Brystygierowa, Julia (1902–1980)

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Brystygierowa, Julia (1902–1980)

Polish Communist activist and departmental director in the Ministry of Public Security from 1944 to 1956. Name variations: Julia Preiss. Born Julia Preiss in 1902; died in 1980; married.

Member of the Hashomer Zionist Scout organization (1920s); joined Communist Party of Poland (1930); graduated from University of Lvov; joined Communist Party of Ukraine (1939); director of International Workers' Relief, Lvov (1939–41); active in Union of Polish Patriots (1943–45); acted as a major figure in the repression of anti-Communists and other dissidents (1945–56); removed from office (September 1956) and retired to private life.

Born into a Polish-Jewish family in Russian-occupied Poland in 1902, Julia Preiss experienced cataclysmic historical changes in her early years, including the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the restoration of Polish independence in 1918. Like many of her contemporaries, she was torn between an attraction to the ideals of Zionism and those of Marxism. She was at first an active member of the Hashomer Scouts, a Zionist youth group, but by the late 1920s was drawn to the messianic ideals of Communism. In 1930, she joined the Polish Communist Party, a small and illegal group of conspirators and idealists. Now married and known as Julia ("Luna") Brystygierowa, she lived in the Galician city of Lvov (Lemberg), editing the underground Communist paper published there until the late 1930s. Though Joseph Stalin abolished the Polish Communist Party in 1938 on trumped-up charges of having been infiltrated by Fascists and Trotskyites, militant Marxists like Brystygierowa remained dedicated revolutionaries. Strongly drawn to ideas, she also earned a degree in history at the University of Lvov.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 1939 sealed the fate of Poland, which ceased to exist as a sovereign nation after the German attack of September 1939. Lvov was annexed to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic as a result of the Nazi-Soviet alliance. Despised and persecuted until now, Polish Communists like Brystygierowa were almost immediately granted positions of power by Soviet occupation officials. She was granted membership in the Ukrainian Communist Party and received the position of director of the Lvov branch of the International Workers' Relief organization, which gave her control over a significant staff and budget. In June 1941, she was able to flee Lvov when Nazi forces attacked the Soviet Union, and after a series of adventures found herself settled far behind the front lines in Samarkand in Soviet Central Asia.

In the next months, Stalin released the Polish prisoners of war still alive in the Soviet Union, allowing them to form an army and a political organization, the Union of Polish Patriots (UPP). One of the few women to occupy a high position in the UPP, Julia Brystygierowa held the important post of director of the UPP's organizational department. She also served as an active member of the UPP executive committee and, between June and September 1944, was a presidium secretary of this pro-Soviet group. Her return to Poland in 1944 brought her to the city of Lublin, where she worked closely with leading Polish Communist militants from the Soviet Union who now declared themselves to be the legitimate government of a liberated Polish Republic.

As strongly committed to Marxist ideals as she had been in her youth, in 1944 Brystygierowa joined the newly reconstituted Polish Communist movement, which now called itself the Polish Workers Party. As a member of the party's control commission, she was a fierce and cunning political infighter who rapidly built up a power base within the new, Soviet-dominated Polish government. By 1947, rigged elections had turned Poland into a Soviet satellite state. In 1948, potential resistance on the Left was nipped in the bud when Social Democrats were merged with Communists in a new, all-dominating political party, the Polish United Workers Party. During these years, Brystygierowa became an important figure in the repressive machinery of "People's Poland," serving as a department director in the Ministry of Public Security. Her responsibility was in the area of cultural affairs, particularly the infiltration of the intelligentsia, non-Communist youth organizations, and the Roman Catholic Church. She was also a member of the supersecret Committee for Public Security, a small core of trusted Communists who were "advised" by high Soviet diplomatic, military, and intelligence officials stationed in Poland.

As the only woman to achieve a high position in the security apparatus of Stalinized Poland, Brystygierowa was occupied for more than a decade in the cat-and-mouse game of attempting to outwit a nation overwhelmingly hostile to its Soviet-imposed Communist regime. Not involved in the harsher aspects of "people's rule"—such as forced confessions, rigged trials, or anti-guerrilla warfare—she was, in the words of fellow-Marxist leader Stefan Staszewski, an exceptional individual within the security apparatus in that she was "[c]ultured, eloquent, not at all shrill." On a number of occasions, she was able to persuade imprisoned enemies of the regime that they could attain their goals after their release from prison; psychologically perceptive, she judged them to be no longer a threat to the regime. Although a fanatical Communist, there were a number of occasions when Brystygierowa made serious efforts to resist the "suggestions" of Soviet officials. Her motives for such behavior are not clear, but perhaps she believed herself to be a Polish patriot as well as a Marxist revolutionary. Regardless, Brystygierowa's career in the Polish Communist hierarchy ended with her abrupt removal in September 1956 when as a result of the growing anti-Stalinist movement in the Soviet Union, a "thaw" caused a national upsurge of reform that ended the terror-based regime in Warsaw. Retiring into private life, she spent her final decades writing novels under her maiden name of Julia Preiss.


Clark, John, and Aaron Wildavsky. The Moral Collapse of Communism: Poland as a Cautionary Tale. San Francisco, CA: ICS Press, Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1990.

Held, Joseph. Dictionary of East European History since 1945. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Polonsky, Antony, and Boleslaw Druiker. The Beginnings of Communist Rule in Poland. London, 1980.

Toranska, Teresa. "Them": Stalin's Polish Puppets. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska. NY: Harper & Row, 1987.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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