I got into Warsaw on Sunday afternoon and, after a rest, went out at dusk for a walk to the Old Town. I should say it’s a reproduction of the original, with only a few remnants of the original buildings, but on the whole, it looks accurate and plausible. Maybe the stonework doesn’t have the precision that you could expect in the 18th century, but the overall effect seems much better than its Disney equivalent would be. The biggest task must have been the reconstruction of the Royal Castle, a pinkish, reddish palace with central copper steeple. My sense is that the Castle and the Old City in general will look better and better the older they get, there being so substitute for time and weathering. I wandered around several of the streets, including a sort of promenade on the northern end, which offers nice views of that part of Warsaw. A little more strolling and then I made my way back to the hotel. People had said that there was no point in going to Warsaw, but I began to see they were wrong. From my hotel window, after I turned out the light, I could see several lit-up high-rise buildings farther west and south: the oldest was the Palace of Culture and Science, dating to 1913, which somehow missed being bombed. The others were newer—a Marriot, a Novotel, and then something corporate but unidentifiable; they twinkled in the distance against a blue-black sky.
Next morning I found my way to the Jewish Cemetery, which is at the edge of the neighborhood called Muranów, once the old Jewish quarter of Warsaw, that is, before the Second War. It was of course leveled (as depicted in the film The Pianist), and what is there now is a series of streets with large apartment blocks, plus green areas around them. Anyway, I first looked in at the Cemetery, which clearly goes back into the 19th century. Wandering at random I saw graves of differing ages, many dated in the 1950s, but nothing later than that. The dates earlier than the 1930s marked those who were lucky enough to live out their life span before the horror descended. And the names I read are names we know back in the States as well: Bernstein, Halpern, Judt, Broido, Balaban, Mandelbaum, Wilner, others. The graves are close together, under a thick growth of trees that, on this particular day, were swaying and sighing in the wind. There were also “symbolic graves,” memorials put up by children or grandchildren (often American) for bodies that were never found. Also, a general monument for those who died in the Holocaust; and another specifically for those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April and May in 1943. I added a little pebble to those heaped up on the memorials by earlier visitors. There was a tour group going about from place to place, and I must have looked strange to the people in it. In situations like these I can’t avoid wringing my face up into a knot, I suppose as a way of tyring to handle the feeling of tragedy.
I’ve been reading about a woman named Irena Sendler who died this past April at the age of 98. She saved the lives of some 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto, as part of her work with an organization called Zegota, the Polish Council for Aid to Jews. She was a Catholic social worker, who, along with a colleague named Irena Schultz, donned a nurse’s uniform, went into the Ghetto and did what she could for a small percentage of the 500,000 people locked up there. That involved bringing in food, clothes, medicine, and typhoid vaccine—activities that would incur the death penalty if discovered. Once the transports to Auschwitz began in earnest, the Zegota decided to rescue children, who could more easily be spirited away than grownups. Sendler set up an escape network and, to move more easily in the Ghetto, wore a Star of David armband as a disguise. She found ways to smuggle out the children—in coffins, sacks, trunks, and even through the sewer system. The children were given new names and placed in orphanages and convents or among sympathetic Gentile families, where they were kept till the end of the war. In October of 1943, Sendler was denounced by someone and taken to Pawiak Prison where she was tortured. But she never revealed the whereabouts of the children or named her accomplices. Her legs were broken so many times she never walked properly again. Receiving the death sentence, she was saved by a sudden raid that the members of Zegota staged. Whereupon she went to work again, under another identity. After the war she tried to reunite children with their parents—when the parents were still living, that is. She was one of the first “Righteous Gentiles” honored by Yad Vashem in Israel. Often mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize, she didn't receive it; but was recognized in many other ways, for example, Poland’s Order of the White Eagle, the nation’s highest honor. Less ambiguous a figure than Oskar Schindler, she would be a good subject for a film, and in fact there is, apparently, one being discussed.
Broiling under noonday sun in the first really hot day I’ve had during this trip, I walked along Anielewicz Street, named after Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in the spring of 1943. (Could there be a film about him as well?) Anyway, I wandered around what was once Muranów, looking for remnants of the Ghetto, but none were visible, just apartment building after apartment building. Eventually I came to Willy Brandt Square, where a temporary structure has been set up, announcing that a new “Museum of the Holocaust of Polish Jews” was being scheduled for completion in 2011. In the meantime, information about Polish Jews from that era was being gathered by an oral history specialist named Judyta Hajduk. Those whose families were part of the tragedy can contact her at: email@example.com. Meanwhile, posted around the information center were pictures in a little exhibition produced by Polish children on the theme “Muranów and Myself.”
Nearby is a monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Uprising, its value not so much artistic as historic. In black stone and bronze it represents some of the insurgents who chose to die rather than to continue in the holding pen and death chamber that the Ghetto had become. I recall the poet Grace Schulman speaking of her aunt Helen, who, when she saw that the Uprising was going to fail, climbed to the top of a tall tower and, having wrapped herself in the Polish flag, leapt to her death. Grace actually put the event in a poem published many years ago.
Also, I recently read a moving memoir by Jafa Wallach, a Polish woman now in her nineties and living in the United States. It’s about her experiences surviving the German occupation—not in Warsaw but in a small town near the German border. She and her husband and other relatives were hidden in a basement by a Polish Gentile, who managed to keep them alive until Liberation. The title is Bitter Freedom: Memoirs of a Holocaust Survivor.
There are many facets to Warsaw and I never expected to exhaust them in a short visit. I had a ride on the Warsaw Metro, which is clean, efficient, and, unusual for Europe, air-conditioned; and continued along several stops and got out near the Polytechnic Institute, walking from there to Lazienki Park, sometimes billed the “Royal Park,” since it was established in the late 18th c. by Poniatowski during his brief reign. Apart from the trees and casually organized plantings, there is a lake at the center of which sits a lovely 18th c. pavillon. Bridges from either side lead to it, and there are terraces in front and in back to welcome anyone who might make the journey by a pleasure boat. Corinthian columns, a central pediment with sculpture, and statues along the roofline make for an un-ponderous classical effect. Of course there always has to be a jarring note, in this case a gaggle of peacocks that wandered about in the area, making their pitiful cries as they dragged their finery in the dust. But they were easily ignored, nobody forces you to adopt any sort of deference toward their ostentatious color and the little bottle-brush crown on their heads.
I’m trying to think of some general observations to make. The thing about travel is that it takes time before all that you have seen and done register their full effect on you. Sometimes the impressions received issue in writing, either poetry or prose, and sometimes not. But nothing I know of makes history come so alive as being in the places where it occurred. Probably a third of my education I owe to the journeys I’ve made. I’ve always tried to avoid going to countries whose languages were entirely unknown to me. I broke that rule this time, and the negative effect is unmistakable. It prevents getting to know anyone who doesn’t happen to speak English. It makes getting necessary information very hard. I didn’t always find that even hotel clerks knew much English. And when the languages are very far from familiar prototypes (as with Hungarian and Polish), signs and directions are little help. I'd wanted for a long time to make the trip, postponed it, and finally moved forward. But it’s not an experience I’m eager to repeat. Next time I have to arrive with at least some of the language available to me.
Yet, perhaps the analogy to make is reading poetry in translation. You know you’re not getting the full offering of what is in the original. But if your choice is to read a translation or else never have any idea at all of what a poem by, say, Akhmatova, or Zbigniew Herbert, or Adam Zagajewski is, then of course you will read the translation. Acknowledging the drawbacks, I’m still glad I traveled in Hungary and Poland.
Let me conclude the trip by mentioning that, over the Wisla (Vistula) Tiver near my hotel, I took pleasure in seeing a beautiful suspension bridge, a modern one. If not designed by Calatrava, then an imitator of him must have done it. It’s the sort of bridge where the suspension wires look like a harp, strung from a central pier at the middle of the river to the roadbed on either side. I’ve so far been unable to find out who designed it. But I did learn the Polish word for “bridge.” It’s short and sweet: “Most.”