Scene of the Crime

Jaromir Król


How Roman Polanski nearly died at the hands of a serial killer -- 20 years before Charles Manson.
Roman Polanski's life before WW2 was a dark time, but it was after the war that a serial killer nearly ended it.
It is not by coincidence that the thousand-year-old city of Kraków in southern Poland has been described as Vienna’s little cousin. During its tumultuous existence, Kraków – once the country’s capital – was annexed by Austria, as Poland was attacked by three countries at once, and split into three parts as a result. But compared to the German and Russian partitions, Austria’s takeover proved so gentle, and its Emperor Franz Joseph so friendly and benevolent, that to this day Kraków considers him nothing short of a patron, and there are more memorabilia bearing his portrait to be found throughout the city than in any other place outside Vienna.

Today, Kraków is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a place where history and culture come alive, and where scores of Poland’s foremost creators and thinkers have spent their days. Among them is Roman Polanski, whose family moved to Kraków in 1936, when the future director was three years old. He was still only six when World War II erupted and the German army entered the city. Polanski’s mother was a Catholic, but his father was a Polish Jew, thus making the entire family Jewish in the eyes of the invaders. The Polanskis would spend the next six years hiding under assumed names in the old Jewish district, most of which survived the war and is now a popular tourist destination.

In the opposite direction, and within walking distance of the city center, lies Park Krakowski, the Kraków Park. It is not, as the name could imply, the city’s most famous park, nor is it the largest. In fact, it is a small patch of greenery, small enough that if one were to climb the stairs in the nondescript gray building standing just off the park’s northwestern corner, a single glance would be enough to take it all in, from the trees and the plants to the grass and the flowers – and to the two flat slabs of concrete that look ill-fitting, almost as if someone tossed them into the grass long ago. Not even at closer distance is their purpose evident – indeed, dozens of people pass them every day hardly noticing their existence, and when asked about them, they can only offer uncertain guesses. Most passers-by associate the drab concrete with the squalid 1970s, the middle years of Poland’s Socialist period. A few people guess correctly, identifying the slabs as remnants of a World War II bunker, but they know nothing more of its history. 

The entrance to the bunker in Park Krakowski -- spring 2016.
The entrance to the bunker in Park Krakowski -- spring 2016. 
The gray building off the corner of the park is an easier guess. Nowadays it is host to a branch of the National Health Fund, but a memorial plaque embedded in the wall marks it as the past headquarters of the Communist Secret Service. And so it was, back in the 1940s, when Poland was in the iron grip of Joseph Stalin and his cronies, and the grim cellars of the building held the eclectic mix of suffering political prisoners and dejected ex-Nazis awaiting their trials. If asked to name a close location with a notorious past, most locals would point to the building with little hesitation. 

But in fact, it is the concrete buried in the grass – nowadays visited only by dogs and pigeons – that hides the grim history of one of the most unusual events in the city’s history. The slabs form a sealed entrance to an underground Nazi air shelter, and they mark the location where over six decades ago Roman Polanski ran into a now-forgotten serial killer, and barely made it out alive.

The Cyclist from the Ghetto

It was a bright June evening, and Polanski was sitting in the bleachers of the Municipal Stadium, waiting for the amateur tennis competition to end. He was there to support his friend Marian Skalny, a racing partner in the bicycle section of the nationally renowned Cracovia Sports Club.

Cycling was Roman’s greatest passion. He certainly had other interests, which included stage acting, but nothing could match his love for bikes. He considered acting to be a useful hobby, helpful in eliminating his shyness and building up self-confidence. Biking, on the other hand, was much more than just a hobby: it was Roman’s idea for the future. He knew that as an adult, he would be a professional cyclist, and he worked hard to achieve the goal. He maintained his old, beaten-up bicycle with dedication, and he trained regularly and enthusiastically, often pedaling even 150 miles down an intercity road between Kraków and the mountain resort of Zakopane. The few cars present in the Poland of 1949 guaranteed that the road would be almost empty during his journeys, which, in turn, allowed him to daydream while counting the miles. In his imagination, he would often see himself standing on the podium freshly after a race, victorious, triumphant, basking in the audience’s adulation. Now, as he sat in the benches, he allowed himself such a vision, momentarily forgetting about the match, and thinking of the upcoming summer competition, an annual event that every true cyclist would love to join. As usual, the dream evaporated as reality raised its head: Roman knew that without a fast racing bicycle, the idea of entering the contest would remain nothing but a pipe dream. His old clunker of a bike was good enough to travel all the way to Zakopane and back, but it would stand no chance against true racing bicycles in a professional competition. He knew exactly what kind of bike he needed – a proper racer, and not just any model. It would have to be more than good. It would have to be more than reliable. In a word, it would have to be pre-war. 

In post-WW2 Poland, “pre-war” was synonymous with top quality, unmatched, as amazing as the times that it symbolized. In fact, the years before the war were anything but rosy, yet the nostalgia goggles tinted them nigh-perfect, especially when compared to the dark days of the Nazi invasion. Consequently, in the public’s eye, anything made before the war was incomparably better than its post-war equivalent, and bikes were no exception. “Pre-war” was outranked perhaps only by “American,” but as far as the latter was concerned, you might as well hope to catch a unicorn. With pre-war goods, you could at least come across some every once in a while. In Kraków, the place to look for those was a local flea market known as the Tandeta – the Polish slang word meaning, more or less, “Cheap Stuff.” Sometimes – very rarely – you could stumble upon a genuine pre-war bicycle there, but the sellers knew their value, and the prices were far beyond Polanski’s meager means. Roman’s father – who, unlike the mother, survived the war – would be of no help, either: he declared his son’s hobby a waste of time, and the last thing he would spend money on was a new bike. 

Still, Roman would not give up, and he kept saving every little bit of cash he could get his hands on, hoping to collect enough to buy a proper bike one day. For now, the day of the summer competition was getting closer and closer, and Roman’s prospects of participating in it were as doubtful as ever. As usual, he was planning to hit the Tandeta over the upcoming weekend and look for pre-war bicycles. After all, even if he still could not afford a genuine pre-war, he certainly would not mind touching one. Maybe the seller would even agree to let him try it out for a minute… 

A man sat down next to Polanski. 

“Good game,” he spoke up. Polanski nodded. They began talking and continued, as the game went on and concluded. Still trying to catch his breath, Marian Skalny returned to his friend, and the stranger stood up to introduce himself. 

“My name’s Janusz,” he said. “Janusz Dziuba.” 

The conversation quickly moved on to the subject of bicycles, the fast-approaching summer race, and Roman’s still undashed hopes of competing in it. Dziuba, who seemed to carefully listen to the two enthusiastic teens while saying little himself, suddenly brightened up. 

“You know, I have a bike for sale,” he interjected. “It’s pre-war.” 

Polanski felt breathless: a genuine pre-war bike! He fired a barrage of questions at Dziuba. His new acquaintance seemed to have no clue about cycling, but the description he gave confirmed Polanski’s hopes – this was no rusty hulk, but a true treasure of a racing bicycle, made before the war, and apparently with not even a speck of rust to soil its beautiful frame. The bike, Dziuba explained, was stuck in some old lady’s attic, gathering dust, and wouldn’t it just be so much better to see it in the hands of someone who could really have a use for it? It seemed that, in spite of the age difference, he liked the boys and would not mind seeing the bicycle end up in their hands. Eventually, the most difficult question had to be asked: how much? Dziuba gave a sum, so low it seemed almost unbelievable. Roman quickly thought of his savings, and realized that if he sold his old clunker, he would just have enough to meet Dziuba’s price. He didn’t hesitate a second. 

The building that used to be the headquarters of the Communist Security Service in the 1940s.
The building that used to be the headquarters of the Communist Security Service in the 1940s.

A Two-Wheeled Dream

Polanski rushed back home, feeling elated. For the longest time, he had felt that all he needed was a proper bike to fulfill his dreams, and now fate graciously allowed him to meet someone who could make those dreams come true. The quiet voice of his instinct warned him not to take Dziuba’s promises at face value, but the overwhelming joy pushed the doubts and the internal warnings aside. Besides, he thought, Dziuba seemed like a nice guy. “He had such an honest, ordinary face,” he would recall, many years later.

Dziuba gave Roman the address of the tenement building where, hidden in the dusty attic, the treasured bike was waiting, but when Polanski showed up at the location, Dziuba was not there. In fact, nobody at the address seemed to have ever heard of him. Disappointed, almost crushed, Polanski thought that either Dziuba had mistakenly given him an incorrect address, or that he himself had misheard the man. At any rate, it seemed that the marvelous pre-war bike would remain a daydream. 

A few days later Polanski was scouring the Tandeta, as usual looking for bikes and bike parts. Suddenly, a familiar face smiled at him. 

“Hi, Roman!” Dziuba greeted him, friendly and cheerful. Polanski froze in surprise, but he spoke up immediately. What about the bike? Was it still available? 

Of course it was, Dziuba assured him. He suggested that they meet Thursday evening in Park Krakowski, to settle the deal. 

Blood in the Darkness

Thursday, June 30, 1949, was a rainy day, and by the evening, the summer air had become unpleasantly cold. Park Krakowski was almost empty when Polanski reached it. A sleepy city warden, occasionally strolling by, seemed to be the only person around. Roman was not alone, however: Marian Skalny insisted on accompanying his friend on the excursion. Something, he felt, seemed off about Dziuba. He began suspecting that the bike was not really the friendly man’s property. In fact, he was almost convinced that it must have come from szaber.

Szaber – named so after the German word for “scrapping” – was a uniquely post-war variant of mass looting. Thousands of families who fled the war-torn Poland in 1939 were forced to leave most of their belongings unguarded or hastily hidden. As the war ended, scores of career criminals mixed with opportunistic lowlifes would scour the country day and night, looking for empty houses and apartments to break into. They stole anything and everything, from jewelry to kitchen utensils, selling the loot to underworld fences, or even directly to customers who pretended not to be aware of its origin. The thieves thrived, secure in their impunity. In theory, looting was a major offense, but in practice, the underfunded and undermanned police – or, specifically, the Citizens’ Militia, the official police institution of the Communist State (named so to stress how different it was from the police forces of the capitalist countries) – rarely managed to catch them, or even bothered to. By 1949, the increasingly furious government clamped down on the looters, but there was little left to steal, anyway, and the major effect of the anti-looting campaign was that the remaining thieves took greater care not to be caught red-handed. 

Polanski tried to suppress his own vague suspicions. After all, who could tell if Dziuba was a thief? Even if he was, the bike – that two-wheeled dream, so close now to the boy’s reach – did not necessarily have to be stolen. And Dziuba seemed so trustworthy, nothing like the shifty-eyed, fox-faced dealers in looted property that the boys would often see in the Tandeta… 

The bunker at night. In 1949, the street lights were few and far between.
The bunker at night. In 1949, the street lights were few and far between.

To Polanski, Dziuba appeared to be an experienced adult. In fact, he was a young man himself, just 22 to Polanski’s 15. He certainly had enough experience, though – just of a very different kind than Roman expected. 

Dziuba was late, and when he finally showed up, he had no bike with him. Instead, he was holding something wrapped in an old newspaper. He glanced at Marian, visibly unhappy. 

“Who’s that?” he whispered throatily. Roman eagerly assured him that his friend was all right; after all, hadn’t they met already? Dziuba frowned, but he seemed to accept Marian’s presence. Still, Roman could not help thinking that the bike was probably stolen, after all – it seemed to be an obvious explanation for Dziuba’s strange, distrustful behavior. 

“So, where’s the bike?” he asked. Dziuba pointed towards a flat concrete block in the grass, and the dark hole of a tunnel, where the city warden was slowly trotting at the moment. 

“In the bunker,” he said. Polanski started walking towards the entrance, but Dziuba did not move. Seemingly unhurried to complete the transaction, he only motioned for Roman to follow once the warden was some distance away. 

“The bunker” was in fact an air raid shelter, built for the German army a year before the war ended. It looked decades older, however, damaged not only by the last months of the occupation, but also by the local drunks, who had made it their place of congregation. The stench that emanated from the narrow entrance was making Polanski nauseous and the darkness of the tunnel was as unwelcoming as could be, but the vision of the bike, only feet away now, suppressed both the boy’s concerns and his conscience. The choice of such a repulsive, impenetrable hiding place was practically a confirmation that Dziuba’s pre-war bicycle was indeed stolen property. It was too late to drop out, though – Polanski had sold his old bike, and now, as he carefully moved through the wet grass, he tried to think of the upcoming race instead. Marian wanted to follow, but Dziuba harshly ordered him to stay and wait for their return. 

Even in the darkness, the cramped tunnel of the shelter was a claustrophobic place, and the broken glass was not the worst thing that the drunks left inside: the unmistakable smell clearly marked the “bunker” as their toilet of choice. Dziuba tore a piece of his newspaper and lit it. With the makeshift torch illuminating their way, Roman took each step as carefully as possible. 

“Those pigs will shit anywhere,” Dziuba muttered. They walked in silence until they reached a corner a few dozen yards from the entrance. Dziuba pointed with the torch. 

“The bike’s in there,” he said, motioning for Roman to walk first now. The boy stepped forward obediently. Suddenly, the torch went off, and Polanski grabbed onto the wall to find his way. 

The shock was as sudden as it was disorienting. It took a while for Roman to comprehend that, for some reason, he was now lying face down on the filthy wet concrete. His first thought was that as he touched the wall, he must have grabbed onto an exposed electric wire. The truth came within seconds, as Dziuba kneeled by him and, rather than help, began digging through his pockets. He tossed his newspaper-wrapped package, now stained with Polanski’s blood, onto the floor. The heavy rock that had just knocked the boy out hit the concrete with a dull thud. 

“Where’s the money?” the attacker hissed. 

“Marian’s got it,” Polanski whispered weakly. He could barely hear Dziuba, and his only thought was not to let him get away with the cash. The feeble attempt at fooling the attacker accomplished nothing – Dziuba quickly found Roman’s wallet and the watch that Polanski’s father would let his son wear. Pocketing the loot, he ran outside without looking back.

A Handprint in Blood

There was a salty, metallic taste in Roman’s mouth, and something warm stung his eyes as he tried to find his way in the dark. Half-crawling, half-walking, he moved towards a narrow ventilation shaft, the only source of light that he could find. He climbed up and looked around to see Marian running towards him. His friend stopped to a halt at the sight of Roman’s face. 

“Jesus Christ, he got you good!” he shouted, pale as a ghost. 

“He took everything,” Polanski whispered. 

“Wait here!” Marian said and ran off. 

The exit from the bunker where forgotten serial killer Janusz Dziuba tried to murder future film director Roman Polanski.
The exit from the bunker.

Stumbling, barely conscious, Polanski emerged from the darkness of the bunker. He could feel his own blood drip down his forehead, staining his clothes and hands, as the cold rain washed it off like a nightmarish shower. A woman crossing the street noticed the wounded boy and approached; Polanski, only half-aware of her presence, instinctively grabbed on to her coat but let go almost as soon as he touched it. A bloody red handprint remained, dark against the beige texture of the cloth. Annoyed, the woman jumped aside, just as a rattling noise came: a garbage truck stopped only feet away. 

“Romek!” he heard someone’s voice. Blinking, he tried to look at the caller: there, in the truck’s cabin, was Marian, waving wildly. Polanski trotted towards his friend, and those few steps proved too far – exhausted, he tripped and would have fallen onto the pavement, had one of the trashmen not grabbed him at the last moment. The cabin door opened and Polanski froze: inside, his arms firmly held by the driver, was Janusz Dziuba. 

Citizen’s Arrest

The truck was just circling around the park when the driver spotted a teenage boy chasing someone across the grass. Almost simultaneously, he noticed another boy, bleeding and stumbling by the old Nazi bunker. He accelerated and cut Dziuba off, motioning for his colleague to grab the suspicious man. Seconds later, Marian Skalny reached the truck and his words provided all the answers the men needed.

Still, Dziuba took on the innocent act. Smiling, relaxed, he calmly tried to convince the trashmen that what they witnessed was nothing but a misunderstanding. Sneakily, he attempted to put the stolen watch and wallet back into Polanski’s pocket. The driver noticed the gesture and stopped Dziuba. 

“Don’t take it,” he warned Polanski. “We’ll show those to the militia.” 

And so they did. At the precinct, Dziuba kept acting as if nothing had happened. Goofing off, he kept winking at the officers booking him, and giggled as they took the stolen watch and – even though he seemed far from suicidal – his own belt. Meanwhile, Polanski felt worse and worse with every passing minute. Light-headed and dizzy, he glanced at the freshly washed wound in the mirror, and decided that it looked safe enough to go home. All he wanted was to fall asleep. 

“May I go now?” he asked. One of the officers nodded. 

“Sure,” he said. “You’ll be going – straight to the hospital.” 

Protesting, Polanski was placed in an ambulance, where he soon realized that he could no longer answer even the basic questions that the EMT was asking him on the way: try as he might, he could not even recall his own address and birth date. Not a minute later, he lost consciousness, and regained it only in the hospital, in time to see his head x-rayed and shaved. The annoyance he felt at the latter disappeared as soon as the surgeon explained how close to death he really had been. Polanski was sure that Dziuba managed to knock him out with a single, well-placed blow. As it turned out, one hit was not enough for the assailant: Dziuba kept bashing the boy’s skull with the rock long after the first attack. The surgeon found five heavy wounds on Polanski’s head. 

Polanski’s major concern was not his health, however – he kept panicking at the thought of his father’s reaction. Surely, Roman thought, Mr. Polanski would be furious over the misadventure: not only did his son almost lose his life over the foolish hobby, but – so it seemed – he lost Dad’s watch as well, and that was probably even worse. The panic disappeared once Polanski, Sr., showed up at the hospital, terrified but enormously relieved to see his son alive. He made a vow to send Roman to Rabka, a town about an hour away from Kraków, locally famed for its prestigious, century-old health resort. 

The Ninth Victim

As Polanski’s head healed, his family would regularly come to see him, but a few days into his recovery, someone else paid him a visit. One of the officers conducting the investigation came over to discuss the details of his experience and take notes. Polanski was more than willing to talk to him, especially once it became clear that nobody would bother him about his willingness to buy a stolen bicycle. He wanted to know more about his attacker. What he had learned so far was that there never was a bike, and that Dziuba made up the entire story to lure him in. 

“Did you get him?” he asked. The investigator nodded. “How many years will he get?” 

The officer moved his hand across his throat. Polanski scoffed, annoyed to see the cop answer his serious question with a bad joke. 

“For whacking me on the head?” he said, sulking. The officer smiled without mirth. 

“Boy,” he said, “be thankful you have such a tough head. The others didn’t.” 

Darkness and debris are all that the bunker is hiding today.
Darkness and debris are all that the bunker is hiding today.

He told Roman about the investigation, starting with the attacker’s identity. The man had given the boys his real last name, yet he kept his true first name to himself. It was, as it turned out, Roman. He was born Roman Janusz Dziuba, and he would use both names interchangeably, occasionally also claiming to be named Janusz Zenatowicz. More important, however, was his criminal history. Polanski was not Dziuba’s first victim. The man had attacked before, and the scheme he used was always the same: he would target prospective victims, win their trust, lure them into remote locations with cash in their pockets, then strike them on the head with a rock. By the time he attacked Polanski, he had done that to eight other people, three of whom did not survive.

Roman Dziuba began his criminal career already as a teenager, just after the war. As he drifted around the war-torn Europe, he ended up in Germany, which, at the time, was partitioned into three zones, ruled by the respective Allied powers. Dziuba reached the American zone and took every opportunity he could find there to steal and rob. After assaulting a man in a small town near Munich, he was caught by American constabularies, but was soon freed – the Americans took pity on the young man, who assured them that he was “taking revenge for the war.” Pragmatic reasons were of key importance, too – the temporary government of the American zone was actively conducting a denazification process, and was busy tracking down thousands of Nazi moguls, war criminals, and SS-men. Prison cells had to be made available for those captives, more than any others.

Dziuba returned to Poland, and immediately put his criminal experience to practical use - he conned, he stole, he robbed, and soon he began killing. By a chance encounter, he got himself a partner, a younger man who lacked any criminal experience, but who was impressionable and willing to learn. One of the first victims of the deadly duo was the aunt of Dziuba's new partner. Dziuba eagerly listened to the man's tale about the old lady, who lived alone in a small village near the city of Rzeszów in Eastern Poland, and he suggested that she would make a perfect target for a robbery. Soon the nephew, accompanied by his new buddy, paid his aunt a visit – a visit which she did not survive.

Dziuba did not invite his partner to every crime he had planned – he was not particularly willing to share every piece of the loot, and he became angry after one of their intended victims, a teenage girl from Kraków, managed to free herself from their grip, and fled. Naturally, Dziuba put the blame for the failure on his partner's shoulders, rather than his own. When it came to assaulting Polanski, he would act alone.

The term “serial killer” entered the public discourse only in the 1980s, and its authorship has been a bone of contention for years – but whether it was coined by FBI agent Robert Ressler, or Berlin detective Ernst Gennat, Kraków saw its serial killers long before the expression made it into the dictionaries. Władysław Mazurkiewicz – a seemingly polite psychopath who shot 6 people to death in the 1950s to finance a luxurious lifestyle – is often mentioned as the city’s first serial killer. However, Janusz Dziuba – forgotten as he is nowadays – predated Mazurkiewicz by a few years, and was likely Kraków’s very first serial murderer. 

Aspiring pro-cyclist Roman Thierry Polanski was the ninth and final victim of accomplished serial killer Roman Janusz Dziuba.

Scars and Echoes

Once Polanski was discharged from the hospital, his friends gave him a hero’s welcome – not only due to the heart-stopping story that had been the talk of the yard for weeks, but also thanks to the huge, awe-inspiring bandage which still covered his head like an honorific trophy. Even the older boys, higher up in the social order, began treating him as an equal and invited him to hang around and shoot the breeze, curious of the real-life thriller he had gone through. Roman certainly did not mind sharing his tale with the others, and gladly showed off the white badge of courage that concealed a permanent memento – a pale scar, said to still be visible under his hair today. He was even happier to do so when the girls were around, and he made sure that the story left them appropriately awed, wide-eyed and newly impressed by his suddenly-so-much-more-interesting persona. Yet while the scars on the head of the future director were obvious, the wounds that remained within were far less evident.

When Dziuba stood in the dock, Polanski was spared testifying, due to his young age. In fact, the evidence against the murderer was so strong that the presence of the witness was deemed unnecessary. The investigation was fast, and so was the trial – Dziuba was found guilty and sentenced already three months after the arrest. At the time, Poland still practiced capital punishment, and the courts were not adverse to it. “Death by hanging”, the judge proclaimed, passing the sentence on the serial killer. On 26 September 1949, Dziuba was executed in Kraków’s City Jail at Montelupich Street. Dziuba's partner was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. The judge decided that the young man was highly influenced by Dziuba, and had not been involved in any criminal activities before meeting his “mentor.” 

For the law, the books were thus closed on Dziuba; for Polanski, the death of his attacker was hardly the cathartic moment he would like it to be. The invisible scars were deep, and the shadow of the events from the dark corridor would haunt him for the rest of his life. The first result was as evident as it was unexpected: cycling, which only recently seemed to be Roman’s plan for the future and for his entire adult life, gradually started losing its luster. Soon, Polanski – by now 16 years old – began concentrating his efforts on the secondary hobby of stage acting. Within months, his newly nurtured passion matured and moved towards film. 

In 1955, Polanski – by then a student at Poland’s renowned Film School in Łódź – returned to the bunker in Park Krakowski, to shoot his film debut, a short titled “The Bicycle.” The screenplay took Polanski a short time to write, as the soon-to-be director had carried it for years in his mind – it was a recreation of his encounter with Dziuba and the close call in the darkness of the tunnel. There were two leading roles, that of Dziuba and that of his intended victim. Polanski’s friend, Adam Fiut, portrayed Dziuba, while the young Polanski was played by the director himself. Like Fiut – and like Dziuba on that fateful night in 1949 – Polanski was by now 22, but he still looked several years younger. Nevertheless, the appearance and the convenience of acting in his own feature were not the primary reasons why Polanski cast himself: there is no challenge in guessing that he did so in an attempt to deal with the scars of the past trauma, and to cleanse his memory of the still-present nightmares of the event. 

The content of the short and its quality are far more difficult a guess. Even though another movie, “The Magic Bicycle” – filmed in the same year by Silik Sternfeld, with Roman cast as a young cyclist – is occasionally mistaken for Polanski’s debut, the actual short is nowadays a lost film. “The Bicycle” disappeared without a trace soon after it was made. The clues as to its fate suggest two possible outcomes: it was either damaged beyond repair while being developed, or it was submitted to a film competition in Moscow, from which it never returned, most likely having been carelessly misplaced or discarded. Polanski – who, supposedly, was very proud of the short – felt crushed by the loss. Still, if he hoped for the film to be an exorcism of the past trauma, he did not succeed fully. The fragmented memories of the 1949 experience would keep making their way into his movies, sometimes as entire scenes, sometimes as little more than single frames. Yet Polanski never quite managed to control their presence in his mind. When he finally left Europe for Hollywood, he soon found out that he could not take a shower anymore. The American showers, with their showerheads permanently fixed high above, reawakened the dark memories. As warm water trickled down Polanski’s head, panic kicked in – the sensation was just too close to the stream of rain and blood that dripped down his face that fateful June evening. 

The recollection was too powerful, even though he tried to fight it already in 1966’s “Cul de sac.” The motif of awakening in a dark, nightmarish, unclear reality, and the slow regaining of consciousness has returned many times in his films. Perhaps the most famous of those scenes is Mia Farrow’s realization that her surreal vision in “Rosemary’s Baby” is no mere hallucination, as she screams: “This is not a dream! This is really happening!” 

Whether such scenes are deliberate references or subconscious manifestations remains unclear; perhaps not even Polanski – who often says that he considers movies to be a playground rather than a means of telling his biography – could answer the question. 

Fate was keeping its eye on Polanski, patiently waiting to intervene again – and to ask a heavy price. 

Twenty years after Dziuba’s attack, it saved Polanski’s life yet again, only to almost take away his will to go on. In July 1969, the director left his California mansion for London, to begin shooting a sci-fi tale titled “The Day of the Dolphin.” Days after his departure, a party of Charles Manson’s followers invaded the grounds of Cielo Drive 10050 and murdered everyone they found inside, including Polanski’s pregnant fiancée Sharon Tate. Polanski found himself standing on the edge of the abyss. He plunged into the dark vortex of Hollywood hedonism instead, a world which he knew well and which he had willingly abandoned once, for Sharon. The parade of forbidden pleasures came to a sudden halt in 1970, with the explosive scandal that saw Polanski accused of molesting the aspiring 13-year old model Samantha Giebring. Paradoxically, the specter of Dziuba now proved useful to Polanski, as the director gave a detailed story of his traumatic experiences to his court-appointed curator, Irwin Gold. Gold reacted with empathy already as soon as he found out about Polanski’s Jewish blood and the nightmares of the ghetto. Gold’s understanding grew as Polanski kept revealing more and more about himself. When the director mentioned that he had almost lost his life at the hands of a vicious killer, Gold at first thought that Polanski was referring to Manson, and was amazed to learn of the dark misadventure that happened so long ago and so far away. Moved, he wrote a report which sympathized with Polanski to such an extent that it was actually criticized by the judge. 

The bunker, seen from the south side.
The bunker, seen from the south side.

Today, there are few remaining traces of that cold June evening of 1949. Dziuba was interred in an anonymous grave, “The Bike” is still listed as a lost film, and the entrance to the air raid shelter in Park Krakowski is locked shut, protected by a heavy steel chain. Had Polanski not decided to tell this episode from his life once again, perhaps he would be the only one to remember it nowadays. However, thirty years after his debut short, he faced the traumatic experience the second and so far the last time, summarizing it on three of his five-hundred-page long autobiography, “Roman, by Polanski.” Typically, he gave himself a tongue-in-cheek treatment, which he reflected already in the book’s very title: since “roman” means a novel in French, the title could be interpreted both as “Roman, by Polanski” and “A novel by Polanski.”


I originally wrote the above article in Polish, and published it in the Polish weekly “Przegląd.” Having then decided that the little-known story could also be of interest to non-Polish readers, I rewrote it in English, and expanded it by a few pages, adding a lengthy introduction (feel free to skip it) and several paragraphs, to better establish the story and to explain certain details of Kraków and post-war Poland that a Western reader would be unlikely to know. 

The dialogues quoted in the article are based on Roman Polanski’s recollections, which he expressed in English; however, since the original words were – obviously – spoken in Polish, I have edited some of those translations to better reflect the Polish context. (For instance, a native speaker of Polish at the time would have been more likely to exclaim "Jesus, Mary!" rather than "Jesus Christ!" - however, a literal translation of that phrase would have felt odd in English.)  

Roman Polanski’s last name is almost always spelled with an “n” in non-Polish sources. However, the proper spelling of the director’s name is in fact “Polański”, with the Polish consonant “ń” – a “soft n” (which, when uttered, is very much like the sound made by Monty Python’s Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’.) 

Nevertheless, for clarity, I have retained the Western spelling of the name in the article. Yet for those curious, I have included a rough pronunciation guide to the names appearing throughout the text: 
  • Roman: ro:mahn 
  • Romek (short for "Roman"): ro:meck
  • Polański: po:lahn’ski 
  • Janusz: yahn-oosh 
  • Dziuba: joob-ah 
  • Zenatowicz: zehn-ah-to:veetch 
  • Kraków: krah-koov 

Bibliography: Roman Polanski; Roman by Polanski; William Morrow and Company, Inc; New York, 1984.


  1. Polanski's juvenile nightmare at the hands of Dziuba plus, his Manson nightmare, still do not equal his rape of a barely juvenile girl. Even the putative consent of the girl's mother does not excuse Polanski's behaviour. The trial judge's critique of Irwin Gold's sympathetic pre-trial report is correct as, Gold should've acted better than to attempt to ameliorate the clearly predatory behaviour of Polanski, with a shocking tale of woe. Had the episode of sexual misconduct happened to an Ordinary Joe - rather than a celebrated film director, the miscreant almost certainly would've been in custody on remand before trial, ensuring the serving of a post verdict custodial sentence, should that be the outcome. The whole Circus would've been done & dusted. Justice served. Instead, there's been a disgusting spectacle of a half century of "Catch Me If You Can", from a man who really ought to know better. Shame.

  2. I apologise for my previous post. It is the opinion based upon a lifetime of remembrance, rather than that of renewed research which, in our Age of Information is almost inexcusable.
    For Roman's behaviour was (and is) even worse than I'd remembered. Vis, Wikipedia: Polanski underwent a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation, and a report was submitted to the court recommending probation. However, upon learning that he was likely to face imprisonment and deportation, Polanski fled to France in February 1978, hours before he was to be formally sentenced. Since then Polanski has mostly lived in France and has avoided visiting countries likely to extradite him to the United States.
    AND, just so I don't leave the back door wide open for minimisers and apologists from The Land of Rape Culture, I quote further, the charges, from the same article: 1) Rape by use of drugs. 2) Perversion. 3) Sodomy. 4) Lewd and lascivious act upon a child under fourteen. 5) Furnishing a controlled substance to a minor.
    So, there we have it. It's very bad, isn't it? Yes. It's actually even worse than the sight of the bald charges would, at first, have you believe. I advise you to read the Wikipedia article which, is supported (as ever) by numerous newspaper reports, both contemporaneous and, in review.
    Polanski couldn't even stand up and take it on the chin. No. He not only pleaded Not Guilty (thus forcing a child to take the stand in Open Court and, re-live the nightmare episode) but, he plea bargained in order to reduce the charges. One might think that his own experiences with Dziuba might give Polanski some insight into the negative aspects of such outrages but, I assume that, by then, as Polanski had ascended to the dizzying heights of fame and fortune, he found it more than a little difficult to relate his own nightmares to the horrors he'd inflicted upon a child whom Polanski perhaps thought of as one of The Great Unwashed - one of little consequence.
    And so I apologise directly to Samantha Geimer. There was no excuse for what Polanski did to you. Dziuba & Manson do not excuse his behaviour. Most importantly, Ms. Geimer: You were in no way to blame for what Polanski did to you.


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