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Thursday, October 29, 2009


We walked a long time in the birch forest. A red fox crossed our path and birds sang from the tops of the trees. The grasses along the path were vibrant from rain and the June air felt sweet and fresh. My friend had an umbrella along, more for swinging than for sheltering and he used it to swat at the tall brush that occasionally swayed too close to the path. Our talk was of serious things, history and family and war and duty. I learned about a man from a small town in the south of Poland who lost his home after the war to the Communist government and was given, in return, land in this small village where we now walked. He built a life there, retired, and savored the days with his daughters and their children. He had died. His wife, who celebrated a landmark birthday during my visit, was an ancient but lively woman who begged me to "come again next Sunday." "But she won't be in Poland, then," my friend replied. "That's all right. She can come anyway." We took time away from her to walk through the woods to the small cemetery. The lawn was vividly green. Many graves had fresh flowers. It seemed to me the perfect place for a long, peaceful eternity. Earlier that spring I had seen too many cemeteries, acres of graves, not yet peaceful places in towns and cities from Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania to Moscow and Leningrad, where thousands upon thousands of granite blocks bore the names of that city's victims of World War II, the Siege of Leningrad, the 900 Days. Many graves also had a haunting black and white photo of the deceased in a stylized oval frame. There were so many young men. Ludmilla's father had succumbed after months of getting up each morning and carrying his lunch pail to The Front, where citizens held the Nazi army from encroaching further. The daily ration of bread, I remember so clearly, was exactly the amount of wheat in a communion wafer. So much death, so much violence. And now, here, a gentle hillside, brilliant green grass, forget-me-knots and lily of the valley glistening with raindrops, the fragrance of the rich loamy earth. A different life, a different kind of death. A simple birch cross. We had come to the grandfather's grave. A simple birch cross. White papery bark cut exactly at point, two sharp angles. My friend had carved it, made it. An offering of respect, affection, gratitude, and this: love. The atheist grandson had made the cross for his Christian grandfather's gravesite. He spoke with deep feeling, kindness, fervent conviction about their relationship, and about the surpassing importance of keeping memory alive. I thought about my own grandfathers. I wasn't sure I could find their graves in the small cemetery in my hometown. I had not once visited them. My parents rarely spoke of them. The past was over. In Poland, the past is still present. It is present in the stories that must be told again and again, lest we ever forget. The sacrifice. The devastation. The devotion. On Sunday, November 1, All Saints' Day, legions of Poles will go to the cemeteries to leave flowers and candles to honor the past, the ones who have passed, to grieve again the horrors of war and oppression, to be reminded of their place in the long scheme of things, the long run of history. They will go by the thousands to their "own people" and to the national cemeteries where the great martyrs and heroes of the nation are buried. There will be oceans of light, great waves of red, votive candles on the lawns and the walkways. It is a stunning sight, a moving experience. But I will still remember that one simple birch cross. And the daisies we left there on a fresh, vividly alive June day.

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