Heartprints by Nellwyn Lampert
I come from a family of broken hearts. Perhaps they all broke together, long ago, when the Germans marched into Warsaw in September 1939. I, however, arrive by taxi. I’m driven right into the heart of Ulica Nowy Swiat, one of Warsaw’s main historic arteries, which translates to English as ‘New World Street’. I suppose it must have looked like a New World to the Germans. After all, isn’t that what we like to call the fresh conquests of our empires?
You don’t always know when your heart is breaking; it can take six to eight hours for the evidence of a heart attack to show up on a blood test. My father spent a long day in February 2013 in a Toronto emergency room while we waited and wondered how many decades it takes to mend such things.
Nowy Swiat today looks almost like any other European high street. Cafes and restaurants spill their terraces onto the sidewalks, and an H&M occupies prime corner real estate. On the way to the Old Town, Nowy Swiat changes names and we come to Renaissance churches, Neoclassical government buildings, and a university whose facade can’t help but evoke the spirit of learning. But, despite the new name, the street is still a relatively new world. Over ninety percent of the Warsaw I see today was built after 1945. I doubt it’s exactly what the Germans had in mind for their conquest, but if it was their goal to change the landscape of a city for a thousand years to come, then I daresay they were quite successful.
In September 1939, my grandmother was nine years old, the only child of wealthy parents from a large Polish-Jewish family. They had a colour movie camera when Hollywood was only just beginning to see in Technicolor. On his frequent business trips to London, my great-grandfather would bring gifts of the finest Polish deserts from Blikle’s bakery-cafe.
Blikle’s has survived on Nowy Swiat for over a century, long enough to see me walk through its front doors. Eyeing poppyseed cakes and plum donuts, I fold time back over itself to see my grandmother as a child, standing next to her father and choosing deserts, two hearts as yet unbroken.
In September 1939, my great-great-grandmother lived a few doors away from Blikle’s. She was paralyzed from a stroke and could only say one word: sam. Translation: alone. My grandmother once told me about how her family used to dine there every Sunday, and she would have first pick of the Blikle cakes. I don’t know where my grandmother was when the Germans first came to that door on Nowy Swiat, demanding that the family abandon their home. I don’t know who asked that they be given time to move my elderly and paralyzed great-great- grandmother. I don’t know whose idea it was that a German soldier should help move her. All I know is that the rest of my family stood in the street and listened to the gunshots as he shot her dead in her bed.
When I return home to Toronto from Warsaw in November 2013, I bring my grandmother chocolates from Blikle’s. She smiles and passes them around. She asks me to tell her about the foods I tasted in the old country, and I realize that I’ve never seen her eat red meat. She had a heart attack in the 1980s on the surgical table of a Toronto hospital, but she lived. Some people are born to be survivors.
From what was once a large and prosperous family, only five survived the Second World War. Two of my great-great-uncles and my great-grandmother moved to Canada. One by way of Shanghai and the Venezuelan mines. A great-aunt by marriage moved to Israel, and no one is quite sure what has happened to her family since. My grandmother chose to stay in Warsaw where she attended the Academy of Fine Arts, married a Polish Gentile, and had one son. From a large cluster of hearts, only a few remained unpicked. But oh--those ones that did survive! How ripe they must be by now. How juicy.
In Ontario in 1992, my little brother was given our great-grandfather’s name. The name that was arrested in Warsaw and sent to Auschwitz where it was killed. But his brother, my great- great-uncle, managed to escape to England. Only a person who was destined for survival would then join the British Army and return to the Continent to fight the very men who’d driven him away. Stalwart heart. He became a motorcycle messenger on behalf of His Majesty King George VI, the British Empire, and the Western Allied Nations.
My great-great-uncle was blown off his motorbike by an SS sniper in the middle of a mission one day in the early 1940s. His helmet took the bullet intended for his heart. Thinking quickly, he fired a round into the tops of each of the five tall trees he could see. A branch fell down from one, but nothing more. Where was the German? After escaping the ghetto and surviving a sniper’s bullet to the head, was his life going to end crouched in the grass beneath a poplar tree? He crawled forward, but when he came to the branch he’d seen fall it wasn’t a branch at all. It was the Nazi. Dead. In Canada in 1968, he showed my father the ribbon he’d taken off the dead man’s uniform as his prize. My great-great-uncle died, before I was born, of hereditary heart disease.
My grandmother survived the war with the help of fake identification papers, a convent school for girls, and a scarf tied tightly around her flaming red hair. Today she carries a double- barrel last name. The first half was entirely made up as part of her war-time identity, but has since become a part of her legal name in Canada. It’s been well used, well appreciated, and she saved it just-in-case. But this fake family name will die with her because, as with so many old things, the younger generation believes we have no use for it anymore. We believe we will never again have to hide. Not from our names, at least.
My father and grandmother came to Canada as displaced peoples in 1968 as the result of Polish anti-Jewish pogroms. Now, here in Toronto, we speak only English and French and celebrate Christmas. We don’t hear stories of Warsaw or of the good times in the old country. We don’t speak of heart attacks or high cholesterol. We don’t name the people we lost. I had to cross an ocean and stand on the ground where it happened, before the past could finally come rushing in. My father told me:
Here is the place where we lived.
Here is the place we went to school.
Here is the place we had tea and cakes.
And here is the place where they were taken away.
I know very little about my grandmother’s mother, and I learned nothing new from
visiting the city where she lived, raised her child, and lost her husband. The facts I know are as follows:
She was very beautiful. She turned my grandmother away from her doorstep in the middle of the war for fear of discovery. She emigrated to Canada sometime between 1945 and 1965. She died of hereditary heart disease. I look just like her.
My father eats no meat, jogs, does yoga, and practices Zen Buddhism through daily meditation and yearly spiritual retreats to the Appalachians. But even his balanced living could not keep a heart attack at bay. He lived and we learned. Health of body and soul are no match for a legacy of broken hearts. For now, our deaths hang only in the distance: my grandmother’s, my father’s, my siblings’, and mine. But I can feel my heart beating, and when I rest my head on a man’s chest I can’t bear to hear the sound of blood moving through his body. It reminds me of the fragility of the human heart.
In October 2013, I stand in the last streets my ancestors walked and I wonder if the very act of their making it through the Holocaust has damaged all of our hearts. Is it grief and loss that puts this strain in our chests? I must ask myself how far are we to carry the wounds of the past? I survived no war, I lost no one, and I came to Nowy Swiat as a tourist; but this old world and its ghosts still beat in my heart, refusing to be forgotten.