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For 36 years a contender for the most interesting oceangoing liner sailed the high seas. Bożena Aksamit writing her account of the Polish trans-Atlantic liner, says, ‘It was the pride of the Second Republic, a piece of living art, and the only floating representative of free Poland during World War II.’
The writer and oceanographer who in 2019 died in mysterious circumstances published her book Batory: Gwiazdy in 2015. With remarkable empathy for the period and those who lived again through her penmanship, Aksamit reconstructs the history of the 160-metre-long ship piece by piece.
Her story began with the vessel’s origins in the Polish port of Gdynia. Its general purpose was to carry emigrants to the United States. However, typical of the times, the liner’s complement would include the well-known figures, the rich and the celebrities, thrill-seekers and travellers during the 1930s.
The noted award-winning researcher traced the history of the liner, remembering to bring the ship’s voyages alive with the various scandals that added colour to the lives of both passengers and crew.
The captivating history of the MS Batory includes everything from cargoes that included crates of British gold, wartime derring-do, and loud romances, until the occupying Communists sent the vessel dubbed Lucky Ship to its inglorious end in a Chinese scrapyard.
The MS Batory set sail on its maiden voyage from Monfalcone shipyards in Italy to Gdynia, Poland on April 21, 1936. Going ‘the pretty way’, the liner stopped over in Dubrovnik, Barcelona, Casablanca, Madeira, Lisbon and London. Those 21 days and nights as the ship cruised were full of champagne-drenched fun. On board were the biggest names in Polish politics, culture, and entertainment: Wojciech Kossak, Arkady Fiedler, Monika Żeromska, Irena Eichlerówna and Melchior Wańkowicz, who reported on the voyage for Polish Radio. Yet, before he found the charm in his journey, he reported on it with distaste.
This shiny, impressive, new liner was 160 metres long and several decks high. In fact, there were seven decks, guest cabins supported by the usual dining halls, dance halls, a reading room and library, three stylish bars, a swimming pool and a gym. The ship’s interiors had a light, modern elegance. The interior was enhanced with pieces by Jan Cybis. These were intriguing female figures carved into the silver mass alongside a 16th-century portrait of Stefan Batory.
Refined down to the smallest details there were works by the artist and designer Zofia Stryjeńska. Photographs reveal that the MS Batory was enriched with Polish monuments. In fact, the MS Batory was called a floating art showroom. It featured tableware from the best Polish factories, porcelain from Ćmielow, tablecloths from Żyrardow and glass from Huta Zawiercie. But the most important thing was the kitchen providing over 500 dishes on the lunch menu alone. Then there was Eustazy Borkowski, the skipper of the MS Batory.
The crusty old seadog spoke a dozen languages and drank cognac like water. He was likely the only captain in history who had a problem with navigation and determining his vessel’s position. But Eustazy Borkowski compensated for his failing with his other talents and characteristics and he was the life and soul of the ship. His ship’s officers jested that if he ever were completely sober, disaster would befall the MS Batory.
Passengers and journalists adored the colourful captain of the Batory. National Geographic dubbed him the captain of the seven seas. The New York Times reported that he was the most famous and picturesque character to traverse the Atlantic in the Interwar period. However, he was dismissed from his position during the war after an uproar from the press.
Aksamit also mentions the extraordinary hospitality of the beloved liner’s captain. It was no wonder that everyone wanted to sail with the errant skipper. During the 1930s Great Depression, at a time when the US was still enforcing prohibition laws, he would organise so-called ‘moon-trips’ or anti-prohibition sailing excursions by moonlight. Decorated with lanterns, the MS Batory would glide through the night towards Canada’s shores. As soon as the liner left US territorial waters, the bars would open and alcohol would pour in torrents at parties that lasted until dawn.
In stories told by his friends, the captain was remembered as a lover of games and religious celebrations. He would celebrate religious mass on board, even when there was no priest. He even performed a baptism of a bison. These were halcyon days and it never entered anyone’s mind that the most devastating war in history was about to be declared.
In the spring of 1939, the crew was preparing for its fourth Atlantic season. The MS Batory set sail the day before the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The alarming news of war came at dinnertime, whilst the liner was cruising off the shores of Canada. Then, escorted by an American warship, the Batory on docking was besieged by journalists’ with pens and pads in hands.
A New York newspaper reported that a number of companies quoted Borkowski as having enough original ideas to fight the enemy. Here’s how the Polish captain became a national hero:
The ship’s captain was eloquent and fanciful: ‘I was attacked during the last war, I know how to behave. When I meet the enemy, I change course immediately and move to twenty knots with the bow straight at him. And, when the enemy fires a torpedo I immediately enter the fray and disturb the waters as to throw the projectile off course. I will send the passengers below decks. I’m not afraid to die.’
The Batory morphed into a warship during World War II. The liner spent 652 days at sea (two years, mind you), earning it the name, the Lucky Ship. The Lucky Ship, without its luxury stores, ostentatious furniture, and works of art, was now furnished with double beds and officers’ machine guns. The Batory was able to avoid the German U-boat wolf packs. The liner also participated in the battles for the Norwegian city of Narvik, survived being attacked by German bombers, and rescued French and British soldiers. Similar vessels, the Chrobry and the Piłsudski, had already been sent to the seabed.
Finally, as a part of its cargo, the Batory transported gold bullion and other treasures to Canada from the British Imperial Bank. The author calculates that in addition to 2,950 crates of gold and paper banknotes, the crew managed to transport 34 boxes of tapestries and monuments transported from Poland in the first days of the war. The ship also conveyed injured soldiers. But, the MS Batory’s most important mission was yet to come.
In the summer of 1940 following the German occupation of the Low Countries and France the ocean was far from safe. After voyaging from the UK to Australia for 73 days, on August 5, the Batory evacuated almost 500 children for the duration of the war. The Lilliputian passengers quickly got their sea legs and won the hearts of the crew.
The liner docked in Australia in October, but this is not the end of the story. In 1968 when the old, worn-out Batory embarked on its last voyage, the passengers from 1940 responded to an advertisement in The Times and went to bid farewell to the ship. Bogdan Drozdowski, the head of the Polish Cultural Institute in London and organiser of the historical time capsule get-together, says: ‘I could not leave for a second. The phone rang incessantly. There was a long list of addresses, names, religions, memories, and tears. It lasted about a week. The Institute began to go through the list of children who were aboard the Batory. There were photos, memorials, bibles, diplomas. All yellowed with age.
The rendezvous eventually took place in February. Crew members were besieged like Hollywood stars, writes Aksamit. People were using cameras and tape recorders to capture words, crying and singing. Recalling from memory, someone began to play the song Rota, and the passengers immediately joined in singing the well-known song. Photos of the poignant meeting were shown around the world.
An article in The Daily Mirror stated: Much water has flowed under the keel of the Batory since then, but for 480 Britons, this will forever remain a lucky ship, which was their home for 11 weeks. This was scheduled as trip number 222.
The Batory also took part in movies in the 1960s. The liner played a role in Passengers produced and directed by Andrzej Munk as well as in several wartime newsreels.
Those travelling on the liner were privileged or at least destined to meet Poland’s artistic and political elite of the communist regime, diplomats, journalists, and writers, artists aiming to perform overseas. Among them were Mieczysław Fogg, Alibabki, Jerzy Połomski, Wiesław Gołas, Tercet Egzotyzny, Skaldowie and Anna German. The list of distinguished guests was long, and the crew took care of the most important members. How? The crew of the Batory could do anything:
Under the communist regime in Poland, young photo-journalists took it upon themselves to document the Polish realities of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Suffocating under a variety of labels such as ‘sociological photography’, ‘humanistic photography’ or ‘engaged photo essays’, they claim they were ‘just doing their thing’.
During one of the voyages Antoni Słonimski was on board. He was, of course, invited to the captain’s table. However, it was also difficult to organise such an important event with such an outstanding writer. As the captain didn’t have time to do it, the senior officer completed the task. We had to borrow a writer from the ship’s crew (luckily there were a few), to do a reading. The meeting lasted until late at night, and Słonimski, who was already over 70, was emotionally touched. In the morning, he thanked the captain and admitted that he had underestimated the sailors.
The Batory had sailed for 34 years when it was decided to retire the ship. Captain Jan Ćwikliński wrote in his memoir published in the United States that the communist regime was already coming to a close.
We did not feel the joy of life any longer. There was no longer laughter or a carefree atmosphere on board. Everywhere we were surrounded by suspicion. I stopped talking to people except for those I could trust. I felt unnerved on the decks. I was only at ease when I walked into my cabin and closed the door.
In the early post-war years, more than 100 people sought asylum in foreign cities aboard the Batory. These people disembarked from the deck of Captain Ćwikliński. The atmosphere on the ship grew worse every day.
The now legendary pride o’ Poland ocean liner was at first turned into a hotel and a restaurant. Then, officials from the communist regime sent the ship to a Chinese scrapyard. On 30 March 1971, the world said farewell to the Batory, as tradition requires with orchestras and crowds thronging the piers and quays. On the evening of May 26, the Polish liner sailed at high tide to a waterfront scrapyard to settle at the bottom of the sea. That night, it left this world.
The Polish flag was lowered on June 2, an hour after Krzysztof Meissner and his crew disembarked. Mournfully they looked on as the MS Batory disappeared piece by piece, ‘hammers crashed into its frame, mechanical scissors cut sheet metal, workers separated steel from precious metals…’ And so, there was nothing left. The Batory sailed into history.
Read more sea stories Untold Sagas of the Sea: For Those in Peril on the Sea Volume IV by Michael Walsh
Related books: The Leaving of Liverpool, Britannic Waives the Rules: Last of the White Star Liners, UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Volume I (The USA, The UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA Vol II (The USA, The UK), UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. III ( The USA and The UK) UNTOLD SAGAS OF THE SEA VOL. IV ( The USA and The UK) and All I Ask is a Tall Ship by Liverpool writer Michael Walsh
Categories: Sea Stories