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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Clouds of Witnesses

November 1st. All Saints' Day. Everybody is in motion. Nearly three million people live in the Warsaw metropolitan area and all of them are on the move. Nobody doesn't go to the cemetery on All Saints' Day. Viewed from a helicopter, the city is a ribbon of people, a mass of movement, an orchestrated and orderly procession of people in motion. Walking from high rise apartments to the bus lines, to the subway, the metro, to the trams, to taxis, to their cars, beautiful, colorful ribbons of people. Some of these ribbons, as seen from above are yellow, miles and miles of yellow-topped buses lined up, proceeding slowly from the city center and other gathering points, yellow ribbons moving away from the center like spokes in a pinwheel. Cars on every main thoroughfare, cars on the bridges that span the Vistula, ribbons of cars moving north and east and south and west, slowly, carefully, patiently. Cars loaded down with flowers and candles, entire families, bundled up in puffy coats, woolen scarves, mohair hats. Thousands of walkers move quietly through the streets, filling them to overflow, a ribbon of people moving as one, pilgrims we are, laden with bundles of yellow mums and red glass candles and bundles of roses. It feels like a massive procession, dads with toddlers riding on their shoulders, even the teenagers behaving their parents, a sober but not quite somber mass of humanity flowing like a slow-moving stream. I've never experienced anything like it! It reminded me more of a mass migration than of anything else. Not like the million strong protest marches of the 60's and 70's, not like the crowds of a million or more leaving the Chicago lakefront after the 4th of July fireworks. It was peaceful, lilting, lovely. A mass movement of infinite patience and goodwill. That might be the most important thing to say. It was a day filled with generosity and grace. Kindness and mercy, and affection and respect. Gratitude. It was a day overflowing with gratitude. So much gratitude; it is their Thanksgiving holiday, too. It was a day of communion, not creepy in the least, or caked with superstition, but of telling stories, remembering, sometimes laughing. I was surprised at the atmosphere; it was light-hearted, not heavy. Of course, there was some sadness, more for some than for others. But most of all, the spirit of the day was light. Families helped and cooperated with other families as they worked to clean around their graves, set out their flowers and candles. Some, of course, have met in this way for years and have heard each others' stories, met the relatives, welcomed daughters-in-law and babies, observed the passing of the matriarch, whom they used to meet here. There is a comraderie in this grieving. Can you imagine, an entire city, the whole population together in spirit, everyone, young, old, rich, poor, sharing the same purpose, the same space, on the move, together, as one? The yellow ribbons of buses stretched for miles, winding along back roads one behind the other, all discharging their passengers at the same places -- the entrances to the city's cemeteries. The subway was packed all day long. And everyone got off at the same stops. And walked to the buses nearby and packed in like, okay, sardines come to mind but really, more like tobacco stuffed in the bowl of a pipe, tamped down tight, so many people and carts and strollers on the buses you didn't need to hold on; if you were standing, you weren't going to move anyway. Part of the ritual is the journey, getting there. Being part of this communal mass movement, each one carrying their own existential agenda, their own private needs and prayers, but at the same time, sharing a common purpose: to express gratitude, respect, and honor to the ones who are gone now, is a moving (no pun intended) experience. It was unlike any crowd I've ever been in. It's fair to use words like surging, hordes, multitude, but not in the jostling, urgent way crowds normally move. It was relentless, but not pushy. I can't imagine how anyone could have been trampled. But we all kept moving. Moving. Moving. Toward these appointments we all had with a place, a plot, a collection of memories. Leonarda asked me to be at the Natonlin station, the end of the line of the subway on the south side, just before ten -- later than I expected we'd need to go. She was offered a ride in a car but couldn't even imagine it, insisted on the metro, and then the bus. We barely got a seat and only because we were at the doors of the train as they opened. It was packed to bursting by the fourth stop. Half the crowd got off in the city center and another half got on and we kept going until the end of the line on the north. Crammed in until there was no more air, much less room to stand. This worried me. We would all be getting off at the same stop. And then, how long would we have to queue for the bus? The logistics alone were mind boggling. Leonarda is 82. She was good enough to let me keep up with her. She knew exactly where she was headed. We walked up the line of buses until we found one that seemed to have room for more. I tried to get her a seat, she insisted on standing. We bumped along dirt roads around the back way to the first of four entrances to the huge cemetery where her husband was buried. Not our entrance. Remarkably, more people got on than off. She stood the thirty some minutes of that bus ride. And then she was off, spry as could be, down the steps and out into the multitudes of people now shuffling slowly toward the entrance, and the booths outside, scores of them, selling enormous mum plants and candles and roses and wreaths of straw and forget-me-nots. For those who waited until the last minute, no worries. Old ladies barely able to walk staggered through the gates carrying plants bigger than they were. Men carried huge shopping bags of bulky red candles. Ah, but we still weren't there, not to where we needed to go. This is perhaps (arguably) the largest cemetery in all of Europe. It is more like a town. We still had to take another bus, to queue again, because this cemetery is so vast, it would take more than an hour to walk from the first gate to the place we were going. Can you imagine? We rode for miles, stood for miles, bouncing up and down on the spongy floor of the articulated part of the articulated bus. Sometimes my two feet were riding in different directions. It was hard to find a small handhold on the yellow pole. And so we bumped along a small road around and around, a second gate, then a third, and finally, ours. The Poles seem to have developed a natural talent for keeping their balance, the way some ride a horse without their bum ever leaving the saddle. I'm not there yet. I consider it a part of my gift to the Polish people, to amuse them with my tipping and lurching. Our bus joined a long queue of buses, inching forward, until we could finally get out. And we were still a few blocks from our gate. We walked along in crowds of humanity, families with strollers, kids in bright pink and green jackets and, without fail, hats. (No matter, it was 14 degrees C. The instant the temperature once dips below 55, kids must wear a cap, it's in the constitution.) And, once more, we moved as part of a crowd, past small booths brimming with bright yellow and burnt gold mum plants, huge plants, two feet across, and fancy flower arrangements, roses, birds of paradise, amazing new varieties of flowers I've never seen before. Long tables were loaded with candles, the votive types, red, yellow, blue, green, clear. Large, small, enormous. You can buy a small candle for about forty cents. People carried bags of them. Finally, once inside the gates, the multitudes spread out. The family I was part of for the day knew just how to find 'their' graves. Paths meandered this way and that, some, thankfully, on a grid. We went past newly dug graves with the dirt still mounded high around the coffin -- kept above ground. Some had only a primitive stick cross. There were graves of those too poor to be well cared for in death. Dirt graves that never did have any markers or granite tombs to protect them. I followed Leonarda, no easy task. In her rich caramel wool coat and beret, she was a woman on a mission. She carried bags of candles and plants. I offered to carry part of her load in addition to my own and was glad she demurred. I think she is stronger in such moments than I am. Leonarda kept us going at a quick pace, as sure footed on the broken sidewalks and cobbled paths as a sheep on the hillside. I marvel. A couple of times, as she finessed her way, slipping through a knot of people, she was jumping, so light on her feet. Good grief. Slow down, lady! Please! From the gate we walked the equivalent of four blocks or so, down a wide main path, then left, up some steps, left again, and forward, then left, and the whole time my mouth was gaping. I knew what to expect. But until you're there, you don't really quite know how to take it in. Flowers on the graves, gorgeous sprays and bouquets and plants. Candles, and candles and more candles. Beautiful. And overpowering. The granite and marble graves are all above ground, or at least half above ground. Cases of marble and other stone, with headstones that give only the barest outline of a life, dates, sometimes the occupation. A few very spare graves, no stone at all, only grass growing on the top, a wood cross. Leonarda knew just where to turn, how far to go, and finally she got us there, to the grave of her husband. We got right to work. Leonarda took off her coat and hat, and handed me her handbag. She pulled out an empty plastic bag, got down on her hands and knees and started cleaning leaves from the sides of the area, pulling out last year's flower stalks, and, producing a small whisk broom from under the tented top of their grave, dusting off the area. I asked to help. No, no, you're our guest. Eventually, I did help, picking up leaves on the other side of the grave, carrying the refuse to the garbage bin. After an hour or so I wanted to sit down. But the bench had been put to use as our coat stand. Leonarda had not come here to rest. Leonarda was joined by her daughter, son and granddaughter. They figured out when we got there that they all had forgotten to bring gardening gloves and enough plastic bags to collect all the dead leaves and old candles, but a "neighbor" to them recognized their problem at once and was happy to share. These once-a-year friends, neighbors, spoke kindly and graciously for a few moments. I'm sure they're all aware that, one day, they won't be 'out here,' talking anymore, they will be 'in there.' Neighbors still. It's not an upsetting thought at all, but a pleasant one for them. Leonarda and her daughter, Barbara, got out some of the candles they brought and some of the artificial flowers (an exception among all the fresh ones) and began to set them out. Four large red votives were lit and set at the foot of the grave, the small fresh mum plant was set into a built-in planter and a big bunch of the artificial flowers were put in a built-in vase. They pointed out to me where a cross had been on the top of the grave stone, its outline clearly visible. But it was stolen some months ago by vandals, as these things sometimes are, to be melted down and the metal sold again. I knew Leonarda's husband, Pan Maciejkowicz, many years ago. He was a communist, more or less, a believer in socialism, who had a career in the diplomatic service. He was a good man, a decent man, an often absent but good father. His wife and three kids were good Christians. He had a heart attack about eight years ago and died straight away. Leonarda was with him that night, in their tiny, tiny garden house out on the edge of Warsaw, a typical place that many Poles have, no electricity, no water, no plumbing, a one-room very crude place, smaller than our girls' bedrooms, no telephone. When he collapsed, she went out and ran a few blocks to find some young girls who went to find a phone to call for help. After the ambulance had come and found their work futile, and another ambulance came to take his body away, Leonarda took the bus home. Today, she puts all her feelings into her work, cleaning, setting things straight, lighting the candles. Their offering is actually rather modest compared to many. On many of the graves there are several huge mums, sprays, wreaths. Whether or not these are all from the family, that's another question. It felt good to help. I cleaned and dusted, too. I got down and picked up leaves, and pulled out a weed. But then, it was time for me to move away just a few steps and let my friends be. Barbara and I went to "visit" the graves of other friends. She took a small candle and some of her artificial flowers to them, too. This is common. A friend's husband's grave was not too far away. We visited him. Then another. And another. While we were away for several minutes, Leonarda spoke with another 'neighbor,' who seems to be here for the whole day. We watched as first one, then another of her married children and their children come to visit and leave their flowers and candles. Many of the graves have little benches at the foot of the graves, some set into concrete to keep them from being taken, although its not the benches but the metal that attracts thieves. I see many lonely men and women sitting on their benches. Husbands, wives, children, friends. All come to visit today. And so it goes, so it went. All day long. From this cemetery, we went on to others. There are a number of cemeteries in and very near Warsaw so not everyone was headed to the same place, at least not initially, but hundreds of thousands of us were going to the same few places. Those silly enough to drive ended up parking miles away. Some Warsovians go back to the small villages or other cities where they're from. But, then, others from there come here. And, eventually, many hundreds of thousands will walk through the crowded, narrow paths of the national cemetery. On the buses back into the city center, I found Leonarda a seat. And was hoping for one too. I'm no Pole. I'm not hardy enough for this marathon. My gray hair always gives people pause. But then they look more closely at my face and decide I'm not worth their giving up a seat. I need more wrinkles. Eventually, in late afternoon, we arrive to the ancient Powazki Cemetery, stop to buy more candles to leave at the graves of venerable Polish 'saints,' and leaders. I go to leave a candle and pay my respects to Szpilman, "The Pianist," who played Chopin through World War II and barely survived the Jewish Uprising and final destruction of the Jewish Ghetto. There are already hundreds of candles near his grave, all left by people like me. Huge crowds visit the graves of luminaries, greatly respected leaders, writers, artists, teachers. Jacek Kuron, a founder of Solidarity and a great person, is honored today by the visits from thousands who leave hundreds and thousands of candles so the street-wide path in front of his grave becomes so filled it is unpassable. He has been joined this year by his good friend and old colleague, Bronislaw Geremek, another great person, as responsible as anyone else for the peaceful fall of communism in Poland in 1989. And the end of communism across Eastern Europe. Nearby, the truck-size block of granite, the grave of Poland's first communist leader, Boleslaw Beirut, has no visitors, is even hidden away by a hedge, and has only a few flowers and candles, left by his family. Ironically, I have met and enjoy knowing his daughter, a fine sociologist and professor at the university, who knows to come and go in private, a day or so before this Feast. We see the graves of Ryszard Kapuszincski, a wonderful writer, and of the man who began Narcotics Anonymous in Poland and saved many lives. Thousands of candles are lit already at their graves, too. We pay our respects to the victims of Katyn, to the young scouts who died in the Warsaw Rising, to the soldiers who fought and died in the first months of WWII, in 1939. The victims of the 1863 Uprising against the Russians, soldiers from World War I, Poles deported to Siberia by the Russians, resistance fighters in Warsaw in 1944, and Poles who fought the Russians in 1920 --- all have areas in the national cemetery, monuments. If you want to know something about Poland, you have to come here, to know these stories. They live, these stories. For better and worse, they inform and inspire Poland to this day, to tomorrow. Children light candles to honor Kuron and Geremek, the Katyn victims, the resistance martyrs. The tradition is passed on. And so Poland today is filled with thanksgiving. It is a beautiful thing. I feel really blessed to be part of it. We are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses. We can do much worse than to spend time retelling their stories, feeling glad and grateful for their lives. What a day, what a time.


kateselliott said...

Jan, this is so beautiful. These are my people. My dad was taken to be "conscript labor" by the Nazis when he was just 14... and escaped the labor camp to join the Polish army under British command when he was 16. He patroled the Black Forest on horseback! Before he died--when he himself was very ill--he went back to see his parents' graves. Thank you. (May I contact you about writing for the magazine again?)

Jan Erickson said...

Kate, thank you very much. Your people. Heroic people, what a story! Wow. I'm so glad he escaped. When did he emigrate? I'm so glad he was able to go back. I know how meaningful that would have been for him and probably for you too. What a story. (And yes, you may contact me. Thank you.) All the best!