We generally believe and expect those who have worked and dedicated their lives for the glory of the nation to be treated with a high level of respect and gratitude. After all, risking your life and enduring all the challenges to serve and help the country achieve its goals was something worth acknowledging and rewarding, right? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, even if you were once the prime minister’s favorite. Krystyna Skarbek’s story proved it.
Flamboyant Polish Patriot
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was born in Warsaw in 1908. Her father married her mother from a wealthy Jewish family, so he could use the dowry to pay off his debts and continue his luxurious lifestyle. Krystyna loved horse riding and skiing, which she honed during their visits to Zakopane in the Tatras of southern Poland. In all these things she took after her father.
She met her husband on that same mountain. She was skiing down a slope when she lost control but was luckily saved by a man who got in her way to stop her momentum. He was Jerzy Giżycki, a bright, eccentric, short-tempered, and wealthy man who ran away from home at an early age and eventually became an author.
The two fell in love and married on November 2, 1938 in Warsaw. her husband found himself Consul General of Poland when Germany invaded the country. When World War II broke out, the two traveled to London in exile as their country was dismembered by Nazi Germany and the USSR who started World War II as allies.
Skarbek, furious at the invasion, asked the British Secret Service to hire him. At first, they paid her little to no interest until she got help from her acquaintances, who introduced her to the Secret Intelligence Service. They soon described her as “a fiery Polish patriot…. expert skier and great adventurer” and “absolutely intrepid”. She was given the pen name, Christine Granville.
Skarbek (or Granville) had many commendable achievements and deeds throughout his six years of service in Britain. One of them was when she acquired the first evidence of Germany’s plan to invade Russia, called Operation Barbarossa.
The proof was in microfilm footage she hid in her glove finger as she skied out of Poland towards Allied lines. This intelligence report reached Winston Churchill, who was more than delighted with it and immediately became an admirer of the spy, saying that Granville was his favorite.
In July 1944, she parachuted into France to join the resistance in the Vercors as Francis Cammaerts’ lieutenant. Cammaerts was one of the best British agents and managers in France. They were preparing the liberation of Europe. Granville made the first contact with the French Resistance and the Italian partisans. She even convinced an entire German garrison protecting a strategic alpine pass to surrender.
One of her most notable actions was when she convinced the Gestapo to release her SEO colleagues and two French resistance fighters captured by the Germans and about to be executed.
She first attempted a rescue operation, but failed. She decided to ride, even with a huge bounty on her head, on her bike to camp 25 miles away. When she arrived, she lied to them about the proximity of Allied forces. She also said she would ensure that Gestapo officers were killed if her colleagues were not released. Maybe it was her powers of conviction, her threat, or the money she used to bribe the Gestapo officers. Or maybe it was all, but she managed to bring her colleagues back alive.
For all her heartbreaking acts on behalf of the Allied cause, she received tons of medals. Among them were the Officer of the Order of the British Empire, the French Croix de guerre and the George Medal. However, this array of decorations meant nothing after the war was over.
She received a month’s salary and she was fired. When she tried to apply for British citizenship, she was told she was not eligible. Finally, the last memo about her stated that “she is no longer wanted”.
Skarbek eventually convinced the British authorities to grant her citizenship, but she was left with nothing. The woman who fought and risked her life for a country that was not hers ended up accepting the position of maid on ocean liners. She couldn’t go back to Poland because she was behind the Iron Curtain, was a communist and had been a spy for the English. They would have killed her
Her life ended tragically when fellow steward, Dennis Muldowney, stabbed her to death after rejecting her advances.
In 2017, writer Clare Mulley asked her husband Ian Wolter to do a bust of Skarbek at the Polish Hearth Club. The bust included soil from Poland and the London park where Polish special forces were trained.