Warsaw is a city straddling several worlds and several eras. It encompasses, displayed in its make-up, the whole history of Europe. What is striking about its architecture is the mix of century old buildings (some original to their era, some rebuilt), communist era box-looking apartment blocks and unnecessarily wide boulevards (used for the infamous gigantic communist military parades,) and the modern Western-like towers of aluminum, steel and glass. Often those three architectural eras will be represented in building standing side by side on the same street. You’ve never seen a city like this. I must admit, I miss the old-Europe feel of Krakow and Prague. That being said, the rebuilt old-city of Warsaw is absolutely gorgeous and there is something unique and paradoxically endearing about this architecturally-mixed layered city.
Our Day 7 was spent traveling by train from Krakow, checking-in at our Warsaw fabulous hotel and visiting with Dr. Staszek Krajewski, a professor of philosophy in Warsaw, old friend of Gerardo and major player in the creation and sustaining of Jewish underground life post-WWII during the communist era. It was a privilege to be able to spend over an hour with him and ask as many questions as our time allowed. Nothing can replace meeting those who were the principal actors during these troubled times. Truly a great gift for our group.
Today started with a deeply emotional tour of the major monuments dedicated to the Warsaw Ghetto of WWII. We stopped at one of the red brick walls of the Ghetto that is still standing today between two currently inhabited apartment buildings, creating a kind of cul-de-sac or walled-off courtyard between the buildings. One of the inhabitants was sweeping around with a broom as we stopped. It was just another Friday morning for him. Then we travelled to the Umschlagplatz, the departing platform for the 300,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who boarded the trains to Treblinka, the death camp where their life expectancy would be about forty-five minutes. Gerardo reminded us that he had been present when the monument which now stands there with 300 Jewish names on its wall (representing the 300,000 other names) was dedicated. He remembered singing a Yiddish version of the Kaddish during the dedication ceremony. As prayers weren’t allowed in communist Poland, this was his way to circumvent the authorities and still share something that would make evident (to those who knew) that the Kaddish had been said that day. As his voice was rising in that place, tears started raining down all our faces. My legs became weak. I couldn’t remain standing. I sat at the foot of the monument, closed my eyes and tried to meditate. I was transported back in time. Breathing in I thought of all those who once stood in this place bags and suitcases in hand, pushed and shoved into these cattle cars. Breathing out I heard the tumult of the place, the shouts and the cries, and the birds singing in the glorious trees around just like they did today. Breathing in, I felt my ancestors, long-lost family members from Warsaw breathing in as well, in this very place so many years ago. Breathing out, I felt their fear and their sadness. I wanted to stand up and climb in the train with them. So I did. I stood up and went behind the monument where there is a little patch of green grass with a tree in the middle, across from which the rails and the trains once waited.
Today it’s the yard of an all-girl school. How does one go to school there? How does one broom around in front of the old Ghetto wall? How does one live in a house a hundred yards from the entrance of Auschwitz-Birkenau? I have been unable to reconcile this for myself. And no, the answers that: “life goes on” or “it’s a proof that life always wins,” do not satisfy. They verge on feel-good affirmations we tell ourselves to help ourselves cope. Life doesn’t go on. The life that was before is forever broken, and we are no longer the person we were before the violence took place. Israelis, among whom I lived for a decade, have mastered a certain level of “healthy” denial in a land scarred by death and violence. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t live with the wounds of every loss, every act of terror, every war. To live amongst the ghosts of Poland’s darkest history has to impact one’s psyche. Personally, I would find it impossible to build a home in these places. But let me close this parenthesis and take us back to Umshlagplatz.
I couldn’t climb into the train. I couldn’t even see the train tracks that were now gone. I decided to sit on the grass instead, as close as I imagined the train to have been. I remained silent for a while, cross-legged. Suddenly I felt the urge to touch the grass, to touch the earth. I wanted my hands to not just lay flat on the grass, I wanted them to pierce through the earth and get underneath. I wanted to lie down and let the earth surround me, cover me; to be one with this place. I felt sadness, I felt anger, I felt completely inadequate, unable to even begin to comprehend what this place was, what this experience was. I was angry at myself for that. I closed my eyes again, my hands firmly on the grass, grasping at every blade as if for dear life, and I simply let the flow of all these emotions wash over me. I can’t do this! My cousins, great aunts, distant nephews, I will never be able to know the beating of your heart when you climbed up onto this train car, when you handed your little child to the person already in before climbing in yourself, or when the sliding door of the wagon slid shut. All I have is your silence merging with my silence and the beating of my heart echoing yours perhaps. I cry for you, I cry for me, I cry for humanity. I just cry. Your breath is my breath. Your prayer is my prayer. I am so sorry.
The hardest part is when the guide gestures it is time to leave. It feels impossible. It feels disrespectful. It feels as if we were abandoning them again, as if because of us they were going to be utterly alone again, forsaken again. And so you make a promise to yourself that you don’t know if you can keep, perhaps to alleviate your guilt of having spent too little time there: I will come back to Umschlagplatz.