Radar 51/52

If You Love Me - Kill Me!
by Agata Tuszyńska

Witnesses described the scene the way it appeared to their eyes in the morning of July 1, 1890, in an appartement on Nowogrodzka Street. "In a very small room, completely dark, from top to bottom decorated with pleated drapes, there lay on a large Turkish ottoman, in her underwear with slightly open eyes, the actress Maria Wisnowska with her limbs stretched out and her legs somewhat apart. There was no other furniture in the room, the windows were tightly boarded up, the floor was covered with a soft carpet, and under a ceiling hung a huge umbrella, in the middle of which was attached a lamp.  Around the midsection of the corpse there lay two business cards of Alexander Barteniew, and on them and near them, in the pleats of her shirt, there were three sour cherries. Against the wall stood an ale bottle with a small quantity fo black liquid in it, at the feet of the dead woman lay a cavalry officer's sword. On one of the several scattered sheets of paper there was a sentence written in a woman's hand: "Don't  trifle with love..."

The name of Wisnowska doesn't mean much to today's youth. Older Varsovians nod their heads sadly upon recalling the stories their parents had told them of their own youth.

Many had heard stories about her in their childhood. At the old Powazki cemetery in Warsaw, near the catacombes, there stood and still is standing a large monument of white marble. The writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz recalls precicely the face in which " there is a feeling of some sort of unheard-of sweetness and an amazing womanly charm." "Here lies a great Polish actress, who was killed by a Russian officer, " the actor Henryk Małkowski's mother told him. "When you grow up, you'll learn more about her."

A certain amount of scandal accompagned Wisnowska's fate almost from the begining of her theatrical career. "The first ingenue" was quickly transformed into an alluring lover, off-stage as well as on. She doggedly increased her circle of admirers, which ranged "from high-school students still wet behind their years" to "old men with white hair on their temples". The details of her methods of recruiting her collection of men were repeated excidetly in the drawing rooms and living rooms of the Warsaw of the writes Sienkiewicz and Świętochowski. It was said that she received men at her place with bare legs (!), in airy peignoirs and Greek tunics, generously distributing her charms. People talked about her uninhibited conversations in dim light, about the revolver that she apparently never parted with, about the poison with which she filled her favourite ring. Better informed sources assured the world that, like Sara Bernhardt, she would sleep in the coffin.

Wisniowska heard such stories with satisfaction. She herself saw to it and she would appear all the more unusual. It wasn’t all made-up, although distinguishing fact from fiction is exceptionally difficult. Wisnowska deliberately added numerous piquant details, non-existent events, and colorful details to her own biography. This gave her the popularity she longed for. She did not lack innate talent for her role of femme-fatale.

Wisnowska was surrounded by journalists, men of letters, singers, even nobility. The critics praised her acting ability. “When acting with Wisnowska, things went along as if one were sightseeing in an imaginary world”. Many of her contemporaries held the same opinion.

Wisnowska participated in the most famous acting competition held in the golden age of the Warsaw theater. During a period of several years (1882-89), she competed against Jadwiga Czaki for the championship of the theatrical world. She was showered with flowers, young men pined outside her windows, many times she was carried home by her young fans. She became their idol.

Among her admirers there soon turned up a young, homely Russian in the uniform of an officer of the National Guard. A cavalry, Alaxander Barteniew was nine years younger than Wisnowska. As if in passing, without curtailing other affairs or adventures, she added him to her retinue. He was seen at the theatre during each performance she was acting in. He sent her expensive bouquets, paid her compliments. This agreeably tickled her vanity. And, at the same time, it did not oblige her to anything. Everyone saw that the young officer had fallen madly in the actress. She was the only one who appeared not to notice. Up to that day in October 1889, when he confessed his love to her. It was only then that she allowed him to kiss her.

Warsaw, the capital of the Vistula province, looked unfavorably on this love affair. Patriotic savoir-vivre at that time prohibited any contact with Russians. This relationship entered into the beloved, popular Varsovian was especially shocking. The urgings of her friends to break off the relationship appeared to be useless. This woman, constantly seeking originality, suddenly had met someone who was completely different from all her previous acquaintances.

Everything appeared to divide them – background, religion, social class, Likewise, the time and place of their meeting was not favorable, and nevertheless Wisnowska made up her mind – risking punishment (was she ever fully aware of that?) – to launch this affair.

“I loved her very much, “ Barteniew says, “but I understood that my father, on whom I depended financially would never agree to my marrying an actress. Living with her without being married was also impossible, it would have harmed her acting career, my being a Russian officer.” He appeared to understand this better than she did. He quickly came to the conclusion that the only way out of this dramatic situation – the impossibility of getting married and the impossibility of living apart from each other – would be death. This thought did not terrify her. She had died many times on stage, she had pretended to be dead many times in her living room in order to fascinate her guests.

Her close acquaintance with Barteniew lasted only a little more than half a year. They went to suburban restaurants together, went for walks together, drank champagne together, danced at costume parties together. He was amenable to her ever increasing capriciousness. She received him in her bedroom only to reject him. She assured him of her love, but for several days didn’t let him come through her door. Always on edge, often irritated, she became more and more unbalanced.

When spring came, she began to be afraid. She repeated that Barteniew would kill her and that in this manner he would avenge everyone whom she had ever light-heartedly flirted with. She said that she wanted to break off with him, but fear that the soldier would shoot himself (which he had threatened more than once) restrained her from taking such a step. On June 30, she went to her rented studio in order to hold the decisive discussion with him.

The death of Wisnowska at the hands of Barteniew astonished the citizens of Warsaw.

“At first, Warsaw mourned, but, immediately afterwards, it became angry at the star. At her funeral, there weren’t even half the usual number of applauding fans. Could it be that the first ingénue of the Warsaw theater – the personification of lyricism, poetry and spring charm, that such a creature should be found murdered during a tryst with a cavalryman! It was heard said: “Good for her, that loose woman, that’s God’s punishment!”.

The funeral was held without the participation of the clergy. On the streets that the funeral procession passed along, crowds of onlookers gathered, but only a very few people followed the coffin. “Warsaw could not find in its heart even a bit of compassion for its favorite because of the repulsive scene of the bloody drama,” the newspaper Kra.j wrote.

Did Wisnowska really want to die? It’s inconceivable that she had given permission to be killed. It’s true that she flirted with the props of death, but, in fact, she wanted to love and enjoy life. And maybe, on reflection, “death came because of insanity?” Insanity gave her the justification that her fans were eagerly looking for. The victim of a “degenerate sex maniac” was, likewise, deserving of compassion.

But her friends, who knew her best, claim that she had provoked him, that “only five minutes before her death she was still toying with Barteniew, counting on strong effect.” But this time, obviously, she miscalculated. She went too far in her game, playing with death, which was her favorite pastime, and it turned into a tragedy with a denouement that she had not wanted at all.

Alexander Barteniew testified: “She lay undressed, I was dressed. I sat next to her on the edge of the sofa with an unsecured revolver in my right hand. She asked me to kill her for the sake of our love, insistently repeating – “if you love me, kill me!” I put my left arm around her. My head felt as if it were clogged, I kissed her, cuddled up against her and shot her at close range through her bare left breast. She screamed in French: “Adieu, je t’aime!”. My whole body trembled. After firing the shot, I felt terror- stricken and at first I didn’t think so much about shooting myself, as we had agreed, but rather about nothing at all. No thoughts crossed my mind; I didn’t know what to do. I remembered that I had grabbed a bottle of water and I began to pour it on Maria’s head. Why I did it, I don’t know. I didn’t realize how useless it was to do this. Whether I remained in the apartment for a long time, what I did there – I don’t remember. I was in a daze after the shooting, I mechanically put on my coat and cap and went back to my regiment.”

Barteniew’s explanation, that he had acted on the request of his bellowed, was rejected. The court found him guilty of deliberate homicide and in the sentence of February 22, 1891, condemned him to forfeit his rights and his nobility and to eight years of hard labor, and, after having served his sentence, to lifetime exile in Siberia. The appellate hearing upheld the original verdict. The minutes of the trial, which were published in St. Petersburg, and in an abridged (tendentious) version in Warsaw, because a basic source of information on this matter. The creators of literary adoptions of this story profited from it to the greatest extent. Julia Jelec – the author of “The Disease of the Century” (1895), Iwan Bunin – the author of “the Matter of the Cavalryman Jelagin” (1926), Stanislaw Antoni Wotowski – the author of “Maria in the Bonds of a Tragic Love Affair” (1928) and finally Wladyslaw Terlecki – the author of “A Black Romance” (1974). Literary works based on the story of Wisnowska and Barteniew constituted a peculiar barometer of the interest in this matter, giving simultaneously fuel to the legend that was not allowed to die.

In the forward to the most popular novel about the actress and the cavalryman (“Maria in the Bonds of a Tragic Live Affair”) we read: “Those who were eager for Barteniew to pass for the victim of a heartless flirt – attained their goal. In light of the court proceedings, which were skillfully edited to have a specific effect, the figure of Barteniew appears more likely that of an unlucky lover who killed his beloved under severe mental strain, than like a debased character of little intelligence, a murdered of savage instincts, who lured his victim into an ambush.” Here the sources mention many opinions of present-day continuers of the legend of Wisnowska, who call Barteniew, according to Wotowski – “unbridled violet despot,” “scoundrel,” “animal,” “criminal.” Very unambiguous is the author of those designations in his appraisal, although it appears to accurately reflect the popularity of such an interpretation of the events.

The first crack in the carefully constructed image of Wisnowska’s murdered would be the information supplied by a Warsaw newspaper in December 1932. “The one-time brilliant officer of the Czarist guard, THE MURDERER OF MARIA WISNOWSKA, died a beggar in a Warsaw poorhouse. The life of the homeless old man ended on December 3 in the so-called Circus at 62 Dzika Street. From papers found on him it was learned that his name was Barteniew…” and although two other notices in the press bring a completely different account of the death of the former cavalryman, people very quickly became attached to this version. People began to repeat it in numerous variations, adding that several years earlier the wretch used to walk every day at the Powązki cemetery and would stop for a long time at Wisnowska’s grave. On his deathbed, he was supposed to have confessed who he was, to have talked about his great love, the pangs of conscience he felt and the need to return to the place where his beloved lay. Others said that he would walk under the windows of Nowogrodzka Street, weeping. He was forgiven and was presented with a legend. Miron Białoszewski wrote in his “reports of reality”: “At the pub of the corner of Stawki Street, a glass of vodka or beer was placed before him out of loyalty to Powązki. He said: ‘I killed Maria.’”

The legend of the tow of them is circulating to this day. I was convinced of it more than once while speaking with visitors to Wisnowska’s grave at the Powązki cemetery, obtaining letters, getting numerous telephone calls in response to my appeal for any and all information relating to this matter. With satisfaction I ascertained that it still arouses emotion. In truth, a compassionate memory gives a milder picture, erases doubts, eases the vision. The ways that a legend follows are sometimes surprising.


Young man: yes, I am calling about the ad. Just a moment, I’ll put my grandmother on.

Grandmother: I am 73, I won’t ever be young again. I remember the time between the wars, before 1939, in front of the Lazienki Gardens, just on the right there stood a one-story house. No one lived there because it was haunted. Everyone pointed out that house e – right there a Cossack from the Don cut off Wisnowska’s head with his sword during a drinking bout. At that time in Warsaw people sand this about it (sings in Russian):

            Oh, how much I loved Wisnowska/But she didn’t love me

            So I killed her/Yesterday I drank champagne with

            Wisnowska/ Today I am, sadly, in prison/ Goodbye,

            Wisnowska, goodbye forever/ a cold grave has seen you.

That’s what people were singing. I remember because I myself very much experienced that affair. And what took place afterwards in that house, I don’t know. Maybe it was demolished during the war. But the windows were always boarded up, because the house was really haunted. She didn’t love him, so he killed her, you see. That’s all, so long.


How could you write that Barteniew was Wisnowska’s lover? After all, she was a very proper woman. He deceitfully lured her into this trap and then he murdered her. But I feel very sorrow for her. Every year I go to Powązki and bring her flowers, for she’s my favorite actress.


Mrs. P. moved to Nowogrodzka after the 1944 uprising. There an old woman was saying that exactly in the studio where the super loved, there had been the apartment where the soldier would meet the beautiful Wisnowska. Apparently, the place had been elegant, luxurious, carpeted. That’s where it happened. And I used to pass that way…


I was in that studio on Nowogrodzka Street about ten years ago. There was a fur warehouse there. I know that Barteniew, now after the Russian Revolution, when he had lost everything, would walk past that house, past the window. He stood there, reminisced and wept. He often goes to Wisnowska’s grave. The poor things, both of them.


Actor: I want to tell you one thing – she had an uncanny, really unusual temperament. That was known. And she and Barteniew were splendidly matched, you understand – a splendid sexual match, which rarely occurs. They could do it for 24 hours without a break. They shut themselves up in that studio, drank champagne and made love.


I have a photo of Maria Wisnowska – large, oval, in a huge hat – are you interested?

From our conversation about the portrait: That was a good Polish woman who preferred to die rather than submit to a Russian officer. A proper woman who was cleverly deprived of her life. (My interlocutor is 83, a former singer.) How beautiful she is, indecently beautiful, she says. That’s my ideal, I always looked to her, for so many years. I’d like to live like her. I’m giving her to you, soon she’ll be your heroine too. It’ll hang at your place longer than at mine. After all, you don’t buy and sell ideals.


My father would be 93 today if he were still alive. He often talked about the broke Russian who was seen at Powązki around Wisnowska’s grave. He went back there because that’s where his love was. Where the beggar-murderer is buried, I don’t know.


My mother was at the apartment on Nowogrodzka Street where the tragedy took place. After Barteniew’s desperate act, the whole living room was decorated with black umbrellas.

You shouldn’t have written that, for she wasn’t a woman of bad conduct. A magnificent actress. After all, all Warsaw applauded her. The youth was crazy about her. Duels were even fought over her. But as to whether she loved anyone, I don’t know.


Mrs. R. from Kolobrzeg: My late mother talked a lot about Wisnowska’s performances. My mother was then a young girl working in the underground of the time. She said that Wisnowska was an extremely beautiful woman. Poles in Warsaw – including Wisnowska – wanted to get permission from Barteniew to perform theater in Polish. Apparently, the interview to perform theater in Polish. Apparently, the intervention succeeded. It was for this reason that she entered into this romance.


Varsovians experienced this death like the death of a heroine. After the warm I traveled to Powązki to see her grave. I was very moved. The white marble figure reminded me of my parent’s stories. I don’t blame her. In my opinion, she was a patriot. A great Polish woman.


It isn’t easy to refute this legend, since it is such a widespread memory. Its heroine can’t be guilty. And if she was sullen, it was for the good of the cause. It is a red-and-white ribbon that, paradoxically, should clarify everything!

The legend excuses Wisnowska completely, closing its eyes to the sufficiently obvious immorality of certain of her actions. Time has likewise attenuated the guilt of her Russian murdered. At first surrounded by hostility, buried in the minds of Poles, as a certain moment he comes back to the stories preserved over generation. The vile murdered becomes a romantic lover faithful to his first love even to the grave. Such a course of events is not impossible, it appears to be more accurate that the highly idealistic interpretations of the actress’s behavior.

Two apparently disparate, mutually exclusive legends have come into being. The characters of their heroes are connected by death and a certain impropriety of their whole relationship. Surrounding is the distant and attractive atmosphere of the end of the 19th century, the flash of stage lights, the euphoria of an enthusiastic audience. A drama that took place nearly 100 years ago in Warsaw wants to be seen differently. But even the legend does not permit Wisnowska to love Barteniew. He will be treated almost like Romeo, but she will not be called Juliet, although that would be nice and easy. Nor will he be called Don Juan in a skirt, which would correspond to the truth. Both of them are forgiven.