraid of Rose? I remember that during my very first international film: ‘From Russia with Love’ I had a sort of disagreement with its very powerful producer Harry Saltzman. He vowed in front of all the crew that I would never be in his films again, yet five years later I was. The film was ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ with Michael Caine. Ken Russell was the director, and Harry was the producer. I remember telling the story to Michael Caine and he smiled: “They often say that, but you must remember that if they need you in a certain film, they forget all previous vows of hatred.”
I remember another audition for a part years ago; it made me quite popular among the producers in Hollywood. It took place at the Bel Air Hotel in Hollywood. As usual I asked ‘the consortium’ a few questions. The last one was: “Which of you is the director, gentlemen?” A little black haired man smiled at me: “It's me,” he said, and I looked at him with surprise, as I had not noticed him in the room before; I liked him immediately. He looked familiar to me and so I said: “You look like Lucille Ball's husband, Desi Arnaz.”
There was a very pregnant pause, then he smiled again.
“That's right” he said, “I am Desi Arnaz, and I was Lucille Ball's husband. We are divorced now though.”
He narrowed his eyes as if trying to reach inside my brain.
“Are you a kind of a joke, Vladek?” he asked seriously, and I paused and then thought for a while.
“I think I am” I said, seriously too!
They all laughed, but I didn't. I knew I was serious about it; when I think about it in detail I always was a sort of joke. This is why I can't help feeling that I have to start writing this biography of myself as a joke. As I had previously said to Gil, my literary agent that no one could take Vladek Sheybal's biography seriously. Who could care about Vladek Sheybal? He's a joke. Just a joke. I am, I mean it! I am not even a kind of freak; I am a joke.It started right from the moment of my birth. After my parents had my brother, a boy, I was expected to be a girl. My mother helped a great deal in this direction, as she knew how much my father wanted me to be a girl. She would prepare a little baby girl's clothes, she would sing soft girlish songs, she would go to concerts and operas. She believed that she could influence nature in this way to make me female. My mother's sister was a well known opera singer, and she too was being pulled into this complicity. While she sang, for instance: ‘Habanera’ from ‘Carmen,’ she would sing it straight at my mother's belly with me kicking inside. All these little tricks, as if in revenge upon my family hit back. Yes, it has affected me to a great degree artistically, but didn't change my male sex. I was totally different from anyone of my age - laughed at very often, but sometimes listened to with astonishment. Well, I am told that when I was born, my father was waiting in the next room. He heard my first cry. My formidable grandmother, with an equally formidable name: Leocadia Kotula-Kotulinski shouted through the door: “It’s a boy.”
My father shouted: “No, no … no you’re joking … it’s a joke.”
My father burst in then, and gave me a look, then he cried in desperation.
“But look at him, those big eyes” he said, “it can't be a boy, boys don't have such huge eyes; she's a girl. You’re joking, say it is a joke.”
Now my grandmother sighed with resignation.
“You must accept it, dear” she said, “look” then she uncovered me and showed my father my male organs. My father was still perplexed: “It's too large for a boy” he whispered with horror, “it must all be a joke.” Thanks to the size it was never a joke to me, and it still isn't. The only part of my body that I never thought was a joke. The only part of my body I was proud of, and still am. I even had to hide myself from my classmates in the changing rooms at school because they would laugh at its size. I didn't want them to laugh at it, but I realised quite soon that they were simply jealous. So this was another reason that I grew apart from people. My father never really forgave me for not being a girl. He adored my older brother instead. He would never come to the theatre where I was already a young star. Even when I was playing bigger parts such as ‘Napoleon’ in ‘Man of Destiny’ by G.B. Shaw or ‘Lorenzaccio’ by ‘Musset.’ He never saw me on the stage, nor in any of my films; and he never came to visit me in London. We didn't see each other for twenty-five years; I never saw him again after I left Poland. When he died, I didn't go to his funeral. I was sort of afraid that he would point his finger at me from the coffin, and say: “He is a joke.” If you were to look at me, you would see that I am a joke. My face has very large hooded eyes, and I have very high Armenian cheekbones. I think I always looked like a cross between a frog, and a man from Mars. My legs are short, and I always had a slightly protruding stomach. All through my life I went through the agonies of dieting in order to lose my belly, which was difficult, as I love eating so much. A lady friend of mine in London once said to me: “You know that you have frog's eyes?” I was waiting for more to come, and it did. “When you blink, you blink with both of your eyelids” she said, “the lower lid goes up and the upper lid goes down, all at the same time. Just like frogs blink. I have never seen anyone with this type of frog blinking syndrome.” Well, in the space of many years, a lot of people have said how beautiful my eyes were. I have learned that all of this is relative. Ram Gopal, a great Indian dancer and one of my greatest friends for years would always say: “You have those Garbo eyes.” He would come and see me on stage in every single part I played - just to see my eyes in the spotlight. Therefore the remarks of this lady friend of mine about my frogs eyes did not worry me much, and why should it? - the frog is a very beautiful animal. Just a few weeks ago, I walked into my kitchen in my house in Fulham and stopped in my tracks. There on the floor in front of me, was a rather large frog just sitting there. I was horrified - for a moment. The frog was sitting by the gas stove, heaving heavily with its whole body like frogs do and it was looking straight at me with unblinking eyes. I looked at it for some time, not knowing what exactly I should do and I thought this is your cousin, you look alike. Then it blinked with both lids. I went out on to my patio, and I found there were many frogs there: Big and small, mummies, daddies and babies perhaps. How did they come to be on my patio, and why? - there is no direct access to it. There are walls on all four sides. Did they come as one of the seven Egyptian plagues? One plague was of sandstorms, then locusts, then the Egyptian blindness. Then there was a plague of frogs that ‘descended from the skies.’ Millions of them, even trillions of them. Did my frogs too simply fall from the sky onto my patio? I rang the Royal Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals. They didn't know anything about frogs, but they gave me a telephone number of someone who could help - a sort of ‘hot line for frogs.’ I rang them for weeks but the number was never answered. So the frog mystery is still unsolved. Well, I couldn’t just leave the frogs on my patio, so I caught them all, putting them one by one into a bag. All the time I was doing this I was suffering their fears with them. They were frantically jumping about inside the bag, crying for help. The sound they uttered, or rather ‘a sing song’ of a kind was like playing hundreds of metal mouth harmonicas; most beautiful. It reminded me of Armenian choirs during the Easter time in Jerusalem where I was working on a film there. As most of my blood is Armenian, these Armenian choirs impressed me artistically. I felt their singing directly in my blood, and now the frogs are singing too. Perhaps I am a frog of some sort. Carefully though, I released the frogs from the bag, one by one, away from my house in a churchyard nearby in Fulham. They kept coming back, and so it went on and on. Until one day they disappeared altogether. They must have disowned me, and I started missing them. But then I was also born with the nose of ‘a dog’ as my sense of smell is uncanny. I would be able to smell something from a long distance. “Aunt Sophia is coming” I would say, as a boy. “How come? - where is she?” my parents would ask reproachfully. I always felt defensive in situations like this: “Well she is near” I would say. “Vladimir” my father would say, “you always say you can see and hear people coming. Stop it. I don't see her.” Then I would cry and say: “I can smell her perfume.” Two minutes later Aunt Sophia would ring the doorbell, and I would hide myself under a sofa and cry. I could always tell if the food we were about to eat was not fresh. For instance, I remember there would be uproar in the house when I said that the egg I was about to eat did not smell right. The whole family would take their turn, smell it and announce that the egg was perfectly fresh, but I still wouldn't want to eat it. Then they would call ‘the expert’ my grandmother Leocadia. She would smell the egg, and to my relief she would say: “The boy is right, this egg is not fresh.” My brother would look at me like at a freak. He would say: “You are a joke.” Years later, just after Stalin’s death, I was touring Russia with the Warsaw Theatre (where we were performing seven plays). I saw Stalin in his ghastly glass coffin - and I thought to myself: “You see I'm still here, and you're already there.” The Russians treated us fantastically. As we all know the Russian people are warm, hospitable and very friendly. We would eat in a first class restaurant in our hotel in Moscow. There would be heaps of caviar and the rest of the ‘gastronomical glitz.’ Ordinary Russian people, except for high ranking dignitaries, would not have any access to this kind of fantastic food. Well, at breakfast there were all kinds of goodies on display, including my favourite soft boiled eggs. One morning I returned my two eggs saying they were not fresh. The waitress brought new ones and again I sent them away. After the third time one of my colleagues, an actress reproached me: “Really ... what you are doing is utterly impolite, they try to do their best … and anyway, you are wasting so many Russian eggs.” “These few eggs are a microscopically tiny proportion of what they stole from my parents” I said. This story had quite an unpleasant ‘political’ innuendo as this actress happened to be a member of the Communist Party. My life's story. I always did and said what I thought, no matter what the consequences might be.
I am sitting again in my little flat in Paris; it is 1990. I’d like to explain my reasons for crossing the communist borders in 1957. Thirty-three years ago, would anyone here in the west, my English, French friends and colleagues ever understand it. I could not understand it either. Getting the passport so - well, Lena (the great Irena Eichlerowna, my common law wife) helped me with everything. Lena was a great Polish actress, she was even admired by the ‘KGB’ officers. The year was 1957, on the main railway station in Warsaw to Vienna, and there I was on the train; I could not believe it. I could still smell danger and I didn't dare to look at the faces of the people in my compartment. I placed my suitcase on the shelf. I was perspiring; all that I owned in the world was in it. I’d had to say goodbye to my Lena, nervous tension, our brief ridiculous parting, her green umbrella, literally sailing away, above the heads of the crowds on the station . I sank down in my seat in total silence. Everybody was frightened. This after all, was the train to Prague and Vienna; to freedom. We were prepared to go through three communist countries' borders to get there. We would be entering Czechoslovakia, leaving Czechoslovakia, and entering Austria - both Czechoslovakian borders represented a potential danger. I thought about my position - would the authorities make up their minds negatively, and send me back to Poland? As the train was moving south we all tried getting some sleep. Then, early in the morning came the first border crossing. Polish soldiers with no smiles on their faces solemnly checked and rechecked my passport. Relief washed over me - they didn't stop me. Then we were checked again by the Czechoslovakian soldiers, and again I felt relieved when they gave me back my passport. No smiles again. In communism, one learned not to trust anyone, not to trust any situation. A constant piercing thought in my brain: “Have they, for some reason, placed me on the list with a condemned ‘NO’ across my name, ‘NO - WILL NOT LEAVE POLAND’ stamped somewhere.” Yet the train was now speeding through Czechoslovakia towards the Austrian border. Another ordeal, another spasm of fear. Then it would either be back to ‘prison’ or on to freedom. It was only a very short journey across Czechoslovakia and then the train stopped. This was it - the Austrian border. Again, the unsmiling Czechoslovakian soldiers checked my passport, and this time I was really scared - they took my passport with them. The train was getting ready to leave, but the soldiers had not come back with my passport. All the other passengers were looking at me with annoyance and impatience. I could imagine their thoughts - why was I keeping them waiting? - what was the matter with me? - was I likely to endanger their safety crossing this last border? The tension was mounting, and I could feel the stares of the people sitting around me in the compartment upon me, hating me. Their collective expressions were of hatred, disdain and even triumph. They seemed to say: “We had our passports back long ago, and we are now ready to cross the border.”
Under communism people become animals. I knew it, and I didn't expect any feeling of compassion from them for there is no compassion in communism, there is only fear. I didn't blame those people at all. After all they were trained by fear, they have lived with fear, and they couldn't help me with my predicament either. At last the soldier with my passport arrived, and began one more unsmiling performance. He looked at my passport, then at me, then the passport and finally at me. Luckily for me, I had long ago learned to suppress all my feelings if I had to, and I looked back at him impassively. I remember a similar moment when a Gestapo soldier looked at me like this after the Warsaw uprising, and then finally decided to arrest me. So what, I thought, it will happen again. So, I was prepared for the same thing happening again. Any minute now he would ask me to leave the train with him, but instead he gave me back my passport and left the train. All around me, the people in the compartment heaved a sigh of relief; and so did I. The train started moving on. We were travelling very slowly because this was ‘no-man’s land.’ It was a significant moment, as everyone got up and went to look out of the windows. Watching as we left behind this hateful system - this communism. I leaned out of one of the windows, watching the Czechoslovakian soldiers getting further and further away, my heart was racing like mad. Then I saw the Austrian soldiers, smiling, waiting for us. Freedom was here at last, and I admit that I put up two fingers to the communists, they could not stop the train now. I made the gesture a few more times too. Now, the train was pulling slowly into the Austrian border station. The atmosphere was so immediately different; different faces, smells, colours, and smiles. I must admit that I did feel a bit of a coward making all these rude signs to the communists, when I already felt safe, and outside any possibility of their intrusion into my life. Unfortunately human nature is a coward's nature, or perhaps it is only an instinct to survive which is deep inside each of us. I looked back at my co-passengers. They all looked different now; all relaxed and smiling. We started shaking each other's hands and congratulating each other, for we all knew that we would never go back to communism. Then I went through two years of simply lifting my head up, opening my mouth and taking in and drinking in this indescribable feeling of freedom. People would ask me stupid questions: “Aren't you missing Poland? Aren't you longing to go back?”
They didn’t understand what it was like.
“No” I would just whisper with a smile and walk away.
“Aren't you missing being an actor?” they went on, “in Poland, you had star status in the theatre, and here you are washing dishes in cafes and restaurants.”
It was a strange feeling to explain to anyone, but I did not miss the theatre then. I simply loved washing dishes; I would look at the suds and the plates, and I would sing a song of happiness to myself. There were times when I was without work and I was hungry. At these times I would just walk out on the streets of Vienna, and later in Paris where I could look at the beauty of these cities. The sheer beauty of the architecture, but above all - the beauty which came from the freedom of the people. Of course I was being pestered by letters from the director of the Polish Theatre. I would get desperate letters from the director, and from friends of mine who wanted me to play Hamlet. They could not understand me, naturally they thought I was mad. Why would I refuse the chance to play Hamlet and instead carry on washing my dishes, steadfastly refusing to ‘go back where I belong’ where my talent belongs. The more they bleated about it, the more I was certain that I preferred washing dishes in freedom to playing Hamlet in prison, and the dirt and fears of communism. I really didn't care what happened to me then, I was breathing for the first time in my life. I felt the sun, and I saw the really blue sky. I never realised how deeply I hated communism. Now I knew, and I was happy that I didn't have to hate it any more. I was outside it. As I am writing this, it is already ‘after Gorbachev and Perestroika.’ My only thought about it (the sad thought) is, why did it come so late? Why did people in communism have to waste their lives for so long, living in this cruel and inhuman factory of nonsense?
Then came the day that I decided to go to England. I had kept this day secret to the very last moment. Now the ferry was crossing the channel, at last. Ahead of me were the white cliffs of Dover, and I felt so very moved. I didn't know at that particular moment, that I would make a completely new career in England, I couldn’t even imagine it, but in that first moment when I first stepped onto English soil, I knew that something extraordinary was going to happen here to my life. I knew I had found my new home. Destiny had already started plotting its new play for me. It was the beginning of the third and final act of my play, my life. London took me by storm with its relaxed, smiling people. Some English people I met on the boat gave me their telephone numbers and later I would ring them. I would immediately be asked to dinners and lunches, and they would organise guided tours of the city for me. They were attentive and loving. No superfluous fuss, just the straightforward non-imposing English way. The people at the Arts Council were friendly and helpful as well. They would generously give me tickets to theatres, and I was able to see Ralph Richardson, Lawrence Olivier, Dame Edith Evans and Celia Joanne Schofield, all legends in my profession. Then I was even invited to Stratford upon Avon, as the guest of Zoe Zeidler. Zoe already had a famous lodger upstairs in her charming cottage: John Gielgud. Unfortunately for me, he was out of the country touring, but I was shown his room. It all was like living in a fairy tale. Then, I was shown the theatre and of course, Shakespeare. Somehow Shakespeare in Stratford didn't appeal to me, and I don't exactly know why. Perhaps my delicate actor's intuition was whispering to me that it was stale; a bit, or perhaps, too traditional - the way you would feel about something which had been done again and again. Still, through Zoe, I was able to meet my very first English actress friend: Prunella Scales. But I felt I had been away from working in the theatre for too long already, so I didn't have any desire to walk onto the stage and act. I felt the theatre was already in my past. Communism killed the theatre inside me, but like everything in my life that was dreadful, there were some powerful forces that would mysteriously push me in the right direction, without any help from me. Little coincidences were being built up, and suddenly I was able to see the motivation of, and logic of the fact that followed later. Back in London, I walked to the Polish Centre. It was known locally as ‘Polish Hearth’ and it was an exclusive Polish Immigrant place. It was a strange experience for me, to see all those old generals and titled people. The old fashioned manners, old fashioned ladies and gentlemen. Somebody recognised me, and before I realised it they convinced me to play in their little theatre. I felt uneasy on that stage, and I felt uneasy with the immigrants. I didn’t know what it was, there was nothing bad about them - they were kind and smiling. I simply felt that I no longer had anything in common with them. On their political programme they had yet another political programme, and I felt trapped like I did in Communism. The Polish language surrounded me, and I was not making any progress in English. Again, I started to feel the power of indoctrination, and I felt there were things that I could not say to these immigrants. My last activity in this theatre was directing for them: ‘Miss Warren’s Profession’ by Bernard Shaw. The real reason for this choice was that I wanted to bring Lena here from Poland, where she was a well known and famous actress in Warsaw. The immigrants were ecstatic. They were happy to think they may have the greatest living Polish Actress, Irene Eichlerowna, guesting at their little theatre. I didn’t think the production was good enough, and so I don’t think that Lena, or I put too much enthusiasm into it. We only wanted to do it under the pretext of being able to see each other, to have long talks and decide what would become of us. Lena finished the play, and it was she who decided that I should stay here and she would go back to Poland. It was 1958 and we were both standing in silence at Heathrow Airport in London. We couldn’t look at each other, we both felt that this was it; we would not see each other any more. Lena was smoking cigarettes, one after another. Her beautiful slender hands were still inside the lilac coloured gloves she was wearing, and I remember thinking that there was no green umbrella this time. I remember so well Lena's green umbrella sailing above and away from me amid the dirty tragic crowd at the Warsaw railway station. I thought then that it would be the last time I would see her, but here at the Airport … well, this was it … for ever … or was it? Lena’s flight was announced and she looked at me for quite a long time; her fantastic green eyes were even greener now. Although they shined brightly there were thick drops of tears in them. I think that this was the first time in our relationship that I had seen Lena cry, she never cried. As I was about to embrace her, a rather angry stewardess came over and asked Lena if she was Miss Eichlerowna. Lena didn’t even have time to say yes when this stewardess yanked her quickly towards her, and then pushed her in front of her into the crowd of people. I stood there, bewildered. We didn't even get to say goodbye to each other. Suddenly I saw Lena's slender beautiful hand above the heads of the people, waving. She was far away in the distance already, where she was being pushed by this stupid stewardess towards passport control.
All of a sudden I heard Lena's deep metallic voice: “Be happy darling.”
All I was able to think of then was why did she take off her lilac glove? Then I rushed along the corridors, and steps going up and up, until I reached the viewing balcony. I saw Lena among the people stepping onto the steps to the plane, she stopped at the top platform and with a gesture of a lost child turned and looked up to my balcony hoping to see me there. I started waving like mad and yelling: “Lena, Lena, I am here.”
There was a fleeting moment when Lena sort of shook her head, but I am certain that she did not see me, she looked like a blind woman, blind and deaf - perhaps at that moment she wanted to be blind and deaf. She turned slowly towards the door of the plane and disappeared inside. I was still standing there on the balcony, helplessly hoping to see her in one of those little windows on the plane. Now my eyes were full of tears and the whole plane looked to me now like a huge coffin. The coffin moved heavily, and started to taxi along the tarmac. Then at last it took off. My moist eyes stayed on it as it flew higher and higher, and further and further away, until it had become only a small dot which disappeared after a while. I stayed on the balcony looking into the sky as if I could pull her back to me.
A young woman standing nearby whispered to me: “Don't worry, she'll come back.”
I didn't look at her, but I whispered too: “No she will not.”
There was a pause. The young woman was waiting for an explanation, so I whispered again: “One doesn't come back from the communist system, from Warsaw.” I am not certain if the woman understood, exactly understood, the meaning of it. People in the west cannot possibly comprehend us - these people who lie behind the iron curtain. I looked at the woman now, and she smiled gently. I smiled back and felt slightly comforted. This was the strength of the delicate, gentle unobtrusive feelings of the English. I touched her hand and I walked away. Lena and I remained close, but I never saw her again, and in September of 1990 Lena died in Warsaw. I still feel the pain and the sense of guilt that I didn't convince her to stay here with me. Suddenly, I saw her waving goodbye to me again like it was on the station in Warsaw a few years previously. Again, she didn't have her green umbrella.
Before she died, she sent me a tape of her radio performance in Poland. She was reading extremely beautiful letters written in the 18th Century by a woman to her lover who left her several years previously; she cannot stop loving him and is still waiting for him. It is a rather haunting experience for me to listen to these letters, and Lena's unique and tragic interpretation after her death.
After Lena's departure in 1958, I felt I was going nowhere with the immigrant theatre, and so I began working in a Polish delicatessen shop selling goods, and while I was there, I had plenty of time to think. I was living in a little room above the shop. I had to get up very early in the morning and it would usually be freezing cold. I had to go down into the shop where I would wash the sausages, and rub them with oil so that they would look fresh and glistening. Then, other chores would involve washing olives and changing their salty water, and dozens of other things to prepare the perfect appearance and presentation of the goods. I was allowed to eat all I wanted, the most sophisticated foods were in very expensive tins - foie gras, crab etc, it was a known psychological trick. The owner knew that after a short while I would be sick and bored with all those delicacies and I would stop eating them. Opting instead for simple food like tomato soup, pork chops and potatoes cooked by the owner's wife in the kitchen behind the shop - and he was right!. The transition from being a leading actor in Poland to this simple work didn't worry me at all. I didn't experience any doubt that I was doing the right thing. As a matter of fact, no matter what the circumstances, in my heart and mind I always felt I was a star. I never had any doubt about that either. Somehow my presence behind the counter, and my ways of dealing with the customers, my being able to sell and advise in French to French customers, and in German to the Germans made the shop more successful. The owner was very happy indeed. So when I told him I wanted to a different job he was very sad, but I needed change in this new fascinating period of my life. Perhaps it was now time to start acting different parts professionally, than the ‘parts’ I was playing in the shop. It all became my new theatre, my new fascinating theatre, my constant need and greed to be an actor in this new fascinating way. So I found work in the east end of London, this time in an artificial jewellery factory soldering parts to brooches. I was still making my decision. The only thing I knew for certain was that I would never go back to Poland, I would never be an actor there again. In the artificial jewellery factory in Brick Lane, I had two cockney room mates: Tommy and Lenny. They did the same monotonous job as I did. There was a table in front of us, and we would take two parts of brooches from two heaps on our right, and on our left, then we had to solder them together and place the ‘ready part’ on another heap in front of us. Tommy and Lenny had never met a foreigner before, but the east end of London was tolerant then, more like a generous ‘state.’ They would refer to going to the west end as ‘going to London,’ as though they were going abroad. I didn't want them to know about my life as an actor or ‘star,’ heaven forbid. I would feel very embarrassed by the thought, but one day Tommy and Lenny asked me outright what I did for a living in Poland. I hesitated and thought a while, should I tell them that I was an actor? Would this then change the friendly atmosphere between us?
“Well, come on, are you ashamed about your past or what?” They started becoming impatient, after all, an ‘Eastender's’ code is straightforward; you never lie. They trust you, you trust them. So I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and whispered.
“I was an actor.”
There was a long heavy silence.
“Where?” they whispered.
“On the screen?” Lenny shouted, then he started to get angry, “are you kidding us, we might be cockneys but we aren't stupid.”
Tommy then started barking like a dog, then howling to the sky, then he jumped in the middle of the room and performed some sort of mocking dance. Then he stopped and looked at me with contempt, waiting for the true answer to their question.
“I am not lying, I was a film star” I said quietly.
I was met again, by a long and disbelieving silence.
“Well where is your car then?” Tommy demanded.
For them, the car was the only sign and status of film stardom.
“I haven't got a car now” I said, still speaking quietly, “I had my car back in Poland.”
As I was speaking, I had a sudden thought.
“Yes, if you don't believe me why don't you go to the National Film Theatre opposite Charing Cross station, and see the Polish film: ‘Kanal?’
They didn't say anything after that, and we continued working in silence. I felt they had lost confidence in me. The next morning when I was walking to work, I saw a crowd of workers from our factory in front of the building cheering me, all of them wanted to shake my hand. Apparently they had all been to see the film. Tommy and Lenny were ecstatic. They were almost dancing around me in our little room, bringing me coffee, sandwiches and cakes. Once again in my life I felt the ‘magic’ of being a film star so tangibly. What is it in the ‘film star image’ that makes people happy, and proud to know you in the flesh? Perhaps it is the transition from a non existing celluloid image into a real flesh and blood living person, a sort of: ‘Look he exists, he really is alive’ sort of thing.
Later on, when I went to study in Oxford, Tommy and Lenny would visit me and my Oxford friends. They would wear very smart suits for these occasions - clean shirts and ties. They were subdued and shy, in spite of my Oxford friends trying to be hospitable and nice, but they would look at each other with some sort of reserve; perhaps this was due to the proverbial class system that exists in England. Or perhaps they all were slightly jealous of me, wondering which ‘side’ I was now on. As usual, my decision was made by those ‘mysterious powers,’ which I recounted earlier. I finished my job in the artificial jewellery factory, took a few of my possessions and the only money I had in the world (£10 which I had managed to save) and I went to Paddington station and took the train to Oxford. That was in 1959. I didn't know anybody there, and I didn't know where I would be staying. The only thing I knew was that I must cut myself off from the Polish language altogether. My aim then was to learn good English, and of course what better place was there than Oxford to learn English? The logic of this was simple. I thought that when I learned English I would like a job in a place with beautiful things around me, like working in a museum or in a library. The train was moving along, and as it did, I knew that I would never be an actor again. Little did I know then, that by yet another sharp and mysterious twist of fate, my future had already been decided. Just by my being in Oxford, doors were already opening to my career in England, and then the whole world. The trundling train was already making history for me. I was already doomed. Here was the most important part of my life, the final act in the play which fate had already written for me. When my train arrived at Oxford station, I felt a slight tremor inside, like a gentle ripple on the surface of water. I had already seen the towers of Oxford from the train windows. How many scholars, writers and other great people had already done what I was about to do? - walk along the floors, through dining rooms, go up staircases, into libraries and look out of the windows of this famous place. I was sure that I felt all these ghosts, these brains, these minds, were still reverberating there, but none were waiting for me. Indeed, even though Oxford Station itself was filled with people, none were waiting there for me either. Yet again I almost saw my invisible film camera above my face, filming this huge close up of me, involved in yet another puzzle in my life. It saved my life; this blessed camera has saved my life in so many dangerous circumstances ... mainly in the war in my concentration camp, in the Warsaw uprising, and in my not-at-all brave escape from Nazi hands. I was merely playing in my film. I think that God had given me this constantly, softly but surely whizzing camera in front of me. This was his comfort for me, and I was grateful for its presence. The camera saved my life in a way, at Oxford station too. As soon as I got off the train I immediately felt that I couldn’t do this, I had to go straight back to London. The very idea that I could find some luck in this gigantic place at the top of the world, was madness in itself. Yet, in this moment of doubt, my camera started filming above me. Relief washed over me, why must I go back, I was here and I had to try!
Unfortunately, like it always does in England, it started pouring with rain. I didn't have money for a taxi so I had to wait on the station. Suddenly I started laughing, even if I could afford a taxi, where would it take me? I didn't know a living soul in this place. Eventually I started walking towards the centre of Oxford, looking at the looming splendour of the colleges and the old buildings, and I started liking my decision to come to Oxford; the idea didn’t seem to be so bad after all. I reached the main street - the Carfax, and started walking aimlessly along. As I wandered along, wondering what I would do now that I had arrived, I had a premonition that everything would be fine and all would be well. A little further down the same street I saw a little coffee shop. I was wet, cold and aimless, so I went inside. It was nice and warm, there were a few people sitting there drinking coffee and chatting. I took a little table, and the waitress appeared. The smell of coffee and cocoa was overpowering. I ordered some hot cocoa and the speciality of the house: cinnamon toasts. As I waited for my meal I planned what I would do next. Perhaps I could ask the waitress if she knew of a cheap hotel. Then my little meal arrived, it was delicious and I felt much better, but I didn’t ask the waitress anything. I started to relax, and looked around me at the people in the coffee shop. I noticed that most of them were university students. Some were even wearing those lovely black caps. Suddenly I noticed that at one table in particular, three or four students started looking at me and whispering over the table. They were pointing at me, and I was puzzled. I didn't understand all this. One of students came over to me, he smiled and asked:
“Is it at all possible that we saw you yesterday, playing one of the leading parts in an excellent Polish film: Kanal?”
I was silent; actually I was speechless.
“I am not making this up” the student went on, “the film is being shown here in our local cinema.”
I could not believe it either; fate had stepped in again.
The student was nervous: “Please say this is true.” he whispered.
“Yes this is true” I said, finally regaining my voice, “it is me who is playing in that film.”
The student was jubilant, he turned to his friends and shouted: “Yes, it's him.”
His friends came over and they surrounded my table, all smiling warm young faces. My English was not very good at this time and so we conversed in French.
My ‘student’ introduced himself as Adrian Brine. Later on, Adrian became my friend and the master of all my business in Oxford. In a way, and to this day, he is my great pride. He moved to Amsterdam; he is one of the finest directors over there, and also in Belgium.
After shaking all their hands, I asked them to sit down at my table. They all asked me what I was doing there in Oxford. I couldn't tell them the story of my life, so I simply said I was there to learn English.
“We are delighted to hear that” Adrian said, “as a matter of fact it's fantastic, we must arrange an open interview for you, you will have half of Oxford in the theatre. We must keep in touch while you are here. How long do you expect to study here?”
I told them I didn’t know.
“But you must have arranged with the University, the college at which you will take your studies?”
I felt the conversation was starting to take the wrong direction. These obviously charming naïve, young people had assumed that being a film star I had money, and all the commodities were prearranged.
“I haven't got a college yet” I said carefully and a long silence followed.
Even these students started suspecting that something was wrong, and Adrian asked me a straightforward question: “Do you have any contacts here in Oxford?”
“No” I said, again quietly, “I have none, I have just arrived from London and I’m thinking about what to do next.”
They looked at each other, and Adrian, always fond of asking a direct question said: “You didn't defect then - or did you?”
I felt relief; so they knew something about the political situation in Poland.
“No, I didn't defect as you put it” I said, watching the expressions on their faces, “but I don't think I would like to go back to Poland.”
They looked at each other again, this time conspiratorially. One of them, Brian, stood up. “Wait here for a while, I have to make a telephone call” and he rushed out. A little while later he came back, very excited.
“I’ve just telephoned our professor, Neville Coghill” he said, “he might be able to help you. He's waiting for you in his rooms at Merton College. You must go there straight away.” Brian sketched a plan of the streets of Oxford for me, when he’d finished he gave it to me.
“Good luck” he said simply, I’ll be in touch with Neville so as to know your whereabouts. We must keep in touch.”
They all looked at me with kindness.
I didn't yet know that Oxford was a place where miracles happened. I followed Brian’s street plan and arrived outside Merton College. A very old, very beautiful, majestic college. One of the oldest in Oxford. Professor Coghill, Neville, as the students called him informally, was waiting for me. He smiled at me as I approached. Although he was already an old man; his face wrinkled, and his hair white, his movements and voice were young and energetic. He had a very special way of speaking, a slight lisp as his upper front teeth slightly protruded above his lower lip. His eyes were pale blue and had a rather boyish expression. With a soft gesture, he showed me an armchair: “Do sit down.”
As I sat down, I looked around at his rooms (as they were known in Oxford). In fact it was his private flat on the second floor of Merton College. Everything was very old of course, and quiet, opulent and very beautiful. The flat was furnished quite beautifully too, with heavy curtains, carved wooden ceilings, old pictures and etchings on the walls. There was a large mantelpiece with candelabras and silverware on it, and bookshelves with thousands of splendid looking books; and a side table with bottles of drinks. Neville caught the direction of my eye.
“Would you like a drink?” he asked, “whisky?”
I smiled back at him.
“No thank you.”
He was assessing me with his charming eyes.
“I detect that your English is not very good, would you prefer to speak French with me?”
I nodded gratefully, I preferred to speak in French then. So our first conversation set up the language between us for the rest of the years of our friendship. His French sounded rather funny to me with its very strong English accent and with his natural inherent lisp, it sounded rather strange.
“I understand from Adrian Brine” he began, “that you have been friends, and known each other for quite some time Mr Sheybal.”
He never called me Vladek. I was always Mr Sheybal to him. I looked at him in surprise. “No” I said, “I’ve only just met Adrian for the first time” I didn’t want to get Adrian, or Brian for that matter, into trouble, but I had to be honest, “I think you must have misunderstood him” I continued, “I have only just arrived in Oxford, and I met him in the coffee shop. He and the other students recognised me from the Polish film: ‘Kanal’- they had recently seen it at the cinema.”
Neville smiled at me kindly.
“I am very glad that you are honest, I already have confidence in you Mr Sheybal. You want to study English I believe?”
It was funny, listening to him speaking French because he sounded a little like Dame Edith Evans in ‘Lady Bracknell’ to me; I had seen her in the role when I was back in Poland.
“Yes sir” I nodded.
“Well I have to ask you some vital questions then, I hope you don't mind?”
Why should I mind?, from this point on I started learning about the proverbial English politeness; kindness in conversation, whereby you should never feel pressurised, embarrassed or uncomfortable during the conversation.
“I don't mind sir” I said.
“I am glad to hear it,” he said, still sounding just like ‘Lady Bracknell.’ “Well, Mr Sheybal, do you have any money?”
He chose not to ask me how much, one doesn't speak of money in England. It's common and vulgar. Just the opposite to America, where one always speaks about money.
“You have to work somewhere, do you have a labour permit?”
I told him I didn’t have one.
“I think then, that we can do nicely without one - considering your special situation. I can enrol you as a recognised student. Meaning that you will have all the rights of any of my students without being obliged to pass the exams after two years of studying.”
“It will cost you some money, although not that much.”
Neville asked me to go out to the High Street and look for ‘Newman's Book Shop,’ which was situated just opposite Christ Church College. Behind the bookshop I would find a little coffee shop, and behind this there was a kitchen.
“Ask for Dennis when you get there” Neville went on, “he's my friend, and you’ll recognise him instantly; he is very tall and thin, and he has a squint. You must tell him that I have sent you to him, and I hope he'll be able to help you with a job in the kitchen. You’ll be quite well placed as his restaurant is opposite the main Police Station. Considering that you don't have a work permit it's quite a beneficial location Mr Sheybal.”
He laughed a little, and I had an impression that he had a personal reason for his laughter; and I was right. Sometime later I learned that Professor Neville Coghill had his personal reasons not to like the British Police Force. There was something sad in his face as he poured himself some whisky, but he controlled himself and resumed talking, slowly sipping his whisky.
“As for your studying under my supervision, most of your work will be done with your tutor, Mr Ashby, I would be glad if he could be your tutor. As regards accommodation, I cannot help with that at the moment but Dennis might find you something” he started scribbling names and addresses down on a piece of paper, “here are the details for Mr Ashby, Dennis and me. Let me know how you are doing.”
As he handed me the addresses he smiled.
“I will be seeing you tonight” he laughed quite loudly then, “I won’t be checking your identity as an actor you understan, I had booked the tickets to see ‘Kanal’ a few days ago. Actually, I am taking some friends with me: Mrs Ashby and Isobel Van Beers. I hope you’ll get the chance to meet Isobel in due course, she could be a very useful person; she knows everybody in Oxford.” Later on, Isobel did become a friend and she still remains a very loyal and close friend even today. When I recently started touring in England with those poetry recitals, it was Isobel who chose the poems for me to read; she chooses them with love and with the profound knowledge of my temperament as an actor. So, back to that night in Neville’s rooms. When I left I was feeling overwhelmed, I could not believe that such kindness and help was really happening in my life. I often wondered what would have become of me if ‘Kanal’ had not been showing in Oxford? Later, I was fully convinced that it would take much longer for me to establish myself; but finally I would be successful. My whole career in England was based on the fact that I have never asked for help. Instead, it was I who was asked to help. I was able to help by bringing my knowledge of the theatre, and acting abilities to Oxford. I had been trained by the best Polish actors, and of course Irena Eichlerowna, whom I am sure was one of the greatest actresses in the world. Oxford needed me, Oxford was ready for me, and ‘Kanal’ merely speeded up events. To think that I hated playing in this film; it was a war film. The noise was constant; gunfire and dirt, running across the streets in the Warsaw uprising, then filming in the wet, cold and dirty waters of the Warsaw canals [sewers]. My acting in this film was actually criticised in some quarters, and as a result, my confidence became weak and I became vulnerable. Critics in Poland said it was ghastly, and Vladek Sheybal is the worst film actor that has ever been; they literally poured cold water on my head and my ego all the time. The only person who believed in me in this film was Lena; she would simply tell me that I was very good. Just like some wines travel well, and some not so well - the same can be said about artistic achievements. For example; a film, or actor can be hugely successful in the USA but be a total flop in England, and vice versa. My part in ‘Kanal’ was that of a hopeless and clumsy musician, who finds himself trapped with other people in the canals under Warsaw. Whilst trying to escape, my character is slowly driven mad and plays his little flute for solace, as he wades through the filth and dirt of the sewers, trying to escape the German Army. In reality, this actually happened. In 1944 people went underground to the sewers, trying to escape from the German army but within 63 days of this uprising, Warsaw was totally destroyed. I personally went through the whole of this hell, and consequently I was caught by the Germans and sent to a German camp. My part in this film was very close to my heart, so the negative and very spiteful critics in the Polish press hurt me considerably. To my astonishment, when this film was shown in England I was highly praised for this part; I was fully satisfied. The feeling of sweet revenge was just that … sweet. It was yet another step away from Poland for me. Anyway we all know the proverb: ‘You can't be a prophet in your own country.’ Of course, this type of thing was not unique to me. When I worked on the stage in London with the uniquely talented and outstanding performer Lindsay Kemp, he told me that the same thing had happened to him. He nodded sadly as he recalled the same experiences. His country, England, didn't accept his genius at all, and he had to go abroad. Now he's triumphantly touring the whole world. Overnight he became a big star in Europe and then in Japan. They write about him overseas as a great English artist; ironic isn't it? So at that point in my life, Oxford opened all its doors and windows to me, to have me there. In the meantime, I still couldn't get used to the beauty of Oxford. So before going to Dennis' restaurant, I went over to the imposing wooden gate of Christ Church College. I found myself in a dream as I looked at the fantastic sweep of its huge courtyard. Later on I learned that in Oxford at this time, all of its gates and doors were open, and you could wander freely along the courtyards, stone stairs and balconies without being stopped by anybody or asked any questions.
Science and beauty in England was freely available to me then. Unfortunately this freedom of entry everywhere in Oxford caused a very dangerous incident in my life a few months later. By now, I was well established in Oxford as a teacher of acting, and a director of plays for the Oxford University Drama Society (OUDS). I was living in a room on the fourth floor in a large house. All the rooms were occupied by students, and we had communal cooking facilities and bathrooms on each landing. As I mentioned earlier, all doors including the front door to the street were open day and night. It was one of those colourful Oxford traditions and we were rather proud about it. One night when I was fast asleep in my room, I suddenly had a weird feeling that there was somebody else in there with me. I woke up in darkness and was paralysed with fear. Against the faint light from the window I saw the heavy shape of somebody just standing there. I quickly switched on a little lamp by my bed, and sat up. There by the window, was a man, just standing there. He wore a dark coat and hat; typical. He was trying to smile at me, but his unblinking eyes were cold, cruel and wild. All my experiences and instincts were still and forever will be I think, quivering dormant deep inside me, somewhere between my guts and my heart. This quiver, the fear, came from my German camp, and from my experiences with the communist secret police. This man belonged to those elite, those with a hot line to KGB. There would always be one of them in a little dark room (in our Polish theatre on the fourth floor) with a drab desk, and five or six telephones on it. There would also be buttons and microphones directly conveying to him every single scrap of conversation from all those bugging devices hidden in our dressing rooms, canteens (under the tables) even the lavatories. The most uncanny thing was that all of them had the same expressions, this unblinking gaze, written on their faces. Expressions of cold cruelty, the expressions of a killer. We looked at each other in silence in my little room in Oxford; I didn't have to ask who he was. I knew his kind of face, he was unmistakably one of them; a killer. A killer from the Polish Embassy. My mind was racing like mad - jump out of bed - run to the door and yell for help. All my friends, the students were sleeping only inches away. The killer must have sensed it through his vast hunting experience, He put his index finger against his lips as if to silence me; then he whispered, in Polish, of course. “Mr Sheybal, please don't make any noise, don't behave stupidly. We are not going to do you any harm. We want to take you to our embassy in London and then send you back to Poland, our car is outside. You have been here long enough. We are very proud of you, and of all your activities and achievements here, but your place is in the Polish theatre. A friend of yours, Mrs Babel is waiting for you with a fantastic part, ‘Hamlet.’ You will be unforgettable in it. It will be an indelible experience, and we all want to cheer your successes on the stage in Poland. We've been waiting long enough; you see we want to lay out a new career there for you … we …” I didn't hear anything anymore. All his words blurred in my mind, and I felt an upsurge of anger and despair. I felt that if I didn't act in a single sharp split second, my precious freedom would be taken away from me. I would become just a number again, a stinking prisoner in the communist system. Flashes of the dangerous moments in my past went through my mind with the speed of lightning, the Gestapo officer arresting me in Warsaw, the firing squad. Here I was facing an inspector from the KGB, asking me dangerous questions. I would not lose my freedom … not again! I uttered a yell and I leapt at him. My despair turned suddenly into a gigantic physical force, which took him by surprise. He was much larger than I was, and definitely skilful in karate and other martial arts, these men always were. Such is the nature of human desperation that within a split second I pushed him out of the door. I uttered another gigantic yell, and pushed him with all the force I could muster, down the steep staircase. He went down bouncing and stumbling, he shouted and groaned. He growled and grunted and snarled like a huge dying animal. His body stopped on the landing down below and he just lay there, obviously in pain. Then his professional training got the better of him and he stood up quickly. Without any hesitation, he ran down to the front door. He knew that he had blown it, and he didn't want any witnesses. He knew that behind all those doors were people who would wake up at all the noise, and come out on the staircase. He banged the front door shut, and almost immediately I heard a car quickly driving off. The first person to appear was my next door neighbour: D’Abo, a black man. Then all the doors on the other floors opened, and I was surrounded by my friends asking what had happened. I couldn't utter a word. How could I possibly explain to them that in those few preceding seconds, I had just crossed the line between life and death; I was trembling uncontrollably. D’Abo gently led me into my room, and put me to bed. I saw some of the students' faces gazing at me in the doorway.
“Should we call an ambulance?” one voice said.
“Are you all right?” came another.
“No ambulance” I managed finally, “thank you … I will be all right.”
“Sleep well Vladek” they said, and dispersed to their rooms. I was left with D’Abo.
He looked at me in silence; he had already sensed danger.
“Shall I call the police?” he asked gently.
I thought for a while. I was sure that after the KGB man had failed to take me away that he would not come back again.
“No thank you D’Abo” I said, “I don’t think he will be back, at least not tonight.”
I smiled at him. He hesitated for a few moments, then he moved to the door and stopped. “The key to your door is here” he said as he took a small key from the mantelpiece, “perhaps you would like to lock yourself in from inside” he handed me the key.
I started laughing, and D’Abo looked at me in surprise.
“If I lock my room from inside, I shall go down in history as the first one who broke several hundred years of Oxford tradition.”
D’Abo smiled, he waved as he left my room. Then I planned my next move. The first thing I would do the following morning would be to see Professor Coghill. I would tell him what had happened, and I was certain he would know what to do. Then I slowly got up and locked my door. I lock my bedroom doors from inside ever since that night, even now thirty years later.
I heard D’Abo's voice outside my door: “I am glad you locked your door, now I shan't worry about you. Good night Vladek.”
“Thank you D’Abo” I whispered, “good night, God bless.”
The next day I went to Merton College (which by this time was my College, and Professor Coghill had become my professor). Merton College was, I think, the oldest college in Oxford dating back as far as the 13th Century, at least the oldest part of it was. As I recounted my frightening story of the previous night to the professor, he slowly sipped his coffee. His face seemed to be impassive, and I felt there were even moments that he hardly listened to me, or perhaps he was bored with it. I needn’t have worried, for as soon as I had finished my story he immediately sprang into action. “Well Vladek, I think that you are a lucky fellow” he said, “you will need to go to London, straight to Scotland Yard and ask them for asylum based on last night's experience.”
He went to the phone and dialled a number. I couldn't believe my ears.
“Scotland Yard?” he asked very clearly, which taking into consideration his protruding upper teeth was rather strange, “yes, Neville Coghill, yes I am a Professor at Merton College in Oxford, I would like to speak to Inspector Morris … oh I see … when? … afternoon, very well then.” He replaced the receiver and went over to the window. After a while he said: “You’ll need to go to Scotland Yard. You can catch a train to London, once you get there you will ask to be seen by Inspector Morris. In the meantime, I shall speak to him on the phone and tell him to expect you. Don’t worry” he said, “I believe that all will end well … your position in England will be legal, and you won’t have to keep on showing your passport and visa every time you have to go somewhere. Make sure that you tell Inspector Morris everything that happened last night.”
He extended a hand containing a ten pound note.
“Here is the money for your ticket.”
“But” I protested, “I have some money.”
“Take it” he said sharply, “your train will be at the station in about 45 minutes … don't miss it.”
He smiled gently and waved to me as I left.
I ran out of the college, and a car stopped abruptly at the kerb. I jumped back instinctively; frightened, but it was only one of my pupils, George Robin. He smiled broadly at me: “Where to?” he asked in a friendly manner.
“You are an angel George” I said, “the station … I have to go to London.”
“Hop in then” he said, opening the door.
When I arrived at Scotland Yard it was already three in the afternoon.
Inspector Morris was waiting for me, and I was ushered into his room. I sort of couldn't believe that I was actually in the famous Scotland Yard! Inspector Morris smiled at me, and asked me to sit down. After a few minutes I began telling him what had happened the previous night. He listened intently, and looked at me all the time I was speaking. I tried not to sound too emotional, but although the strain of the previous night, and the whole strain of my life up to this point was starting to get the better of me, I managed to finish my story. There was silence in the room. Inspector Morris appeared to be thinking, then he looked at me and smiled politely.
“I understand from Professor Coghill, that you intend to ask us to grant you asylum. Political asylum, based on your experience last night, which suggests that going back to Poland might endanger your safety. Is that right?”
I didn't feel comfortable somehow, something was wrong; it all sounded too neat and tidy. Too easy as a matter of fact.
“Do you think that you now have enough grounds to grant me asylum?” I started carefully.
Inspector Morris looked vacantly out through the window. Outside, it was one of those grey London days, overcast, dull and cloudy.
“Well Mr Sheybal, I am going to refer your case to my authorities. It's not for me to decide. We have to investigate the whole matter very carefully, we have to interview your witnesses. I mean the students in the house in Oxford” he said, “the main point is: do you want to ask us for asylum?”
“Isn’t it obvious” I asked, a bit 'put out' now.
“No” he said, “you haven’t committed yourself on the subject yet, so, do you want asylum? you have to say yes, or no.”
I hesitated. Although I was in a free country, inside Scotland Yard of all places, my intuition was warning me once again, not to trust anyone anymore.
“Well … I am waiting Mr Sheybal,” he said politely.
“Inspector Morris, I would like to ask you a question” I started slowly.
“Yes?” he raised his eyebrows.
I was still hesitating, I knew that I had to relate my fears, but yet I felt embarrassed to do so in front of this reputable man, inside this reputable building.
“Inspector Morris, if I asked for asylum now, and if for some reason you refuse my request” I began slowly, deciding I should simply spell it out for them, “if I was refused can you give me a guarantee that the Polish authorities will never know about my request for asylum? I mean, you know that I would be classed as a criminal from the point of view of the Polish law” I stumbled on, “I wouldn't be able to go back to Poland ever again. I would be arrested. Immediately arrested. You do know what I mean?”
Inspector Morris remained silent. When he finally spoke, he sounded indignant, or at least I thought I detected as much in his speech.
“Mr Sheybal … I am ... puzzled to hear this. After all you are on the territory of Scotland Yard, we do not contact anyone outside, nor do we contact foreign sources about our internal, intimate and secretly delicate matters like yours. We are fully aware that a leak of your statement of that substance could endanger your existence in Poland, and perhaps even here.”
He was waiting. I felt guilty. I had offended the impeccable opinion of Scotland Yard of Great Britain.
“I am sorry if I offended you” I said quickly, “it was rather clumsy of me. Yes, Inspector Morris I am requesting you grant me asylum in Great Britain on political grounds.”
He got up then.
“Thank you” he said, “I will refer your matter further, you will get a response very soon. Goodbye Mr Sheybal.”
That was it, my request had been made and I was outside, somewhat bewildered by it all. It was all over with so quickly. It happened just like that - my dream of asking for asylum was realised in an incredibly quick and simple way. I felt relief, I was certain I would be granted asylum. All my troubles would be over. No more the agonies of waiting to see whether the Polish authorities would extend my passport for another year, no more waiting for the British authorities to extend my visa, no more bothering Professor Coghill to write letters to the Home Office telling them that I was his student of English Literature, and that he was responsible for me in this country, politically as well as anything else. A week later a letter from the Home Office arrived. It informed me that they didn't have sufficient grounds to believe that my freedom in Poland might be endangered. Apparently none of the students at the house in Oxford saw the KGB man. They only heard the noises and the sound of somebody tumbling down the stairs. Some of the students who had been interviewed, suggested that it sounded like a fight with a jealous lover of my new girl friend.
“Most unfortunate, Vladek” Professor Coghill said, “that you bring with you this highly erotic reputation. Nevertheless I believe you, and personally trust you and I will try to help you as much as I can. You can always count on me. You are under my wing, and in a few years' time you will be entitled to ask for British Citizenship, and I will certainly sponsor it. You are after all, a very valuable asset, artistically speaking, to us in Oxford.” Dear, dear Professor Coghill.
Several months later a great friend of mine, a famous ballerina from Poland arrived. A friend of mine, Robin Nash, who worked at the BBC, was looking for a couple of dancers from behind the iron curtain for one of his programmes. So I suggested her to him, and my beloved Barbara Bittnerovna arrived in London, and we saw each other constantly. On the morning of her departure back to Warsaw, she telephoned me from her hotel saying that she must talk to me about a matter of utmost importance. I duly arrived in London and went to her hotel; she was already waiting for a taxi to take her to Heathrow airport. Barbara was somehow frightened, and insisted that we talk in the bathroom while she ran water in the bath (to make some noise in case her room was being bugged).
I laughed: “Barbara this is London, England. You are in an English hotel.”
Barbara ignored my laughter: “Listen to what I am going to tell you. It concerns you. Last night I had to go to the ghastly Polish Embassy, for a goodbye reception on my behalf - you know how hard all those communist aparatchniks drink. They love drinking champagne with vodka, and within one hour they were all were drunk on those lethal concoctions. The wife of our Ambassador, already quite high on this alcoholic mixture, came up to me and said: “Why is this friend of yours, Vladek Sheybal, doing such stupid things? He is an idiot.” So I asked her what you had done. “Well ... not long ago he went to Scotland Yard and asked for asylum for himself, here in England” she hissed triumphantly, “he's already got a criminal record with us after this fact, you see we know everything. We've got our people everywhere.”
I was speechless.
“Thank you Barbara for telling me this” I said eventually.
“I am your friend, aren't I?” she said, “you know I wish you the best possible good luck here, and you know how I hate communism and all those aparatchniks” she turned off the bath tap, “now you understand why I turned it on, here in London, as you said.”
I was shaken and after Barbara had gone, I went to Scotland Yard immediately. I saw Inspector Morris again in the same room as on the last time I was there. He was visibly shaken when I told him this story.
“Are you absolutely sure you can trust this Barbara?”
“Can we interview her right now?” he said quickly.
I shrugged my shoulders: “I’m afraid not” I said, “she is flying back to Warsaw at this very moment.”
“Damn and blast” he said, and it was the first time I had seen him lose control.
“Besides” I said, “she would be too frightened to be interviewed by you, even here in London. She has her family and husband in Poland.”
“And if I went personally to Warsaw with a letter from you, would she see me there?” he said.
“How are you so sure I would give you a letter” I said, “she would stop trusting me, she would think it was a trick.”
He looked at me apologetically.
“You don't trust us now, do you?”
“Inspector Morris I think I trust you but I think that after my life's experiences including the last one, I cannot trust anybody. I cannot trust the world; not anymore.” A week later, Professor Coghill asked me to come to his rooms. When I got there, I found him agitated, and he was very generous in pouring my gin and tonic.
“Mr Sheybal” he started in a rather pompous way, and again he sounded like Dame Edith Evans in ‘Lady Bracknell,’ “Mr Sheybal, something important has happened and it has concerned me.”
I waited for him to continue. He walked over to the window and stood there silently for a while. It looked to me, as though he had to take his strength from nature in order to convey this event to me. When he started speaking, he spoke slowly.
“Inspector Morris came here today, to see me, to talk to me. Although he didn't say anything concrete, he gave me to understand that the British authorities will turn a ‘blind eye’ to your staying in this country indefinitely, and what's more, you are going to receive a work permit allowing you to teach acting privately,” he turned to face me, “what happened? he didn't give me any details.”
I paused: “In that case I don't think I should tell you the latest developments.”
Neville smiled: “I am glad that I can trust you.”
This was the beginning of a new bond between Professor Coghill and myself. A bond that lasted until his death. At the start of every New Year, I would receive a letter from him asking if there was anything he could do for me; I only had to ask. I appreciated those letters very much. He was a great man, and a great scholar.
Forgive me for the long digression. Now I must return to the beginning, when I made my way to see Dennis at his bookshop restaurant. The bookshop itself was situated in a small, graceful house. The front door was open - invitingly. I walked in, and I will always remember the soft smell of new books; I always loved this smell. I didn't realise then, that I had just walked into the beginning of a new chapter in my life. A very significant chapter, which reshaped my life in England, and which led to the beginning of my whole career in this country.
A little further inside, I saw a small restaurant. There were a few tables outside and people, mostly students, were sitting there and eating. I learned later, that this was a very fashionable meeting place for students, and the food prices were rather cheap. I went up the few steps leading up to the entrance, and went inside and across the restaurant, which I found charming and colourful with its bright tablecloths. On the right there was a counter-bar, and a little bit further on I saw the door to the kitchen. Inside the kitchen, there was a table in the middle, and behind it a large sink, and on the right was a gas stove. A tall man was cooking something at the stove. He looked at me, and I liked him instantly. He had slightly crossed eyes, and he was almost bald. He had a pleasant round face, and a disarming smile.
“Neville spoke to me about you on the phone, so I was expecting you. I saw you in the film: ‘Kanal,’ you are a star aren't you?” he said, “well, welcome to my kingdom.”
“You mean?” I said incredulously, “that I have a job”
“It will be a privilege for me to have a film star working in my kitchen … can you make omelettes?”
“I’m afraid I can't.”
He laughed: “It's very simple, I will show you, you break the eggs in a bowl, and the secret is that you have to add a little cold water. Then you beat it all together, and pour it into very hot oil in a frying pan like soup. You wait until it starts to set, and then you gently swirl the pan so that the watery eggs run underneath and set. Then, according to the customers order, you either fold it onto a plate as a plain omelette, or you put some chopped mushroom or ham or green peas in the middle of it, and then fold it. Like so.”
He placed the omelette on a plate and shouted through the door: “Omelette is ready.”
A young man wearing an apron rushed in. Dennis pointed at me and said: “John, this is Vladek, a famous film star, and he is starting work here today” he giggled, “he has no work permit so he works illegally isn't it a fact?”
John laughed; he took the plate with the omelette and rushed out into the restaurant.
“The next omelette will be made by Vladek, a famous film star who works here illegally” he announced, “he has no work permit though.”
Dennis laughed: “It is fun isn't it?”
So, my new role began. An omelette cook, and I have to say that I became a real expert in making omelettes. Orders for omelettes would be shouted into the kitchen by the waiters: “Two mushroom omelettes, one ham omelette and three plain omelettes etc.”
The work was very hard, but I loved every minute of it. The atmosphere was friendly, and all the waiters were students of course. After a few days the whole of Oxford knew that Vladek Sheybal, a film star from: ‘Kanal’ was cooking omelettes in the Newman Bookshop Restaurant.
The restaurant became a great success, and Dennis was ecstatic. Everybody used to drop into the kitchen to have a look at me. Then some of the students would bring their food, and come to the kitchen. They would sit on sacks of potatoes and eat. We would talk about theatre, film, Shakespeare etc, and so I became a sort of ‘star’ in Oxford; it seemed that everyone wanted to know me. Students used to ask others if they already knew me. Dennis didn't pay me much; as a matter of fact he paid me very little. I would get £1.17s.6d per week and my little room cost me £1 per week. I would start work at six in the evening. I couldn't afford to buy any food during the day, but I must admit that Dennis was very generous with the food for me; he made sure I had big portions of everything. He knew the situation I was in, and tried to help. In spite of all this, I considered this period as one of the happiest in my life. I met so many friends. I was popular. I was still a star, and my making omelettes added great deal of originality and spice to my ‘picture’ - my life. Adrian Brine, my student friend was constantly around me, he took it upon himself to become my ‘secretary and PR man’ and also a great friend. He was, I suppose, my manager, and as such knew those people who needed to be kept at a distance, and those who could be introduced. He kept my image going as a big star, and he had plans for me. He wanted me to direct some plays for OUDS, and I remember laughing. “Adrian, I don't want to work in this profession any more.”
“But think of your future.”
“This is my future” I would say, “I am a free man can't you understand that?”
Of course he couldn't.
“But we need you here” he went on, “with your experience in the theatre and films. We’ve never had anybody like you here.”
Yes, as I said, Oxford is a place where miracles happen.
One day a very energetic young lady walked into my kitchen. She was American and she was very loud. She was also very friendly and down to earth, and her name was Amy Mims.
“Well, Vladek Sheybal, what are you doing here in this kitchen?” she said, “you are wasting your talents and skills.”
“I am a very good omelette maker” I laughed.
“Listen Vladek, we need you here in Oxford. You must start teaching us acting.”
“How?” I asked.
“Leave it to me” she said, “I shall organise acting classes for you.”
“How?” I asked again.
I must admit that there was something in her determination which I liked, she smiled broadly. “It is incredible that I am facing you now in the flesh. I saw your film: ‘Kanal’ five times. You were magnificent. Your face, your eyes, were there up on the screen but I couldn't reach you, and now I am just standing in front of you - in front of a legend.”
I do not take success or any accolades for granted. Success never surprises me at all, yet when Amy said that I was a legend I felt a bit embarrassed.
“Please don't say that” I said, “I feel shy when you use the word legend.”
“But that is what you are. ‘Kanal’ is a cult film already, and you are playing one of the leading parts in it” she paused, “I suppose you would like to audition people before accepting them for your acting classes.”
“How are you going to do that?” I asked for the third time.
“Leave it to me, I shall be back here in a few days.”
Indeed, a few days later she appeared again in my kitchen. This time with Adrian Brine, and they were both beaming. Adrian spoke first: “We have permission from Neville Coghill to use my room at St John's College. It's large, and therefore it’s suitable.”
Amy interrupted: “I have already put up a poster in all the rooms in the college. I’ve written it myself” she handed me a copy.
It read ‘Vladek Sheybal, the star of the famous Polish film: ‘Kanal’ will be holding auditions to choose students for his future acting classes.’ It went on to detail times, and places.
“Look at the bottom line” Amy said proudly.
It read: ‘As Vladek Sheybal is very familiar with ‘Three Sisters’ by Chekhov, please choose a piece from this play to perform at your audition. You have to know it by heart.’
I must admit, it was a very good poster, and I was pleased.
As I have previously mentioned, this type of thing became a pattern for the years to come, and by that I mean that fate reversed its usual process. Usually when you are in a foreign country, people usually come to help you but with me the opposite happened. I was lucky. I never asked for help in England; it was I who was asked to help. When the day of the auditions arrived, Amy came to the kitchen to take me to St John's College. I must admit that Dennis, as much as he worried that he might lose me, was ecstatic and participated in the plans for me. As the three of us walked to Adrian Brine’s rooms at St John's College, I admitted to being nervous.
“Do you think there will be anyone turning up for the auditions?”
“Look” Amy said, pointing ahead of her.
I couldn't believe my eyes, in front of me stretched a mile long queue of young people by the College Gate.
“You see?” Amy was ecstatic.
I realised that this was the beginning of another page in my history; at least from that point my career in England took off. I was auditioning students for three days, and each day lasted six hours. At the end of it all, I was exhausted but happy. Finally, from more than 400 people, I chose twelve. I believed that I could only be really productive and constructive with a small number of pupils, and I have to admit that the number twelve had some appeal for me; twelve apostles. Thus I created myself as Oxford's Jesus Christ. Who can say now that I don't have a theatrical show of one's utter modesty?
SEAN CONNERY, LOTTE LENYA & PINEWOOD STUDIOS
I met Sean in 1961 when I was happily directing various plays for various television companies. At that time, I was directing a play by Anhouille and I offered the leading part to a beautiful blonde Australian actress, Diane Cilento. The leading man was Paul Massey (whatever happened to him?). Diane's current boyfriend and later her husband, was the virtually unknown Sean Connery. Sean was tall, manly and handsome with his Scottish accent and a disarming smile; he was an extremely kind man. He would often pick Diane up after the rehearsal, at a church hall somewhere in St John's Wood. One evening they suggested that we go for a drink together in a pub, which I thought was a very kind thought; as a matter of fact they were extremely sweet. Later, Diane would become very unhappy, feeling left alone in her career after the spectacular explosion of Sean's career as the famous James Bond. I never had any doubts about Sean becoming a star with his outstanding charisma. Back then I was certain he would make a successful career in the industry, but the only thing I worried about was his accent; I thought it would limit the parts he would be offered. At that time in his life he was a typical actor with no work, writing letters to agents and casting directors, or simply standing with a glass of beer in a pub next door to The Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, hoping to be noticed; but even his height was against him. One evening while we were having a drink with Diane and Sean (after the rehearsal) Diane said to me: “Vladek, look at Sean.” Sean smiled, embarrassed. “Cast him in a part in your next production, isn't he sexy, handsome and charming and I know he isn't a bad actor either; he can act.”
I didn't feel embarrassed as I had been in this ghastly profession for years already, but I thought a while and said: “There isn't a part for Sean in my next play, I'm sorry.”
Sean, relieved, nodded with a smile.
“I can see that he has very special looks and personality” I went on, “unfortunately this might work against him. Directors and producers have no imagination and fear risk of any kind. The fear of being unusual, so all they produce is the standard, mincemeat factory type of work. I myself go through a great deal of difficulty because I come from a different culture, and I have artistic ambitions. For instance: the fact that I cast you Diane in this part created tremendous uproar. You are too independent as an actress and too difficult to work with.”
“Am I?” Diane smiled.
“Not yet” I said and I smiled too, “but let me be a bit constructive about Sean. Would you like me to ring some casting directors I know: Maude Spector, or Rose Tobias Shaw about Sean?”“Very sweet of you” Sean said, “but they all have my photographs already and they have never contacted me.” We were all silent for a while, and I looked at them with compassion. “Do you know why my career in directing goes well? Because I don't care and I don't fight. It all happened by chance; by mistake I think. So perhaps Sean has to wait, not pushing too much. Perhaps his chance will come sooner or later.”
It was the kind of philosophy they couldn't accept. But indeed within the next two years, I was very pleased to read about Sean's big breakthrough in the first Bond film: ‘Dr No.’ I didn't bother to see it as I thought it was not the kind of film that would interest me. I never registered the enormous international success of this film; instead I simply forgot about it. Then two years later in 1963 there was a telephone call from my agent Peter Crouch (he was still Glenda Jackson's agent at that time too).
“A film script has arrived for you,” he said excitedly.
“To direct?” I asked with pleasure.
“No” Peter laughed, “to play in.”
I felt disappointed: I’m not an actor anymore.”
“Well, I'll send it to you anyway. Read it; I’ll indicate on it which is your part.”
So the script arrived the next day; little did I know as I was unexcitedly tearing open the envelope, that this film would change my life again. The title of the film was: ‘From Russia with Love.’ Well, I read it and I hated it. I didn't care about my part either - Kronsteen - a world famous chess player. There is one short scene at the beginning and then towards the end another two short, meaningless scenes and then my death, being kicked by someone wearing a poisoned spiked shoe: This happened in real life, several years later on a London street, a Bulgarian man was pricked by somebody's umbrella, and he died of poison within 48 hours. The Bulgarian worked at BBC Radio, beaming anti-Communist propaganda to Bulgaria.
But back in 1963, the extravagant ideas including ‘the spiked shoe’ sounded quite ridiculous and cheap to me. Then there was the aspect of the size of the part; small and unimportant I thought. Back in Poland I was a star, why should I bother to play this? I was quite happy directing plays on television. Even the thought of becoming an actor de nouveau made me quite sick. The endless merry go round of studios, costumes, learning lines, endless waiting, actors around, gossip, yik; not for me anymore. When I conveyed all this to Peter, he was speechless. Then he said: “Listen young man, you don't even know what you are turning down. This is the second part of more films to come in the series, a new series which will shake the world. They call it the James Bond series. You are being ignorant. Every English actor would seize this opportunity without any hesitation.”
Pause. Peter's angry voice: “Are you there?”
Pause. “Yes I am, I said slowly. “Peter, I am sorry this is final. I don't want to be involved in this rubbish, it’s a waste of time for me.”
Pause. Peter hung up.
But as I said in some cases, or moments in our lives, fate effects a ruthless and relentless pursuit. It does not give up. It does the chasing, and it happened in my case. A few hours later my phone rang, and I couldn't believe my ears. It was Sean Connery. “You complete idiot” he hissed, “how dare you turn down this part?” he was furious with me, “do you realise that however small the part, it will shift you instantly on to international film status. You'll become an i-n-t-e-r-n-a-t-i-o-n-a-l actor instantly. Hundreds of actors in England pray for this kind of opportunity, not to mention that I personally feel hurt. You refuse to play in my film, and it was I, I who suggested you to the producers Saltzman and Broccoli to play Kronsteen. I told them you would make this part important; vibrant. You are going to ring your agent, and you are going to play this part.” He slammed the receiver down. I felt quite exhausted but I took a deep breath and dialled my agent's telephone number and accepted the part. A few days later my contract arrived. I signed it, but I still felt uneasy about the whole business of going through all the various internal and external torments again. Then my telephone started ringing: Costume fitting, make up, hairdressers. Everyone was extremely nice and very productive with their ideas, while at the same time taking into consideration my own ideas. The fitting of the costumes was at Bermans and Nathans. They are international costumiers, and are situated near Leicester Square. Although there were usually a lot of actors on each floor, it was all very well organised, everyone smiled and there was an air of efficient calm. There was tea and coffee in plentiful supply, and it was here in Bermans and Nathans that I first met Lotte Lenya. She smiled warmly at me as she came over: “I know you are going to play Kronsteen” she said, “I am Lotte Lenya I am sorry but it will be me who will kill you with my spiked shoe … but I hope we will become friends in spite of it.” *
She sounded disarmingly sincere, and I found myself muttering: “Are you the famous Lotte Lenya? The wife of Kurt Weill?”
“Widow” she whispered, “he is dead I’m afraid.”
We were silent for a few minutes.
“I heard you singing some fantastic Brecht songs, from records of course” I said, “I met Bertold Brecht and his wife Helena Tdeigel in Warsaw; we were talking about you Miss Lenya.”
She smiled beautifully: “Call me Lotte please.”
“I didn't know that you would be playing Rosa Klebb in this film. How fantastic” I exclaimed. Everything started looking better and easier now.
* [EDITOR’S NOTE: It was the character Morzeny, played by actor Walter Gothell who delivered the lethal kick to Vladek’s character Kronsteen, not Rosa Klebb as played by Lotte Lenya].
Pinewood Studios at this time was being used by many American films. It had enormous pace and several kinds of ‘lots.’ They could easily accommodate different types of towns, and it was not unusual to see a Mexican town, a Spanish village, and even a middle European city complete with cobbled streets. The houses consisted of ‘fronts’ and at the back there was nothing. I loved walking on the streets of these ‘ghost towns’ during my lunch breaks. It was a weird feeling. On one of the lots there was a huge swimming pool, filled with water and a very large, very real ship moored there. At some time, the backcloth behind the ship was painted with high mountains and snow. It was when they were filming ‘The Heroes of Telemark’ there. Kirk Douglas was in it. Of course, being a film studio, it was not unusual to see all those big stars during the lunchbreak in the studio restaurants. You would see Kim Novak, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, and Ava Gardner. You would literally rub shoulders with them. One day Lotte invited me to lunch there. The dining room was in a beautiful Victorian main building with long corridors, offices and a splendid garden behind. Sometimes we would film in these gardens which even had a pond, a stream, a waterfall and a few lovely birds. There was a porter at the front door, and he always had a big smile on his face. He would ask you about the days filming and greet you warmly. All the actors treated him like a member of our own family. He retired one day, and I don't know whatever happened to him. We entered the dining room with Lotte. It was already quite full, but we found a table and started studying our menus. Nowadays I don't eat lunch, but back then I was young and did not think of calories. To the side of where we were sitting, there was a raised area with tables and chairs set out. Diana Doors came in and sat at one of the tables, she was surrounded by some young actors. I didn't realise that she was filming something in the studio. She looked just like a doll, with her platinum blond hair and very voluptuous bust, heavy make up and artificial long eyelashes - obviously made up for the part she was playing. I could hear every word she was saying and it all sounded a bit loud and arrogant. Fading stars usually adopt this arrogant edge in their voices. I suppose it is a kind of self defence. Diana looked all around the room and said to her companions: “Who the hell are all those people? I don't know a single face. In my time I knew them, or they knew me look at them, mediocrities.”
Several years later when Donald Howarth, a fantastic playwright and a great friend of mine wrote a play ‘Three Month Gone,’ Diana Dors was already ageing, she had no parts and it seemed no career anymore. She was out; just like it always happens in films. It was all gone. One of the leading parts in his play was a suburban, vulgar but funny housewife. Donald sent the script to Diana, and she accepted the part. She was able to make a clever transformation into a character actress, and she was a great new success. I saw her in the play; she was splendid. I came to the conclusion that she was always a character actress, she didn’t fit being a glamour girl. Donald told me that when Diana rang him to say that she accepted, he was ‘over the moon.’ Diana asked him to come round to talk about the play; when he arrived at her house Donald was astonished seeing Diane's transformation. He was brought up on her glamour, and there she was with her new baby on her chest, salivating on her. She didn't pay the slightest attention to all this, she was real, as Donald said. A real mother, the glamour and make up had gone. Diana was married to actor Alan Lake then, a handsome man but not a very good actor. Diana arranged with Donald for Alan to be the male lead in Donald's play, but I don’t think he was good. I only remember Diana, and of course Jill Bennett in it - I had actually met Jill Bennett some years earlier in a TV play ‘The Ring of Truth.’ The play was a great West End success and ran for a long time. Afterwards Diana started playing character parts but soon afterwards she tragically died, she had cancer and Alan couldn't imagine living without her. He was always madly in love with her, and after she died his drinking problem became much worse, until he could stand it no more and he tragically committed suicide.
The day of my first shoot arrived. The car was waiting outside for me, it was very early in the morning and I’ve always wanted to know why you must always wake up so early - always, it never changes. Before the actual shooting would begin, you would already have been to wardrobe to have your costume fitted, then to make up; and only then were you ready to present yourself for shooting at nine a.m. Pinewood Studios were beautifully situated among fields and real pine trees. The studio is situated in Berkshire, which is about a two hour drive time from London. The undulating countryside surrounding it is very beautiful and very green. On the way there, I passed a retirement home for horses; a sort of old horses home you could say. I saw these old horses nibbling the grass, and thus nearing their death with dignity. They served us the people, they deserved this retirement, and each time I passed I would always wave to my horses.
My car went through the impressive gates. There were always impressive large buildings marked Stage 2 or 3 to be seen as you went in. My car went through the maze of little streets, or tunnels between these blocks. Later in my life, when I was filming in various countries I came to the conclusion that whether you are in the Cinnecita Rome studios, or Tokyo Studios, or Madrid or Hollywood, the atmosphere is always the same; there are always hundreds of busy people moving around carrying pieces of sets or costumes, tools, or even trays with sandwiches and coffee. As my car stopped in front of the block where my dressing room was situated, Sean was there, he had been waiting for me with his lovely big smile. He helped me out of the car and said: “Welcome to James Bond.” Then he led me to my dressing room and checked that I have everything I needed: - proper light by the mirror, two towels in the bathroom, loo working, etc. “You won't regret this I promise” he said, waving as he went out, “good luck.”
There was a knock at the door; it was the callboy.
“Your costume” he said indicating the hangers he was holding, “shirt, jacket, trousers. I would suggest that you put them on, then I'll call to take you to make up and the hairdressers. Ok? Oh, you don't have to put on your jacket … just the shirt, and here is your dressing gown.” Then he left. The dressing rooms at Pinewood Studios were quite impressive. They were spacious and bright with lots of electric bulbs around the mirror. The mirror was full length so that you could see yourself from head to toe. There was a telephone on the dresser for internal use only, and the bathroom was excellent. I started to put on my costume and then the dressing gown over the shirt. The callboy came back to take me to make up and hairdressing as he had promised. In make up, I bumped into Lotte Lenya again, and the charming actress, Lois Maxwell, who for years played Miss Moneypenny.
After I had been made up and had my hair done, the callboy took me down to the set for rehearsal. I walked into the studio and onto this huge set and my heart missed a beat. The set was fantastic. It was set up to be the interior of a casino in Monte Carlo, with slender marble columns, huge mirrors, fantastic bright armchairs and crystal chandeliers. In the middle of it all was a rostrum with a table where my character, a world famous chess champion, was supposed to win a chess match. Then while drinking water from a glass, I was to see a message on the bottom of the glass: YOU ARE REQUIRED AT ONCE (from Number One of course). All around us the chess players were sitting and watching hundreds of extras. There were women wearing splendid evening gowns and jewellery, and men with black ties. When I was led to the table in the middle I suddenly felt lost and shy. All the extras were whispering: “Who is this actor?” Then the director, Terence Young, arrived and we were introduced.I must admit that I was so nervous that I couldn't remember my few simple lines, but Terence whispered to me: “Don't fret, all will be ok you look splendid in your suit. I’ll give you plenty of close ups just look at me, I'll guide you through it.” True to his word he was always behind the camera as if hypnotising me, and I started regaining my confidence - my old acting routine came back. The close ups, which Terence had promised, by displaying my face up on the huge screen (the critics wrote that it was a new and splendid face) started my international career for the next three decades, and when I left the set the extras applauded me! Over the next few days I filmed the next scenes with Lotte Lenya, and at this moment I am looking at the photographs from these scenes - funny, I was so slim and young and Lotte so vicious and evil as Rosa Klebb, yet in real life she was the sweetest person I've ever known and we became friends for many years. Years later I saw her on Broadway in the musical ‘I am a Camera’ which was the first version of the film ‘Cabaret’ which starred of course, Liza Minelli. After the performance I went up to her dressing room and she invited me to dinner. On the set of ‘I am a Camera’ she was concentrating very hard. She was, in a way, so pure and naive as an actress that when Terence Young said to her: “Lotte turn your face towards the camera” she looked quite lost, and like a little girl she asked, almost in tears: “I am sorry Terence, where is the camera?” At that moment I wanted to hug her. The first thing all film actors know while filming is the placing of the camera. The camera is the most important essential, the central point of their lives. They fight to be on camera. In America they almost kill to get on camera, and here was Lotte, this great performer literally not knowing where the camera was.
I didn't have any scenes with Sean, but he would often pick me up by car to have dinner with him and Diane. They lived at the back of Shepherds Bush then and had bought an old chapel, they had renovated it wonderfully and it was splendidly decorated inside. Sean’s son Jason was just a baby then, and I remember bouncing little Jason on my knee. Sean was a family man. It was a Scottish tradition I think, to have a big family, and the family would always be together.We would come from the studio, and Sean would shout to Diane: “We are hungry.” Then he would seize little Jason in his arms; he would slump in an armchair while at the same time taking his shoes off using only his toes. Then he would shout again: “Where is my beer?”
I loved these evenings with them.
Sean was always a gentleman, and I’m reminded of a story I heard a few years ago when I stayed with John Borman's family in their beautiful house in Ireland, near Glendaloh.
John was shooting the film ‘Excalibur.’ It was being filmed on location near his home, and so he invited Sean, who was playing in the film, to stay at the house. The Bormans who are very generous, friendly and hospitable, were providing all of Sean’s meals. One day Sean said to them: “You are spending all this money on me, I feel embarrassed perhaps I should contribute something to the cost of all the food and drink.”
The Bormans’ reaction was: “Don't be stupid.”
The next day Sean handed Mrs Borman an envelope.
“This is money towards my upkeep,” he said.
When Kristel Borman opened the envelope she started laughing - there was £20 inside. Scottish isn't it?
Several years later I met up with Sean again on location for the film: ‘The Wind and The Lion.’ John Millius was the director.Sean and I would laugh together at the fact that we were playing two brothers. - can you imagine that? - we were so different physically, but having been in so many American films I was not surprised. Around this time, Sean was divorced from Diane Cilento.
Meantime in the studio, Terence Young would hypnotise me every time I was in front of the camera. He would say to me: “I saw your rushes, you are very good. I like the sound of your accent.” Then there came the scene where my character was meant to die. Terence set the camera on me for my death scene. As you may know, the character is killed by being kicked with a poison spike shoe, and as the shock dawns on his face, he realises his fate - too late, and slides slowly out of sight behind Number One’s desk. Terence looked at me for a very long time.
“I want you to die like James Cagney was always dying slowly, very slowly” he said, “I want at first, an expression of being puzzled, you didn't expect this to happen. You understand?” Then while they were shooting it, he would whisper to me: “Vladek, slow it down slide down slower ,slower.”
There was only one unpleasant scene for me that happened on the set of ‘From Russia with Love.’ I was filming my scene and Harry Saltzman the producer, said after one take: “No no no Vladek, you can't play it like that.” Then he came up to me, and in front of everybody including Terence Young, he started redirecting my dialogue. I was quite puzzled. I looked over at Terence and said: “Terence you are the director, do you agree?” Terence made a rather helpless gesture, and Harry became angry and shouted: “Listen to me young man, I am the producer. It is I who pay you money; I want you to do it my way.”
I was furious, and although I said yes to Harry, I played the scene exactly as before. Harry shrieked: “Stop. Stop. You aren't going to make a fool of me again, play it my way.”
I know myself when I am angry, and there is no authority in this world for me if I don't agree. Harry couldn’t scare me just because he paid me. So I said very quietly: “Harry your instructions as to how you want me to play this scene are simply ridiculous. You are making a fool of yourself, not me. I am going to play it my way.”
“So I’ll fire you,” Harry said.
“I have done it already Harry” I told him, “I fire myself.”
I turned and started walking off the stage. I caught a glimpse of Lotte's face, she was horrified.
Harry shouted after me: “Come back I tell you.”
I kept walking.
Then I heard Lotte's voice behind me: “Harry, you stop it, Vladek is right, he cannot play the scene like you suggest.”
Bless you Lotte I thought, but I knew I was finished with it all. In cases like that I simply couldn't care less. As I walked into the make up room, I scooped up a big blob of grease and wiped the make up off my face. Then I went to my dressing room, and started taking off my jacket. In retrospect I got to know how certain people worked. Later in the years of playing in so many American films I knew only too well the shriek: “You’re fired.” Just like that. I also learned that once you have signed your contract with the American production they try to show you every minute of every day that they own you. They would tell you that they bought you. Well, actors are a very servile kind of people, and would do anything for career and money. Not only American actors but surprisingly enough, English actors too. Perhaps due to the psychological fact that I never thought about myself as being an actor, I would answer them back. I would leave the set, like this time with Harry Saltzman; I just couldn't care less. When we were filming ‘Shogun’ in Japan with Richard Chamberlain, we went through a few changes of producers, first assistants of the directors and so on. Of course they didn't even bother to let us know that another person would run the filming on a different day. If they didn’t fit in, they would simply be sent back by plane to Hollywood, while another person from Hollywood would already be crossing the sky to start working with us the following day. Of course I have lost some jobs and opportunities because of my not wanting to be regimented, to be tamed by the contract. I never could follow the so-called Hollywood code of behaviour. That's probably why I have never hit the sky with my career. Several years later when I met Bette Davis and we became friends, she told me how ruthlessly Hollywood tried to crush her because of her indomitable behaviour. A knock on the door broke through my reverie, it was Terence Young. “Vladek will you go back to finish the scene?”
“Too late” I said, “I have no make up on.”
Terence started laughing, he was very nice.
“In the whole of my career nothing like that ever happened before” he said, “I admire you. The make up girl will do your make up again, but we must finish the scene.”
I started to protest but Terence hushed me: “Everything is taken care of. Sean is having a few words with Harry. You play the scene the way we originally set it up.”
“But I can't do it with Harry looking at me Terence” I said.
“Harry is not going to be on the set,” Terence said. So I went back to the studio and I saw smiles all around. Lotte embraced me and gave me a gentle hug and I completed the scene. Years later I met Terence when I was playing in a film which he was co-directing. The title of the film was: ‘Where is Parsifal?” There were well known names in this film: - Orson Welles, Tony Curtis, Peter Lawford and Erik Estrada. I’ve already recalled earlier in these memoirs how Harry Saltzman vowed that I would never be in his films; well - a few years later I was offered a part in ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ with Michael Caine. Michael, always being philosophical said: “Well, they always hate or love each other in the films, but finally if they need you they'll take you.” We were standing on a snow slope near Helsinki, I looked at him.
“What are you talking about Michael?”
He pointed down towards the camera. There was Ken Russell, their director and a short little man also in a heavy fur coat.
“Look who's there” he said, smiling.
“Well it’s Ken Russell” I said.
Michael grinned: “No you nit wit look at the man next to him, its Harry Saltzman - the producer of our film.”
There is something pathetic in the fate of films - you are only as good as your last success, as the Americans say. Well, it was true in my case. After ‘From Russia with Love’ was shown, everybody was talking about the new face, and the new special voice of Vladek Sheybal, and as usual I was utterly unaware of it. As always, I was taking everything for granted.
When I won my first award for acting (it was in Poland for a part in a Polish play ‘The Sin’ in Warsaw) Lena kept telling people: “I shall never understand him (me). He was on holiday in the mountains in south of Poland and I phoned him, I broke the news about his award as the best actor of the year, he was silent for a while then he asked: ‘How much?’
Every success that comes his way he takes for granted. No surprise, no enthusiasm, not even joy. Just an 'it had to happen attitude.'
Lena was right, but at the same time I never expected anything in life. I just wanted to be happy and to do interesting work. Creation was my only interest. Creation was like water to drink and air to breathe. But after ‘From Russia with Love,’ the first offer I got was not glamorous at all for a film actor already of international standing. The late John Fernal, who was then a Principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) asked me to teach acting at the school. I was enthusiastic; RADA was a world famous international school of acting. Deep down though, I preferred this creative work than to stand in front of the camera. I did hope that this job would give me a special credit to my life, and pleasure. After all I was trained in the Stanislavski method by his pupils, then I had my great satisfaction in forming my acting classes in Oxford with the students. Some of whom had already given me great pleasure by displaying their talents on the stage and in directing - Patrick Garland for instance. John Fernal wanted to inject some fresh blood into his school, and so I started my work.John called it ‘Imagination Classes’ but I wasn’t sure about the name. Teaching acting is a very delicate creation, especially with the English who find it difficult to ‘open themselves’ easily. But there lay a fascinating aspect for me; the pleasure of seeing my English pupils ‘being open’ was immense. I gave them all the imagination, and stimulation exercises and after a few rather frustrating weeks, they began to understand themselves and started discovering within themselves their real personal self. They started hearing their own inner clock ticking. But then the situation started developing in a rather ugly way, I heard rumours that pupils from other courses run by other teachers wanted to work with me, then they started coming to my classes. They would sit somewhere on the floor and watch me at work. One of them I have mentioned before: Anthony Hopkins.
Then the situation became worse; some of the teachers would ask permission to watch my classes and I could not refuse. They would come and watch my classes and even make some notes. I realised early enough that in England the teachers of acting are usually the actors who have failed, and I think this is really awful. When you don’t succeed as an actor you begin to teach acting. Consequently you are bound to teach your own bad acting. I was taught in Poland by the greatest actors; the same in Russia. I see miserable acting classes sometimes on television, yesterday for instance, but there is no magic. I saw Janet Susman on television recently, directing a play, then teaching acting. They call it ‘Master Class’ but in my opinion it is dry, banal and unimaginative. There is some rather masculine substance regime in Janet's voice, face and acting. I worked with her in India on ‘Mountbatten the Last Viceroy.’ She is a very nice girl but she often tries to direct actors who played a scene with her, including me. I learned never to argue with actors around me. I also learned never to ask them to do little ‘acting favours’ for me. My ‘fight’ is my hard work before shooting, and my utter flexibility to adapt myself to new circumstances. And new circumstances in film-making happen frequently and always unexpectedly, so you have to be prepared to instantly adapt, but also to use the new surprise instantly to your advantage. Notably, one of the new circumstances are the actors who try to direct you, including Michael Caine in his utterly charming way and innocence. Michael was intelligent and bright, so he saw how I was twisting his remarks to my advantage, he rather liked it and he laughed. Finally the atmosphere at RADA became unpleasant. John Fernal asked me to go to his office; he hadn’t expected the whole situation to develop this way. Under the circumstances I suggested my resignation. At the end of the conversation, we shook hands and then he asked me: “How many pupils did you have in your original class?”
“Sixty” I said.
“And how many do you think are potentially good original actors?”
“Three” I said, “Georgina Hale, Ronald Pickup and Anthony Hopkins, although he comes from different classes.”
“You see” John nodded, “and I have to run the school.”
So that was the end of my teaching at RADA. Years later, when new principals came along, I would always be asked to go back, but I always refused. Teaching cost me too much of my personality and inner strength. Although having said that, I do know that I am better as a teacher than as an actor or director. I think I am a born teacher. Perhaps because I was born with an eye at the back of my head, and with the two antennae at the top of my head! I think that in a different way the famous American Lee Strasbourg, and his acting classes in New York are typical American hysteria. I had very close reports about his acting classes - ‘The Method’ as they call it - I have seen a few examples of American acting according to ‘The Method.’ I’ll use Marlon Brando as an example - the Americans made him their idol, a great actor. I must admit that there is a great charisma about him, but ‘The Method’ had overlooked one thing - the Stanislavski Method emphasised strongly the fact that however you live the part, however you turn yourself entirely into the character you portray, you must never forget about the reality of being an actor. Your lines must be audible, and your speech must be understood. In my opinion, half of Marlon Brando's lines perish in some kind of illiterate and self-indulging gargle and slobber. After my spell at RADA, I received an offer to direct a play in Amsterdam called ‘Nathan The Wise.’ It’s a classic play written by a famous German romantic, and it was being staged at the Lessing Toneel Group Centre, a Theatre in Amsterdam. It was full of charming, young people and it was a fantastic play. Being able to work with two great Dutch actors (Hus Hermus and Henni Orri) gave me splendid satisfaction. Yet again I was thinking that I didn’t want to be an actor, I wanted to be a full time director, whether in TV or preferably in the Theatre, but definitely not an actor. The Amsterdam production was a great success, and in later years I was asked twice more to direct in Arnsterdam. This time, the plays were ‘The Millionairess’ by Bernard Shaw with their great actress Elisabeth Anderson, and then ‘Judith’ by Peyret de Chappuis with Henny Orri. After these plays were completed there were no more offers to direct. I was cut off in spite of my successes and I never directed in Amsterdam again. I don't know why, perhaps the local directors were jealous; who knows? Perhaps it was this uncanny something that is in me, that suddenly fate leaves me alone. It happened so many times in my life. Something must be wrong with me, but what? My authority? My independence? My uncompromising behaviour in work? Perhaps it was all of these things put together.
In 1972 I was trying to change my agent. I went to Michael Linnit, who was quite famous then, and we had a long talk at his office in Bond Street. I was already known as Vladek Sheybal, and I thought that he would be only too pleased to be my agent and I expected a quick response. However, six months passed with no contact from Michael, no telephone calls and no letters, so I decided to write to him and here I quote his reply:
How rude and remiss of me not to have written to you before. Of course you are right - I cannot represent you - purely because I am committed to so many actors. But I should have written at once - it was a curious reluctance and admiration for you that stopped me.
All good wishes,
Voila! Is there something in me that creates this reluctance or conflict? Perhaps I do look like a monster, or a frog as Bette Davis would say - sweet Bette. Together with that letter from Michael Linnit I found her little card to me with her green curly writing ‘Bette Davis’ printed at the front is lavishly crossed with a decisive green line - whoosh - just like Bette!
Later the same year I accepted an offer to act. I didn’t think it was important - it was a cameo in ‘Z Cars,’ a famous police television serial. But money was important as well, so I accepted. Then another offer came in from BBC TV, an offer that made me feel nervous. I didn't want to go back to acting and yet this part - a leading part - shook me inside. I knew that feeling very well; I must play the part. So I accepted the offer. It was a play by the late David Mercer: ‘The Birth of a Private Man.’
The part was that of a Polish communist who marries an English girl and they go back to Poland. The confrontation with the regime, danger and poverty causes the break up of their marriage and him leaving the Party. In this part I was confronted with my new problem for the first time: to find my way of interpreting in English. I think I found the way during rehearsals but the whole experience had exhausted me mentally. I remember that during recordings I was going through bouts of fear that I would forget my lines. This feeling did not abandon me for some time, yet when I was appearing in films I felt all right because I knew that the scene could always be repeated. As for my style, the critics started writing: ‘Vladek Sheybal has a unique style of acting with his long pauses and deep thoughts.’ Yes indeed. Little did they know that my long pauses were a necessity; English pronunciation was still rather a fresh thing to me. So, sometimes in order to go through a rather complicated word and to pronounce it correctly, I had to make a long pause and rearrange, so to speak, the muscles in my mouth. Then one day the director of The Hampstead Theatre, James Roose-Evans, approached me. He had recognised me from ‘From Russia with Love’ and we had a nice chat. He also mentioned how much he welcomed the new face on the screen (referring to me). A few weeks later, he sent a script to my agent asking me to play a lead in a new play, ‘The Cloud.’ It was a very interesting and complicated play. It revolved around three characters who lived in a wooden hut in the forest, and I was a stranger who appears in the hut out of nowhere. The main topic of our conversation was that we needed fuel, and how we would find it. Then at the end a big cloud drowns us all, and everything disappears in the cloud. It was a bit like playing ‘Waiting for Godot.’ None of us really understood the play but some of the dialogue was fascinating and witty. Again I was agonising over learning the complicated lines - and I only had three weeks rehearsal. That aside, it was fascinating to be playing opposite two excellent English actors: Freddie Jones and Ewan Hooper. Jimmy Roos-Evans was an inspiring director and a charming character. When I look back at it all now I cannot believe that I was actually capable of doing it, and that I went through it all. I think that the only explanation I can give is that I had received such a high standard of professionalism and technique in acting back in Poland. Half way through rehearsals I started facing the problem: do I have to bend my own intonations and bring them to the colour and sound of my English colleagues? My intuition told me: No don't do it. Be yourself. Stick to your interpretation.
Don't imitate. Never do that; I was right. The premiere proved to be a success and even the audience applauded me during some of my scenes, and later I received very good reviews.
I specifically remember one review in particular, it was written by John Holstrom. He called me an actor who is formidable, athletic in movement, with power shooting from under his fingertips. When we were not on stage, Freddie, Ewan and I would all be in one small dressing room. Freddie would always take a big sip of whisky before going onto the stage. One day he asked me: “Vladek, tell me. Don't you need a drink before you start acting?”
“Freddie, I couldn't act if I had a drink beforehand” I said, “my mind must be pure and not distorted. Alcohol would also paralyse my mouth muscles.”
“So how can you produce all this adrenaline on the stage without the help of whisky?”
“I think that whisky would ruin my adrenaline, distort it. I was trained to say to myself: Bang bang bang and the adrenaline would start to flow as if from an oil pipe.”
Freddie would just shake his head with disbelief.
Chapter: Twenty One
John Holstrom had sort of ‘discovered’ me as an actor. Several years later he wrote his famous review about Olivier's Othello in which he criticised Lawrence Olivier over his choice of actor for the role of Iago.
He wrote: “Burton is around and so is Vladek Sheybal, who in spite of his foreign accent would be the best Iago of all.”
As a matter of fact John Holstrom sort of suggested in his review that Olivier deliberately cast a weak actor as Iago, and Olivier was quoted as saying: “I shall not sweat it out in Othello and see a strong young actor playing Iago with me.”
Then came a turning point in my career in England. I was directing something at the BBC, and at lunchtime I went up to the canteen. This canteen was famous at the time for people constantly turning round, looking either for a known face or for somebody important to make contact with.
I was always very amused watching this understated but significant scene and the ‘ladder climbers’ as I called them to myself. Well, in this busy and noisy canteen fate had pointed its finger at me again and two people appeared at my lunch table. One face I knew well - Patric Garland, my colleague from Oxford. He was then a Principal of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. I had directed him in the play ‘The Prisoner’ by Brigide Boland. Patric played the lead - Cardinal Minchenty. The production was a success on the University stage and Patric was excellent in it. The second face at my table I didn’t know but he introduced himself as Ken Russell. His face was roundish and his eyes smiled at me in a very kind way. Patric said: “I shall leave you two now.”
“May I sit at your table?” Ken asked.
My mind raced like a horse at full gallop! I knew of this man and I memorised his name.
“Please” I said.
As he sat down he looked at me with pleasure. Although he was a bit on the plumpish side his movements were graceful. His voice had the same smiling kindness as his eyes.
“I saw you in a Polish film by Andrzej Waida.”
“Kanal” I said, marvelling at it being mentioned again.
“Yes” Ken smiled, “I remember your performance in it very well. You were very good. I could not believe it when I saw you here in the canteen, and I had to check with Patric that it was you” he paused, “what are you doing in London?”
“Well” I said, “I am trying to do some directing to earn my living.”
He seemed surprised.
“Just like that?” he said, “you come over from Poland and you are already a director at the BBC?”
I laughed: “Just like that. Everything happened like that” I said.
“But you are an actor?”
“I was” I said sharply, feeling uneasy. I didn’t want him involving me in acting, not again. I didn’t really understand why I ran away from acting for what seemed the whole of my life, yet fate always provided me with it. Then I understood that acting for me was the means of escaping from ugly life into somebody's mind and feelings - into a different life; different environments and circumstances. Ken languidly put a script on the table.
“I am going to make another TV film about the French composer Debussy. There is a part there I would like you to play.”
I felt uncertain again: “Debussy himself?” I asked, “do you want me to play Debussy?”
Ken seemed a little distant, as though he was thinking about something, and after a while he said: “No. I mean you could play Debussy, but I have already cast another actor in the part. I wanted to give a young and unknown actor a break, you may have heard of him , Oliver Reed.”
“No” I said, “I haven't heard of him.”
Ken smiled: “Neither had I, but I auditioned him and I think he will be fine in the part. Well why don't you read the script?”
“A very good idea” I said, and we fell silent for a few moments.
“Ken, you said saw me in ‘Kanal’didn't you see me in ‘From Russia with Love’ also?”
“No” he said simply, “that’s not the kind of film I would go to the cinema to see.”
“I am glad to hear it” I said as we shook hands.
Later on I learned that Ken never went to the cinema to see films. He told me: “It would disturb me as a director, I would be petrified afterwards that I would direct my film after being influenced by some other film.”
Well I read the script and I liked it a lot, but, again, I didn't like the part. In fact the part offered to me was practically a leading part, that of the Film Director who directs the film about Debussy. I read it again, and suddenly I had an idea. There was another small part in the film, that of Pierre Louis, a French poet and a close friend of Debussy.
I telephoned Ken.
“Ken this is Vladek, I read the script and I liked it, but I am not so sure I would like to play the Director.”
“Why not? This is a very good part.”
“Yes” I said, “but sort of one dimensional. I have an idea - in the Director’s film about Debussy, there is the small part of Pierre Louis. I could, well , I would like to play both parts. It would give me a tremendous challenge.”
Ken thought a while: “Otherwise you wouldn't play in my film?”
“I am sorry Ken. No I wouldn't” I said, “you see I am quite happy being a director now.”
Ken interrupted: “No Vladek, I am sorry love but somehow I don't see my film in that way.” I told him I understood, and apologised.
“It's quite all right” Ken said, and that was that. I would carry on doing some more productions, but deep down I felt disappointed about Ken's film … I felt let down.
Suddenly in the middle of the night my telephone rings, a muffled voice asks: “Vladek? It's Ken, Ken Russell, I thought a lot about your idea and I think its excellent. You can play both parts - The film Director and Pierre Louis.”
This was such an unexpected development for me and I didn’t know what to say.
“Are you there Vladek?” Ken asked.
“Yes” I said, finding my voice, “I am here, I am very excited. I would like to play both parts.”
“Lovely” Ken almost shouted, “I’ll get in touch with your agent, thank you Vladek.”
I replaced the receiver and lay in my bed with my heart racing. I felt happy. Next day I telephoned John Fernal at RADA to ask him if he could find somebody at his school to be my English coach for the new part, as there was quite a lot of text to be learned by heart. John found me someone and a girl from RADA arrived, and we started working several hours every day. By the time we started shooting I knew the whole part by heart. I always believe that in films the ‘preparation period’ is the most vital. The more you are prepared, the more flexible you can be in front of the camera. You are capable of absorbing (to your advantage) all ‘surprises’ that are inevitable in film making. We shot this film on location, mostly in and around Bournemouth and I was enjoying every minute of it. Ken Russell's magic was everywhere. Oliver Reed was then very nice and friendly, but was starting to display his macho image. We were all living at the Grand Hotel in Bournemouth, and Ken surrounded my character of the film director with a few blonde, slim and beautiful ladies. They were supposed to be on the screen as my secretaries, assistants etc - but their functions were never fully explained. Ken wanted to surround my character with mystery, and Oliver tried to conquer all of these blonde girls. What was going on in reality didn't concern me at all, but Oliver was very careful to make us all notice and believe that they all slept with him. For example, every morning we would wait in the hall downstairs to be taken by bus to the location, and every morning there would be a staged entrance from Oliver and one of the girls from the top of the big staircase in the hall. It was carefully prepared so that we wouldn't be able to miss it. Ken simply smiled and winked at me, but Oliver didn't notice or perhaps didn't want to notice our smiles on the side. Later on I worked with Oliver, who was by then a real star in several films, and he never changed. I always had a soft spot for him and I knew he genuinely liked me. Perhaps our work on Debussy, which was after all his first film, made him warm towards me. I remember on location during the shooting of Debussy, that we had to go by car from one location to another. Our car broke down somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Kent, and our driver was fiddling with the engine trying to repair the fault when another car pulled up with a man and a woman inside. The man shouted to all of us: “Are you the actors who are making a film here?”
Thinking he was being recognised Oliver said: “Yes we are.”
The man in the other car shouted again: “What’s your name then?”
Oliver was furious and looked away. Then the man asked me my name. I shouted back to him: “Save your breath. We're all unknown actors.”
The man drove off and suddenly Oliver started laughing, he had this incredible sense of humour.
The film was only shown once on TV. Even though it was an enormous success it disappeared into oblivion. In the background of the film, Debussy's music was playing almost all the time, and I think that the BBC couldn't afford to pay royalties for the music to Debussy's family. I felt very disappointed but there you are. It happens too often in films. I am sure that had Debussy been shown on the big screen I would have become an overnight star. It was just bad luck for me, but you can't do anything about it. In the acting profession you have to learn quickly to forget your disappointments, failures, bad reviews etc. Forget them instantly, otherwise you might go mad. During one of the night shoots for the Debussy production, I almost drowned while we were filming on the beach. Ken had instructed me that in one scene I had to walk into the sea fully dressed, as far as I could go. We started shooting and I walked into the sea. I couldn't see the camera. It was behind me on the beach. I felt that I gone into the water to a dangerous depth, then suddenly I could hear Ken shouting to me through a loudspeaker: “Vladek go further, further, deeper. Oh what a lovely shot. Vladek deeper, further.”
I couldn't hear him after a while and then the bottom of the sea disappeared from beneath my feet, yet I was still ‘walking.’
The next thing I remember was lying on the beach. When I opened my eyes, all the actors, Ken and the crew uttered a sigh of relief.
“Very good Vladek” Ken said, “listen love we’ll have to repeat this shot again.” Then he shouted for wardrobe to bring a new suit for me. We did this shot three times, and only three times, because we only had suits for three wardrobe changes. In 1988 I received a telephone call from the people who were preparing an opening of a new art centre in The Rue Cujas in Paris. I think the name of the club was Accatone. They pleaded with me to get the Debussy film from the BBC, which they wanted to screen during the opening night. They thought it would be a good idea if I were there and introduced the film myself. So I began trying to help, and I rang Ken Russell, but he told me he didn’t own the film and therefore he didn’t have the rights to it. He said if the film hadn’t been destroyed then it must be locked away in the BBC’s archives. He gave me some useful names and telephone numbers at the BBC. However, after several days of telephoning I was told that the film might be released on the condition that it must not be shown commercially. I assured them that Accatone was a non-profit making club. The next condition was that the film must be accompanied by a BBC TV security guard for whom Accatone must provide an air ticket, an hotel and food, and that the film must not be shown more than once! Finally all the conditions were met and everything was arranged for the showing. Then after twenty five years I saw the film once again - the cinema was packed. I was also watching the reactions of the people and they were fantastic, even though the film was in English. I was completely mesmerised by the film myself, it hadn’t aged at all. The great talent of Ken Russell was evident. I must admit though that I felt slightly apprehensive seeing myself on the screen as I was twenty five years younger in it. I thought that I wasn’t such a bad actor after all and my English wasn’t bad either. The main emotion I was feeling was sadness, so much work went into this film so long ago and it has only been shown once. I made this film at the same time as I started working with Ken Russell. I went on to appear in ‘Women in Love’ with Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed (again) - this film became more well known than the rest. Other Ken Russell films I appeared in were: ‘The Boy Friend’ with Twiggy, ‘Billion Dollar Brain’ with Michael Caine, and one short TV film about Richard Strauss* - those were happy days.
*[Editors Note]: Vladek may be referring to the film ‘The Music Lovers’ but he did not appear in this film.
Chapter: Twenty Two
A few months before March 1981 I was contacted by a friend of mine: Gordon Deighton. I met Gordon when I was leading a rather poor, but very happy existence in Oxford during the years 1958 - 61. I was already running my acting classes with the University students at this time, and we would always go everywhere in groups. I had become a ‘you-must-meet-this-Vladek’ person, and there were several students who would desperately have liked to gatecrash, or trespass the territory. As you know, I already had a few guardian angels around me who would select, and allow only a few to come closer to me, to be introduced to me or better still to be auditioned by me to join the already well talked about, or rather ‘whispered-about’ acting classes. The ultimate accolade would be an invitation into my tiny room in Wellington Square, which has now been pulled down and does not exist any more: my beloved Wellington Square. There my guests would sit on the floor, and I would cook some hearty soup and ladle it up judiciously for them. All the time we would discuss almost every subject in the world, but mostly the theatre, acting and films. Gordon Deighton was brought to my little room in Oxford by Ian Flintoff. Ian was a student and he was also the Oxford irresistible lover, all the girls were after him. I directed him in the part of Holofernes, in a French play ‘Judith’ by Peyret de Chappuis. Later, Ian was directing ‘Hamlet’ and Gordon was a young composer in London. In fact he was very talented, and came down from London to do the music for Ian's ‘Hamlet.’
That was how Gordon came into my life, and though it was some hundreds of years ago, we are still great friends. Later on Gordon gave up his music, I don’t think he was moulded for this psychologically. His element was mixing with the stars, he felt happy with them and soon he started developing some interesting projects, notably charity projects, which involved all sorts of stars performing in them. I was in two of his charity shows - one of them was at the Savoy Hotel. The theme he used for me was James Bond. In this show I had to walk along a catwalk dressed in a trench coat; wearing a hat and dark glasses. The theme from James Bond was playing in the background as I walked, and suddenly I would stop. Then I pointed a very glamorous, diamond encrusted gun in the air and fired it. Immediately I did this, a galaxy of stars would join me on the catwalk, modelling dresses and suits. The audience for this show was made up of the crème de la crème of London Society, and of course the tickets cost a fortune. All the money raised went to charities, and it was fun. Among our stars were Marie Helvin, Gayle Hunnicut, Wayne Sleep and scores of others, and myself as the James Bond Master of Ceremonies. Gordon was a genius in organising all these events. He knew all the names and faces of the people who should or shouldn't be invited ... being given the privilege to pay a fortune to be there, to see and be seen. Needless to say we ‘the stars’ were not paid at all, but I liked doing this, and I adored working with Gordon. He would rehearse these events with organised skill, tact and his very special friendly smile, he simply loved actors. Anyway, the event which Gordon rang me up about before March 1981was supposed to take place in a very glamorous building - The Fishmongers Hall by the River Thames. This event was supposed to be for Action Research for the Crippled Child. So Gordon called me, he always had these surprisingly original ideas, and this time was no different.
“Listen Vladek” he said, “I’m going to have the richest people from England and America here for this charity show, and I want go give them something very special. I thought about you playing Herod, I saw you in this with Lindsay Kemp as Salome a while ago and you were wearing these fabulous glittering golden costumes. In this show though, I want you to wear, as Herod, a very chic and a very simple double-breasted suit. You must be literally clad with diamonds and emeralds, brooches, crowns and bracelets it's got to be stunning. Of course I'll also speak to the jeweller Chaumel [sic], he too wants his name to be in the programme you know , Mr Sheybal is wearing the jewellery from Chaumel.”
“Yes Gordon , but why Herod?”
“Because you were stunning in that part on the stage.”
What was so endearing about Gordon was his admiration, loyalty and never waning enthusiasm towards me, but I still didn't understand.
“Gordon, I can't play the whole of Herod, it’s too long.”
“Well be a good boy and make it into a neat monologue of five minutes ... make sure you say the famous bit - "Dance for me Salome.”"
“Ah, so there's going to be Salome as well.”
“But of course you'll have your Salome, she'll have no lines, she'll only dance.”
I was intrigued: “Who do you have in mind Gordon?”
He went quiet: “Well, the best of course, Lynn Seymour.”
Gordon put the receiver down and that was that.
I was already trembling with excitement, Gordon was a magician. I immediately began arranging the start of the scene from my agitated entrance shouting: “Where is Salome, where is the Princess?” Then, when Salome appears I go on telling her that I cannot sleep, something's going to happen, I slipped on blood.
Salome would then say: “Whose blood is it then?”
Then back to me: “Dance for me Salome.”
And then I leave it all to Lynn, she will dance the famous dance of the seven veils.
I worked on the scene like I was in a dream, I loved those unique and magic moments in our profession when you have an exciting idea, and slowly build up your performance bit by bit. Gordon rang again: “Are you ready with your scene?” his voice clipped with excitement.
“Yes I have my speech lasting about five minutes, then Lynn's dance, perhaps for another five or six minutes. Is that ok?”
“Yes, I spoke to her” Gordon went on, she wants to do it, and she also accepts you as her Herod.”
How ridiculous I thought; that this hierarchy still exists in the theatre.
“Tell me Gordon, what music are you going to use for her dance?”
“Well as a matter of fact she wants to dance to her new boyfriend's music, it’s all modern with a modern beat.”
“Is he any good?”
“She says so, but I have no choice.”
Typical I thought - she's opening the door to her young unknown boyfriend. I hoped he'd be good though.
I felt excited, and I must admit that of all the ballerinas I have seen, Lynn was my very special one. I saw Ulanova in Moscow in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and in ‘Gayane’ by Glier. Ulanova was the ultra assoluta. Again, the simplicity is always the key to magic. Her breath taking bravura technique was almost invisible, it was so effortless. Artistic expression was of course her fascination for me, she was the best actress in her dancing I have ever seen. Every single gesture and expression of hers were deeply motivated and felt by her. She was completely involved in her character, gliding effortlessly across the stage in the most difficult and complicated steps. Then I saw Margot Fontaine. I saw her before she started to dance with Nureyev and after she had danced with him; before she danced with him she was already nice, and a good dancer, but nothing more. When she started dancing with Nureyev she was already much older than he was. I was a witness to one of those phenomenal happenings that can only occur on the stage. Margot was presented with the wild Slavonic animal-like quality of Nureyev, and so far she was a good restrained dancer with that typically English style of reserve. At the age of almost 40 now, she understood that her time was up. We all saw how she started almost literally eating Nureyev up. Alive. Like a female insect after her husband has done his duty and made her pregnant, she devours him on the spot, gaining from him all the genes and juices and blood needed for the future strength of her baby. His soul was dying from the deficit of human spirit, he had been continually erased, wiped off the stage by her, but Margot swelled on this feed. She took inside her all that was in him until finally, she dropped him - the empty shell with no flesh, no spirit inside. Thus we all saw poor Nureyev slowly becoming emptier and emptier. A few years later he became sad, abandoned and lost. A tragic figure making astonishing grimaces as if trying to make up for the loss of his whole inner colour. I don't even think that he noticed, or realised the irreversible tragic process of being eaten up and up. It is astonishing how the vanity of an artist can blind him totally. Audiences would still applaud him madly, but they don’t see the same changes that we in the profession ourselves do. Once they see in an artist a legend, they don't want to see anything more than the legend. I was never taken by Nureyev's dancing, so I am glad that at least he had something inside to give it all to Margot, and thus to make her involuntarily, one of the greatest ballerinas of our time. Then there was my very favourite: Moira Shearer, with her haunting red locks and her pauses, her senses of drama and humour. Another favourite of mine was American Cyd Charisse, she had all the qualities as the previous ballerinas, but she added to them the lightness and wit of American Jazz tradition, and of course her unbelievably endless legs. I have never liked Fred Astaire. Correction, I liked the way he danced but I found his face rather repulsive. I could never believe that the fabulously beautiful, romantic and ultra feminine Ginger Rogers could ever fall in love with him. But he too became a legend like Nureyev. Millions of people all over the world worshipped them. But in our show business there are several examples of somebody's career being blown up out of proportion to great heights, and I could never understand why. I simply had to accept it - but I never could. Perhaps I have this special quality which says ‘you can't cheat me, you can lie to me, but I cannot change and start thinking like the others.’ Most of the time I see, I smell, I appreciate or I dislike, just the opposite qualities to the majority of people. Then there was Lynn Seymour, I think she was always my favourite out of all these great ballerinas around her, because she was special. She was not the greatest classic technician. But she had her distinct personality and a childlike quality, that of a young girl perhaps. She would always submerge herself in the character she was dancing with the ability of Ulanova's, and she had those famous moments of stillness and looks. None of the others had it, but Lynn knew how to look, she knew how to be still with large open eyes, the burning tragic eyes of a girl who doesn't understand why - but who is hurting. In acting stillness is always the most important element, with stillness you always win. So we started rehearsals. Lynn mesmerised me right from the start, we both knew from the first rehearsal that we were both professionals. She would work very hard, and she would never object to repeating this phrase, or that movement. Her boyfriend's music was very good. It depicted some nostalgic quality, and much in the right colour of Salome, the Princess. I remember one day that just before I would say: “I have slipped, I have slipped on blood.” Lynn would say, with her child like innocent voice and a rather strong Canadian accent, “Perhaps before this line I shall point as I am already sitting on your throne. I will point with my finger at this spot on the floor where the patch of blood should be, like this.”
She made a gesture I shall always remember. It was a slight theatrical gesture, but done by La Seymour together with her slight ironical smile looking at me. I felt a shiver going through my spine. Her finger was still slightly hovering in the air but her smile was already fading; she became cruel and I loved that moment. Although I found Lynne enchanting, there were two things that alarmed me a little. She would always have a bottle of Barley wine - a very strong English beer with her. She would sip it now and then. The second thing I found a little disturbing was the number of veils she would try to handle during her dance.
“How are you going to manage with all these veils?” I asked her.
Actually they were very light, colourful, long Indian scarves. She looked at me with surprise, and again her girlish voice sounded so innocent: “I am a dancer after all, we have to handle very difficult props in dance.”
“But I think you need only seven veils” I said, “and you already have at least thirty of them on you.”
Lynn laughed: “It'll be all right.”
I was completely convinced. She started improving her dance, and finally a week before the premiere she was already in full flight. She was fascinating, the great Lynn Seymour in Salome and her dance. I was sitting on my throne while she danced, and I was supposed to watch every step of hers with fascination and erotic obsession. And I was captivated and totally absorbed and bewildered by her. The order of the production was supposed to run like this - the main lights in the hall slowly go off and the music starts playing. I am supposed to get out of our dressing room, go to the end of the long corridor, where I was supposed to wait for my cue in the music to make a dash on stage where the lights were now on, and make a dramatic run around the stage and shout: “Where is Salome? Where is the Princess?”
At that moment, a spotlight was supposed to hit a chair in the back of the auditorium with Salome already sitting on it. Seeing her I would say: “Ah there she is.”
Then Salome would come slowly to me with the music , taking the few steps up to reach me on the stage. I would then start my speech to her, then the spot of blood, then me asking her to dance for me. I would place myself on the throne and Lynn would start that wonderful La Seymour magic. Until the music ended I must add that both our entrances on the stage were from completely different places. The moment I was on the long corridor listening to the music cue, Lynn and I separated; not in contact anymore. She would make her entrance in darkness straight from our dressing room and appear on the chair, where the spotlight would find her. On the evening of our premiere, Lynn came to the dressing room with her boyfriend - the composer of the music, and some of his friends. Lynn and I had to share this dressing room as it was the only one available. We would make ourselves up, and chat to each other, but I was a bit surprised when Lynn and the boys started opening the bottles of Barley wine and drank them. Then they would start on the bottles of champagne.
Lynn asked me if I would like a drink. When I declined politely, she was a bit annoyed and said: “What is the matter with you Vladek, don't you drink?”
“I do” I said, “but I can't drink before the show, otherwise my lips and tongue would be paralysed, and I would slur my lines.”
After I put on my fabulously elegant double-breasted suit, Gordon came in saying that the jewellery had arrived for me.
Two guards came in with two little leather boxes.
“Sorry for this Vladek” Gordon said, “but you are going to have something like two million pounds sterling on you tonight, and its too much jewellery in the auditorium. These two men are your guards, and they'll be guarding you all the time.”
From the neat little boxes, the guards produced the promised brooches, necklaces, chains and bracelets, it was all diamonds and emeralds. I was speechless. I have never seen so much jewellery and glitter in all my life. Lynn gasped too and put her hands over her eyes. Yes the jewellery had its infinite magic.
Gordon started putting it all on me piece by piece. On every finger I had one or two rings. On each wrist I had three bracelets of solid gold, diamonds and emeralds. Around my neck there was a necklace of diamonds, and a few chains of gold and diamonds too. On my ears I had heavy earrings, and on my head I wore a crown. Everybody was spellbound. I looked at my reflection in the mirror, and I was rather petrified, yet at the same time mesmerised. I tried walking but it was difficult, so I stopped.
“Gordon” I said, “there is a slight problem. I can hardly walk with all these diamonds on me. They are too heavy.”
I never realised that real jewellery would be so terribly heavy. Gordon was without a shred of pity.
“I am sorry Vladek. It looks fabulous though, you’ll have to get used to the weight.”
“So I must go out onto the corridor and start exercising, running, walking with it?”
“Yes do it” he said.
There was another problem - the guards. They were behind me all the time, ahead of me, around me; when I tried to rehearse my run on the stage, they ran with me. When I sat down to rest, they sat with me. When I had to go to the loo they marched in with me. But slowly, little by little, I was getting used to all this: the jewellery, the guards. After all, we actors have to be ready to perform in the most extraordinary circumstances sometimes.
Lynn became very nervous. She embraced me and said: “Good luck, good luck, good luck” - kiss kiss with everybody. I was then completely unaware of what was going to happen. The music started playing. Gordon disappeared. I went to my position, the entrance position at the end of the corridor with the guards like sniffing dogs at my heels. The music reached my cue. I took a deep breath and started running onto the stage. I could not believe my eyes. One of the guards tried to run after me on the stage, but another guard held him back.
The lights were on. I could smell the expensive perfume coming from the rich and famous audience.
I made my tragic run around the stage shouting: “Where is Salome? … where is the Princess?”
I stopped and waited. The spotlight hits Lynn's hair in the last row.
There is no Lynn in the chair!
I cannot believe it.
Those who aren't actors don't understand these moments of anguished panic when something goes wrong on the stage unexpectedly.
I went through several near catastrophes like this - once I started to play the mute piano in a particular part. But the lady behind the set who was really supposed to play it either got the wrong signal or fell asleep. So, while my fingers were moving on the keyboard, no sound would be heard. Or sometimes the spotlight would hit the wrong spot and I would be in complete darkness making my speech. Or on a revolving stage theatre the wrong set would appear. I can quote hundreds of surprises like this, yet strangely the audience would seldom notice these blood curdling hiccups, and usually we actors would just have to cope with the accidents. It is true that ‘the show must go on’ feeling is in our blood.
When I saw that Lynn was still not in her chair, I ran round the stage again, yelling this time, hoping Lynn would hear me.
“Where is Salome?”
Again, no Lynn. I started ad-libbing, yelling: “Salome, where are you? I, your King Herod command you to come here at once.”
There was still no sign of Lynn.
In moments like this on the stage your instinct always tells you what to do. I knew that I had to switch now to comedy, and so I looked down at the bejewelled and beperfumed [sic] audience, and with a wink in my eye addressed them almost privately: “She is always late, what am I to do? I know, I must fetch her.”
Luckily the audience started laughing, and now as they opened their mouths I smelled above the oriental perfumes the strong smell of garlic. Before this performance, the audience had been downstairs having their buffet supper, all garlic butter, and mussels with garlic, and this thought gave me a feeling of total power on them and on the whole situation. That's what I was taught in drama school by my teachers, if you feel crippling stage fright you have to diminish the power of the audience, look straight at them and imagine them all naked sitting on lavatory seats and thus you will win the battle. In this case, garlic saved my life. I was furious. I ran off the stage and on the corridor to the dressing room.
The guards ran after me shouting: “What do you think you are doing sir?” They had been running after me like mad dogs. I burst into the dressing room and stopped in my tracks; I could not believe it - Lynn was sitting there with her boys, and they were all laughing and sipping wine from a bottle.
“Lynn you're on” I shouted.
Lynn giggled: “When?”
“Five minutes ago” I shouted, making a dramatic jump at her, pulling her by the hand through the little door into the auditorium. I placed her on her chair and started back through the long corridor. At this particular moment the guards made a leap at me, they did not understand anything. I had to shake them off and was back on the stage with: “Where is Salome?”
The audience roared with laughter now. The spot on the chair far away from me showed that Lynn was there. At last I could say: “Oh, there she is.”
Lynn got up and started making her way to the stage. She must have tripped on somebody's outstretched leg because I heard her voice with the Canadian accent saying: “I beg your pardon.”
Finally she reached the stage. I was waiting for her and steadied her with my hand, then I started my speech. I saw that Lynn had regained control, her acting instinct started working but alas the music cue had already gone.
“Dance for me Salome” I said, and looked at her with undiminished admiration. Lynn's magic was there. Her carriage as an actress, her ‘show must go on’ instinct worked through her. I admired her carriage when I saw how beautifully she coped through the wrong bars of music. She was fascinating again, and she won my heart. She was sexy, beautiful, and she was pure magic. The music, which was on tape, had run out by now and she took the silence like a real prima ballerina assoluta. She made a few steps in complete silence. Then she composed herself like a dying swan on the floor. Another look at me. She must have seen my admiration. She smiled at me faintly and gently touched the floor with her cheek. It was all improvised. Bravo. She looked now like the quintessential beautiful woman - Cleopatra. Great Lynn Seymour. The audience was ecstatic. Lynn looked at me with a happy smile, she was already up on her feet, and I took the curtain calls a step behind the assoluta. She was given a sumptuous bouquet of roses. She disengaged one rose from it and graciously gave it to me.
“What a dump” I almost heard Bette Davis saying, it was all so calculatedly wet and schmaltzy.
The audience got up, a standing ovation, zigzagging painful sparks of diamonds on their hands and on me, the smell of garlic. I felt I had done a gigantic job.
I wanted to go to bed and sleep.
We hadn't left the stage before the guards advanced on me like hyenas, taking the jewellery off.
“Hands off me” I shouted and started hitting them at random. They looked back at me in surprise.
Then Lynn's voice sounded sweet and girlish: “Vladek, you were so late at the beginning.”
I looked at her with disbelief. I was late?
I screamed and ran like a mad spider to the dressing room. Lynne followed. The guards barged in after her, fear written all over their faces. I started taking the diamonds off and threw them furiously at the guards. They were jumping like dogs trying to catch them in the air.
“Take all those fucking diamonds, I don't want them” I yelled, then I took off my suit.
As I was already greasing my face to wipe off my make-up, Lynn watched me in silence. Then Gordon arrived. He started to say “You were both fantas...” but he stopped as he tried to open another bottle of wine. Lynn took the bottle, and poured a glass, it was a tired gesture. Then her boyfriend arrived and she sat next to him. Then she tried uncertainly to hand me a glass, she said in a vulnerable whisper: “Vladek (she paused) will you have some wine with me?” then almost inaudibly, “please?”
I smiled at her and took the glass.
“Of course” I said. Lynn had tears in her eyes and I knew I would do anything for her now. We clinked our glasses ... we took a sip ... then we embraced warmly.
A great talent, a great dancer, and those amazing eyes; the eyes of a frightened deer. The next day a few reviews appeared in the newspapers. I only remember one and I write only the gist of it. ‘Vladek Sheybal for some obscure reason was running on and off the stage looking like a demented Dracula, wearing pounds and pounds of diamonds and yelling “Where is Salome? I can't find her.” Lynn Seymour doing her Salome's dance of the seven veils, looked like a desperate woman trying to sort out the dirty linen from the floor.’
This little story with Lynn, which I look back on now with a sort of nostalgic smile, makes me think, all of us working as actors, dancers, pianists, singers, all so called showbiz people, we all work under tremendous strain. Obviously Lynn's story has a very compacted background. At the back of every dancer's head there is a constant fear of breaking a leg or pulling a tendon. These are occurrences that actually happen quite often. Then there is the prospect of an operation, or just resting in bed for quite a considerable time. After a period of resting they have to start exercising again to make up for the lost time. These fears create a constant tension, which often has to be appeased by drinking, smoking or even some stronger drugs. I remember what Lynn once told me about her physical condition: “I happened to be born with rather weak ankles. When I am on the stage dancing I have to do it with full speed and force; I simply cannot try to save myself. This would diminish my performance and would kill my pride as a dancer. I have to simply jump into every leap, every pirouette, and trust my partner when I am lifted that he'll not drop me on the floor. And how many times I went through complicated operations on my ankles, tendons, and so on. Each time I was in crippling fear that I would not be able to fully recover and go back to my top form. You see dancing is the only love , the only passion and sense of my life. And each time I am on the stage smiling, whirling, twirling, I think to myself if I make a slight mistake in my step here and there, this time might be the last time I will dance , yet there is some suicidal trait in us. We never try to spare ourselves on the stage. Let it be death rather than mediocre, careful dancing. So there.
And we actors have to live in constant fear of hurting our vocal chords. I have lost my voice several times, so I know the feeling of panic in these cases - perhaps I shouldn't speak anymore?
Every morning, waking up covered up completely with the blanket, and secretly and carefully trying my voice, does it work this morning?
Chapter: Twenty Three
I was brought up in the Ukraine in a little town called Kremenec. It was situated in a valley in that beautiful, rolling green, honey smelling country, near to the real Russian Steppes (which were just across the eastern hills from us). The earth there was fertile, and black, completely black; it exuded hallucinating smells at night. The people there were beautiful and slender, poor but proud. They sang in the evenings in total harmony from hill to hill there, those haunting and mysterious Ukrainian songs. They would all stand on different and opposite hills sometimes a few miles apart, but they sounded like one huge symphonic orchestra. As we were in the valley, I always had the feeling that the tunes met in mid-heaven right above my head and would fall down, cascading right onto me. Those totally improvised vocal Ukrainian concerts were amazing, they had no conductor but the valleys, fields and forests down below, between them. Years later when we were touring Russia with the Polish theatre and speeding at night on the train from Moscow to Kiev (which is the capital of Ukraine) I would wake up on my bunk in my sleeping compartment; something hit me. Through the open window came a smell and I sat up trembling. It was that unique rich intoxicating smell of the Ukraine's black earth - only found there in the whole world. As our train was speeding through the Ukraine, my country, I yelped like a little dog with happiness and helpless tears. Of course, I couldn’t wake any of my colleagues, all sleeping around me on their bunks. They wouldn't understand that the cry inside myself was a pain of a lost childhood's paradise, of the Ukraine. This was what I always felt being among the Polish people; I was not one of them, and later in my life, I started asking myself a question which always remained unanswered; where do I belong, who do I belong to?
I crawled out of my bed and went out into the corridor, and I just sat on the floor with my back leaning against the wall and I inhaled deeply. I could smell that beloved smell, which evoked so many memories, and suddenly I felt a pain in my stomach like a knife. It became excruciating, unbearable and I was unable to move. Another surge of pain made me cry, I had to move. Making the effort I managed to reach the lavatory whereupon I had a bad case of diarrhoea, it left me totally empty inside. I waited a while, exhausted. Then I crawled again out into the corridor and rested, sitting on the floor, my head down between my knees.
I became aware of someone standing in front of me and so I glanced up; sure enough there was our ‘politruk’ standing there. Officially he was called ‘our Russian guide’ who sounded like somebody to help protect and give advice, when in fact he was there to watch us and we were always carefully aware of his presence.
He looked worriedly at me: “What is the matter with you?” he asked.
Perhaps he thought that I was giving some signals through the window to somebody.
Oh to hell with all this I thought, I cannot tell him about my childhood's lost paradise, so I said simply: “Stomach pains, diarrhoea.”
“Wait a minute” he said, and went out. He returned almost immediately with a wine bottle in his hand.
“You must drink this, all of it, at once” he said.
“But what is it?” I said, trying not to sound suspicious.
“Cahor” he said, “Cahor, the wine. The best remedy for all stomach troubles.”
He uncorked the bottle
“It comes from here, from the Ukraine. A strong heavy local wine, borne of this earth. Now open your mouth.”
I wanted to object, but he had already started pouring the wine straight into my mouth. I liked it, it tasted good. It tasted and smelled of my earth; like burning leaves in the autumn. I was gulping it avidly as he went on talking: “They make the same wine in the Bordeau region in France near a town called Cahors, it is spelled with an ‘s’ at the end there. They have the same rich black earth there as we have here in the Ukraine, they have the same combination of minerals. This earth has a magic formula for all crops, but especially for wines. It has life-giving properties and all the most important minerals in the right combination. It cures almost everything. Drink it all, the whole bottle. Then you will sleep and you will wake up cured.”
I finished the bottle. I felt dizzy but happy.
“Are you by any chance a Ukrainian?” I asked.
He looked gingerly around, smiled and nodded.
“I was born near here, but I cannot speak about it. It might cost me my job, they don't trust Ukrainians in Russia.”
“I was brought up near here too” I whispered sleepily.
He smiled: “I know, it's all in your papers, I have them in your file.”
“But I was born Armenian really, so I’m not Ukrainian” I said.
“Ya znayoo. Hotchesch spaty” he said in Ukrainian, it means, ‘I know it too. Want to sleep?’
I nodded, and he gently helped me to walk to my bunk.
“I had a bunk like this when I was in a German concentration camp” I murmured in Ukrainian.
“Ya znayuo vcio o tebe” (I know all about you) he said.
I fell asleep, and the next morning I felt fantastic. When I saw the politruk during breakfast in our restaurant car, we smiled at each other. I knew now that even under a communist regime, there are people with their delicate and private feelings. But we never spoke a word about the previous night's incident; it would be too dangerous.
As I am writing this in my flat in Paris on 21st September 1989 I have in front of me on the table a bottle, inside there is Bordeau wine which I sip with relish from time to time. On the label it says ‘CAHOR KREMENEC.’ Kremenec was famous for its Polish King's College, which was a multi-national school. The students, which included Ukrainians, Russians, Jews and Poles, were all very democratic and very proud of it. Three religions and three priests for each religious class. I too was born into a multinational and multilingual family; most of my blood is Armenian. Our family spoke the Armenian language together with the German language, as my mother was born in Vienna. Hence my second name is Rudolf. I spoke Armenian mostly with my grandmother. Both my grandmothers were Armenian. My name Sheybal comes from Scotland. My great grandfather's name was Sheaval Sheeybheall; he came from South Uist. There is a mountain there called Sheaval. As a matter of fact my Scottish name Sheeybheall means ‘The mouth of the witch’ in Gaelic. Like the Campbells, who also came from Uist, their name means ‘The crooked mouth.’
All this resulted in total confusion in my family regarding what we were. My mother had to learn how to make haggis, and my father always drank whisky as a tribute to his Scottish ancestors. We always spoke to each other in Armenian in the morning, and my mother would always start a sentence in Polish and half way through she would finish it all in German. But my very first language, the language I still can sing some songs and speak poetry in was Ukrainian. My nanny was Ukrainian; her name was Hafeeya. This language was my first love as I loved her very much. Then my mother engaged a French governess, who lived with us for several years to teach us perfect French. We called her Madame Chauchet, from Thomas Mann's novel: ‘The Magic Mountain.’ My father's mother's Armenian name was Zadourian. In his mother's Armenian family there were other names such as Passacass and Ayvases, but the greatest pride of my family was my great uncle who was an archbishop of an Armenian Cathedral in Lviv; his name was Theodorian. I remember numerous vacations spent with our Armenian family in their estates near the Romanian border. They were all very rich. There were big country houses with beautiful parks around them and lots of servants, endless lunches and lingering late dinners. All my Armenian aunts and uncles frightened me deeply with their strong Eastern looks - equine noses, large dark and emerald green eyes. They would talk loudly in Armenian and Polish and French, their hands always zigzagging in the air.
My aunts were covered in jewellery; all real diamonds and emeralds. It sparkled, zigzagged and twinkled in the light, and my aunts also wore very heavy perfumes. But they were all extremely hospitable and loving, so after a while I got used to their stern looks and started feeling their immense warmth. I can understand now that some people when seeing me for the first time have some sort of uncomfortable feeling about me, or just feel fear. I do have the strong looks of an Armenian, and rather penetrating eyes. My Armenian family exercised a sort of pressure on my parents to have me baptised in the Armenian order and Armenian Cathedral in Lviv. It was a sort of blackmail: I wouldn’t inherit anything from them unless I was Armenian. At this time, I was seven years of age and had already been baptised as a baby in a Catholic Church. But as the Armenians in Poland were Catholic as well (only in the Armenian Catholic order and Armenian language) it all looked simple. I remember the splendour of the Lviv Armenian Cathedral with its gold and crystal candelabras, and the whole rather eastern flavour of the ceremony. There was lots of singing, the same kind of beautiful singing that I heard years later in Jerusalem sung by an Armenian choir. The sound was like hundreds of metallic harmonicas playing at the same time, it was deeply penetrating and moving. The Archbishop, as well as being the cousin of my family and as well as being named Theodorian (they would pronounce it very hard) baptised me as Armenian. All this scared me a little, but after a few minutes I took the beauty of it all in and there I stood, a little boy, while the Archbishop was walking in circles around me with seven magnificently clad priests behind him, and they were chanting all those mysterious songs. I was then given the name Vladimir. In my Catholic baptism my name was Wladyslaw-Rudolf. I prefer it so much to Vladek.
My first agent Peter Crouch gave this name to me and I didn't protest. As a matter of fact I hate my name Vladek, but it is too late now, I am stuck with it. Why didn't Peter want to accept Vladimir or Rudolf, which I like as well? How stupid I was not to say ‘NO’ firmly, and demand that I use the name I wanted, I have never understood this, and I have never forgiven Peter for that.
Armenians were very much aware of the numerous holocausts in the history of our nation. We have never had any land or country. All Armenians are either in Russia (Eryvan, where some of my family still live, and I helped them a lot during an earthquake), or Turkey or Persia or Ukraine. All this was fed into me by my father's eldest sister, Aunt Wanda. It contributed greatly to my self-isolation and the feeling that I didn’t belong. Aunt Wanda would tell me all these fascinating stories about the old Armenian culture, about the language, which is supposed to be THE oldest in the world. She taught me to speak a bit of Armenian and she showed me the Armenian writing, which is beautiful and like no other writing in the world. It has its own movement, it dances and sings. Perhaps this writing makes it possible to produce those incredibly metallic tones in the Armenian religious singing. Although I dearly love the language, I have never learned to write or read Armenian, it is too difficult. Aunt Wanda would also tell me of my Scottish ancestors, of the Uist island in the eastern Hebrides, and how the three brothers feeling persecuted as Catholics went to Poland (my great grandfather) another to Czechoslovakia, and the third one to Italy - all Catholic countries. In Czechoslovakia they changed our name to Schejbal. Years later, I came across the Sheybal family in Florence. I happened to be walking along a small Florentine street, when I came upon an antique shop and above the shop I saw the name of the proprietor … it was Antonio Sheibel. With bated breath I walked into the shop, inside there was a man in his fifties who looked exactly like Uncle Adam (one of my father's brothers). I told him that I had come from London and that my name is spelled Sheybal. It was as if I had thrown a small bomb into his little shop. Antonio made an Italian cry, jumped up and threw himself on me embracing me and laughing. Then he shouted upstairs: “Maria, bambini vieni a qui immediatemente: Sheybalo di Londra ha arrivato.”
Before I realised, I was surrounded by a dozen bambinos, all little Sheybals - Italians. Or Sheibels now. The original Uist name Sheeybheall proved impossible to pronounce in other countries, so it had to be adapted to become at least pronounceable. But the astonishing fact is this - in all three adoptive countries the brothers Sheeybhealls made the change in their names in such a way as to leave the basic look and sound as close to the original name. Sheybal, Schejbal and Sheibel - did they contact each other about it? Nobody will ever know. The Czechoslovakian Sheybal connection died with the death of a great Czechoslovakian actress of the National Theatre in Prague - Irina Schejbalove. We were in touch with each other and we were very much aware of our Sheeybheall bond. Antonio Sheibel's family is now also aware of it. The only thing that we now know is that these three brothers from South Uist were the Architects of Bridges. That's why they placed themselves near the mountains in whichever country they put their roots. I made the journey to South Uist, and I was greeted by the locals with warmth and care. They knew that my ancestor's name was Sheaval Sheeybheall, and they showed me the mountain there of the name Sheaval; the mountain from which all the names around it were taken; Skybbald, Sheavals, Skybals etc, and like in the case of my great grandfather they often took the name Sheaval as their Christian name. Obviously they proclaimed me instantly as being a Scot. They did not want to accept my trying to modify it: “You are a Scot and that's that” they said. It is a great pity that Aunt Wanda had already died by the time I undertook the journey to South Uist; she would have loved it. Unfortunately my father took the news of my trip and the family revelation with typical anger: “Why do you complicate your life?” was his reaction. I agreed with the Uistians that I did look like a lot of them, I also know that I look Armenian and the Armenians also claim me as one of them without hesitation. And what about my mother being half Austrian? Do I look Austrian as well? How does one look Austrian anyway? My mother claimed that I do indeed look like the Austrians in Tyrol. I went there as well, perhaps she was right, perhaps it means that my face could fit into any of those characteristics; an international face. Hence I think I played so many nationalities as an actor. Even back in Poland, I hardly played in any Polish plays. They were always French: Musset, or Irish: G.B. Shaw, Napoleon (a Corsican) in Man of Destiny, Ben Johnson, Lorenzaccio etc etc. I would be told that I had a ‘costume, or period face.’ Even when I auditioned for Peter Ustinov for the role of Lame Ali, a Turk, in his film: ‘Memed My Hawk’ he told me almost immediately that I looked like a Russian Icon, and he would know. The significant fact is that back in Poland as a Polish actor I won an acting prize (a kind of equivalent of an Oscar for the stage) for the part of Mr Bukowicz - a Pole … in a Polish play too. But THE most astonishing thing for me happened when I learned that I was going to be offered the part of the creator of Pakistan in 1947/48 - the great Mohammed Ali Jinnah, in the mini series: ‘Lord Mountbatten - The Last Viceroy.’ It seemed to me at the time, to be ridiculous casting. What do I know about Pakistan? About being a Pakistani? Judith de Paul, an American producer of this series, answered my questions: “You look like him, and you have his strength. He was a great politician and I think you could easily convey this. I'll show you some films with him making speeches and talking to people, eating etc.” I was relieved, he was very European in his manner. Immaculately dressed in double-breasted suits from London. At least I didn’t have to do anything ‘special Pakistani’ in this part, about which I wouldn't know anything. But the thing which convinced me to take the part was when I suddenly looked at my father's photograph in my drawing room - my father looked just like Jinnah, and so I accepted the part . All of the Pakistani actors who played my servants, secretaries, etc accepted me as Jinnah too. The same thing happened when I played the part of Casanova for the BBC TV documentary called ‘The Fall of Venice.’ We were shooting this film in Venice (of course) - all the extras were students from the Venetian University. One day I asked them how they felt about my being Casanova. The reply was immediate: “You look Venetian, even your Italian accent sounds Venetian.”
I can't win; I am a joke … a mongrel joke.
I remember my father cutting short my intoxicating sessions with Aunt Wanda about my ancestry. He walked into the room and said to his sister sharply: “Enough of all this drivel. You are not going to confuse the child. I forbid you to tell him all this rubbish about the family's past. He is Polish, and that's that.”
It was a moot point really as I was too small then to have my own passport stating my citizenship. Soon afterwards war broke out, and on 17th September 1939 the Russian tanks rolled into our country, and thus automatically we became the citizens of USSR of Ukranian Province. I still remember the little red coloured document where they had written my name as Vladimir (Rudolf was omitted) which could be a perfect Russian.or Ukrainian name. The first half of the war was spent there living under Russian rule as Russian citizens. My father together with my family was not sent to Siberia, they were getting rid of the Polish intelligentsia and my father was a Professor of History of Art and Painting in the Polish college there. The local Ukrainians told the Russian authorities that we were Armenians not Poles. My father had to accept that as this saved all my family from destruction in the Siberian Gulags. When the Germans attacked Russia, the whole German front went through our country, practically above our heads. We spent the whole time during the artillery battles in cellars or in trenches in our garden. So with the Germans now occupying the country we decided to move to the West, notably to Warsaw where my mother's sister was living, but it was not as simple as that. My father was chosen by the Germans as an ‘open’ hostage, which meant that in the event of something subversive happening, he along with the other hostages would be shot. We all had to pass across an open border. I went through first and was followed by my parents. We found ourselves together, spending the second half of the war in Warsaw occupied by the Germans. Some rumours kept repeating themselves that the Germans would gas all Armenians. My father called all my family together and said: “From now on no Armenian language must be used, even in private. From now on we are Polish, and that's final.”
“What if the Germans find out that Sheybal is a Scottish name?” I said.
My father thought a little and said: “Then we must say this is an Irish name. Ireland is neutral.”
There was yet another cluster of confusion about our identities; in a way I always found this rather fascinating. I remember years later, I was filming a German-made film: ‘Tristan and Isolde’ in Ireland. After we finished shooting in this mesmerisingly beautiful country, I was sent to London for a few days before restarting studio work on this film in Munich. I was sitting on the plane next to one of our German crewmen. While we were chatting I asked him if he was really a German. He laughed and said: “Years ago, I would have been afraid if somebody asked me this question. No I am not born German, I am a Gypsy. But you know the Nazis were gassing the gypsies too, so my mother one day said to all of us children: “From now on we are not Gypsies. We don't speak the gypsy language even in private. We are Germans and we only speak German or else we will all die.”
My father had this sort of special obsession ‘to belong.’ I often wonder what it was. Why did he try to push us into the idea that we belonged to Poland? Perhaps he had some bad experiences in his childhood? Our name - Sheybal - was conspicuously not a Polish name. I remember that whenever a new teacher came to our classroom, and started reading the list of pupils' names he would nearly always stop before my name, think a while and then read it all wrongly to the great amusement of the whole class. I was amused too but I was also very proud of my name. The combination of S H E does not exist in Polish - then comes this confusing Y which no one in Poland knew how to read together with S H E. The last B A L was easy. After my father's death my brother published my father's memoirs in Polish, and to my surprise my father writes there all about our multinational and multilingual family but he says: “In spite of this we had never had any doubt that we were Polish.” Well, I always have! My brother never gave it any thought - he easily adopted my father's way, whereas I always knew that I would one day live outside Poland. As I have already recounted earlier in these memoirs I became one of the outstanding Polish actors, and I was lucky to play in Poland with some of the greatest actors I have ever seen. I think that I made my career here in the West largely thanks to the knowledge I obtained in Poland, yet I always felt, and was treated like, an outsider there and I knew then that when I left Poland (in 1957) I would never return. After I had lived in London for several years, my mother started to visit me here regularly. One day she told me that my father hated the idea of me living in England. So, the following year I sent him a ticket so that he could come with my mother to visit. He sent the ticket back through my mother with a message, which read - ‘Let my son come to his country first, and then I shall visit him in London’ - so I never saw him again. England became MY country and London MY home. I had worked as an actor in Polish for 12 years and in English for 30 years – Voila!
As a child I had to go to a Polish school, as it was on the territories of Poland before the war so I started speaking Polish; but I didn't realise that I spoke it with a heavy Ukrainian or Russian accent. When we found ourselves in the second half of the war in Warsaw, and I went to drama school (in Polish of course), I had to have special pronunciation lessons to get rid of my accent and to speak Polish correctly. Yet even as I became a young star in the Polish theatre my colleagues and Polish actors would say that whenever I played a very emotional scene, I would inevitably fall back into this melodic Ukrainian accent. For all the feelings I have regarding Poland, I always think warmly of her and the Polish people. I learned my craft, and all that I know in the field of acting from these schools, which I think, are the best in the world. For 12 years after I left school I was a young star in the Polish Theatre and I was lucky to play with the greatest living actors. I am sure that the knowledge I had learned gave me a great deal of security, and consequently I was never shy, insecure or frightened to play in English, and later in French, German and Italian. I felt self-assured. Acting is acting whichever language you play.
The audience feels my confidence, and I am sure now that this confidence was one of the keys to my instant success as an actor in England. Every time I analyse my first years in my artistic activities in England I come to the same conclusion about the first, most important factor which made my career - and even a sort of Vladek Sheybal ‘legend’ - right from the beginning - those thirty years ago in Oxford, where for the first time I acted on my intuition. Unbeknown to me I had a ‘method’ of not caring, not having any ambition to make acting a career in England. When I read now about Greta Garbo's first years in Hollywood, I can see in her the same line as I had - she couldn't care less about her stardom. She would prefer to go back to Sweden. She hated Hollywood, the Americans, and the constant sun in California, she preferred the snow. That's why when the studios didn't want to pay her very high fees, she said she didn't care. She locked herself at home and told them if they didn’t agree to her demands then she would go back to Sweden with great pleasure. She also told them she would only wait for their response for a certain amount of time, and after a year of this silent struggle they had to yield to her demands. She won and thus became the greatest star in the world and a very rich woman. Her catchphrase of ‘I want to be alone’ was perfect for her, she meant it. Sometimes, my agents would apply the same words to me: ‘he wants to be alone.’
The second, most important factor was this business of not asking for help in this country, rather being asked to help. It was almost paradoxical, but inadvertently this happened to me right from the start and it is still with me. I am a helper, I love helping. I am very honest with myself and to other people. If I say I cannot do something then I don't do it. But when I can I will always help.
I said before that in my life and career there was always a certain mysterious chain of events and coincidences that governed my destiny. Right from the beginning when I was recognised as one of the leading actors from ‘Kanal’ to the Oxford students I was a star, and a star of this extraordinary film. Consequently I can teach them something - once I, so extraordinarily strangely, and luckily found myself amongst them in Oxford. I would help wherever I could; after all, I had the best school and theatre in the world as my experience behind me. Language is no barrier if you really know how and if you want to help. Like becoming a star overnight, I became instantly recognisable in Oxford. Oxford is a place where miracles can, and do happen; it happened to me! The most astonishing thing was that for quite a long time I didn't realise it at all, I was just simply working with students, and giving my knowledge to them. I was unaware of my powers. But, inevitably, later this special position and adulation that I had in Oxford brought me enemies , simply a human jealousy, yet I still didn't see it at all.
When I say I am stupid there you are, aren't I right? People were fighting for me there and I didn't see it: ‘I wanted to be alone.’
Chapter: Twenty Four
RAM GOPAL - OCTOBER 1991
Ram's voice sounded young and excited. He telephoned from Venice.
“Darling” he said, “we are coming to London, Claude and myself, tomorrow. I hope to see you there.”
He put down the receiver.
‘Strange’ I thought, I knew Ram so well. All his moods, his ups and downs, yet I couldn't fathom the meaning of this abrupt telephone call. Every single action of his, be it a spoken line, a smile, whether elusive or blatant, have always had meanings. He would not be such a world famous charismatic dancer without being affected by the subtext of meanings. Whenever I looked at his face or listened to his voice I could see in him the movement of his mysterious Eastern personality, and his magic of the Indian dance, I would see in his face a gentle or dramatic pirouetting . I would hear the jingle of the little bells he wore around his ankles, I would see the gentle sway of his knees, his eyes going right and left, his lips in the tremor of a gentle smile, his eyebrows moving up and down in his uniquely Indian expressions of horror, love, surprise, prayer to God, or mockery. The same dancing waves were always in his voice, whether triumphant or loving or hating, but this time there was nothing – just a void in his voice.
At that particular moment I heard post being put through my letterbox, that rustling sound which always meant some change in my acting life. I ran to the door, sure enough there was an envelope. It was from the High Commissioner for India. I tore the envelope open impatiently. I knew the answer for Ram’s strange behaviour would be inside, and indeed it was. Inside was an invitation which read:-
The High Commissioner for India
Requests the pleasure of the company of:
Mr Vladek Sheybal
At a reception ... on 21 October 1991 at 6.30 p.m. ...
What is this about? I thought.
There was a slip of paper attached to this invitation, and it said I would be meeting the Minister for Human Resources Development, who would be investing Ram Gopal with the Fellowship of the Sangeet Natak Academy. My mind started searching for the meaning of it. Of course - they were going to invest Ram with a title and the honour of Pandit. It is the Indian equivalent of being knighted in this country and becoming a ‘Sir’ as in Sir Ram Gopal, or Pandit Ram Gopal - what a joy! Two days later Ram rang me from his London flat, he didn't sound excited anymore; he sounded tired and subdued. He was almost whispering into the receiver: “Well, what a pity they didn't think about this title some time ago. Now I feel it is too late. I burned out my inner fire. What do they all want of me? They forgot about my existence for so many painful years, and I have given them all my heart and soul and body. All my dancing time and all my … ” he stopped for a while.
“Are you still there” I asked?
“Yes I am here, well they rejected so many of my precious offers ... for films ... for organising a big Indian dance company to tour the entire world, Indira Ghandi herself promised me that would happen. In the end they were always turning their backs on me and now here I am. Too old to give them my magic; my fire - they extinguished it slowly but surely, and now I have to go there to feel and look ridiculous , never mind. Vladek please come with me and Claude, I have to have my friends with me, I have to have your support.”
“I will” I said.
The next day he rang again.
“They are sending a car for me at 4.45pm, will you be here by then and we can go together?”
“4.45?” I said, “but the invitation says the ceremony starts at 6.30.”
“I don't know” he said, “please don't ask any questions; just come.”
“All right” I agreed. I could feel the conflicting emotions wrestling inside him. It would do no good to argue now.
“What shall I wear?” I asked. Ram smiled (it is true that I always knew when he smiled on the phone).
“Wear whatever you think you will feel well and beautiful in.”
When I arrived at Ram’s flat, Claude opened the door; she looked very chic and smiled at me as she always did, in a kind and friendly way.
“Look you are in red” I said as I looked at her dress, “and I am wearing a red bow tie as well.”
Ram appeared from the first floor, and I started laughing.
“Well ” I said, “Ram is wearing a red turban, it is good luck.”
Ram laughed, and I knew I needed to keep him laughing to get him out of his depressed mood. I always had this uncanny capacity to make Ram laugh. We would spend hours on the phone, and I would tell him all my little stories and do the imitations, and he would laugh like mad. We developed a certain ... vernacular between ourselves ... so that no one from the outside would understand what we were talking about. For instance, about a face-lift we would say ‘changing the curtains.’ Then I would imitate a funny stewardess walking in the first class cabin, on a flight to Dallas in a rather dreamy manner and pouring champagne in my glass in slow motion (I am sure she thought it sexy) and then screwing her face to me in a grin which she thought was friendly, and which was supposed to mean ‘well, spoil yourself.’ We would go through five octaves vocally to do these imitations and Ram never had enough of them. I had to keep repeating them each time, slightly improving the quality of the interpretation. So when Ram laughed at my remark I went through a few imitations and his response was lovely, he relaxed completely. The telephone rang and Ram answered it: “Yes, yes, oh you are just around the corner, ok we are ready.” He put down the receiver. It was a secretary calling to tell him the car had arrived. His natural activeness came back, he opened the front door, spotted the car, and as we were proceeding towards it a tall, handsome and rather butch looking chauffeur jumped out of the limousine and was waiting for us, opening the door with a polite gesture. We climbed in. The car moved on and Ram asked the chauffeur his name.
“Fernando” he replied. His English was perfect. He explained that both his parents were Portuguese, but he was born in London.
“A secretary from head office spoke to me on the phone, and almost immediately you were there in front of my house; that was fast” Ram said to him.
That was me calling you from the car sir” Fernando replied; he pointed at the telephone in the car.
“But Mr Gopal said it was a woman speaking on the phone” I said.
“No sir, it was me” he said. Suddenly his phone rang and he answered it. We all heard him and were puzzled as his voice changed completely, he was speaking on the phone in a very high pitched female-sounding voice. Claude looked at me with a smile and gave me a wink. I whispered to her: “This is his polite sounding phone voice. The poor fellow, not having any acting training he didn’t realise that on the phone he pushed his voice up into this polite sounding twitter of a woman.”
If only people had some acting training I thought, it would save them some embarrassment.
We arrived at India House in Aldwych, London. The big front door was closed. Ram went up to it and knocked. No answer.
“I am sure that they will ask you who you are now” I said.
“Why?” asked Ram.
“Because I can see that this is all badly organised” I said. I pushed against the heavy door and it opened. Inside the building there was a porter sitting in his glass box. He scrutinised us and predictably asked Ram who he was.
“Didn't I tell you?” I said and Claude started giggling.
Ram bit his lip and said: “My name is Ram Gopal.”
Further down the large and rather monumental marble hall was a receptionist sitting at a desk, so I went over to her and said: “This is Ram Gopal and we are here for his investiture.” She looked a bit surprised, but pointed to a few armchairs in the next hall and asked us to wait there. Meekly we all went in, like three silly lemons, and sat in the armchairs looking at each other in disbelief.
“Why did they ask us to arrive so early?” I asked.
Ram shook his head: “I don't know.”
“Then do you know the plan for us tonight, what is going to happen now, where and when will the investiture take place surely not in this hall and are we going to a banquet afterwards?”
“I really don't know” Ram whispered, he looked as though he were just going to accept the situation as it was. I got up and went back over to the receptionist. I asked her if she could let somebody know we had arrived but I needn’t have worried as she told me she had just spoken to the secretary for the High Commissioner and he was on his way to meet us. I went back to Ram and Claude and repeated this to them, then I sat down opposite them. A rather heavy silence ensued.
A small Indian man entered the hall; he looked directly at us and started walking towards us. His movements were fluid, almost undulating and when he stopped in front of us and spoke, his voice sounded like a soft whisper: “The High Commissioner is waiting for you in his office, I am to escort you there.”
Ram looked very tired already, but he smiled gently, took Claude and myself by the arm and we went to the lift. We arrived at the third floor. There was marble just about everywhere, the ceiling was very high and gave off a sort of ‘Rule Britannia-Raj’ feeling. The Indian man opened one heavy wooden door and waved us in. Inside, the High Commissioner got up from his large desk and shook Ram's hand. His lips were constantly parted in some rather disturbing grin, and his very white teeth were clenched. “Welcome” he said. Ram then introduced Claude and myself, and we sat on three chairs placed opposite the High Commissioner's chair on the other side of the desk. Before we went any further the telephone rang. The High Commissioner started talking into the phone, grinning at us now and then it was a rather long conversation and we looked at each other. Ram started laughing at the absurdity of it all. The High Commissioner eventually replaced the receiver and sat opposite us.
“Well, well, well” he said, “Ram Gopal is here. The great Ram Gopal, I cannot believe my eyes. I saw you on the stage dancing in Delhi in (he stopped to think) 1938.”
He roared with happy laughter: “How about that?” he said.
Ram nodded politely and then something strange happened. The High Commissioner looked searchingly at Ram and asked: “When were you born?” It was a real thunderbolt. We didn't dare to look at each other. The High Commissioner must have realised that he had committed a faux pas, as his grin became wider.
“One shouldn't ask this question of a lady” I said, “nor an artist.”
“I quite agree with you” Ram whispered.
“Well” I said, “consequently that question is not going to be answered.”
The door opened and another man walked in, he started whispering something to the High Commissioner. This man was tall with a dark moustache, and looked rather more Spanish than Indian. Another man then came into the room, smiled at us and then put a page of something in front of the High Commissioner, who was still engaged in a whispered conversation with the Spanish looking man, but he picked up the paper from the desk and started reading it. The telephone rang again. Now the High Commissioner was talking on the phone, whispering to the Spaniard and correcting something on the paper in front of him. Now, another man walked in (he was smaller than the others) came over to us and asked if we’d like any refreshment.
Claude said she’d like tea, and I opted for coffee.
Ram thought a while then said: “I would like a little whisky and ginger ale.”
The small man looked frightened, and hesitated. The High Commissioner, in spite of being engaged on two fronts, said to the small man in a rather loud and commanding voice: “Send for it then.”
The little man made a servile twist of his body, and the High Commissioner gave us yet another of his grins. The door opened again, and yet another man ushered us to a room containing two rather well built Indian ladies both wearing saris, and two men: One was Indian, and the other was English with grey hair. One lady had blind fear in her eyes for some reason, and the other was talking to the Englishman. The High Commissioner jumped to his feet and ran to them. They started greeting each other with both hands clasped together. Then we were introduced, and the frightened lady looked even more frightened. The High Commissioner ushered them to a sofa and a few armchairs behind our chairs and left us alone as they engaged in conversation – they were all speaking Urdu.
“What are we doing here?” I said to Ram and Claude, “we are sitting here like three lemons.” Ram put his finger on his mouth. Then the door opened again, and the little man came in with our tea and coffee, and the cups on a tray. He danced around us, pouring our drinks and the smile never left his face for a moment. Ram whispered: “And my whisky?” The man smiled at him and nodded, then he went out, and immediately came back with another tray. This time, there was a huge bottle of Johnny Walker on it, a large glass, some ice and a bottle of soda water. He started pouring the whisky into Ram's glass, and Ram said politely: “But where is my ginger ale, this is soda water” and he pointed at the bottle. The man twisted his body dangerously, and the High Commissioner shouted from his sofa behind us: “If you don't have it, send for it.”
The man jerked his body away then desperately seized the tray with bottles and Ram's glass and ran out. Yet another man came into the room; this one was tiptoeing! He looked left and right as if looking for somebody. I assumed he was looking for the High Commissioner so I pointed him out to the young man. He ran dramatically to him and said something. The High Commissioner got up quickly and left the room, he was still smiling as he passed us. The man gave us an apologetic gesture and followed the High Commissioner out of the room. Again the door opened slowly, and again the little man appeared carrying a tray with whisky in a new glass, and a bottle of ginger ale. The glass was empty, and I wondered what happened to the whisky he had poured earlier – did he drink it himself or did he pour it back into the bottle? The little man was now busily pouring whisky into the glass, clinking the ice into it then looking apologetically into Ram's eyes as he slowly and deliberately poured the ginger ale into the glass of whisky. Claude looked at me with relief, and Ram had his first sip of whisky and started laughing uncontrollably.
“You must write all about this in your biography” he whispered to me.
“I already am” I whispered back.
Then our High Commissioner came back in, he was very excited.
“Ladies and Gentlemen“ he began, “please proceed with me downstairs, the reception is going to begin.”
The two well built ladies were struggling, trying to get out of the very soft armchairs they were sitting in; their husbands were helping them. We eventually reached the lift, and I now realised that the two ladies and their husbands would be better off in one lift, while we waited for another. We arrived at the grand hall downstairs and were ushered to a large room. There were quite a lot of people there already. All eating and drinking, and obviously not privileged like ourselves, to have been invited by the High Commissioner himself to wait in his office for the past two and a half hours! Waiters were pouring drinks into plastic cups (I learned later that it was pure orange juice). On a long table covered with a white tablecloth there were plastic plates with a few Indian cakes on them. Ram was already surrounded by lots of his friends and followers, and the High Commissioner asked us to walk to the next room, which looked like a small theatre. He led Ram to the first row and sat by him. Claude and myself sat in the first row too, across the gangway from Ram. Just in front of us, on a little rostrum, Indian musicians were sitting in the lotus position. When the theatre was filled with people the musicians started playing an Indian piece. In the middle of the group of musicians there was a singer and on his right a drummer, on his left a man with a low and small keyboard/organ, and behind them a blond English girl with a very tall string instrument. Thus the magic of this elusive, and extremely beautiful Indian music had utterly changed the whole atmosphere. It was soothing, gently philosophical, romantic and crude. I was immediately pleased that I went through those two and a half boring hours at the High Commissioner's office. Yes, the second half of the evening started unfolding itself in a most fantastic way.
Chapter: Twenty Five
JAPAN AND 'SHOGUN.'
Some time later, there came this very special film: ‘Shogun.’ It was quite apparent that this would not be a simple jump in my acting career, rather a huge leap forward. The film, or mini TV series as it became known, was based on James Clavell's best selling novel of the same name. As you may be aware, the story is based on the 17th century invasion, and influence of, Portuguese missionaries in Japan. Japan was then a country virtually sealed hermetically to and from, the Western world. Their few mysterious islands were cut off from the rest of the world with all their customs, culture and apparent inhuman cruelty which to them was normal and human. Samurai, the aristocracy of Japan ruled this country. Decapitating without any proper trial was quite common, and the head Samurai of each district was a man called a Shogun. Clavell’s story is based on the exploits of a true story, that of Captain Blackthorn; the ‘Englishman’ as he was called by the Japanese. He saved himself from a sinking frigate in a storm. He then swam ashore to this strange country, he managed to have his men rescued from the ship and then got involved in the ways and customs of the land, strange to him at first, yet he went on to discover a new Japanese mentality. Ultimately he gained himself great respect and became the first European Shogun, and in our film he was played by Richard Chamberlain. The Portuguese Catholic Missionaries were already quite widespread and influential in Japan. I played a Chief Portuguese Captain and the owner of his own Frigate: Captain Ferriera; a man who despised the popular Englishman. Ferriera was supposed to be unscrupulous, even dangerous. But when I read the part I tried as always to find the character, and his human motivations. In this case it was quite easy: he was a Catholic, and fanatical at that. That was how I played him, and how I motivated all his unscrupulous actions. As always in my life, offers to play parts came quite unexpectedly. As you know, I have never in my acting career planned or scheduled the parts for my future. Literally after I finished each part I never knew what was to come next; or indeed whether anything would come next. This situation makes actors very vulnerable.
This is what makes them understand each other's misery. Every actor in the world - including the big stars - will freeze and wilt in fear when no new script comes through the letterbox and lands on the floor. Nearly always, I can guarantee that they will think that their last part would be just that and that no other offer would be forthcoming. In this respect, the old Hollywood ‘stable’ system. worked best, all the stars were products of the Hollywood machine and so consequently Hollywood would invest in them financially, and planned a long future for them. Even if a star flopped in one part, he or she knew that there were more scripts written and waiting for them; the studios knew they were bound to have some success with some of their stars. Nowadays the whole system is totally different; there is no Hollywood ‘system’ at all. All the stars have to do the promotion by themselves. The result is sad, even pathetic, and it shows; it shows in the eyes and faces on the screen. We say that you cannot hide your real character when your face is in the spotlight; consequently all those ‘stars’ have worried expressions written on their faces. There is no more room for ‘magic’ or glamour. Hollywood has lost its ‘star quality.’ Actors sometimes have to become skilful character actors instead. The call about my part in ‘Shogun’ came from my agent. The author James Clavell had been in touch with him and now he wanted to meet me; he would be producing the film as well. I had to go to the Dorchester or another of those famous London hotels to see him. Another audition; another hotel. I knew it all by heart, and as always at hotel reception I had to say:
“Mr Clavell is expecting me.”
After so many years of attending all these auditions, the hotel receptionists knew me quite well. They would check my name against the list they had been given, cross my name off the list. This receptionist then picked up the phone and called ahead: “Mr Sheybal is here for Mr Clavell” he replaced the receiver, and pointed me towards the lift, “fourth floor, suite 456. Good luck” he said with a wink and a smile. I smiled back and went to the lift, Thank God I didn't have to wait I thought. Sometimes there were a few actors waiting downstairs in reception. They would smile at one another and be very polite, but they would be sizing you up, assessing whether or not you would play the part any better than they would. Eventually I arrived at the suite, and I knocked on the door. James Clavell opened the door himself. He was tall and casually dressed in shirtsleeves. He was smiling broadly: “Come in Vladek” he pointed at an armchair, “please sit down.”
He had a thick American accent.
I knew long ago that during an audition actors should not ask questions, but as always I had to do what ‘I had to do.’
So I asked: “Are you the director of this film as well?”
He laughed: “I was told back in Hollywood that Vladek Sheybal would ask me questions,” he said.
“I am sorry” I laughed as well.
“Not to worry” he said, “I am the author of the book and also the producer. Jerry London will be directing. He will be here in a week's time. I’m casting some parts for him. I know your work and I like it. I think you will make a magnificent Captain Ferriera. Did you read the book?”
“I am sorry” I said, “I haven’t read it, but my agent briefed me on the part; a Portuguese Catholic Missionary.”
“That's right” he said, “a very important part. It’s also very important for Richard Chamberlain who is playing the lead - the Englishman.”
“Where and when will you shoot the film?” I asked.
“In about ten weeks from now. In Japan of course.”
“How fantastic” I exclaimed.
“Well” he said, “I'm afraid you have to be accepted by the director of the film, but I don't see any problem.”
As always I couldn't care less. I still cannot fathom this attitude of mine, of practically never caring if I got the part or not. I have tried to analyse it, and I am rather inclined to think that acting was always an essential, but also an additional part of my life; a kind of lifesaver in emergency. But in a case like the part in Shogun, I was not in any emergency. You could say that an actor is always in a financial emergency. But the financial part of it all never really interested me. It was always the part itself which interested me … or not as the case may be. After my interview with Jimmy Clavell, I went home and immediately forgot all about it. My agent Howard telephoned almost as soon as I got in, and asked me what I thought about the outcome. Would I get the part or not?
“Howard” I said, “I really don't know.”
Experience in this profession has taught me that you can never predict anything at all. Sometimes when you are praised highly as an actor at an audition, it is bad news. Sometimes when you are sure that you cannot possibly get this or that part you get it.
“Anyway” I said to Howard, “even if they accept me in it I will have to read the script, and decide if it suits me to play it.”
Sometimes the amount they are prepared to pay me might win me for the part. In this respect I have developed a cynical attitude, especially with the Americans who always make it so clear that they are buying you for the part. So if they want me to play someone really nasty then they have to pay through their noses for me for that nastiness. My life went on as normal. I did my usual rounds of shopping and cooking; the usual things that make a healthy balance in my life with this ‘hysterical’ profession. I never wait for anything; in this profession it is very dangerous to wait, to expect. It depletes your precious energy. It catapults you into a dark space without stars. It submerges you in a foul smelling stigma of vulnerability, and vulnerability is so unproductive. A week later Howard phoned: “Jerry London the director wants to see you tomorrow. Three o’clock in the afternoon at Claridges.”
Claridges is one of the finest hotels, and being situated in Mayfair London, it is also one of the most luxurious. I arrived on time and the receptionist greeted me with a smile. This time, there were plenty of actors and actresses sitting in the hall, waiting. I always knew intuitively that they were slightly wary of my presence. The ‘legend’ of Vladek Sheybal somehow always worked. I nodded and smiled at the few of them whom I knew. Three of them could be there for my part I thought; but it didn't bother me. They were being called for their auditions one by one until finally, I was left alone.
Whenever an actor was called upstairs to see the director I always gave him an encouraging smile and perennial ‘good luck.’ We are all insecure, we are all vulnerable but we are also troupers and survivors. We need this expression of good luck. They don’t do it in America; they look at each other with hatred in their expressions as if they would like to slash each other's throats. I finally walked into Jerry's suite. I was surprised. I was expecting to see a casting director in the suite but there was no-one else in the room but Jerry. I sat in an armchair and Jerry looked at me in a very sympathetic way. “I think you would make a magnificent Ferriera. I want you to play the part. I hope you don't mind, but I want you to read the script first.”
“Of course” I said, taking a large parcel from him. It looked like it was all in serial form. I took it back home and read it. It took me one week. I found the script and my part fascinating. I telephoned my agent: “Howard. I want to play the part, I think it is the best thing I’ve been offered for years and I want to go to Japan.”
I wanted to work with Richard Chamberlain, but I would have to steal his scenes with me. Nobody can sing like Edith Piaf. No-one can sing like Freddie Mercury. Nobody can act like Vladek Sheybal - voila!
We actors are all possessed of this special and individual magic, of interpreting the blood, sweat and tragic convolutions of the character and of the world. I know myself well, and I know that when I am possessed by the character I depict there will be no distractions like stopping filming, shouting around the camera, or changing the lighting. When you have pumped yourself up inside your heart and suddenly you are brutally stopped by an electrician for instance, your power goes on inside you. Nobody, not even God himself can break or shatter your concentration or your inbuilt talent. As I am writing this, I am watching a televised special on Michael Jackson. They are showing all the glitz and glamour, the extravagance, the huge sets and crowds of singers, musicians, and several cameras, yet it is all trash. Nobody can possibly argue with Michael's millions. But this is just show business. One has to accept it. Somebody from the production office of ‘Shogun’ telephoned. I would be flying to Tokyo in ten days' time, and it put me into my usual panic. I am always slightly paranoiac about my lines, and in this film I had quite a lot of dialogue. I usually take somebody (a coach) with me to go through the lines. Day after day, I have to repeat them hundreds of times. I have to know all my dialogue before I start filming. Experience taught me that knowing my lines off by heart would make me totally relaxed in front of the camera. I have to master and absorb my lines as if they were my very own, coming not from my lips but from my own mind and heart. Only in that way can I make myself independent and immune from all destructive things, or powers that constantly happen around you and around the camera. Only in that way can I assert myself in conquering my partners, my fellow actors. Ideally in the acting profession there should be no fighting to be better than your fellow actors, rather there should be close co-operation. But I was taught in a rather painful way that if you are working with American actors, there is absolutely no room for any co-operation. There is only the fight for intimidation and supremacy in the scene. Being totally prepared with my lines and interpretation is the best way I can fight for, and win the scene. I am not interested in quarrels, squabbles, yelling, abuse and invectives. I have seen and heard it a thousand times; it disgusts me. I walk away from it; I don't want to have any part in it; this does not come within my style.