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The Complexity of Memory: Warsaw 1940-1991

Robert R. Thompson

Auschwitz and Warsaw clashed with Jennin; the Battle of the Boyne was fought again; memory struggled with memory.

In November 1991 I made my first trip to post-communist east Europe: Warsaw, Poland. In December 1981 the Polish communist government, backed by the threat of force from the Soviet Union, suppressed a democracy movement guided by the Solidarity union, which was led by Lech Walesa, a ship worker from Gdansk. During the late 1970s the liberalizing movement in Poland had been moving the country away from communism.

The Soviets were poised to invade, much as they had intervened to crush similar movements in Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Yet over the decade since 1981, democracy again began to evolve and take hold. Even before the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed across eastern Europe in 1989, Poland held free elections. By the time that I arrived, Lech Walesa was Poland's president.

Our group of thirty academics came to examine the new Poland. Parliamentary elections had just been held, and we were to meet with politicians, journalists, and former dissidents to discuss the country's future. The country that had narrowly avoided a Soviet invasion now became the wedge would eventually split the communist bloc. There were several in our group, myself included, whose thoughts ran as much to the Polish past as to the future. In particular, a time sixty years prior in Polish history — a time which related not only to events in the new post-communist Europe, but to turmoil in other parts of the world, as well. We intended to visit a location in Warsaw of horrific memory.

The German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 began World War II in Europe. During the war the Nazis turned Poland into a killing field, constructing a network of death camps obliterating entire cities. While the Polish population suffered, Polish Jewry was virtually wiped out. In Warsaw the destruction was especially brutal, and by the war's end the city was reduced to rubble.

In November 1991 we saw a city rebuilt. The first stage of rebuilding, the communist construction of the last 45 years, seemed to consist mostly of blocks of dreary apartment high rises and dour office buildings. In some places building facades that were slapped in place over surviving buildings during the late 1940s had fallen away to reveal bullet holes from the war. But many beautiful palaces and churches had somehow escaped destruction and in this new stage of reconstruction were being repaired. Within an ongoing rebuilding of the original walls of Warsaw, the ancient Old City was being painstakingly restored. Christmas trees and Christmas lights provided some sparkle to the "new" old city that was re-emerging. But there were parts of the city which never could be rebuilt.

On a day of intermittent fog and misty rain carried on a raw and biting wind, we set out from our hotel. We crossed excavated streets and rusty trolley tracks, passed decaying old buildings and emerging new ones. The gloom seemed appropriate for our journey. Even a sunny day would not have dissipated the awful sadness of where we were headed — the place where Warsaw's Jewish population had literally been walled in: the Warsaw Ghetto.

In November of 1940, 400,000 people were forced into a ghetto area of 1,000 acres. Disease spread quickly due to the dearth of food and clean water. Deportations from the Ghetto to death camps increased as the war went badly for the Germans. In April of 1943 the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto and send the remaining Jews to the camps. But from April 19 to May 16, using stolen and smuggled weapons and an underground network of sewers and bunkers, the Jews rose up and fought the Nazis. From August 1 to October 3, 1944, perhaps inspired by the rebellion in the ghetto a year prior and as the Red Army advanced towards Warsaw, the residents of the also rose up and attacked the Nazis. They, too, were put down.

By the time my colleagues and I made it to the place where the ghetto had been the rain had stopped, but a raw wind continued and blew dead leaves into our faces. We passed by the two monuments in Warsaw which memorialize the Warsaw city uprising and the Ghetto revolt. Eventually we were within the precincts of what had been the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto, but only by matching a city map upon which the place was marked could we be sure. What was left was mostly a vast, empty lot of weeds and stubby grass, with communist era apartment blocks interspersed throughout. I knew, though, the exact spot where we needed to go. We walked through the streets, past some of the apartment blocks to Mila Street until we reached what had been number 18.

At the top of a row of steps on a rise in an empty lot between apartment buildings was an irregular block of rough stone. The stone was inscribed in Hebrew, remembering the heroes of the uprising. This place, Mila street # 18, immortalized by Leon Uris in his novel Mila 18, was the location of the command post for the uprising. And it was the last spot of resistance in the ghetto as the Nazis finally crushed the insurgency.

We stood quietly on the small hill, which provided a vantage point to look across the emptiness, studded with apartment buildings. Some of us felt the need to talk, and as we looked around we found it hard to believe that on this now quiet spot such unspeakable things had happened. We thought about the impact of memory on the Polish people, and on current eastern European politics. Yet it was, as much as anything, the connection of this place with the politics of conflict in the middle east, and with Israel and its birth and history that we spoke of.

Though the wind had diminished it was hard to keep warm. As I looked around, my coat pulled tightly around me, I kept wondering about the dreary brown and gray apartments. What was it like to live on this spot? How could anyone live at this place? Were there ghosts? Was the night ever pierced by echoes of the misery that had transpired here? As we stood the ghosts may have been quiet, but I knew they must be there. Because I knew someone who had seen those ghosts. My father, Sergeant Robert R. Thompson of the Third Armored Division. (See previous column, Reaching for the Real World War II)

On April 11, 1945, with the war moving inexorably to its conclusion, the Division had liberated the Nordhausen slave labor-extermination camp as it swept through central Germany. It was a shattering experience. As the Division history described it: "No written word can properly convey the atmosphere of such a charnel house, the unbearable stench of decomposing bodies, the sight of live human beings, starved to pallid skeletons, lying cheek by jowl with the ten-day dead." Ghosts. Living ghosts. And this scene of liberation and horror was repeated over and over again as the allies pushed west and east into Nazi controlled Europe.

My visit to Warsaw came exactly 51 years after the Jewish population had been walled into the Ghetto. The cold and the silence grew more oppressive the longer my group stood there. We walked down the steps, past the apartments, across the empty lots. Unlike the 400,000 behind the walls fifty-one years ago, we could leave. Did their ghosts follow us, as we walked across the bare corridor where the walls had once stood? I know that they followed my father. He rarely discussed Nordhausen. The only time I ever heard him discuss the liberation was during a brief oral history interview he did with my son and I shortly before he died. The faces of those inmates living and dead mingled always for him with the faces of buddies killed in battle.

Over the last half-century those ghosts have, in a sense, shadowed the whole world. And yet, over the last decade since that visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, as I have in my politics courses taught about and thought about the intermingling of politics, history and memory; the bedeviling complexity of that intermingling has only increased. The post-communist era has not brought with it "the end of history"; it has only intensified this complexity. In Europe gaunt faces were once again seen behind barbed wire. As we saw during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Africa and in Asia ethnic, religious and political conflict has roiled the continents. And in the Middle East, where those memories of the European Holocaust of sixty years ago are so powerful, hopes for peace are swept away by violence and killing.

As my students discuss and debate the causes and consequences of the turmoil in this troubled "new" world, I know that my father, who after the war was a high school history teacher, wove together history for his students with his memories, during the Cold War 1950s and 1960s. He especially employed this tactic of teaching when war engulfed the Middle East. In 1985, although he preferred not to, he participated in a special school assembly remembering the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. He discussed Nordhausen; and when I asked him how it went all he said it was "OK".

Now as global conflict intensifies, I look back, and out over that desolate 1,000 acres in Warsaw. But memory is never simple in this new era; and, as my students demonstrate to me, there are many different memories, many different views of history. Over the last few years my university, like many others, has sought to confront the post-cold war world by sending more students to study in other countries. And there has been an increase in students from other countries coming to study at our institution.

Although World War II and the Holocaust are ancient history to these students, when I discuss my stories of remembrance and we weave in their thoughts on this new world — new after the Berlin Wall's fall in 1989 (alas, an even that is also ancient for them), and now most dramatically for us all after 9/11 — I see that for all of us there are layers of memory and belief. But the layers do not lie gently on each other. The deepest seam contains the memories of my father and the Holocaust generation; the next, those of us who knew these participants; and, finally, my students who read about it, hear about it, and see films about it and work to make sense of it.

This past spring I taught a course called "Comparative Politics", an examination of politics, political behavior, and the relationship between politics and culture in nations around the world. The students assembled in the class formed quite a diverse group: Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Christian fundamentalist, Protestant, Bulgarian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox, plus an atheist and some "undecided". I didn't ask about their religious beliefs, they emerged from our discussions, slowly, almost student by student, as each gathered the courage to inject into our discussions their thoughts about politics and memory, culture and faith.

In fact, as the semester's end approached the fervor of their views built up, boiling as in a pressure cooker. It was, indeed, on a day when I had revisited the stories of Warsaw and Nordhausen that a Jewish student spoke of her family lost at Auschwitz. An Islamic student brought in the Palestinian crisis, and Catholic students who had studied in Northern Ireland argued ardently about "real" religious persecution and cultural destruction stemming from "The Troubles" there. And two women students, Christian fundamentalists, urged the need for all people to "accept Jesus-now!" Auschwitz and Warsaw clashed with Jennin; the Battle of the Boyne was fought again; memory struggled with memory. The heated arguments increased as two, three, and more separate, angry exchanges broke out.

The class ended, acrimony still lingering. The students were exhausted and surprised at the power of memory, even memory learned and not experienced — a memory, perhaps, created by ghosts. At the next class the students were wary, intimidated by the very remembrance of their recent vociferous debate. Even I wasn't sure what to say. The bleakness of the Warsaw Ghetto seemed to spread out in front of me. What, if anything, did it mean? I had gone to the place where the Warsaw Ghetto had been to try to understand the confluence of past and present. Had I failed?

The Islamic student raised her hand. Others sighed, not another debate. "There is," she said, "one thing we all know, what we all believe, what most people believe. Life is sacred. All life is sacred." That was it, a quiet end. For now, there would be no more argument. And around the room I felt that, if they were here, as I knew they must be, those ghosts would nod their approval.

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