With a homebase on the Continent, there are an overwhelming number of destinations within a quick train or plane ride. The family cadres in Brussels and Amsterdam are obvious and necessary travel locales, but there was one other motivating force leading us from Paris. Harry Styles’ Love On Tour overlapped with our time in Europe, stopping in a number of picturesque cities. Reviewing the schedule, Violet and I were enticed by the chance to visit Poland for the first time. Locus of my maternal Jewish roots and the epicenter of some of the most destructive and depressing episodes in World War II and larger history, it was a compelling choice.
After a short hop to Chopin Airport and a speedy jaunt into the Old Town of Warsaw, we were immediately struck by the slower pace of the city as compared to the relentless mayhem of Paris. Poland not being on the Euro, we educated ourselves about the USD-Zloty exchange rate and the key phrases for respectfully interacting with the local populace. Food was, as always, never far from our minds as we planned our dining for the ensuing days. A mixture of reservations at refined establishments and serendipitous stumblings into street stalls put us squarely into meals that far exceeded our uneducated expectations.
The people of Varsovie were unfailingly warm and welcoming, in many cases emotionally stunned by our interest in their fair city, an underrated gem with a past that would reduce even the most hardened of hearts to jelly. An emotional man in the best of circumstances, there were multiple times that I was a waterfall of tears: no shock to my daughter. Although the Nazis, after encountering the unimaginable bravery of a doomed resistance, had razed the entirety of the ghetto into which they had savagely herded the city’s Jewish population, they could never erase the memory of those that fell victim to terror and subjugation.
Violet and I found the pockets where remnants of the Warsaw Ghetto were either commemorated or remained in situ. A piece of the ghetto wall and a bullet-strewn barbed-wire fence had us pensive, while a visit to the mound at Mila 18 (site of the bunker that was the last resting place of resistance leaders who committed collective suicide rather than succumb to the surrounding Germans) was an opportunity to reflect. Just last year, archaeologists had uncovered the underground shelter adjacent, where we were able to view the cramped quarters where Jews hid from their tormentors and the household objects that recalled the daily terror of the humans trying to live a normal life in the face of pure evil.
Shaken, but not deterred, I also detoured into a museum exhibit dedicated to remembering those Poles that were summarily executed by the SS for giving even the smallest amount of assistance to their Jewish compatriots. To hear their voices, to see their faces, to read their stories, one more devastating than the next, filled me with such a mixture of sorrow and anger that I had to sit for a spell, gathering myself. Knowing that this species of malevolence has not only not been eradicated, but persists, even thrives in our modern world, in the supposed land of the free, I fear for its next targets. To see those seeking a better life detained, captive, herded in 2023 should engender shame in the instruments, supporters, and tolerators of this continued disgrace.
Thankful for the connection to the past, we also had less intense endeavors, playing cards at the coolest coffee shop in the Praga district and scootering on the promenade on Nowy Swiat. All of this was precursor to our culminating visit to PGE Narodowy, the stadium in which Harry Styles drove the crowd into a frenzy, almost bursting our eardrums with their enthusiasm. As we walked across the Vistula after the concert amongst the throngs of beatific showgoers, I had the sneaking suspicion that we would be back to Warsaw in short order.