Talking about war heroes was verboten under Communism; now they’re fetishized
“All of Warsaw is a cemetery,” says Malgosia as we walk around the Old Town. It’s September 1st, 2009, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and I am touring city with my mother’s friend from college.
This is my first visit to my parents’ homeland in over a decade. It is also the first day of school. I look at the students in white shirts and black pants, lingering in corridors. I think about how they are here for an education, and will be tested later. It’s vital that they don’t forget.
Malgosia and I pass the churches and plaques commemorating the war dead. Under Communism, talking about war heroes was verboten; now there is a tendency to fetishize them, with an explosion of books and movies celebrating their heroism and defiance.
Religious and historical veneration have a way of mixing when old glories are recounted, with the church acting as Poland’s keeper of memory and tradition. During one of his first visits back to his native country after ascending to the Papacy, John Paul II advised the Poles, “Don’t forget your roots.” Now many churches bear plaques celebrating the valor of young soldiers sent by priests into battle.
I struggle to keep pace with Malgosia as she unfolds the past, like a quilt long stored in an attic. I’m out of the habit of speaking Polish. Struggling to force my tongue to make dulcet sounds, I pronounce words awkwardly; my grammar is even worse.
Under Communism, Malgosia tells me, priests were thrown into jail, and served as teachers and inspirational figures for ordinary people people. She gets angry talking about Communism, history turning into a harangue. I try to separate opinion from fact, emotion from memory.
During this trip, I have been trying to make sense of my own history. I have been shedding relatives in the decade since my last visit, and losing the language I once spoke fluently.
My parents don’t like talking about their past, so I’ve been visiting relatives and piecing together their story, tale by tale, the way residents of Old Town sifted through the rubble after their war, to rebuild their city. Using blueprints and memory, they rebuilt a city that had existed since the 1300s, finishing in 1984. It’s a reasonable facsimile.
From various relatives, I learn about shocking pregnancies, holy uncles, escapes from Nazis, hidden Communist gold. My hand cramps from taking notes, as I try to capture the outpouring of words, facts and opinions.
My grandmother, I am told, watched her sister die. Her sister worked in the Polish underground, hiding Jews and helping them escape to the West. A fellow villager leaked that news to the Nazis, who then came to her house and killed every living thing. Nothing survived, not even the dogs.
My grandmother rode on horseback to her sister’s house, arriving half an hour after everyone had been killed. She stepped through the blood and found the bodies of her sister, her sister’s husband, their children.
Or she arrived at the same time the Nazis did, hiding in the underbrush as the first shots rang out, and watched her family fall.
Or she arrived the next day, flies massing on the humans and livestock, dust and blood clinging to her boots.
The stories vary with the teller. Memory fades, and sentiment creeps in. Fact takes second place to feeling.
As we walk, Malgosia and I are followed by the strains of “Billie Jean.” Michael Jackson died more than a month ago, and evidently Poland has taken his passing hard. Every hour another song by the King of Pop comes over the airwaves. Be careful what you do, ’cause the lie becomes the truth. We’re chased by more nonsensical death, already changed by nostalgia and misinterpretation.
Catherine Nicotera is a writer in California.
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