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Monday, October 12, 2009

Casablanca, It Ain't

"We'll always have Paris." The lucky ones had Paris. And Casablanca. And Lisbon. And a ship to America. The lucky ones weren't Polish. In the days just before the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939, Hitler directed the Wehrmacht to "kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space -- lebensraum -- we need." When the Nazi's occupied France, for example, their intention was exactly that, to occupy, control. It was not to exterminate the French population. The Polish Army resisted the Nazi hordes twice as long as anyone expected, without support from their Allies, the English and the French. By early October, however, it was all but over and the German military was firmly in control of the country. The invasion itself had already claimed thousands of civilian casualties. But the real horror was only just beginning. Systematic brutality and murder was carried out throughout the country. Did you know that? On a lovely September Saturday in 1980, I walked through a city park in Bytom, a coal-mining town in the south of Poland, with Ilona and Steve and Fran and Ed and Harris. Ilona was proud to show us the sights of her city and its park was full of apple trees bearing their fruit. We could pick apples as we walked along and crunch the first of the fallen leaves. Families were out, fathers pushing prams while mothers got a brief break from their double-duty as full-time workers and primary care-givers to their children. Toddlers toddled, overdressed as always, already in their red and yellow and vivid blue snowsuits. It was an idyllic afternoon and it could have been anywhere at all, anywhere in the world with wide lawns and majestic oaks and young couples in love, holding hands, oblivious to the world around. Ilona walked us to a tower in the center of the park. It reminded me immediately of the Inspiration Tower in my hometown, set on the tallest hill, an open-beam structure that one could climb using either a ladder or, if dared, the wide beams themselves. It was maybe a couple hundred feet tall. "The first week of the occupation, the Girl Scouts of the town were called together. They were told to meet here, for a very important orientation to the new regime. They would have new duties and their parents were invited to participate," Ilona explained. The Girl Scouts gathered. In their uniforms. With their parents, sisters and brothers. It was thought to be an auspicious occasion, the girls were excited. The military then forced the girls to line up, to climb the tower, as their families and townspeople looked on, wondering what this would accomplish. "The girls were thrown off the top of the tower, one by one, by one, forced up, and, watching their friends suffer, were made to climb all the way to the top. And thrown off. As their parents watched." The families were subdued by overwhelming military force, their wailing and terror ignored by the men who pointed machine guns at them. There was nothing they could do but watch. Or cover their eyes. Or faint in horror. I honestly don't remember the end of the story -- if the families claimed their daughters' bodies there or not. I do remember Ilona telling us, without having needed to, that the town was terrified. As planned. The campaign to brutalize and wipe out the Polish population in this town was thus begun. And carried out in like manner across the country. Boy Scouts, aged twelve to sisteen, were lined up against a wall in the marketplace in the town of Bydgoszcz and shot dead. Later that week, thirty-four of the town's leading merchants, doctors and other leaders were likewise lined up in the city square and surrounded by soldiers with machine guns. And cut down. Before the end of October, 1939, 531 towns and villages in Poland were burned. Warsaw and Lodz suffered devastating bomb attacks. At least 16,376 Poles were executed (not counting soldiers who died in the battles). Most of them were Polish Christians. The systematic destruction of the Polish Jewish community had not yet begun. I had no idea of any of this when I arrived in Poland the first time, in 1980. I was a well-educated 'citizen of the world,' a graduate student, and, like most of my fellow Americans, I had no idea. When I got back to my hometown later I was relieved that our Inspiration Tower had been taken down. I could not have beared to look at it ever again. Girl Scouts. Thrown off a tower. Doesn't it make you wonder sometimes, what kind of creatures are we?

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