Bekiesz: Ancestry and Fashion – 16th Century Style…

My great-great grandmother was Maria Bekiesz, the last descendant in Poland, whose lineage traces back to Kasper Bekiesz. As a young girl, when I asked my grandmother about our family history, she wrote a letter to me, about Kasper Bekiesz, and said that it is good that I’m asking and that I want to remember him – and so, I have decided to share his story with you here:

Kasper de Korniath Bekiesz was a Hungarian nobleman born in 1520. He lived in Transylvania, in a castle called Fogaras/Fogarasz. After the death of the King of Hungary, Jan II Zygmunt Zápolya / John Sigismund Zápolya, in 1571, he fought Stefan Bathory for the throne of Transylvania.

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Portrait of Kasper Bekiesz (1520-1579/80) . Wearing a headdress with great panache! And in addition to such a stylish hat, I believe he is also here seen wearing the coat – a “Bekiesza” – that bears his name. (Anonymous plate reproduction before 1861. Wikimedia Commons)

My grandmother writes (to my then 8-year-old self) that Kasper Bekiesz was “cheerful, brave and courageous – and that he could fight. He also liked to dress well”… but more on this later!

In his testament, John Sigismund Zápolya, left the Voivode of Transylvania to Bekiesz, but the will was not honored and Stefan Bathory was elected as voivode.

Supported by Maximillian II, Holy Roman Emperor, Bekiesz gathered an army and rebelled against Bathory – but was defeated.  He started another rebellion in 1575 – but was again defeated.

In 1575 Stefan Bathory was elected, and later, in 1576, crowned King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, becoming the ruler of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth.

With the death of Maximillian II in 1576, Bekiesz decided to reconcile with Bathory – becoming his close friend and advisor.

He joined the Livonian campaign of Stefan Bathory in the Livonian War against Ivan ‘The Terrible’ of Russia.

Jan Matejko Batory pod Pskowem

Stefan Bathory at Pskov / Batory pod Pskowem. Painting by Jan Matejko, 1872. (Royal Castle in Warsaw / Wikimedia Commons)

The Bekiesz family crest is a black eagle claw, with a half-moon crescent and a star – additions granted by Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire!

Stefan Bathory assigned Bekiesz castles and Lanckorona, but in 1579…  or 1580 (accounts differ) – Bekiesz caught a cold, fell ill and died.

Although in our own family legend, his death has a somewhat more romantic end – involving a knight tournament and the pursuit of a lady’s heart!

He left his two sons, Władysław and Gabriel, in the care of nobleman and magnate Jan Zamoyski.

Not allowed a church burial, Kasper Bekiesz, was buried on a hill – Bekes Hill in Vilnius (na górze pod Wilnem, zwanej odtąd Bekieszową). But in 1838 Bekes Hill was washed away by the Vilnia River (rzeka Wilejka).

…Whilst I have not found the following in any source other than Wikipedia, as it makes for a curious twist,  I include it here: Apparently, with the hill’s erosion, in the remains from Kasper Bekiesz burial only a skull was found - wearing a headdress made of golden velvet!


And this, stylishly, leads me to another part of Kasper Bekiesz legacy: The “Bekiesza” coat – as it is still known to this day!

My grandmother wrote describing this fur-lined coat, that Bekiesz had made for travelling and hunting, and I remember as a child wondering what this coat would actually look like – and if it got very dirty when hunting…

Stefan Czarniecki

A red version of the Bekiesza coat can be seen worn in this painting by Brodero Matthisen, 1659: Portrait of Stefan Czarniecki, Field Hetman of The Crown.  Stefan Czarniecki 1599-1665, was a Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth general and Nobleman. (Royal Castle in Warsaw /Wikimedia Commons)

The “Bekiesza“ coat would become a part of the Polish cavalry uniform in the 19th Century and was worn in the November Uprising of 1830-1831, against the Russian Empire. Following the defeat, escaping Polish soldiers brought the coat to Prussia – and a later version can be seen in the painting below: Im ersten Semester, by Georg Muhlberg, 1900. (Wikimedia Commons)


Ending on a different note, I will mention, being quite fond of many Russian writers, that in Nikolai Gogol’s short story  ‘How Ivan Ivanovich quarrelled with Ivan Nikiforovich’ – the opening line is: Славная бекеша у Ивана Ивановича! отличнейшая! А какие смушки !

In Polish translation: Ładny Bekiesz Iwan Iwanowicz! Doskonały! A co jagnię!

…and in English: Nice Bekiesz Ivan Ivanovich! Excellent! And what lambskin!

Unfortunately, like so many other things, in my own Penguin copy of the story – this has been entirely lost in translation, reading only: You should see Ivan Ivanovich’s marvelous short fur jacket!  It’s fantastic! And the quality of the sheepskins!…


A lovely day and start on 2014…

My forthcoming documentary on the Warsaw Rising: ‘Portrait of a Soldier’ is based on WW2 soldier Wanda Traczyk – Stawska’s wartime experiences and memories from the Battle for Warsaw in 1944 – and yesterday I had the rare pleasure of inviting Wanda, nom de guerre “Pączek”, to tea – here at my London flat!

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The documentary synopsis of  ‘Portrait of a Soldier’ can be read here and Q & A about independent documentary filmmaking here.

Book Launch for Polish Edition of “The Spy Who Loved”…

Last Wednesday I was one of the guests invited by Forbes Magazine to the Warsaw Rising Museum for the Polish edition launch of Clare Mulley’s book “The Spy Who Loved” – A biography about the heroic and adventurous life of WW2 Special Agent Krystyna Skarbek aka Christine Granville.

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I am thrilled that Clare Mulley’s wonderful biography, in Polish translation titled “Kobieta Szpieg” (Woman Spy), has now been published in Poland.

Hosted by the Warsaw Rising Museum, the event was initiated by Pawel Komorowski and organized by Eryk Stankunowicz, the Deputy Editor in Chief of Forbes Magazine.

Author Clare Mulley’s passionate talk and discussion about Skarbek, next to the museums spotlight lit 1:1 scale replica of a Liberator B-24J – certainly made for an atmospheric venue and a night to remember!

I was delighted to be one among the many guests from both Britain and Poland; including the British Ambassador to Poland, Robin Barnett and Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski, As we all gathered to honour and celebrate the remarkable life of Krystyna Skarbek – A woman who’s wartime record deserves remembrance and recognition from us all.

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For more on the Polish launch of Clare Mulley’s book “Kobieta szpieg” / “The Spy Who Loved” have a look at the links below:

Forbes Magazine  – Article, including photographs and video, can be found here

TVN24  – Article, with photographs and video, can be found here

The Times Polska  – Article about Krystyna Skarbek can be read here

Dwojka Polskie Radio – In Polish: interview with Clare Mulley and interesting debate with płk dr Krzysztof Marek Gaj  - Listen here 

I personally, very much, appreciate and agree with all the points raised by caller ‘Marek from Warsaw’ – starting at 52:49.

Heroes of War TV Series: Reading List

For the History channel series ‘Heroes of War: Poland’  I had the pleasure of interviewing many excellent historians and authors – and I have put together a reading list, of a couple of titles, for anyone that would like to know more on any particular subject in this series.

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Captain Witold Pilecki

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery Captain Witold Pilecki’s original 1945 Auschwitz Report. By Jarek Garliński. Aquila Polonica 2012.

Rising ’44 – The Battle for Warsaw By Norman Davies. Macmillan 2004 (expanded paperback edition)

I’m including N. Davies book here, aside form it being a ‘must-read’, as I think it gives a good account and examples of the post-war situation and Stalinist repression in Poland – and this is key to understanding Captain Witold Pilecki’s tragic fate.

Rotmistrz Witold Pilecki 1901-1948. By Jacek Pawłowicz. Instytut Pamięci Narodowej / Institute of National Remembrance.

This is an exceptionally beautiful album – with a vast amount of very rare photographs, letters and document scans – beautifully put together with all text in both Polish and English. This beautiful book was published by IPN very recently – Though it may be hard to find a copy – I sincerely recommend it!

Żegota – Polish Council to Aid Jews

Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles under German occupation 1939-1944 By Richard C. Lukas. Hippocrene books (revised edition 2007).

Code Name: Żegota’ Rescuing Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942-1945 By Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski. Praeger 2010.

Those Who Helped: Polish Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust. Published by the Main Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against the Polish Nation – the Institute of National Memory and The Polish Society for the Righteous Among the Nations. Warsaw 1997.

Krystyna Skarbek / Christine Granville

The Spy Who Loved – The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville By Clare Mulley. Macmillan 2012.

Clare Mulley was also one of our experts in this series!


Enigma: How the German Machine Cipher Was broken and How it Was Read by the Allies in World War Two. By Władysław Kozaczuk. University Publications of America 1984

Enigma: The Battle for the Code By Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. (My copy is from The Folio Society 2005, but title is available in paperback too!)

Enigma: Bliżej Prawdy By Marek Grajek. Rebis 2008. (Currently only available in Polish)

- Marek Grajek was also our expert on the Enigma episode – who also proved a great help in the fact checking of all the different technical aspects of the script!

Cichociemni – ‘The Dark and Silent’

There are surprisingly few books on this subject in English (note to publishers!)

Station 43: Audley End House and SOE’s Polish Section By Ian Valentine, Sutton Publishing 2004.

Poland Alone: Britain, SOE and the Collapse of the Polish Resistance, 1944 By Jonathan Walker, The History Press 2008.

- Jonathan Walker was also one of our contributors for this episode. (01.08.13.MB)

Silent and Unseen: I was a Polish WWII Special Ops Commando By Stefan Bałuk.

- Stefan Bałuk was also interviewed for this programme – and his book has been translated into English – however it is quite hard to find a copy!

Further reading (in Polish):

Tobie Ojczyzno – Cichociemni By Hubert Królikowski.Wojskowa Formacja Specjalna GROM im. Cichociemnych Spadochroniarzy Armii Krajowej 1990-2000, Gdańsk 2001.

- I interviewed Hubert Królikowski for this series and he is one of the contributors in both this and the ‘Skarbek’ episode.

Cichociemni i Spadochroniarze 1941-1956 By Jędrzej Tucholski. Rytm 2009.

And Drogi Cichociemnych


(Here in the really lovely 1972 cover design… and easily available recent 2008 and 2010 reprints.)

A few of the historians and experts in this series contributed to several episodes – covering a broad range of different subjects, amongst them:

Halik Kochanski Historian and author of  The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War. Allen Lane 2012

And, of course, Władysław Bartoszewski – who certainly needs no introduction, being not only one of the most prolific historians and writers in Poland but also a sheer, exuberant force of nature!

Turning into a wartime nurse…

Working as an Associate Producer for British production companies on Polish history has, like any other production, it’s very own set of challenges – and filming with directors and sometimes crews that do not speak a word of Polish you are rarely left with a moment to spare…

Not only are you co-ordinating all the crew, making sure the days shoot runs on time, making the final calls ahead of tomorrows filming, whilst carrying unruly boxes full of equipment and figuring out the fastest driving route to the next location, whilst at the same time preparing for the next interview… (Catch your breath here!) …but more importantly, you are also the person who makes the next contributor feel at ease, whilst interviewing the person in front of you, and asking the previous participant to sign release forms and thank them for their time… and oh! never, ever forgetting, that the crew needs feeding!

Indeed, you need to be Mary Poppins. Nothing less will do.


This may help explain one of the reasons as to why, whenever finding myself in any unheated basement cellar or dirty production trailer – filled with old and however random ‘period’ clothing, I turn into my very own version of Julie Andrews…(up in the mountains this time!) …just about to burst into song!

My heart fills up with exuberant joy shortly followed by nearly uncontrollable skipping…

It would simply be an understatement, to say that I love dressing up in period costume and for the forthcoming History series ‘Heroes of War: Poland’ we filmed some of the re-enactment in Warsaw, where for a brief, however fleeting, moment – I turned into a wartime nurse…

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This scene was filmed for the ‘Żegota’ episode* – depicting the aid provided by a nurse belonging to Irena Sendlerowa’s network.

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Irena Sendler’s network helped to save around 2500 Jewish children in WW2 occupied Poland. The lovely young girl in these photographs is Sara Knothe. She played one of the leads in Feliks Falk’s WW2 feature film ‘Joanna’. Her brother, in this scene, was played by actor Maciej Dmochowski. We filmed the reenactment outdoors for an entire day in freezing February Warsaw – which explains our very “rosy” cheeks, noses and ears!

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All the above production stills were shot by photographer Bartłomiej Ryży.

*Of course, it takes no more than the most basic knowledge of conditions in occupied Warsaw, to notice the flaw with this picture…

Any aid given to Jews in occupied Poland was punishable by death – so any food or medicine would not have been handed outdoors like this in plain view. But then, it is important to keep in mind that this is television history. And re-enactment on television, despite all the efforts of historical accuracy, is governed by the rules of shooting logistics and the two often quite cruel masters: time and money.

ŻEGOTA: In a convent… (Part II)

I have since childhood had a strong fascination with Catholic iconography, church interiors – and nuns.

So, I was very excited when I managed to arrange for us to visit the Convent of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul / Zakład Sióstr Miłosierdzia św. Wincentego à Paulo, in Warsaw, and have the opportunity to interview one of the Sisters living there for our ’Heroes of War’ Series.

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The Catholic Church played an important role in helping Jews and hiding Jewish children in occupied Poland during WW2. Priests issued false birth and marriage certificates and many Jewish children were hidden amongst other Polish children in orphanages run and organized by nuns across Poland.

After the interview, as I sat outside the Chapel looking at the nuns gathering for prayer, one of them grabbed my arm – with that kind of steely grip that only really old ladies can muster… and she must have been quite nearsighted, for when she looked me in the eyes – she came so close that we had a literal tête-à-tête, before she said, in the very of best of conspiratorial whispers:

“And I…  I was in the AK!” (Polish Home Army)

yet, before I had a chance  to say anything in reply, she ran off, joining in with the other nuns in prayer…

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Working on WW2 projects can at times be difficult. Therefore, a bit like in wartimes, humor and brief moments of just being a bit silly together sometimes becomes really important too.

So, later, as the crew went outside to film some of the exterior cutaway shots of the Convent, I took the opportunity to ask all kinds of less serious things I was also curious about: Can nuns surf cyberspace? Are they allowed to use mobile phones? Can they really never go shopping? And of course, the question I have been waiting to ask for years:

How did they make the cornette stand out with wings like that?

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‘A Sister of Charity in the Battle Line near Warsaw’  / ‘Siostra Miłosierdzia na linji bojowej pod Warszawą’ – part of the November Insurrection (Powstanie Listopadowe) series by W. Kossak 1910.

Just take a look at this painting. It hangs on my wall at home.* This very distinctive white linen cornette was worn by the Daughters of Charity (Szarytki) until it was abandoned in 1964.

It turns out that it had to be pressed in flour water and then left to dry to get it’s shape like this. Oh, I so wish that this style would still be worn today…

But it must have been awfully messy if one was ever caught out in the rain!

*Full disclosure: I tore this picture of Kossak’s painting out from a book. Of course I would never do that now. But, I’m embarrassed to say, when I was 11 years old I did. And I did even more horrible things to books when I was even younger! It is fortunate that my parents don’t read this blog. They need no reminders. To my defense though – At least this book was mine (still is) and in this way, the painting has been seen much over the years, hung on many different walls – instead of being hidden away, unappreciated…

ŻEGOTA: Logistics of saving a life… (Part I)

Associate Producing the episode of “Żegota” (Part of ‘Heroes of War’ series) was a very interesting opportunity to look into what actually, on a practical level, was required to help and save a Jewish life in WW2 occupied Poland. (I shall in this post also try to give some brief background / context.)

In September 1942 the Polish Underground Government established “Żegota” – code name for the Council to Aid the Jews. This was on the initiative of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka and Wanda Krahelska-Filipowicz. Many prominent individuals worked in this organization, both Catholic (etc.) Poles and Polish Jews from across the political spectrum, amongst them Władysław Bartoszewski and Irena Sendlerowa – who’s network is known to have saved 2500 Jewish children.

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Photograph of Władysław Bartoszewski /JHI Archives.

The main aim of “Żegota” was to provide financial assistance for food and shelter to Jews in hiding (90% of the funds came from the Polish Government in Exile). However, it is also important to remember that the majority of people that helped to shelter and hide Jews were not connected to any organisation – but did this in complete secrecy, on their own initiative and risk.

It’s sometimes easy to think that in all that ‘chaos of war’ a person could somehow get intentionally ‘lost’ or become ‘invisible’ in the mass confusion – but this is an illusion: in reality the very opposite was true.

In German-occupied Poland every Polish citizen (Catholic, Jewish or other) was forced to constantly carry with them several documents: This was not only the Kennkarte / Ausweis (Photo ID with fingerprints) but also proof of residence and Arbeitskarte (labour / work card).

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If you were part of the resistance you would quite regularly need to have these forged. (The various reasons are obvious; A need to hide real identity or change accommodation to a new ‘safe’ location, work permits covering resistance assignments or to prevent being sent off to forced labor…etc.)

Specialist forgery cells of the AK (Armia Krajowa) the Polish Home Army, like “Agaton” had photographers, printers, paper and stamp makers producing an estimated 1000 documents per month.

The same kind of forged documents were needed if you were Jewish – and hiding on the ‘Aryan’ side.

In occupied Warsaw, some districts were announced to be for Germans only – and Polish residents were forced to move out, many more were forced to rent or share accommodation. Food rations were severe. (See ‘The Civilian Population and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944” by Joanna K.M. Hanson) This, of course also made the possibilities of hiding and sheltering people on a practical level very difficult.

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For the “Żegota” programme we looked at many different documents in the archives at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

At the JHI they also keep the original German Bekanntmachung General Government poster announcement from Częstochowa 1942.

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The document – written in both German and Polish – states a reminder of the death penalty for Jews found outside of “Jewish districts” as announced in 1941 and also of the death penalty for any Poles who provide Jews with shelter or food.

When talking of WW2 Poland – it is very important to understand what occupation in Poland actually meant. In England, far to often assumptions on both the occupation and resistance in Poland, are based on the generally more known conditions in France. This is an error that often leads to very inaccurate conclusions.

It is also important to remember that civilians in occupied Poland did not live with simple black and white choices between ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’. This way of thinking belongs to glossy Hollywood movies. To feed or give shelter to anyone wanted by the Gestapo or a Jewish person living on the ‘Aryan’ side, was not only punishable by death for the person providing this help – but also for their entire family. For civilians in occupied Poland, every day actions were constant ‘choices’, if you can call them that, of trying to choose between lesser evils.

Many people would – and did – risk their own life to save somebody else’s. And although this in itself is very brave, it is not that unusual. But would you help somebody else if that meant the death of your own children? This is of course a question beyond reason. Yet, the answer is, many people did.

It has been estimated that around 10-12 people were needed to save one Jewish life.

During our filming in Warsaw I interviewed a lovely, passionate and very exuberant group from ‘The Polish Society for the Righteous Among the Nations’. We spent a day talking about their experiences and of the many difficulties in physically hiding someone, providing them with food – and how to do this for a sustained period of time – sometimes for years.

Their different stories are very interesting and some of them – like the very charming gentleman Józef Walaszczyk’s – are so adventurous and romantic they would even make James Bond jealous!

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Wartime photograph of Józef Walaszczyk  - and his portrait today.

Many from this group were children at the time of the war and it was very interesting to discuss how they perceived the dangers and the actions of their parents as well as the roles they themselves had played in sheltering Jewish people.

Interviewing and talking with Tadeusz Stankiewicz, who was 9 years old when the war broke out, was very moving. Along with his father, a forester and his whole family – They helped to hide over 200 Jewish people in the area around their forest lodge.

But most of the stories had tragic outcomes.

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Portrait of Tadeusz Stankiewicz today.

After the war Tadeusz’s father was arrested and put in jail for his involvement in the AK – the Polish Home Army. He was brutally interrogated and died after being pushed out of a prison window. The UB* claimed his death was suicide. The family was not allowed a proper burial.

This was a brutally unjust fate – but not unusual, in post-war Poland.

*The UB (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa) / MBP (Ministerstwo Bezpieczeństwa Publicznego) was the Ministry of Public Security in Poland: A communist secret police and intelligence service operating between 1945- 1954 under Jakub Berman. Its main objective was to eliminate anti-communist structures and the Polish Underground State as well as persecuting soldiers of the Polish Home Army and WiN.

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