Life in wartime Warsaw … not quite what you thought

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The apple tree that marked the spot

Very little of prewar Warsaw is left – 85 percent of the city was destroyed by the Nazis.  But the street where Jadwiga Piotrowska (I wrote about her here) and her family ran a clandestine operation to hide Jewish children remained standing after the war – though interiors were burned and some floors destroyed, much remained intact.  The bullet holes in the walls have been filled, and the elegant flat with parquet floors retains its prewar charm.  Even the apple tree where Irena Sendler and her cohort, Ms. Piotrowska, buried the famous jar linking the whereabouts and real names of the rescued Jewish children continues to grow to this day.

Jadwiga Piotrowska’s daughter, Hana Rechowicz, remembers playing with the Jewish children in their house – one youth stayed for four years.  Irena Sendler?  She remembers her and her cohorts being bubbly and vivacious, not tense and paralyzed with fear as they are, for example, in Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler.  After all, said Hana, life went on.  Six  years was a long time.

The picture she described of a life in Żegota, the Polish underground operation to save the Jews, was not quite what many may imagine.

One part of Warsaw that wasn't completely demolished

Far from being a clandestine operation, she said, everyone knew the multi-generational household was hiding Jews.  She named a number of households in their immediate neighborhood were doing exactly the same.

When she says everyone, she means everyone.  The household had servants, and they knew.  Communication in the pre-phone tapping days meant everyone who overheard phone calls knew.  Weren’t informants around?  There really weren’t that many, she insisted, implying a good deal of solidarity among the Poles of goodwill.

Czesław Miłosz, in an essay I have been reading in Proud to Be A Mammal, recalled the war being a time of parties with plenty of vodka – German-imposed curfews meant there was a regular ritual of unexpected visitors overnight, which made not only for wartime trauma and tension – but also, politically incorrect as it may be to say so, sometimes a lot of fun.  In fact, Hana remembered Miłosz as a regular visitor to their household – she even found a letter from him.

The surviving gateway to notorious Pawiak

Hana recalled the war as being a time of family closeness, due to the same curfews and wartime restrictions – a closeness that’s been lost in the postwar years.

She hastened to add that tension and terror were part of their lives, too.  The children they harbored were traumatized, in transit from household to household as they were prepared for life in disguise.  She recalled the Jewish child who screamed at them  “Who are you people?  I want to be home with my mother and father and grandparents!  I hate you.”  But six years is a long time to be afraid and tense, she emphasized, and they were young and full of life.

Unreal

Of course, all that ended when Warsaw was razed to the ground in 1944.

Not much is intact, but something of a museum has been made of what’s left of Pawiak Prison, where Sendler was tortured for several months before an escape on her way to execution. Filmmaker  Leszek Cicirko took me for a quick tour before we visited Hana.

Outside the prison-museum is a “tree” where the names of the dead have been posted.

Here’s more of what I meant in my previous post:  The tree at left is not a real tree.  It’s a recreation of a dead tree.  People have real emotions about a replica of a dead tree.  Odd.


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