Saturday, August 1, 2009
Under the Mountain
It is not much of a mountain by my standards. More like a big hump, tree covered and climbable even by old ladies in sturdy shoes. There are stairs all the way up, with landings and benches along the way. You can stop and take a rest if you need it. The steps are wide and low, and even a car can drive up and down them. Not good for the suspension, I suppose, but it is possible. Beginning today, and for the next 63 days, a bonfire burns atop this hill. My friend, Margaret, and her family live at the base of the hill on a small street called Pod Kopcem. (In Polish there is a squiggle under the c in Kopcem so it sounds different than your usual c.) It means, Under the Mountain. I assumed you would see the fire burning, or at least the smoke from it, from their big picture window that overlooks a lush garden and the wide mountainside. But you can't. Nonetheless, they are keenly aware that it's there and they know it is burning. And why. Sixty-five years ago today the remaining residents of Warsaw, the ones who had not already been shot by the Nazis or sent off to forced labor or fled to the countryside, or were not Jewish and had by now been exterminated virtually to a person, these remaining citizens of the Polish capital commenced a carefully planned and, frankly, well-executed uprising against their captors. I saw the telex their commanders sent to Polish forces abroad, "we are already fighting." If you can imagine your city, or town, already bombed to smithereens, shells of apartment buildings and offices and hospitals and churches left standing amidst their rubble, you can begin to imagine Warsaw in 1944. The war had been going on for how many years already? Five. Since September 1, 1939. The city was decimated. Hundreds of thousands dead, gone, dying, barely surviving. The shock of seeing the Nazi's brutality against the Jewish uprising the year before was still fresh. The ghetto had been emptied, liquidated. The city itself felt like a dead place, ghostly, and ghastly. But throughout Europe, the tide had turned. Normandy was already part of the vocabulary, hope was rising. Allied forces were gaining ground. The Soviet army had routed the Germans in the East and were now in control of much of eastern Poland. In fact, the Red Army was at the outskirts of Warsaw itself, just across the Hudson -- I mean, Vistula -- River. You could see them. Ready to take Warsaw from the Nazis. The Polish resistance had been active throughout the war, engaging in serious battles and significant acts of sabotage. (More of all of this as time goes on, this is still just the beginning of the story I want to tell you.) And the Home Army was organized and ready to fight. The time was right. It seemed the moment had come. Sixty-five years later, Margaret and her family make the pilgrimage up the mountain behind their home. There is a ceremony today and there will be observances for the duration of the length of the Rising. Her children know this story, it lives within them, in fact, it lives under them. The mountain, under which they live -- at its base, that is -- is a mound of rubble. Warsaw's ruins are buried under the earth that has grown several hundred meters high and is now lovely to look at, covered with gentle birches and quiet oaks. It sounds gruesome, to live with this rubble and ruin. But it isn't. Somehow this mountain is a place of memorial but more than that, a place of resistance, of honor. Margaret has relatives, uncles, aunts, who fought in the Warsaw Rising. So does her husband. They like living here, looking out on the forest now grown up on this mountain. Their children don't think of it as gross, or macabre at all. They see it as another site of Polish resistance, resilience, of determination. Something quite lovely has grown up out of all this rubble. And so life goes on. "You meant it for evil..." From ugly death, life emerges once more. And from where I sit today, on the front seat of the old minivan, I look around at sites once associated with ugliness, deadly deceit and hate, in this town, here in Littleton, where I'm back home now, and I hope for life. I dare to hope, to believe. "Out of the rot and the ruin, comes a rumor of resurrection."* It goes on. *Thanks to James Avery for the quote.