Incognito Ina Benita: The Newly-Revealed Post-War Life of the Actress Thought to Have Died in WWII
#lifestyle & opinion
default, Incognito Ina Benita:
The Newly-Revealed Post-War
Life of the Actress Thought to
Have Died in WWII, Ina Benita as Anna, Julia's sister in one of the movie scenes, 1937, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC), center, ina_benita_nac_34.jpg
Over 74 years after Polish Interwar actress Ina Benita was thought to have died in the Warsaw Uprising, new evidence has revealed the famous Interwar starlet actually went on to live a quiet life in the US. The revelation has meant her remaining family today are only now discovering Grandma’s glamorous past – and each other...
Ina Benita was a rising starlet of Polish interwar film. A platinum-blonde enigma, wrapped in feathers and furs, and always wearing a slash of red lipstick across a wide, breathtaking smile, she was a capable actress with charisma – even dubbed the Queen of Sex Appeal at the legendary Hotel Europejski in Warsaw in 1939.
But her greatest role, as it turned out, ended up being her own.
A secretive superstar
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Ina Benita, actress, in one of her roles; situational photograph (with telephone); 1930-1939; photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
It had been long thought that Ina had perished in tragic circumstances during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 with her young son, Thaddeus, born following a fraught affair with a Wehrmacht officer. In the uprising, sources reported, Ina and Thaddeus had ultimately lost sight of each other in the city’s labyrinthine sewers, with the actress slowly turning to madness and dying shortly after.
But late last year, that story suddenly changed – thanks to the pioneering research of journalist Marek Teler from Histmag, and a hefty dose of inquisitive Internet detective work.
Teler became interested in Ina’s life and wartime experiences during his work on an article about victims of the Warsaw Uprising.
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‘Her iconic image, love affair with a Wehrmacht officer and tragic death in Warsaw’s sewers... She was really a fascinating character for me,’ Teler explained.
Her story is captivating, because there are so many contradictory pieces of information about her and it’s not easy to find the ‘real Ina Benita’ and separate facts from myths and so-called ‘public image’. The story of Ina also shows us how World War II destroyed the amazing and promising film careers of many young actors and complicated their lives. It also teaches us that history is not black or white, but much more complicated.
Different pasts, different presents
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'Przez Dziurkę od Klucza' (Through the Keyhole) revue at the Morskie Oko theatre; the final scene, titled 'Parada Gwiazd' (Parade of Stars). Pictured, from left: Michał Halicz as Harry Peel, Stanisława Karlińska – Jadwiga Smosarska, Ola Obarska – American Star, Zizi Halama – Lilian Harvey, Tadeusz Laskowski – Ramon Novarro, Irena Skwierczyńska – Greta Garbo, Feliks Parnell – Gary Cooper, Michał Tatrzański – Vlasta Burian. Sitting: Ludwik Sempoliński as Charlie Chaplin, Janina Sokołowska – Jeanette MacDonald, Antoszówna, Miki Mouse, Great Artists of Small Scenes Ludwik Sempoliński, Czytelnik. Warsaw, 1977, photo: Wikipedia
In fact, the story of the ‘real Ina Benita’ began from the very start of her life.
Her original name was not the striking ‘Ina Benita’ at all, but Inna Florow-Bułhak, the daughter of Mikołaj Aleksandrowicz Florow-Bułhak and Helena Orańska.
The pseudonym ‘Ina Benita’ was eventually taken on by the young actress to shore up a seductive image for a budding stage career. Some say her pseudonym was inspired by the name of a rum and banana cocktail, whilst others speculate that it came from the Spanish word ‘bonita’, meaning ‘beautiful’. It has even been argued that it originated from the rising popularity of Benito Mussolini.
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In any case, it marked the beginning of a new life for the daughter of a magistrate’s clerk from Kyiv.
Suitably, her birth details are also tantalisingly uncertain – listed as either 1st March or 1st February 1912, with the family ultimately escaping Ukraine for Poland when Ina was still a young girl. In interviews later in life, however, she would inform the press that she had been born in Tiflis in the Caucasus, flirting with the alluring suggestion that she was a secret Caucasian princess.
‘In fact,’ notes Teler, ‘the genealogy of the Bułhak family dates back to 16th century and they were descendants of Crimean Tatars. And [Benita] never mentioned it!’
The Polish press thrived on Ina’s alluring, if wholly fictive, background – which she indulged. Newspapers were rife with rumours about her life and career. They thought of her performances as ravishing and galvanising, and dubbed her ‘the golden-haired vamp’ – after Ina dyed her perfectly-coiffured hair to match modern European celebrity trends.
‘When a journalist asked her in 1933 why she changed her hair colour, she replied: “Because this colour is more photogenic!”’ says Teler. ‘It’s actually quite funny, because her real life was much more fascinating than her made-up stories for the Polish press.’
Ina’s career had skyrocketed almost immediately after her stage debut on 29th August 1931 in the revue Raj bez Mężczyzn (A Paradise Without Men) in the Nowy Ananas theatre in Warsaw. Rapidly, she became a doyenne of all of the city’s major cabarets, including Morskie Oko, and went on to star in popular films of the period, alongside Jadwiga Smosarska, Eugeniusz Bodo and other stars of the age.
A seductive showbiz sex-bomb, Ina became well-known for her vamp and femme fatale roles in early Polish cinema, and was later seen as a perfect fit for the new trend towards more feminine characters. She also successfully tried her hand at comedy, and wrote song lyrics and movie scripts. And though always adored by Polish filmgoers, she married her first husband, the Russian writer, poet, director and actor Georgiy Teslavsky (known in Poland as Jerzy Dal-Atan) in 1931, and then, after they divorced in 1933, married Stanislaw Lipiński in 1938.
Teler thinks Ina’s rising career and captivating personality could have taken her to the glittering boulevards of international film in Hollywood – if only for the war:
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1939 was supposed to be her year, a kind of a breakthrough. On 4th September 1939, she was supposed to go to the first edition of the Cannes Film Festival, because the film Czarne Diamenty, in which she played one of the main roles, was supposed to be shown there. The whole festival was cancelled because of the outbreak of the war and Czarne Diamenty turned out to be the last movie in her filmography. She had a chance to become an international star, but life had other plans for her.
The dark days of war
From diamonds to darkness, and suffused by hearsay and obfuscation, Ina’s wartime fate changed the direction of her life forever.
Initially, sources place her in Lviv with Lipiński, but she was back in Warsaw in the early days of the war, and offered a job in the U Aktorek café. But eager to continue her acting career, and to retain some slivers of the luxury of her pre-war life, she rejected the offer, instead using up her savings to support her lifestyle. Then, sources said, with her aspirations to return to a glittering stage career, she rebuffed the warnings of the Polish actors’ association, and began performing on German-managed theatres across the Polish capital.
For years afterwards, Polish historians would view this decision as tantamount to collaboration.
Rumours also began to grow that she was growing closer to occupying forces – namely, one Austrian Wehrmacht officer, Otto Haver. They fled to Vienna in 1943, but returned to Warsaw in 1944 – upon which, as the story went, they were soon arrested on charges of Rassenschande (sexual relations between races) as Ina had Jewish roots. Torn from each other, Haver was packed up and sent to the eastern front, and Ina found herself in Pawiak, the infamous Warsaw prison. It was there that she would give birth to her firstborn son, Tadeusz (Thaddeus), whom it was believed had been conceived during that whirlwind stop in Vienna.
Just before the Warsaw Uprising, Ina and her son were finally released from prison – but there was little improvement to her fortunes. Scorned by her pre-war actor friends, and with no respite from rumours, there was nowhere for her to turn.
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As the uprising broke out, with babe in arms, she descended into the sewers.
Witnesses would later report meeting her alone, dishevelled, and in hysterics, chirping that she had lost her son who was ‘quite similar to Mickey Mouse’.
In an article for Rzeczpospolita, Elżebieta Lemańska remarked:
It is certain that, unlike life, death had a very non-dramatic nature.
Her name tainted and her fate lost, it could have been believed that Ina – and her real story – would never see the light of day again.
Resurrecting a heroine
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Ina Benita in the film 'People of the Vistula', 1937, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
According to Teler, it was in the 1990s, and after the fall of communism, that the belief Ina had died during the Warsaw Uprising was ultimately taken as gospel. Sources came to the conclusion that she had perished unloved, uncared for, and alone, in an unknown location beneath the city streets.
But this, in fact, was far from the real story.
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Over 4,000 miles away, in a small town in the northern United States, a family were desperately trying to piece together a mystery of their own about Ina.
She had been their relative.
Their Ina was not the glittering, glamorous star of Polish yesteryear, no femme fatale, nor coquettish vamp, but a Polish mother and grandmother – Ina Scudder – whose background had been kept in the background.
For her grandson Greg Scudder, Poland was only of interest because it was where his father, Ted, had been born in the 1940s. Yes, Ted was that wartime tiny tot, Thaddeus.
But very few other details of her history had been mentioned in the family.
‘She really kept things very minimal,’ says Scudder. ‘She just said that she had been an entertainer before the war.’
The way that I heard the story when I grew up is that after her family fled Ukraine, they ended up in Poland and she married someone who became a Polish resistance fighter and was executed during the war.
There was no mention of a sparkling film career, and no mention of the identities and lives which had been lost – or made secret – for one reason or another.
What’s in a name?
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‘We only discovered Grandma’s stage name 18 or 19 months ago, so we’re finding everything out,’ explains Greg. ‘Some of it tracks with what I grew up knowing, and some of it’s a little bit different than what I knew growing up.’
It turned out, however, that her seductive stage name was the first key to the puzzle.
When we first got the Internet, one of the first things that we searched for was our grandmother’s fate. In the early days of the Internet it wasn’t there – so we’d kind of given up.
But in 2018, and after the family had bought ancestry DNA test kits, Greg’s wife decided to give the search another go. The stage name ‘Ina Benita’ was the first thing they found.
The problem was that it was on a website stating she had perished in the Warsaw Uprising.
‘I just made a note,’ laughs Greg. ‘I was like: “Hey, I’m her grandkid – and no, she didn’t die.”’
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Over in Poland, that message – of course, again under a pseudonym – pinged on Teler’s computer as he was collating information on what happened to Ina during the war.
I knew from the start that I had to research this story, but [the author of the message] didn’t give any contact information in his comment.
It was made more difficult when the website that had published the article released a statement saying they believed the comment was fake.
But Teler was unconvinced. And his interest was piqued yet again when, in October 2018, another comment appeared – this time from the Slovenian politician Ingo Pasch. He wrote that Ina was the second wife of his father, Hans Georg Pasch. Crucially, he left contact details in his comment. Teler sent him a tentative message – and Pasch replied with photographs and documents confirming that Ina married Pasch and lived in Rhumspringe in Lower Saxony in Germany from 1945 to 1946. After that, she had disappeared.
The editorial team put the two commentators in touch, and suddenly the two missing sections of the story were complete. Teler’s meticulous research confirmed the story: Ina had survived.
The real Ina Benita
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The musical comedy 'On the Wave of Aether' by Paweł Leone at Teatr Malicka in Warsaw. Pictured: Ina Benita and Roman Zawistowski, 1938, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC)
It turned out that the previous view of Benita’s traitorous wartime activity had been almost entirely fabricated.
Teler discovered that she had been a different kind of actress during the war – for Roman Niewiarowicz’s counterespionage group for the Polish Army. Their headquarters were in the German-controlled Komedia Theatre, of which Niewiarowicz was the main director.
‘Ina Benita knew that it wouldn’t be easy for her to prove her innocence, because her work in counterespionage was probably based mostly on oral agreements,’ explains Teler. ‘Moreover, she was seen with Germans and collaborators and her relationship (of unclear character) with a Wehrmacht officer was common knowledge among artists.’
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He believes, however, that this was only to gather information. From blonde bombshell to Bond bombshell, she became a socialite in collaborator circles, and attended parties organised by Gestapo agents – all at the request of Niewiarowicz – to further his counterespionage operations. One of her ‘relationships’ from this period was with Haver.
But in early 1943, a German, Hans Georg Willi Pasch, arrived in Poland – and soon fell in love with Ina. Pasch was a staunch opponent of the German cause, and a doctor had been given him the excuse of a heart defect so he could avoid being drafted into the military.
In fact, before he had met Ina, he had been helping to hide a Jewish family in his apartment in Berlin.
‘But after the war,’ Teler points out, ‘nobody in Poland could believe that a German could work in counterespionage and help the Polish Army – every German was regarded as a Nazi.’
He had two sons from a previous marriage – one of whom was the Slovenian politician Ingo Pasch – but in the war, he and Ina conceived a third. It was, therefore, Hans Pasch, rather than Otto Haver, who was Thaddeus’ father.
‘The Scudder family say that Thaddeus and Ingo Pasch are very similar,’ remarks Teler. ‘They look alike, they walk in a similar way and even have similar birthmarks. You can also see from the photographs that Hans Pasch and Thaddeus look like father and son.’
Ina did give birth to Thaddeus in Pawiak, but during the first month of the uprising she lived with her father Mikołaj Florow-Bułhak. At the end of August, he died after their house on Kilińskiego Street was bombed by the Germans – Thaddeus, however, was found safe in the ruins, because he’d been covered by a bathtub. In a desperate bid to escape Warsaw, the pair then made it through the sewers – with the first document confirming her survival placing her at Hohegeiss, and dated 6th April 1945. After reuniting with Hans Pasch, and marrying in June 1945, the trio departed for Germany, and settled in Rhumspringe.
But tragedy was to strike again. In November 1945, Hans suddenly disappeared. For three months, Ina tirelessly tried to trace her husband to no avail – until, in February 1946, she discovered he had been murdered. Though his murderers were arrested, Ina chose to leave their home behind and took Thaddeus to start afresh in France – where the once-popular star of Polish stage and screen performed in small-scale, local bars in Cannes and Nice. It was there that she met the man who would become her fourth husband, Lloyd Scudder, who was in the United States Air Force Civil Service. They fell in love and she gave birth to her second son, John, and the four of them then moved to Algeria and Morocco, where in April 1954 in Casablanca the pair were married. In 1960, the family arrived in the United States, settling in Albuquerque and Dayton from 1960 to 1962, after which they made their final move to Middletown, Pennsylvania.
Only two years later, another tragedy occurred: Lloyd Scudder died of cancer.
Ina took on work as a housemaid in the Howard Johnson hotel on the Pennsylvania turnpike at the Middletown exit. Her quiet retirement life was dotted by day-trips with her grandchildren and hobby for painting. She died of lung cancer in September 1984 in Mechanicsburg.
‘Nobody knew that this modest housemaid was a former pre-war movie star,’ says Teler.
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Ina Benita as Ina Scudder in 1950s, photo: courtesy of the Scudder family archive
But why had hardly anybody known about any of this before? It was a toxic combination of post-war suspicion and incomplete evidence, thinks Teler, which removed any opportunity to discover the full story of Ina’s life until now.
‘When, after the war, the communists conquered Poland, the actors who played in German-controlled theatres were persecuted, because their work during German occupation was regarded as a soft form of collaboration,’ he says.
Even Roman Niewiarowicz, who proved that he worked for counterespionage, was punished. He couldn’t take on any important positions in theatre for three years, because he was too devoted to his job in Komedia Theatre during the war. But he needed to be devoted, because it was his camouflage!
On the back of this distrust, Ina knew there could be no future for her and her son in Poland, so she started a new life abroad.
‘I think she made the best decision she could to protect her life and her family,’ Teler explains. ‘I must also mention that she always told her family that she hated Nazis. She hated them for the rest of her life, because they destroyed her beautiful and colourful pre-war life.’
Greg also remembers his grandmother’s silence about her past, believing she was ‘rightfully paranoid’.
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I had some sense growing up that someone was after my grandmother – but it was a vague notion.
For the Scudders, the true story was a long time coming. Greg’s mother – Thaddeus’s wife –had even dropped everything to race to the hospital following a phone call from a dying Ina, believing that the complete picture was about to be revealed.
My mother said, “Yes, this is it! She’s finally going to tell me everything!” And she didn’t say anything, she just wanted some company!
After years of neglect, the two halves of Ina’s life, straddling pre- and post-war Poland, were finally united. And alongside those two stories were two families – once divided by schisms of time and history, now reconciled in the memory of a brilliant star, and brilliant mother.
'We didn’t know Ina’s stage name so her name was a mystery to us – and, of course, the name Scudder would have been a mystery to the Pasch family,’ says Greg. ‘We had tried looking up Ingo Pasch before, but either met with misspellings or it was just too early in the Internet days – we gave up.'
Her family was chased out of Ukraine when they had everything. And then she goes to Poland and she’s a different kind of royalty there, or a different kind of nobility there, and then the war happens.
There’s a famous photograph of Ina from the mid-1930s; a sultry splash on the front cover of Kino magazine in which her long fingers, topped with stiletto nails, are curled tenderly around a lit cigarette. Teler’s conversations with the Scudder family and with Ina’s son Thaddeus – whom Marek says calls himself a ‘ghost’ in reference to the common historical belief of his fate – revealed that she used to smoke cigarettes with a cigar holder, and she always had her nails painted.
Her grandson Greg added that she walked like a dancer – completely upright with her head held high. She behaved like a pre-war actress!
But away from the spotlight of Interwar film success, and with a capable acting career behind her, Ina could become ‘an anonymous person’, says Teler. Her hair eventually lost its golden sheen; she became emaciated, and contacts to her pre-war life were lost. It meant that she could create a new, safer future for her and her family. Greg Scudder agrees:
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As I’m learning about the espionage aspects, things like that, it makes me very proud of her. You can see there’s a lot of dedication to members of her family. And I’m learning the sacrifices that she made for my father in his infancy just to survive. I found out more about her in the last 18 months or so than I knew about her in my whole entire life.
Ina’s later life was one of normality, in which she behaved, as Greg describes, like a regular grandmother. He recalls one trip to the beach, in which Ina gathered a collection of ‘fancy shells’ from a little seaside shop, and spread them across the beach for him and his brother to find.
‘She did eccentric things like that that were really sweet,’ he remembers. ‘She was an open person – she was like anyone’s grandmother. She was kind of a regular person. But in terms of her past life, she really, really kept quiet.’
With new information on Ina’s wartime experiences coming in thick and fast, I asked whether Greg felt any tension between an intense media interest in Poland about Ina’s career, and his own personal reaction to the revelations.
‘It’s so far removed geographically and even actually, I guess, chronologically – I mean she’s been dead for 34 years now – so I don’t feel the sensitivities,’ he explained.
But this quiet American family are still getting used to the revelations about her Polish film career. Greg remembers how his father and uncle rushed to buy Ina’s Polish films as soon as they came across her repertoire.
‘For me,’ he says, ‘it’s like seeing another side to her.’
‘Every now and then I’ll see a picture – and I don’t recognise her at all.’
The Interwar Ina, a more charming and playful youth, was a far cry from the regular grandmother Greg knew. But he also sees reflections of this Ina in the present: his sister – who never met Ina – is, he says, the member of the family most eager to embrace their grandmother’s history.
Fittingly, she is also the spitting image of her.
The new Ina
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Ina Pasch (Ina Benita) with her sons John and Thaddeus in Nice, 1952, photo: courtesy of the Scudder family archive
Members of the Scudder family are planning on travelling to Poland for the first time in the near future to set up a memorial service for Pasch in Eastern Germany, which Greg feels will be an emotional experience.
I’m planning to spend more of my time in Warsaw, just taking a look at the places where my grandmother performed, and the places which were relevant in her history and biography.
And earlier this summer, the Scudder family were finally – after so many years – reunited with the Paschs.
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That was fantastic, to see them reunited and to realise that they had been looking for Thaddeus all this time – they didn’t believe that he had died. And of course they had pictures of him as a toddler. I wish they had just met much, much earlier. I think that would have made [Ina] happy.
As both the Scudders and Paschs are learning more about each other, and about the matriarch who melded the families together, the prospect of reuniting their memory of Ina with her once-lost past is finally becoming possible. From the stage name and stage personality she established in the early 1930s, to the secrets which had to remain hidden in the frightening post-war world, Ina Benita, Queen of enigma, has finally come full circle.
Written by Juliette Bretan, Sep 2019