We usually think and expect that those who worked and dedicated their lives for the glory of the nation are 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 recognizing and awarding, right? Unfortunately, that is not always the case, even if you were once the Prime Minister’s favorite. Krystyna Skarbek’s story proved just that.

Flaming 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 for his debts and continue his luxurious lifestyle. Krystyna loved riding horses and skiing, which she honed during their visits to Zakopane in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland. In all these things, she took after her father.

She met her husband on that same mountain. She was skiing on a slope when she lost control but was fortunately saved by a man who stepped into her path to stop her momentum. It was Jerzy Giżycki, a brilliant, eccentric, short-tempered, wealthy guy who ran away from home at an early age and eventually became an author.

Krystyna Skarbek. (Wikipedia)

The two fell in love and married on November 2, 1938, in Warsaw. her husband found himself consul general of Poland by the time that Germany invaded the country. When World War II broke out, the two went to London in exile as their country was dismembered Nazi Germany and the USSR who began WWII as allies. 

Skarbek, furious about the invasion, asked the British Secret Service to hire her. 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 flaming Polish patriot…. expert skier and great adventuress” and “absolutely fearless.” She was given the nom de plume, Christine Granville.

Christine’s Quests

Skarbek (or Granville) had many achievements and commendable actions throughout her six years of service to Britain. One of them was when she acquired the first evidence of Germany’s plan to invade Russia, called Operation Barbarossa. 

The evidence was in microfilm footage that she hid in the finger of her gloves as she skied out of Poland to the Allied lines. This intelligence report reached Winston Churchill, who was more than pleased and immediately became an admirer of the spy, saying Granville was his favorite.

In July 1944, she parachuted into France to join the resistance in the Vercors region as Francis Cammaerts’ lieutenant. Cammaerts was one of Britain’s top agents and leaders in France. They were preparing for the liberation of Europe. Granville made 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 remarkable actions was when she convinced the Gestapo to free her SEO colleagues and two French Resistance fighters captured by the Germans and about to be executed. 

First, she attempted a rescue operation, but it failed. She decided to set off, even with an enormous bounty on her head, on her bicycle toward the camp 25 miles away. Upon arriving, she lied to them about how close the Allied forces were. She also said that she would ensure the Gestapo officers would be killed if her colleagues were not freed. Perhaps it was her convincing powers, threat, or the money that she used to bribe the Gestapo officers. Or maybe it was all of them, but she managed to take get her colleagues back alive.

No Longer Wanted

For all her harrowing acts on behalf of the Allied cause, she was awarded tons of medals. Among them were the Officer of the Order of the British Empire, French Croix de Guerre, and the George Medal. However, this array of decorations meant nothing after the war was over. 

She was given a month’s salary and she was dismissed. When she tried to apply for British citizenship, she was told that she was not entitled to it. Lastly, the last memo about her stated that “she is no longer wanted.”

Orthodox Catholic cemetery Kensal Green St. Mary London. Grave Krystyna Skarbek. (Dobry77CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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 taking the job as a maid on passenger liners. She could not return to Poland because it was behind the Iron Curtain, was communist and she had been a spy for the English. They would have killed her,

Her life tragically ended when a fellow steward, Dennis Muldowney, stabbed her to death after she rejected his advances.

Memorial to Krystyna Skarbek. (ianwolter.com)

In 2017, writer Clare Mulley asked her husband Ian Wolter to make a bust of Skarbek at the Polish Hearth Club. The bust included soil from Poland and the park in London where the Polish special forces were trained.