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Monday, October 5, 2009

There Is A Palm Tree In the Center of Warsaw

There is a palm tree in the center of Warsaw. It stands on the spot where Hitler should have died, blown to bits by Polish assassins on October 5, 1939. Had it gone off according to plan, thousands of pounds of dynamite would have exploded beneath him as he took his victory lap through the Polish capital in the earliest days of World War Two. Inexplicably, the plan, one of many failed attempts by Germans, Poles and others to assassinate Hitler, was abandoned – or betrayed, sabotaged, or discovered. He carried on, unscathed. I had no idea. How many times have I crossed through this intersection? Thinking of donuts. And dinner and my next appointment. How many times a day do I hurry across the wide boulevard, determined to keep pace with the old ladies and hoping the traffic stalls long enough so I can catch the tram I see coming? My mind is normally racing ahead, making mental notes, the day’s to-do list, and, often, composing my next email home to my daughters. Today I have something remarkable to tell them. Here, in the middle of this intersection where, improbably, a palm has sprung up, in the heart of Warsaw, this ancient center of a distinguished, diverse, and elegant culture, right smack in the middle of this intersection, Hitler was supposed to have died, on October 5, 1939. If only. To think, think! what if. It is hollow speculation, of course, ridiculous. But how can you not wonder, as I will from now on, if only. How differently things — lives and nations — would have turned out. Families not ripped apart, cities not leveled, shtetls not dismantled. Invasions not launched. Bombs not dropped. No genocide. Jewish civilization in Eastern Europe not wiped out. No ghettoes, no death camps. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau would not be in anyone’s vocabulary of terror. No Holocaust. We know so much about the devastation of Nazi war against the Jews, more than we can bear, more than anyone should have to take in. We need to know, we must know it, remember. And learn. We know less, perhaps nothing at all about the Nazi’s savage dismemberment of the Polish nation, the systematic attempt to entirely exterminate Polish culture. Mass executions of Poland’s leading scholars, doctors, judges, artists, teachers, and military officers. Three million ethnic Poles killed. The same number as that of Polish Jews who died. Civilians and soldiers dead, traumatized, wounded, and orphaned. Futures shattered. But what if, on this spot right here, Hitler had died that day. How much might have been stopped? Stalin perhaps even stymied in his own imperialistic ambitions over Eastern Europe. To think, think! If only. What if. Perhaps. Who knows. Warsaw still inspires such melancholy rumination. This city is alive with its past. To be in Warsaw now is to be in Warsaw then. Everyone who lives here has a story, and every story is still important. These are not just memories, they are part of the manual, instructive for one’s approach to life: to living, making a living, and living with others. There is not a child alive in Warsaw today who has not learned firsthand from someone about the terrors of the war, the heroic resistance, the remarkable rebuilding, and, most of all, the amazing resilience of these good people. Hanka’s grandmother was a courier in the underground Polish resistance force, slogging through filthy and disgusting sewer tunnels, delivering messages, arms, and supplies. Marcin’s uncle detonated small explosives to disrupt and harass the German occupation troops. Henryk fought in the forests, burrowing into earthen caves to sleep by day, marauding with patrols at night, raiding Nazi depots, rescuing Polish captives, and attacking German barracks. Like thousands of other ethnic Poles, he was captured and, by dint of sheer luck, was not executed on the spot, but spent years as a prisoner in Auschwitz. Alicja, the clerk in the print shop where I get more business cards, tells me of her aunt, a sniper, who pretended to be a boy, so she could be a fighter with the partisans in the woods. Anya married a paratrooper, Lesczek was a navigator, and Wladyslaw became a radio specialist and code- breaker. Grazina’s father was a spy, slipping into German camps to overhear their plans, and blond, blue-eyed Marya insinuated herself into the affections of Nazi officers in order to gather information she passed on to the Polish Home Army, the underground collection of resistance fighters. I never have to search out these stories. They simply emerge, from everyone, everyone! in the course of conversation about family, the past, one's heritage. It's not quite, "meet my mother, she threw grenades during the Warsaw Rising." But close. The topic comes up. Always. It is as much a part of who they are as my having lived in Chicago for many years or my father growing up on a farm. Especially this time of year, as the fire burns atop the mountain of buried rubble, these days of remembering the last heroic acts of resistance. Heroic resistance, suicidal sabotage, crazy attempts to disrupt and unnerve the German occupation, these are stories familiar to every Polish child from the oral history of their own parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents. It is woven into the sinew of their bones, and now lives in the collective consciousness. The tales are as sparse as an Ernest Hemingway narrative, haunting, direct, unflinching in the face of disaster. “He found the wire hidden under the low brush. He unsheathed the tool he always carried, tucked into his waistband, snipped the wire like this, click, and went back into the forest.” “She caught the German soldier alone in the barn, she shot him in the head. “ No fancy descriptions, no “tangle of new growth,” or “gleaming silver knife,” or “ghostlike,he disappeared into the gloom from whence he had come.” These stories require no embellishment. “I hid under the pile of hay with the machine guns and grenades. I was scared to death. But they didn’t find me.” Halina waits at this crosswalk, strides purposefully to the other side, goes about her business. At the quivering edge of her 85-year-old consciousness is this sharp throb of awareness, that here, in this place where a palm tree now stands, something didn’t happen, something that could have saved her from years in Pawiak Prison, from starvation, the loss of her lover, her life. So many, so much lost, ruined, wasted. If only. To their credit, Halina and the other Poles I know don’t second guess their history as much as I do. It happened. They have made their peace with their war, not ones to wonder, pointlessly, what if. Sorrow, yes; waves of sadness wash over the city on a regular basis. Wariness, worry, yes. Regret, yes. But better still, they learn from their memories: Resilience. Resistance. Sacrifice. Courage. Recover. Rebuild, rebuild, and rebuild: lives, families, faith. Early in the twenty-first century, the Poles are creating new art. new industry. A nation. And they go on. And on. They put up a palm tree in the center of the city, in the middle of, what else: Jerusalem Street.

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