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Monday, August 31, 2009

The Day Before the Days After

I remember exactly. The moment we first contemplated the unfathomable. The moment, the time of day -- early evening, the sky outside my window -- hazy but cloudless, the feeling that came over me -- stunned horror. Unbelievable. Surely, not. Dave came in to where I sat reading, "Turn on the news," he urged. "New Orleans could be entirely under water by this time tomorrow." I remember thinking, "impossible." Surely this was a worst case scenario, the nightmare exaggeration. This is what could happen. But it won't. It couldn't. A whole city? Nothing like this, nothing of this magnitude had ever occurred in my lifetime, in my world, close at hand. It couldn't happen. Surely, not. We watched, glued to the screens through that night, just four years ago. I reluctantly went to sleep in the early hours of the morning only to come fully awake in an instant to blurry images on the television screen and the shocked voices of news reporters confirming the worst fears. Because I do what I do from home and on a flexible schedule, I stayed stuck on the story all day, as the flood waters poured in, buildings were submerged, and lives were lost. It was absolutely unbelievable. "This isn't happening." Yet, the odd sense of inevitability was coupled with the nagging questions, 'couldn't something have been done?' to prevent this horror. It was awful. And I was a thousand miles away. Life there, unimaginable. Absolutely unimaginable. My god. Crossing that devil ocean, to another time and place, another late August, this one 1939, Europe. Poland. The day before the day of, the days after. In one of his novels, Isaac Bashevis Singer writes of the last evening, August 31, 1939, in Warsaw. The cafes were filled with old friends sharing gossip and funny stories, families enjoying the late summer warmth, romance blossoming, shy lovers having a light supper. The scene he sets is not one of desperation but of life, ongoing, quite normal. As it was. Except. To be sure, soldiers were on alert, scouts were out scouting, diplomats were negotiating. But the die had been cast. Open archives from the British Foreign Ministry document the dozens of telegrams back and forth between Hitler himself and his high command, on the one side and the British foreign officers on behalf of their government, on the other. The duplicity of the German offers of continuing negotiations are heartwrenching to read at this late date. As late as 9:15 p.m. that last evening, the Germans acknowledge the Polish commitment (conveyed through the British) to enter into direct talks aimed at resolving the supposed issue, namely control of the port city of Danzig / Gdansk and a 'corridor' connecting Danzig with East Prussia, to the Germans' satisfaction. The tone of the telegrams alternates between respectful diplomatic protocal and imperious entitlement. The Poles are promising to talk, "we'll talk, we'll talk, we'll talk," they are saying. But even then, the Germans were poised and prepared to commence their attack in the wee hours of the morning, September 1. And, on this very evening, a small cadre of German convicts dressed in Polish uniforms "attacked" a German radio station in southern Poland, providing the final pretext for the Nazi's full-on assault on Poland. The next morning, the rest of the world awakened to the ridiculous news that Poland had attacked Germany. The promises of British and French assistance were the finger in the dike against a German declaration of war on Poland. Formal treaties were in place, promising assistance. But, Hitler knew something the Poles were unwilling to accept. France and Britain would not come to their aid. They would face the blitzkreig and the onslaught of the Nazi War Machine all on their own. The levees would not hold. Shock and awe. Do you remember the eve of the war against Iraq? How strange to watch it all develop on television. I think about the horrors that followed. And can almost begin to imagine the level of cruel, vicious assaults on Poland. But not only its military. The German bombers targeted civilians. This is what Hitler said on the eve of this war, a war he had no intention of calling off, for any reasons. There was a people to exterminate. No, two. The Poles. And the Jews. Hitler told his command, " I have sent my Death's Head units to the East with the order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the Lebensraum that we need."

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