My first experience seeing, feeling, and understanding the effects of WWII on Poland and myself was not while reading history books, or watching television, or talking to my Dziadek. At those moments, WWII was an abstract idea, surreal, not tangible. It just didn't seem real. It was as distant as the Revolutionary War.
I was in a village visiting a Ciocia ("Aunt" in Polish) the first moment it really dawned on me what WWII meant. What WWII was in terms of a human event, in terms of my family's history.
This was my first trip back to Poland. And it was life changing.
I stand in a small cemetery.
This is not a cemetery in America. There are no artificial flowers, Styrofoam wreaths, and other such grave ornaments. There aren't miles of meticulously manicured grass, limited plants and trees and bushes, tombstones flat on the ground so that from the highway running next to it, you are not reminded that it is a cemetery. There is no mausoleum of hundreds of unrelated bodies.
This is a cemetery in a small village in Poland. On a path travelled for centuries by villagers as they go about life.
This is the village's cemetery for centuries. The local Catholic church towers over the village, as all Catholic churches in Poland tend to do. The path to the cemetery had been lined with trees, tall grasses, and fields. Not empty fields, but fields planted and growing food, some with cows and other livestock. Farmer's fields growing what the village would be eating and making a living from.
The walk had been beautiful, peaceful. I knew we were going to visit a grave of some family member. I don't know who. Perhaps it is my other Dziadek's but I'm sorry to say I can't remember.
It is a warm sunny summer day. There is a sign above the cemetery. I don't remember what it says.
The cemetery is surrounded by trees and cool shadows. At first, the cemetery seems small. All the graves have tall tombstones and stone covers. Many have bushes and flowers planted around them. Some have candles on the covers.
Behind the cemetery is a once white stucco house with a red roof. The yard is bursting with flowers. Clothes hang on the line, gently moving with the warm summer breeze. A cat, dark brown, peeks at me from under a bush. Winks and crosses the yard toward the other side of the house.
Browning tall grass bends and bobs it's seedheads as the wind plays across them on one half of the cemetery, to my left. All around, Nature is singing and celebrating Life. Yet, I stand in a cemetery, with tombstones marking places where the dead rest, to my right. To the left, tall grasses.
I look around, curious. Begin reading tombstones. Walking down each row. So many names that never would sound "normal" in the USA but names which I grew up hearing around me. And many with my first name. "Katarzyna".
I always loved my first name. I thought it was elegant, exotic and yet not strange, classic. But until I visited Poland, I had never ever heard of anyone else having the same name, let alone met anyone.
I begin to pick small yellow flowers that were growing wild in a section of the cemetery. They are small and beautiful. They seemed so joyous while I walk around this final resting site. I place a flower on one particular grave which has my same first name. It feels right. I begin to do the same for others.
The dates in this cemetery go back at least to the 1600's, with some faded, covered in moss. The idea begins to hit me, as it does everyone at some point in their life, that one day I am going to be a marked tombstone somewhere. The thought makes me uncomfortable. And the more "Katarzyna"'s I read on tombstones, the more the idea hits me.
I place more flowers on graves. This urge is primal. It needs to be followed through. It is the root for All Souls Day. This is my Polish blood, whispering to me in a way I had never heard before.
The sun shines on my head. On the flowers. On grasshoppers and insects flying away from me with each step.
I step to the other half of the cemetery, grass as tall as I am in most places. Wild flowers grow here, blue, yellow, red. I start to pick more flowers. My mother and Ciocia look at me and laugh. They ask what I am doing and realize I have placed flowers on every grave that looks slightly neglected or has my first name.
They don't understand and I can't explain it. Not to them. They grew up around here. Their names are normal to them and people around them, this cemetery is like all cemeteries to them, their history in the soil they tread is normal to them. To me, this is so strange.
I feel something that I had not understood before start to creep over me but I can't explain it. I just can't. I turn away from them and continue what I'm doing. I don't care what they think. It doesn't matter. This is something spiritual I must wrestle with that they never had to. I'm jealous of them.
In that area of the cemetery which I assume to be the empty section meant for future graves, I begin to pick flowers. A few blades of grass move. I find a tombstone. My breathe stops. I look around more carefully, moving wildflowers and grass out of the way and find many many more. More than in the other, more cared for section of the cemetery. And almost all their death dates are during WWII. And there are many other Katarzynas.
I look at my mother and ask "Why hasn't the caretaker mowed around these graves?"
My mother looks at me with a strange look in her eyes. I think now it dawns on her, at least a bit, how much I just don't understand. Not just in life. I'm still a child, after all. But about my family's history, Poland's history. The culture. Little subtle things that I could never really learn about living in the US.
She replies in a quiet voice, "Kasiu, there is no caretaker. In Poland, the family cares for each grave."
I point to the graves, some knocked over or sitting crooked. "But in this village, why don't they take care of these graves also? The tombstones are broken, falling over. The grasses are so tall. The dead must be sad."
My Ciocia doesn't understand. She waves a hand dismissively. I don't like her. "They are Jews. Some Poles. Their families left us here with their graves when they fled to America and never came back to care for their family (meaning their dead). You don't understand how much work is to be done here. People are too tired to care for more graves."
"But a lot of these are children. And how can they be Jews? I see a lot of Katarzyna's."
My mother looks at me, shakes her head, and says, "Kasiu, that's how it is." She turns herself to end the conversation. I wanted a hug from someone who understood what I was wrestling with. My brother was there, he was walking around as well but he was quiet. And he didn't touch any graves. I don't know what he was thinking. I should have reached out to him but didn't know what to say.
I continue walking around the graves. I'm angry. I see that there is a group of graves which all share the same death day. Another grave has a Star of David. So many are children.
I realize these people were killed by Nazis. I don't know what the exact event was. Perhaps I never will. But first hand, for the first time ever, I see the effects of WWII. In a village where some family member of mine is buried and therefor a part of my blood is from.
It could have been over 100 graves, I'm not sure. But there were so many.
I continue to walk and begin pulling up grass. I leave the flowers. But the grass I start to pull up and toss into a pile in the back of the cemetery that must have been from others tending graves before.
I keep pulling up the grave. Graves which had not seen light in many years begin to bask in sunshine. I know my Ciocia is upset. Perhaps I'm making someone else look bad. I don't care.
I would not want to have my final resting place forgotten.
But then, which is worse? Paying a stranger to care for the cemetery and family not feeling the need to come visit and care over your final resting place? Or being forgotten in a corner of a cemetery.
But not really forgotten. I understand that this is an event which still rests freshly in the memories of the Babcias and Dziadeks of this village, they saw it first hand. It can never be forgotten. No matter how horrible. But life must go on. And if caring for those graves chokes people up all over again, remembering such a horrible event in human history, perpetrated right there, in their own backyards, in the backyards and fields which for centuries had been in their family, can you imagine the feeling?
Graves continue to be pulled free from the wildlife taking over them. Light brings more names back to the present, reminders of others who passed away, who I don't know. But I will always remember them.
I keep pulling grass and picking flowers...