Daffodils to Remember

Daffodils planted around the old Jewish quarter of Warsaw

Wandering in Warsaw can be a bit fragile.  I transverse its streets, engrossed in errands and mundanities.  Then, I stumble upon a stone cross on a nondescript street corner.  It commemorates 58 people who were murdered on this spot.  Tiny fissures let me see through the modern city to the ashes beneath, where everyday places are scarred by massacre.

Yesterday was one of those moments where the banal rends just a bit.  Teenagers, alternating between eager and timid, approached strangers and offered them a paper daffodil, and an explanation.  They engaged curious tourists and waiting taxi drivers.  Paper flowers served as an invitation to remember.

All because 76 years ago an evil man wanted to give his demented leader a sick version of a birthday present.  And a group of Warsaw Jews, who were to be the sacrificial offering, stood and said, “No more.”  Not because they thought they could forestall their deaths.  No.  The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was simply a choice to face that death in a manner of their own choosing.  An act of defiance this futile feels all the more transcendent.

Daffodils outside the Polin, the Museum of the History of the Jews in Poland

On bulovards throughout the old Jewish quarter, daffodils stand in silent memorial.  Nature unfolds her annual remembrance in brilliant shades of yellow.

Passers by stop to pull out their cell phones.  They smile, adjusting their chin’s angle in the camera.  With a few clicks their online status is updated.

Daffodils are strewn on the statue of Jan Karski in commemoration of the 76th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Nearing the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, people mill about in loose groups.  I take up residence near four elderly Frenchwomen.  They pass around a guide book, reading aloud relevant passages.  They are a equal parts baffled and dazzled by this commemoration they’ve stumbled upon.

At noon, the sirens blare.  The muted shuffling of feet is the only interruption to our silence.  Cellphones wave above the crowd, in an effort to digitize this moment.

A line of dignitaries shuffles forward.  Uniformed guards intersperse their ranks to carry their offerings.  A snare drum rolls its incessant beat, punctuated at regular intervals by a demanding snap.

A row of three men, dapper in suits, works their way slowly through the crowd.  The last of them has a shock of snowy hair that barely reaches my shoulder.  His suit jacket engulfs his frail frame.  When they make it to the front of the crowd they are welcomed to a place of honor in the procession.

We stand, barely pressed in a crowd.  The air smells like Spring.  We’re all clean and well-fed.  Women clip along the cobbled stones in expensive heels that pinch their toes.  The guns are ceremonial.  There is no barbed wire here.

A woman in a smart suit and cropped silver hair brushes past me.  I glimpse her tattered red and white armband, symbolic of another Uprising.

A tiny boy struggles to open his binder of music.  A high soprano voice rings through the square.  It sings a lament whose words are lost on me but whose emotion is not.  A woman turns and walks out of the crowd, wiping her tear-streaked cheeks.

And then the music ends.  The officials have returned to their offices.  The cameramen pack up their equipment.  Parting words are exchanged.  The crowd trickles off.

The menorah is lit on the Heroes of the Ghetto Monument in commemoration of the 76th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Wreaths laid at the Heroes of the Ghetto Monument in commemoration of the 76th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Heroes of the Ghetto Monument covered in wreaths and flowers in commemoration of the 76th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The steps are heavy with flowers.  Ribbons proclaim the organizations who commemorate with pomp and circumstance.  The statues are littered with daffodils—anonymous tokens of remembrance.  A woman shuffles to the monument, arms full of blossoms.  She tucks yellow buds in crooks and crannies.  Bronze is abloom in remembering.

Daffodils planted around the old Jewish quarter of Warsaw

I got on a bus and watched Warsaw saunter past me.  At home I opened all the windows.  The weather was perfect.  We’ve seen nothing but sunny skies for a week.  The tiniest hint of a breeze floated inside.  I wondered if the day in 1943 was this mild.  Could they feel the whisper of a breeze in the cramped alleys of the ghetto?

I wore a paper daffodil on my chest and peeled potatoes for dinner.