As Minister for Foreign Affairs in Poland in the lead up to World War Two, Józef Beck had his work cut out. He was a prominent figure at the time, loved by some and loathed by others, but little was known of the man behind the formidable political mask. In her film About My Father (2007), Bozena Garus-Hockuba exposes the human side of the now lesser-known politician and negotiator through interviews with his son Andrzej and a number of others who knew him personally.
Born in Warsaw in 1894, Beck was brilliant, an ‘unmatched intellect’, and quickly moved from the military into politics, becoming Pilsudski’s closest confidant. He became Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1932, a time when Europe was becoming increasingly unstable. His mission was to keep Poland strong in the face of its immediate neighbours, Hitler’s Third Reich and the Soviet Union.
Andrzej Beck speaks adoringly and honestly about his father Józef, who was often absent. He divorced Andrzej’s mother when Andrzej was one year old, and his military, diplomatic and political careers kept him away most of the time. Yet they wrote loving letters to each other, which Andrzej reads out. He would see his father on sailing holidays in Augustow which Andrzej remembers fondly, recalling above all his passion for military strategy over politics, though politics was his best-known skill.
While Britain and France were appeasing Hitler, Beck took a different approach, making him popular in Poland, but less so around the rest of Europe. Beck was suspicious of Hitler and would not pander to him. He made a famous speech in the Polish parliament saying so: ‘In Poland, we do not know the concept of peace at all costs. There is only one priceless thing in the life of people, nations and countries. That thing is honour’. He had negotiated an alliance with Britain in the meantime and is credited with Britain’s subsequent declaration of war on 3rd September 1939.
When war broke out, Beck escaped to Romania with the rest of the Polish government, where he was interned for the rest of his life. Jewish Journalist Leopold Unger lived with Beck and his second wife in Bucharest, where ‘Polish Jews were treated as Poles not as Jews’. The young Unger sought refuge with the Becks, who welcomed him – ‘a young Jewish boy from Lwow’ – into the family like a son: ‘The Becks were too intelligent to be anti-semitic.’ In many ways Unger’s memories of Beck are more vivid than those of his son, and he tells some very touching stories of bridge games and Christmases in Bucharest.
All the while, Beck’s contact with his son waned, but Andrzej reads us letters from the same period, where he writes in desperate hope of contact from his father. Romania had been neutral when Beck moved there, but had since gone to the German side. The new Polish government, however, led by Sikorski, did not rescue Beck and his wife from Bucharest. ‘They destroyed him, and it was nothing but politics,’ says Unger, who saw how he suffered in the final years of his life. The next Andrzej heard of his father was when a teacher showed him a newspaper which had printed details of his death.
Józef Beck, we are told, was a man of three masks: the external mask which was cold and domineering; a second, sensitive and prone to “Hamletising”, and a final mask which only those closest to him knew. The first was the Józef Beck the world knew; the remaining two are much more interesting. Garus-Hockuba’s film explores them well.
Bozena Garus-Hockuba’s About My Father (2007) was screened as part of the ongoing cultural programme of Polish events at Ognisko Polskie, South Kensington.