Right off things started to go wrong. Right at the airport there were long lines at passport control and soldiers standing around with guns and everyone was being very official, taking their time, examining documents carefully, looking you in the face and then at your picture, turning the documents over gingerly as if they could explode and then looking you over again with a dour, bored face. This is the Poland you expect - the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the police, the soldiers, the guns. After all, some things you know.
Then something goes wrong. The old man before you accosts a passing officer and reads him out for how slowly the lines are moving. The old man is dressed in a brown overcoat with a long scarf reaching down almost to the floor and on his head he is wearing a weathered, wide-brimmed hat. He yells and he screams, pointing to the long lines, jabbing his finger at the officer, who says nothing. The officer just stands silently for a while and then he turns on his heels and strides quickly into his office. Soon he emerges with another uniformed man and you fear for the old man. But the uniformed man walks right past the old man and opens up another passport line. Somethings, it turns out, you don't know.
And so it goes. The city itself turns out to be not old, as you expected, but new, with tall buildings and streets occasionally clogged with traffic and stores stocked with goods.
So you start to revise your ideas and then you are told there is no coffee to be had and meat is hard to come by and all over the city you see women waiting in line at the butcher's. The lines come out the shop door and go down the street and if you are a woman you spend part of your day looking for meat and standing in line.
It is always hard to make judgements, always hard to know anything for sure. In Italy, for instance, a high American official once assured me that there was no right and therefore no reason to fear it.
I bought that and told people that, a bit proud of my new information. Then an American woman who has lived on and off in Italy for about 30 years said she had been noticing photographs of Mussolini appearing in the homes of the rich. She was worried, she said.
The right was getting stronger.
Here, the government is always glad to tell you what is true. A government press official offers to help me. I tell him I am here to go to the towns of my ancestors and he asks me their names. He writes the names down carefully, checking the spelling with me, and then he says he will wire the mayor in the towns and tell them I am coming. Possibly they could help. But the records, he adds, have been destroyed and so have the buildings and so, too, have the people and their communities. His face says there is little hope. In Poland, much of the past has been obliterated.
Understand. Understand that Warsaw, for instance, was almost totally destroyed in the War. The old commercial and cultural section on the left bank of the Vistula is mainly a new city. Sixty per cent of the city's housing stock was built after the war, much of it in the same uninspired architectural sameness. Even the old buildings only look old and most of them, like those in the city's old town, are fastidious restorations. The buildings look as they once looked but the bricks are too new, the buildings to clean, the look to unweathered. The feel is somehow wrong, but still the effort has been made and age will come in time.
In the former ghetto, everything is gone. Not an original house stands and those that now exist have in many cases been built directly over the rubble of the old ones. There are, of course, either no Jews or very few, and if you want to find something to signify that this was once the ghetto and that a great battle was once fought here, you must go to the park that is surrounded by apartment houses. There is a statue there called Monument To The Heroes Of The Ghetto, and it says on it, "The Jewish nation - to its fighters and its martyrs."
Nearby, women push baby carriages and people walk dogs and children play at soccer. Around the corner there is a state-run bakery where the bread was tasty and hot, and a block from the there is number 18 Mila Street, the final redoubt of the ghetto resistance fighters.
There is a small plague on the building. It says the superintendent lives inside.
At night there is a special mass at the Cathedral of St. John. It is in the heart of the old town and like everything else, the cathedral has been restored. Battles were fought in it. It is no stranger to politics and passion and now it is filled with maybe 4,000 people, some of them university students. The service has political overtones. It marks the 59th aniversary of Polish independence, an independence that came at the end of World War I and at the expense of, among others, the Russians.
The place is packed and the heat from so many bodies has filled the cathedral. The singing of a hymn commences and it appears that some of the young people don't know the words. The older ones carry them, and the singing is beautiful, rich. Before me is a man with reddish hair and a black nylon parka and a strong tenor voice. He sings forcefully, wonderfully, and at the conclusion of the hymn, when the bells are sounded, he drops to knee and prays, his eyes closed, his face reflecting commitment. Then he goes off to the front for communion.
And now the hymn is being sund that has various endings. Before independence, it ended, "and grant us a free Poland, oh Lord." After independence it was changed to "and look after our free Poland, oh Lord," and now we are coming up to that line and as if one person the congregation makes a political statement - "and grant us a free Poland, oh Lord." Then the service is over and the crowd moves forward and there is a tremendous crush, much pushing and elbowing by women with fomidable hips and hats that must have been nailed on their heads.
Up at the front, the pressure was awful and you had to plant your feet and push back against the crowd just to hold your place. Below, on the floor, was an army hat and bouguets of flowers and a plague commemorating Marshal Pilsudzki, a national hero who defeated the Russians. Women leaned down and touched their fingers to their lips and then touched the hat and then moved off, shaken. Pretty soon, everyone had left and there was excited talking in the street and then people moved on.
I, too, went off, knowing, of course, that I had been to mass in a Communist country and seeing things that I thought I would not see and not being sure, really, what to make of it all. One thing was certain, though. I know my own emotions and I know what that mass was about.