Judith Baumel

Ground Zero in Warsaw: or Praga chestnuts and Pruszków walnuts

November 8th, 2010

Our friends A & Z are the sort of social-democrat intellectuals we connect with.  Their house in Pruszków is filled with books and arty souvenirs of world travel.  Dinners become advanced seminars with noisy debate and occasional recourse to reference volumes.  When the topic of the “mosque at Ground Zero” comes up, Phil and I roll our eyes assuming an easy solidarity:  Americans can be stupid-crazy.   I do a double-take when Z says the mosque is an offense to the memory of those who died on 9/11.

European memory and American memory might as well be different words since they are surely different concepts.  By  “memory,” they might mean the knee and we, the elbow.

Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski

Most Śląsko-Dąbrowski

It had been a rare sunny October afternoon.  Phil and I walked across the Śląsko-Dąbrowski Bridge from the Castle to Praga, with the Warsawa judaica brochure in hand, following Ruth Gruber’s leads on this left bank neighborhood.   We returned via the Świętokrzyski Bridge past the nearly complete Europe 2012 stadium.   Bicycling families put helmets on their children, hipsters wore tight corduroys and Peruvian knit caps, corner supermarkets sealed their bags of freshly sliced cheese with bar-coded labels.  In other words, we were in a modern city.


In front of the Cathedral of Saints Michael and Florian, a mother and son collected chestnuts in a blue plastic pail.  My father remembers collecting chestnuts with his mother. Maybe he is thinking of Crotona Park, in their early years as immigrants in The Bronx , when immigrants were not necessarily loved but were not automatically suspected terrorists.


About Ground Zero, I say: All Muslims are not terrorists.  All terrorists are not Muslims.

Z: What you say is a fine idea in the mind, but, in my stomach, I can’t accept this.

I repeat,  All Muslims are not terrorists. All terrorists are not Muslim. Two simple statements.

Z: But they are a violent people.

I repeat, Two Simple Statements.

Z: If they are not themselves violent, they are financed by people who are, who will remove their free will.

I repeat, T.S.S.

Z: Financed by people for whom they will be coerced to act.

We are in a house in an exurb of Warsaw.  Pruszków was founded as an independent town.  Its rail hub was significant enough to attract the Nazis who built a transit station in its yards.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews suffered here between the Warsaw ghetto and death.

Memorial Nazi Victims, next to Pruszków station photo by Krzysztof Dudzik

Memorial to Nazi Victims, next to Pruszków station photo by Krzysztof Dudzik

This history is not the first thing that comes to mind when visiting A & Z.  But now, considering how my own city should negotiate past murder and present life, I want to know details.

My question is real, not a debating point.  I admire contemporary Poles for the way they attempt the difficult negotiation.   A & Z, generation of ’68, could offer me a way to think about horror and history.

–I knew you were going to ask that–Z pushes her hand to stay my question–and this is what I have to say. I don’t think.  I feel.  I feel I could not tolerate a German church in the Warsaw ghetto.

Her simultaneous emphasis and deflection of bloody history bothers me.  And Z’s view of Tea Party Patriots as  pure American populists outrages me.   She needs to know about Jane Mayer’s piece “Covert Operations” in The New Yorker.

Z absorbs the information.  I elaborate.  Fred Koch, the father,  made his fortune building oil refineries  for Stalin.

Stalin? —A asks.  Stalin Who?  You don’t mean that Stalin?

The spirit of the great Lenin and his victorious banner encourage us now to the Patriotic War. (Joseph Stalin)"

The spirit of the great Lenin and his victorious banner encourage us now to the Patriotic War...J Stalin

In the silence that necessarily follows this potent proper noun,  I point out that the Park51 Cultural Center proposes renovating a former clothing store blocks from the World Trade Center.    More silence.

A: Which one?

Burlington Coat Factory.

I love Burlington Coat Factory– A says sadly.  It’s really gone?  Century 21 is still there?  Good.  But.  Burlington Coat Factory…

A is moved by this loss. Turning to his wife, he reconsiders  the cultural center:  Z, do you remember that blue blouse I brought back?  The one you always wear? That is from Burlington Coat Factory.

A sighs.

If shopping is not our most admired export, it might be our most appreciated tourist product.

A, Phil, Z

A, Phil, Z

I wish Europeans were not so smug about our terrible civil rights history. America has confronted its idea of  “the other” periodically, as each excluded group is absorbed into the fight against the next.  The process is not a solution but maybe it is a negotiation of identity.  For better and for worse, American History lumbers forward without memory.   Europeans understand “the other” as a problem created by border disputes and war, and solved by –or in the aftermath of–war.   The difference is a matter of knees and elbows.

As Phil and I rush to make the last commuter train back into town, Z slips away.  When she catches up, her hands are full of walnuts from her backyard tree.  The kind of walnuts children stuff into their pockets in case they need a toy or a snack.  The kind of walnuts parents tuck into packs before putting their children on railway journeys.  The kind of nuts that stand in for the affection of an absent parent or an entire world about to be lost.

Z's walnuts

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