I once heard there is a pool of loss and each loss adds to it. There’s no differentiating between its objects, especially when there’s no defining what’s been lost. But when it came to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, you knew exactly what was at stake, Grandpa: your family, friends, and country. Your life.
At ninety you told the priest to “fuck off” because you didn’t feel like dying yet. You got out of bed and started exercising. The night you died my mother swore she heard a sound, like the striking of a metal candlestick. A trick, she called it. We lost you two months before we elected Donald Trump. You might have laughed in disbelief, at first.
“Man proposes, but God disposes,” you wrote of World War II Poland in your diaries, a line from The Imitation of Christ. The ice-blue privacy of dying, like the glaciers in the painting of the same name. The Proto-Indo-European root of “loss”—leu—means to loosen, divide, cut apart. The crest of an ice sheet crumbling into the ocean.
I have not lost like you, but I know that loss often resists articulation. I never asked questions I knew would be difficult for you to answer. But reading your diaries, I can almost hear the church bells that Hitler ordered to be rung each day between noon and one o’clock to celebrate his men’s murdering or capturing over 140,000 Poles in that dark September in 1939.
Primo Levi described German music in the death camps as a living entity—the heartbeat of the Lager—used to strip Jews of their voices and replace them with the voice of the Nazi regime. Sound was one of your battlefields, too. The same day Hitler ordered the church bells to be rung, the Warsaw Radio replaced Chopin’s Polonaise with a funeral dirge. Two days later the Nazis dispensed thin soup and black bread to waltzes played by a military band, sounds Levi would later describe from Auschwitz as “the perceptible expression of…geometrical madness.”
You were thirteen.
You knew you were lucky to be suitable for Germanization, to not face the same horrors as Jews. The Nazis filmed you eating that day, as if to confirm something like kindness, or pity. Starving, you put the food down in disgust.
You armed yourself, trained with the underground resistance. Together you mapped out the sewage system of Warsaw so you could traverse a besieged city. You knew what you were up against after the decimation of Polish Jews in the Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943.
Your uprising began the moment you looked to your left and saw your friend burning alive in the street. The moment your brother was shot in the throat. The moment you reached out in the dark for any warm thing, and woke up hugging a corpse.
On August 1, 1944, the Home Army—Armia Krajowa—rose up against fascism, believing the Red Army would support them from the East. But no help came. The sixty-three days you fought resulted in the slaughter of 16,000 members of the resistance and 200,000 Polish civilians in mass executions. Your entire family, murdered, save for Baby Maria. But you didn’t know this yet.
The Nazis held you in a prisoner of war camp until liberation in 1945, at which point you joined the Polish army and fought in the front against fascism in Italy. There you heard that Canada was inviting soldiers with experience in farming. A city boy, son of a lawyer, you convinced a drunk ship captain that you were a pig farmer. You and your friends escaped on his boat the following morning, and you began a new life raising pigs in Ontario. You taught them to respond to Polish commands and were featured in a local newspaper. Mały Polak, biały orzeł.
Today your daughter pores over her books on World War II Poland in the attempt to catch a fuller glimpse of you. I watch her give a lecture on our family history, feel her solving a mystery that’s haunted her throughout her entire life. The threads she weaves scratch at my skin like a sweater—it’s a garment I’ve been able to take off. Only the more my mother speaks, the more the cloth sticks, morphs into a substance inextricable from skin.
Your cousin Ala wrote of Soviet-occupied Poland, “There is one truth told by government, another at home.” I imagine this would have applied to Nazi-occupied Poland as well. I have never experienced such duality in the United States more than now, on the eve of the 2020 Presidential election.
The Polish word for “loss” is “utrata”—the “u” an empty vessel on the page, but a full, circular sound gathered at the front of the mouth: utrata as a kind of interior possession, a weight one carries.
As your family grew, you may have begun to conceive of your utrata as ours, too. Rather than speak of this, you wrote and rewrote the history of Poland, gave each of your children a hardbound copy. Then you probably told a joke.
Photo credit: Sylvia Gindick
Photo translation: “IN BATTLE – RETALIATION FOR THE BLOOD OF THOUSANDS OF POLES”