One September afternoon I took the train from Berlin to Warsaw, as my characters had done. I wanted to see what they had seen. For the five and a half hours of that train ride I saw nothing but endless miles of birches, pines, fields… It was a warm and sunny day. The blue sky was cloudless. The sunlight glinted on the fields and stippled the birches with light. For my novel The Train to Warsaw, I would have to imagine those same birches and pines and fields in the dead of winter, coat them with snow and frost and turn the sky white.
I had an appointment to meet a journalist from one of the major Warsaw newspapers. He had suggested we meet in a tiny park near Gryzbowska St., a street that had once been inside the ghetto. And so I set off from my hotel to meet him.
There is nothing left of the former ghetto. In the more than 800 acres that once encompassed the ghetto, white Soviet realist style apartment buildings now cover block after block. Of the apartment buildings, the shops, the synagogues from before the war (with the exception of the Nozyk Synagogue), nothing remains. On one block several red brick buildings from before the war are still standing; in the courtyard of an apartment building a piece of the red brick ghetto wall still exists. One or two other buildings are still there. But that is all. The ghetto was burned to the ground by the Nazis during the Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.
And of the former life that once hummed in this corner of the earth, nothing remains.
The journalist and I sat down on a small stone bench. Scattered around the pocket park, several mothers sat rocking baby carriages beneath a sunny sky. There was no one else. The journalist and I talked quietly. All of a sudden I heard, coming from the left, the tramping of boots on cobblestone. The sound grew louder. Five SS men in uniform, smoking, armed, came into view. They didn’t look like extras in a film; in fact there were no cameras or crew anywhere. The uniforms looked lived-in, the boots were creased with wear. I thought I was hallucinating. I had done so much research on the Warsaw Ghetto that I had begun to see visions. I turned to the journalist. Are those SS men? I asked, incredulous. Absolutely, he replied.
Now I heard the tramping of boots coming from the right. I turned my head and saw a straggling group of partisans coming toward us, walking single file. One had his head bandaged, all wore outfits that were ragged and torn. One had a bloodied shirt sleeve, all had tin cups attached to their belts. They too were armed. The Polish Home Army? I whispered. Absolutely, he informed me. An SS man had placed a straw basket on the ground. Backs bent, a look of resignation on their faces, each one came up to the SS man and dropped his weapon in the basket.The last man shook the hand of the SS man, who dropped his cigarette and ground it out with the toe of his leather boot. They turned and walked off.
What just happened? I asked the journalist. The Polish Home Army has just surrendered to the SS, he informed me. What? I asked in disbelief. Every year on the same date, in the same place, at the same time, the Polish Home Army surrenders to the SS. But why? I asked. Why in the world would they re-enact their surrender of all things? He shrugged. He had no answer.
This part of town was so quiet now, the streets nearly deserted. Once there had been an ungodly din here. Crowds of up to 500,000 individuals surging through the streets, a madhouse swarming with people, the pavement and streets clogged with the dying and dead. Then there had been no peace, only terror. Everyone in a mad rush, running, pushing forward against the crowds. Back then to stop was to die, to slow down was to be shot or dragged off.
Now a small boy pushed a scooter beneath a soft blue sky, a woman re-tied the strings of a baby’s bonnet. Now the place was so peaceful you could hear the sound of leaves softly blown by the wind. How was I to imagine what had once taken place here?
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I liked to sit sipping coffee in the tall kitchen window of my apartment in Vilnius. The window overlooked the broad Town Hall Square teeming day and night with international tourists. Gold-domed churches and pastel houses with terra cotta roofs bordered the square above which loomed the red brick castle on its hill. Beyond the castle were the dense pine forests that surrounded the city like a green velvet setting for a diadem. The window coincidentally faced the corner where the Nazis had staged their so-called Great Provocation. This was the faked sniping incident they used to justify the “retaliation” that led ultimately to the extermination of the Vilna Jews. Turn left outside of my apartment and you entered the Square, with its wind-tossed fountain, linen and amber boutiques, and outdoor cafes. Turn right and you found yourself in a dreary, cavernous courtyard carved out of what had once been the small ghetto. In this area women, children, and the elderly were corralled and starved before being marched out to the killing fields of Paneriai, where they were summarily shot and tossed into open pits.
During my first week in Vilnius, whenever I left the apartment, I always turned right. I walked through the twisted streets of the former ghettos, the large and the small, and read the signs in Yiddish commemorating the slaughtered; I went to the little Holocaust Museum in the Green House and fed my revulsion on the names of both the ordinary and celebrated citizens that had perished. I made the pilgrimage out to Paneriai and tried to identify with the men assigned to burn the corpses, who might discover among the dead the body of a wife, a father, a child or two. I tried in my fashion to obey the 11th commandment: Zakhor! Remember! and its more piquant Yiddish corollary, “Zolstu krenken un gedenken,” may you sicken and remember. I believe that the Shoah diminished the whole human enterprise, that as a race we’ve been missing vital parts of ourselves ever since. So shouldn’t it be incumbent upon persons of conscience to return to the scenes of the crime in the hope of retrieving something of what was lost? Of course it’s a quixotic exercise; language and emotion are unequal to the task. Poetry, as Theodor Adorno famously pronounced, is barbaric after Auschwitz. Besides, there’s nothing to be found in such places but the stray stones placed atop the monuments by mourners. And even the Jewish graveyards of Vilnius have been removed. Meanwhile, from my kitchen window, I watched the early morning theater: young men stumbled cartoon-like from all-night benders, scattering pigeons as they soaked their sore heads in the fountain; a pair of lovers, still tipsy from their the previous evening’s carouse, performed the comic pantomime of a mating dance; a street sweeper whistled as he worked to a tune played by a solitary Gypsy accordionist. And later on, when I left the apartment, I turned left—as I did every day after that first week in Vilnius—ducking under the arch to enter the carnival atmosphere of the square.
I’m not entirely a fool. I knew that the city was largely illusion, its crooked streets and fanciful facades reconstructed after the war upon a foundation of ashes and bones. I knew that, if you walked beyond the perimeter of the precious Old Town, you immediately found yourself in a soviet wasteland, where impoverished and often suicidal alcoholics sold their daughters into slavery. I knew that, in the face of the nightmare of history, even the Deuteronomic injunction to choose life is a flimsy excuse. But the square was so full of a number of things and the city such a goddam gem.