The Polish experience #4

I was in the harrowing Warsaw Ghetto museum telling the story of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in Rynek, the beautiful rebuilt Old Town Market Place, in 1972. It was a time when the Russian Communists were in control and the only private enterprise I witnessed was selling excellent homemade ice cream in the street off a special ice cream stand.

I was accompanied by Catholic Barbara, a young Polish actress who was the fiancée of my then friend Jacek Czeczot, an art restorer living in London. He had arranged for me to stay with his parents in their gracious traditional first floor flat, half of which they had lost, when forced by the aggressive Russian Regime, to share it with another family.

His father, Marek, a well known arts and culture journalist, had escaped through the sewers of the Ghetto but preferred not to talk about his harrowing experiences. Marek gave me a watercolour sketch done by a Jewish boy he had known who had survived the Holocaust. His mother, also called Barbara, gave me an rustic wooden kitchen spoon which I still use today. It is dark brown wood hand carved in an unusual elongated shape and a treasured possession.

Barbara and I had to communicate in Italian as she spoke no English and I spoke no Russian or Polish. I mainly got by in French with the older cultured French speaking generation and English with the youngsters who were very keen to learn. How they hated Russians and the language they were forced to learn and speak!

I am of Imperial Russian heritage on both sides from The Pale of Settlement which one day was part of Eastern Poland and the other Imperial Russia.

Barbara acted as my guide leading me through large almost empty rooms with hideous primitive metal showcases with cloudy glass, jammed up against the grey walls. Inside the cabinets were huge mounds of hacked off hair, used to stuff primitive pillows in the death camps, an uncountable amount of wire spectacles piled high, abandoned suitcases with Jewish surnames stamped into the tan leather such as Goldberg, Finklestein, Blum et al, discarded old worn shoes and yellowing teeth having had the gold extracted! Just heart breaking. Enough to depress any Being with a Soul.

We sat for ages on a long cold narrow metal bench watching the famous German propaganda films of ‘The Living Dead’ in the Warsaw Ghetto, corpses littering the pavements and finally the Russian and American films, of the liberation of the death camps, especially Auschwitz, after the Nazis had fled on the 27th of January 1945.

Suddenly Barbara was fighting back her tears. I asked what had upset her. Silently she pointed to a central showcase exhibiting a tall metalic milk churn. There, beside the solitary churn, lay a crumpled pencilled note written in Polish. The note from an unknown Jewish woman had moved Barbara to tears. It was a cry for help from the grave penning the indescribable horrors of daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto. A cry into the timeless abyss destined for whoever would find it after her slaughter. It was a plea for future generations never to forget. Never again!

After, at the exit of the museum, I voraciously read the thick leather bound visitors book on a large music stand left for comments. There were entries in all languages but mainly American tourists in their recognisable sloping handwriting written in English with Polish family names. Visitors who had come back briefly to their homeland after decades abroad or perhaps their children or even grandchildren in search of their heritage.

The most memorable entry that has remained with me since 1972, was the single word.

‘Why?’

Written in Colin’s Mindful writing group in Lewes on 28.2.19. Updated 28 April Russian Easter Day.

References

Wikipedia. Kanal movie by Andrej Wajda 1956
Haaretz article on 1791 Catherine the Great - Pale of Settlement
Wikipedia. Rynek. Old Town Market Place
Polin Museum of the history of Polish Jews
Wikipedia. Warsaw Rising Museum