In a wooded forest
Up to 122 Polish high-ranking government officials
Soldiers. Priests. Officials. Legislators.
Taken down in a plane.
Saturday 10 April 2010.
I have never been to Poland. I do not speak one word of Polish. But in honour of one unforgettable Polish citizen who once touched my life, I feel utterly compelled to write this. Pay my respects to his country of birth.
At first, I struggled with how I would share his life in this writing. Plus, I thought, what did it really have to do with what happened at Katyn in 1939 and 1940? Let alone last week’s tragedy.
And then, unexpectedly, the information came. I uncovered details and connections of those who died, among them soldiers,whom my friend would have felt a very unique sense of gratitude for.
Because among Poland’s dead last week are those who guarded and supported the sacred and tragic memories that people like my Polish friend, and his family went through, during World War II.
I’m talking about Auschwitz.
When I found that connection tonight, that’s when I understood why I must write this.
This, for my Polish friend.
It is a tragic twist that only God can answer that official government delegation, including President Lech Kaczynski, and his wife Maria, were killed in a plane crash on their way to memorial services for Poland’s dead of 70 years ago.
The trip marked the anniversary of the Katyn massacre during World War II in which more than 20,000 Polish citizens were massacred between 1939 to 1940. It is reported that those who were executed were among the country’s most educated and patriotic soldiers.
In civilian life, many of them worked as academics, lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs. They were reportedly killed with a single gunshot to the back of the head at the hands of Soviet soldiers and secret police on Stalin’s orders.
For the next 50 years, occupied-Poland, under communist rule, expressly forbade and suppressed all talk of what happened at Katyn.
So much so that there are lingering stories of wives of executed soldiers, not knowing for decades, what had happened to their missing men. Deepening the wounds of not knowing, the Soviets, the Russians, denied the massacre ever happened.
The Wall comes down
In 1985 USSR gained a new President. A reformist named Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. He brought with him a more open approach to dealing with the West where he became a well known state visitor.
It was under Gorbachev’s term that the Cold War between the East and the West began to thaw. The political and economical issues facing the Soviet Union, along with the rising and brave voices of so-called dissident groups within the Eastern bloc nations, regularly made the news back then.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.
That historic event marked the beginning of the end to the communist stranglehold on Eastern Bloc countries. Now it was time for the rest of the Eastern bloc nations to follow suit.
In that same year, I was in Sydney. That is where I met an elderly Polish citizen who has remained unforgettable in my mind.
It is, with him, in mind that I write this.
In Europe, and around the world, opposition to the old ways of communist Europe continued to grow with people power putting pressure on governments and officials around the world. Those dissenting voices included NGOs, and anti-nuclear peace groups, and protesters, around the world.
In 1990, Gorbachev, on behalf of the Soviet Union, finally acknowledged that the massacres at Katyn did happen.
Only this year, a few days before the plane crash, did a Russian Prime Minister publicly acknowledge the anniversary memorials to the Katyn victims.
Then, three days later, the plane crash in Western Russia that killed Poland’s high level delegation of up to 122.
Tragedy upon tragedy is Poland, it seems.
In my mind’s eye
And this is the whole push for this tribute. An aged Polish gentleman and his wife, in their 70s. A native Pole who was rescued at the end of World War II from Poland’s death camps.
He was the saddest man I have ever met in my life, and I’ve met a lot of people. He was my next-door neighbour for over 18 months. He was also a survivor of the Holocaust.
Imprisoned in Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp, during World War II, the mental scars were life-long. Before the systematic killing of more than six million Jews in Nazi-built extermination camps, Poland was
home to the largest Jewish population in Europe.
I heard Jewish survivors refer to Poland as the ‘killing fields’. Why? Because all the extermination camps were built in occupied-Poland including Auschwitz. More than 6 million Jews were killed on Polish soil.
Until I got to know Polish people, I did not know that.
My Polish neighbour had the distinctive serial number tattoo on the inner side of one of his upper forearms, from memory.
I later found out that Auschwitz was the only death camp that issued the serial numbers.
They removed their Jewish identities and replaced their names with serial numbers.
His thick Polish accent made his English hard to understand at times.
With no other surviving family, he lived mostly alone, or with his wife when she was out of hospital, on a day visit. They had one son but he was not a regular visitor.
I made efforts, fruitless at first, to reach out.
One day, when I returned from hospital with my firstborn, I saw the first glimmers of excitement. My Polish neighbour was one of the first to greet me at the lift to our apartment. He loved the sight of my newborn child.
My lovable baby did what I could not do: he disarmed my Polish neighbour and, in a way set him free, if only for moments at a time. He was the most animated and happy I had ever seen him. He was like a grandfather, a Polish one at that.
I last saw him in 1990, the same year that Russia finally acknowledged that the Katyn massacres took place.
Over the years, this Holocaust survivor has been the haunting and unspoken memory that I could never share with others. Because they hadn’t experienced him, or what he went through, during World War II.
I never wanted people to mock or question his experience. That would have too disrespectful. Too painful to the memory of a man who had suffered so much and lost almost everything, except his sanity. So I never spoke about the memories of my elderly Polish neighbour, except to my children.
And then the plane crash tragedy hit the news last weekend. With that, I lingered with long thoughts of what he would have thought of the tragedy.
How worried and sad he would feel for Poland right now.
So to this Polish survivor, out of deepest respect for him and his family, I pay tribute to his beloved Poland.
Because I am writing this as a tribute to a Polish citizen who was a survivor of the Holocaust, I particularly pay homage to the special connection of those who died in last week’s tragedy.
They were legislators, soldiers and clergy. They appreciated the importance of preserving historical memory of what happened at Auschwitz and all the death camps in Poland. Among them, President Lech Kacynski who was regarded by Israel as a close friend.
They will not be forgotten.
It is 2010
Saturday 17th April.
All will be made right.
Meanwhile, on a lighter note. This survivor came back to Auschwitz over 60 years later with his grandchildren. This is what he did when he got there. 🙂
@wacozaco Amen and what a miracle it was for him to survive! That in itself is reason enough to dance
@Regina584 tell you what, when you survive something like auschwitz, you can do whatever the hell you want with that. grant this man the same grace.
@Colin2k41 Exactly :) thanks
@Regina584 he did it to show he is happy he survived and he made history