A beclouded sky descends over Powązki Cemetery on All Saints’ Day. Outside its brick perimeter, a carnival-like atmosphere entices cemetery goers to buy hot dogs, pretzels, pańska skórka (the Lord’s crust), flowers and memorial candles. Police officers in neon green vests patrol the area, and vans supporting the weight of satellite dishes tell of forthcoming news reports. Two young men dressed as 17th century Polish nobles stand in front of the cemetery’s wrought iron gates soliciting contributions for the restoration of one of Warsaw’s oldest cemeteries established in 1790. Above these earthly activities rises the stately Saint Karol Boromeusz Church with its patina domes and cupolas.
Upon passing through the gates named after the virginal Saint Honorata, I enter the necropolis, city of the dead, where many of Poland’s famous lay buried. Decaying, moss-covered graves made of granite and sandstone interspersed with graves of marble endlessly claim the landscape. Angel statues hold vigil over the dead and the living under trees with branches bare and crooked like long, bony fingers pointing to a gray sky. Fresh, technicolored flowers and lit candles placed on many of the tombstones ease my thanatophobia and quiet the line that has been playing on a loop since I’ve entered the cemetery: “They’re coming to get you, Barbara!”
The ease proves ephemeral, for I soon see an old man with a long beard and mustache crouched on top of a tombstone. His eyes under the hood of his robe follow me when I walk by as if judging my morbid motive to gawk at the dead. Underneath his statue form reads Sic Transit Gloria Mundi – “Thus Passes the Glory of the World.” This grave belongs to the family of Jerzy Lanokowski, a lieutenant in Homeland Army during WWII.
Turning onto a narrow, dirt path, I inspect closer these imposing graves. Names and dates engraved on a single headstone intrigue me. Family members buried in one site, and no marker to indicate which family member is buried where unlike in the US where each grave marker denotes the person buried there, where loved ones lie side-by-side. A spatial impossibility here. Family members are stacked one on top another. This cultural difference in burying the dead reminds me of how Europe and the US accommodate expanding populations: Europeans build up and Americans build out.
Intricately carved headstones stand in juxtaposition of sleek, minimalist marble ones, but the cracked and sunken headstones with engravings rubbed off like palimpsests call to me. I tiptoe closer, respectful of the graves’ boundaries, searching for names, dates, anything I can read to locate them in time. So far, the earliest graves I have seen date back to the 1800s, but these ones might be older. Neither candles nor flowers adorn them. They are the forgotten ones. The active force of these dead upon my psyche sends me mentally searching for my ancestors. Forebears spread across Europe and North America – forgotten lives by now . . . just as mine will be one day.
As I survey the territory of the dead, a vision of a graceful, young woman appears among the weary statues. Red roses blanket her tombstone as if thrown onto the stage after a breath-taking performance. Theater actor and singer Barbara Bobrowska is buried here. Acting that one is dying and the agonal actuality of death are distinctive experiences which only actors are privy to. Pity I cannot ask Ms. Bobrowska about her final act and how it compared to her theater death scenes.
In front of many headstones lay tombstones affixed with large, iron rings to make the work of removing the slab feasible. I become fearful as my imagination creates a scenario of a person waking from a coma and finding herself buried alive. The absence of a bell above ground with a string attached to it that leads below into her coffin and tied around her finger would seal her fate. Oh, the despair of being alive and dead. I lean closer and then listen for screams. Nothing.
I stroll along another path. Old people clutch cloth bags stuffed with candles and flowers, young lovers hold hands, parents push strollers, children skip through dry leaves and one child rides a switchboard. Theater actors shake metal donation boxes half-filled with coins that resonate throughout the cemetery, reminding visitors that this necropolis requires the living to maintain its existence. I peek in mausoleums, marvel at sculptures, and read names on headstones to practice my Polish like “Brzozowskich.” My mind comprehends the letters but not the sounds. So, I parcel out the digraphs and backtrack to the beginning of the word and sound it out: B-rz (the “rz” like “su” as in “treasure”)-o-zof-sk-i-ch (“i” as in “ski” and “ch” like the “h” in “Hans”). Good! Now all together. Brzkich. I’ll practice later.
A cluster of graves carries the symbol Polska Walcząca (Fighting Poland). This symbol seen throughout Warsaw consists of the letters “P” and “W.” The “W” is underneath the “P” and uses the stem of the “P” to form the middle of the letter. Because the “W” is drawn to look like an anchor, Polska Walcząca is also referred to as Kotwica (Anchor). It’s a weighty, historical symbol that had undergone permutations in how it was drawn but has always represented Polish resistance against German occupiers, particularly during the Warsaw Uprising. Anna Smoleńska, a fighter in the resistance and designer of the symbol’s best-known form, has a headstone here. She died at a concentration camp.
The glow of candles intensifies against a dusky sky. The scent of wax and the periodic pungent odor of burnt plastic from candle holders waft through the chilly air mingling with a lone violinist’s “Ave Maria.” The paths become crowded and three garbage bins overflow with broken candle holders, dead flowers and plastic bags. After dodging more strollers and a Polish tour group stopping midstride to consult their maps, I arrive at the catacombs and navigate down the steps in near dark. Lit candles dot the walkway, but one area farther away glows like a lone ember among ashes, beckoning me toward the symbolic grave of victims, including Jews, who had died in concentration camps. I seem capable of only responding to sensory stimuli: the warmth generated from the candles, the silence of the people gathered here, the distant shake of a donation box. A mother kneels to help her daughter light a candle and place it with the others.
On my way to Saint Karol Boromeusz Church, I inadvertently get caught in the middle of a reunion. Family members hug and kiss cheeks as I maneuver around them while enjoying this unexpected convivial moment. Their laughter receding behind me, the sky darkens, which makes walking on the path difficult, but I follow the church’s light and that leads me to another memorial. This one is for the victims of the 1940 Katyń massacre. The Russian secret police executed thousands of Polish prisoners of war, many of them officers and intellectuals, and buried their bodies in the Katyń Forest in Russia. Although most of the bodies remain there, the victims and the crime are not forgotten. Again, there is a sea of flickering lights, and again, I see a mother kneel to her child to help him light a candle. People take pictures, people talk, people walk from one side of the memorial to the other. Somehow these movements reassure me that this tragedy hasn’t immobilized them. Something I felt aboutmyself for a few years after 9/11.
I enter the church, and my eyes light upon the gold leaf on the crown molding and on the halos of Jesus and other figures depicted in biblical scenes painted outside the apse. A wall next to the alter swathed in yellow flowers displays a statue of the crucifixion of Jesus, his crown of thorns and loin cloth also in gold leaf. An unlit, ornate chandelier hangs above a handful of people praying below in the pews. It’s cold in here and silent except for a muffled cough that echoes throughout the cavernous church.
I walk back outside and into the darkness of Powązki Cemetery. Within that void, shivers candlelight to the low thrum of murmurs from unseen people. Near me, a struck match illuminates a child’s face and crackles as the fire burns down its wooden stem. The child blows out the fading flame amidst the stillness of the dead.
Jill Boyles’ work has appeared in Toasted Cheese, The Ilanot Review, and Reunion: The Dallas Review, among other publications. She holds an MFA and was the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and a finalist for the Jerome Grant. She’s currently working on a novel. Her website is jillboyles.com.