Return of the Cambridge Pimpernels, heroes of a more innocent time

Nobody said what any student would say now: "Are you totally out of your mind? Leave me out" Nobody said what any normal student would say now: "Are you totally out of your mind? Leave me out." What they did 40 years ago was still entirely the right thing to have done

Neal Ascherson
Saturday 19 August 1995 23:02 BST

I WENT to a party in Warsaw last week. My host was pained because I left when the party had only been going for two days. Eating, drinking and celebrating was to continue up to this weekend, culminating in a ball. As you read this, in fact, the party of the Cambridge Pimpernels is still roaring on.

As soon as the invitation arrived, several months ago, the outlines of an epic thrash began to take shape. A huge yellow card appeared from Poland, with a drawing of the old Warsaw Main Station. Underneath was written: "THIS IS YOUR INVITATION to the one and only cocktail happening in honour of the Cambridge Pimpernels who in August 1955 sprang me out of the Polish Peoples Republic and totally changed my life..." It ended: "Please come at 6.09pm, sharp - armed with umbrella bearing either the Union Jack, flag of Saint Andrew or the Maple Leaf of Canada. Any flag will do except a red one. Kids welcome. Cheers and God Save the Queen."

There was no signature. None was needed. This was the unmistakable tone of Stanislaw ("Stash") Pruszynski, wanderer, charmer and restaurateur, who left his country, hidden on a luggage-rack, in 1955, and returned when it became free more than 30 years later.

Stash had decided that, 40 years on, he would say his own giant thank- you to the British students who smuggled him out, and to as many friends of his exile from England, Scotland, Canada and France as he could muster. He now runs two first-class restaurants in the centre of Warsaw, so food and drink were on hand. All he needed was a site. So he hired the Main Station, and threw the party there.

When I got out of the taxi, things were already happening. Two pipers were strutting their deafening stuff on the old station steps; a squad of smiling, middle-aged men and women in their best suits and dresses stood beside Stash with umbrellas and paper flags. The Pimpernels! Not that they would ever have called themselves that. Typical Stash! Meanwhile, dozens of people leaned out of the grimy high-rises round the station to clap and wave. Whatever was happening, they liked its style.

It all happened in another time, as they say. In 1955, the International Festival of Youth, that huge fixture in the Communist calendar of international peace propaganda, took place in Warsaw. The land had been cut off from the outside world since 1939; the city was still partly in ruins; the ferocity of Stalinism was just beginning to ebb. And then suddenly there arrived thousands of young foreigners, white, black and brown, with new music, new books, new clothes, new ideas of freedom. They were supposed to be "socialist youth". Many were, in one way or another, for in those days anyone with a sense of hope and adventure was a socialist. And most boarded the ships and trains to Poland as an adventure.

For the Poles, it was a carnival, a liberation, a month of bliss. But for Stash's mother it was also an opportunity. She was afraid for her son. Her husband, a clever and witty writer who had been ambassador in Holland, had been killed a few years before in a road accident which may not have been an accident. Stash faced conscription, but she thought he might be sent to penal labour in the mines. So, when she met some Cambridge students with Stash, she told them about her fears.

Last week, I looked at the "Pimpernels" and was amazed. Why did they do what they did? I knew the story already, because two of them were close friends. But I did not know the details until last week, and though everyone's story is slightly different, they do agree on one thing: nobody said what any normal, streetwise British student would say now - "Are you totally out of your mind? Smuggle a Polish boy out of a heavily-armed police state across three Iron Curtain frontiers, and when you have only known the guy a few days? If you want to spend the rest of your life in Siberia, fine, but let me off..."

Ben, who is now a philosopher, volunteered to "lose" his passport. Stash would dye his hair black and have a false photo glued into it. Brilliant! Luckily for philosophy, nobody could find the right sort of photographer. So they were going sadly in the tram to tell Stash's mother that it was all off, when Bridget - it was Bridget, really, who kept them all up to it - looked around her. People were hanging on the outside of the tram, dangling from the roof ... that was it! By the time they got off, they had a new plan.

When the Festival ended, they pushed Stash with his peculiar black hair (dyeing your hair without a permit was illegal at the time) through the throng onto the special train. They put him on the rack, and Bridget lay on top of him all the way across Poland in a mess of rugs and coats. When the guards came in, she moaned and pretended to be ill, and the rest of them sang songs and made speeches about Peace.

By the time they arrived at the last border, the Czech-West German frontier at Cheb, Stash was drenched in sweat and nearly dead of asphyxiation. Then things almost went wrong. Everyone was ordered out; luggage had to be piled on the platform and passports shown. Stash was piloted back and forth, along the platform, in and out of the coach lavatory. Mark, the future journalist, slipped him his own passport which the armed guard glared at but providentially did not open. "Peace, peace!" said Stash in his best English, slapping the frontier policemen on the back. Finally came the moment when the train reached Nuremberg and Stash leaped out to throw his arms round an amazed American soldier on the platform.

And here they all were again - or at least most of them - last week. Two retired diplomats, two journalists, a famous thriller-writer, a solicitor, a teacher, a philosopher, and Bridget, who has done many different things in her life but remained triumphantly herself.

They looked proudly at Stash, still thin and funny, and at his beautiful wife and his restaurants. What they did 40 years ago last week was still entirely the right thing to have done.

I cannot help brooding on why they did it, and in what spirit. Most of them were middle class, as their careers show, but that had nothing to do with it. They held a variety of political views, but smuggling Stash out was not their idea of a "blow against Bolshevism". Nor were they mindless undergrad pranksters. Love, I think, played some part with some of them, but that remains their secret.

In those days, the European continent was divided with such terrible efficiency that it was a sensation when one person - a single individual - contrived to make it across minefields or through a tunnel. Today, television shows every night the uncontrolled outrush of thousands of people across frontiers - burned out, chased out, fleeing for their lives. What does it mean to save one among so many?

The Pimpernels found a likeable, wronged nation and a boy of their own age who asked "Why can't I be free like you?" So they freed him. Politics? It was right and wrong; there was nothing else to be done.

A year after the Youth Festival, the novelist was in Budapest. There he saw what happened to boys who fought tanks with petrol bottles, to secret policemen caught by mobs, to intellectuals who - unlike E M Forster in 1950s Cambridge - betrayed both their friends and their country. Britain, meanwhile, revealed over Suez a criminal duplicity which none of them - none of us - had thought possible. For the Pimpernels, choices were never afterwards so plain as they were that August evening.

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