The Dead Forest, or Coming to Terms with (Heart) Failure
The Mermaid of Warsaw
During the second half of winter term at LAMDA, we workshopped a production of Tirso de Molina’s play Don Juan or The Trickster of Seville. This play was a struggle for me—it wasn’t the challenge of playing a character who was off center for my type, it was the fact that I found the protagonist of the play to be absolutely loathsome. I can find something redeeming in most any character but Don Juan just leaves a foul taste in my mouth. I do not find him to be particularly charming or witty or even all that clever in his trickery—-he is, in the truest sense of the word, a total schmuck.
Don Juan, that seventeenth century myth, that cavalier and casual exploiter of women, is a grand contributor to the reason why I, a twenty first century woman, am routinely met with shock and surprise and concern when I inform people that I will be traveling on my own, sans the supervision or protection of any male persons.
The world will tell you that, as a solo female traveler, bad things will happen to you. Bad things happen to you on your own block in the best neighborhood in the world. Now, I say this with the privilege of a white, solo female traveler and I guarantee you the experience is different and more complex to navigate as a traveling solo woman of color. However, I think all women are taught this fundamental principal of fear—-that the minute we are alone we should be afraid. Because we are not enough. Because we are not strong enough, smart enough, capable enough to take care of ourselves. We are more than enough.
In Don Juan, my character, Catalinón, proclaims “Let all the men in the world be brave.” I would beg a revision. Let all the women in the world be brave. Perhaps even more so, let all the women in world discover they are brave. You are alive and reading this, you are a woman that exists in this day and age. That is an act of bravery in and of itself.
From the window of the airplane, the landscape of Poland reminds me of a wooden floor: little strips of land in shades of bright green, mild green, grey green, and a few lines of brown as an accent molding. The lakes and rivers glisten like mud puddles full of earth and life and possibly a hippo. They’re bordered by large twisting sand banks that remind you of some lazy primordial beast that’s gone down for a nap but could suddenly be provoked from it’s slumber.
One of the first things I see after I get off the plane at the Warsaw Chopin airport is a sanitation advertisement: a picture of a dirty toilet and hands with screaming mouths—-it’s the little things that make us feel at home. I’ve never been here and yet there is a certain familiarity to the city, the shadows of my travels in Beijing and Dhaka hang upon the buildings. There is a resilience to this place that draws me in; I like cities that are unrepentant in their toughness—it reminds of the Brooklyn of my childhood. It appears I have resting Polish face. Walking down the main boulevard (Nowy Świat) it suddenly occurs to me how long it’s been since I’ve walked around anywhere without my headphones in. There is music everywhere: Chopin plays from benches, and every time they stop, the trams sound like a cacophony of fireworks being set off by mischievous hobbits.
My first evening there, I wander through Warsaw in a delirium—intoxicated by the warmth of the city at night and by my own war cry for independence. Because that’s what it feels like, a grand proclamation reclaiming sole ownership over what I will and won’t do. I choose this. I choose Poland. The profundity and the satisfaction of being the sole arbitrator of my choices floods me with warmth.
Of all the countries on my journey, Poland is the one that most often raises an eyebrow. I’m not Polish, I don’t know anyone in Poland, so why I am I going there? Why Poland? Why Warsaw? Because of a zookeeper, a war, and a forest.
In the emotional fall out of ending an emotionally abusive relationship, I found myself taking refuge, as always, in the comfort of my books. I started reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by adore Diane Ackerman. I can’t explain what draws me to certain books at certain moments but in the chaos, I pulled it off the shelf and hid myself inside its pages. The novel is an unobtrusive testament to what humans can endure, and all the more searing because of its simplicity. Somehow, despite all the books or films I had collected about WWII, the story of Poland, of Warsaw had remained a hazy mention.
Poland has the very unfortunate burden of being in the very middle of Europe, making it necessary for any aspiring autocrat to conquer it. It is a nation not unused to being attacked. But WWII was something different. Hitler, in no uncertain terms, had it out for Poland. His obsession with the ‘purification of the species’ did not apply to Poland simply in terms of its people but “through eugenics the Nazis meant to erase Poland’s genes from the planet, rip out its roots, crush its hips and tubers, replace its seeds with their own” (The Zookeeper’s Wife). The annihilation of its people wasn’t enough; the whole of Poland, its roots, its soul, were to be wiped off the face of the Earth. Engulfed in this environment of total animosity, Jan Żabińsk and Antonina Żabińska (the zookeeper and his wife), become leading figures of the Polish Resistance: playing major roles in the Warsaw Uprising and personally aiding in the rescue of 300 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto. Impossible to separate from their story is the story of Warsaw.
As Jan and Antonina were forced to dismantle their zoo, they watched as portions of it were coopted by the Nazis, set ablaze, or decimated by the torrent of bombs that would reign over Warsaw for the duration of the war. By the end of the War, eighty five percent of the city was demolished, and a city with a pre-war population of 1.3million barely had a thousand people living amongst its ruins. Jan and Antonia’s animals were shipped off to other zoos, or killed, either shot out right or perishing in the unending bombardment of the city. The fear and terror experienced by the people of Warsaw can only be made worse by the echo of the fear those animals felt: “The elephants trumpeted wildly, the hyenas sobbed in a frightened sort of giggle interrupted by hiccups, the African hunting dogs howled, and the rhesus monkeys, agitated beyond sanity, battle one another, their hysterical shrieks clawing the air.” Yet there were a handful of animals that were spared this horror, preserved by a perverse twist of fate.
During the War, Lutz Heck was the director of Germany’s largest, principal zoo. He, and his brother Heinz, used the war as a means for pillaging the zoos of Eastern Europe to add to their own collection. The brothers were no mere profiteers, not just carpetbaggers building an empire off of the destruction of nations; they were active disciples of Nazism. Hitler’s eugenicist philosophy aligned perfectly with the brothers’ passion project. The Hecks were obsessed with trying to revive extinct animals and they believed they could do so through their selective breeding program. Basically, they believed that by “breeding back,” they could recreate animals that had gone extinct. Breeding back is a type of artificial selection based upon the idea that by breeding modern day animals with similar phoneme types to their ancestral relations, the ancient animals could be bred from their present day, pure blood descendants. (Please note, this methodology is in no way successful at resurrecting dead species. All it does, at best, is create new breeds.)
Despite their occupation, the Heck brothers were prolific hunters in their own right, and as a symbol of their loyalty to the Nazi cause they wanted to create a paradise for the Nazi elite, a eugenicist’s ideal hunting ground, full of ancient animals, pure specimens of a time before the ‘degeneration of man.’ Amongst other animals, the Hecks took from the Warsaw Zoo their precious and prized herd of European bison (at the start of the war there were less than one hundred of these bison alive, and all in captivity.) But where to put their pillaged plunder? What ancient, undisturbed spot of land existed in Europe? Was there possibly a place that remained untouched by all the greats wars of Europe’s history? Funnily enough, there is. On the border of Poland and Belarus sits the Bialowieza Forest.
The forest of Bialowieza is a realm of magic, a preserved portion of a world that no longer exists. It is myth and fairytales. It is old-growth. It is the last trace of the forest that once stretched across the European plane. It is primeval. What is it to be primeval? It is to be untouched by humanity. In this small corner of the world, in a land where the scars of humanity’s batterings are etched into the dirt, there exits this forest which has defied man’s clumsy damage. It is unaffected by humankind. It is not orchestrated, nothing planted, nothing moved, it is the forest it always has been and was always meant to be. It has been left alone to tend itself.
And I was moved. What kind of place must this forest be to defy centuries of potential destruction? What was this wood that could bewitch royalty and mass murderers, rendering them all awestruck? And it was this. It was this forest, this kings’ forest, this primordial forest, this forest of endurance, of survival, that compelled me to come to Warsaw.
To get to the forest, from Warsaw, takes about five hours by public transport. It takes four hours and two trains to get to Hajnowka, the last small town stop on the way to the forest. Hajnowka is filed with the same wood-smoke of the Long Island Sound during the fall. Eastern autumns and Polish springs both smell of smoldering earth. From there it’s another forty five minute bus ride, through the unprotected parts of the forest, the bits that have been stripped of their primal nature, and are now just trees on the edge of town. Old ladies in all black leather outfits emerge from the dense wood like globs of salvia the spruces have hurled out to spit shine passersby. I get to the edge of the national park and my guide leads me across an open field to the secret preserve. And then there I am.
There are places we are drawn to that we cannot explain, that we cannot justify. Places we must go simply because we are called to them. And as I stood in the midst of that forest I felt a sudden satisfaction rising within me. This was mine, this memory, this moment was powerfully and profoundly mine.
There are many people who go to the forest and find it disappointing. It looks messy and wrong, a forest that appears to be distinctly un-forest like. The forest is left to its own devices and, save for a few paths to help one find the way, nothing is touched, nothing is moved, nothing is fixed or corrected. Plants are not placed, flowers are not cultivated, dead trees trunks are not removed. Everything is simply let alone. The first time you set foot in the forest, you understand that you’ve never truly seen a forest before. I’d never before realized how curated my perception of the natural world was; how so many of the forests I had considered to be sweeping territories of naturalism were, in fact, stylized, the natural as decided and arranged by the caretakers of the place. But not here. Not in this place. Here chaos and beauty and life and death coexisted.
Life is innately messy. It is incredible the amount of time we dedicate to trying to clean it up, trying to make it presentable. We’re so quick to remove our perceived imperfections. We tidy up death, we put it away somewhere polite, somewhere safe. We don’t embrace it, we don’t allow it to have a place in our lives. But death is just as natural as life. I’ve come to the age where I am suddenly confronted by the mortality of the people I love. Suddenly, my friends and I are aware that those little aches and pains our parents complain about, aren’t so little as they once were.
My father’s in heart failure. Or, rather, in heart failure recovery. He had a heart attack and he didn’t know and slowly the muscles of his heart have of been crumbling, growing weaker and weaker. His heart is breaking, failing him, which seems impossible because he has the biggest heart I know. How could his heart possibly fail him when it’s always been there for me? And while he is in recovery and working to be as healthy as he can, for the first time as an adult, I am faced with the fact that I will one day exist in a world without my father. I hope with all my heart that that world is many, many, many, many years away but, for the first, I realize that what happens to everyone else will happen to me. It doesn’t seem feasible. For the world to go on after my parents. Surely time will just cease. Though I know it won’t, it never has. What do we do? What do we do when those tall oaks that have formed the roots of our memory, of our lives, of our personhood, what do we do when they finally fall? We let them be. We let them decompose.
Things die. People, relationships, dreams, they die. We give them a life but we don’t allow them a decomposition. Instead we bury them, cut them down, scorch the earth. We’re not comfortable living side by side with death, we see it as an impediment not a partner.
On my (long, long) way home from the forest, my bus passes a local cemetery. The graves themselves are gray or black, symmetrical, uniform, in and of themselves not a spectacle. There’s no green in this cemetery—not like the mossy, earthen cemeteries I am accustomed to seeing in the States. But there are flowers, spilling, swirling, all over the graves, blanketing them in a network of gold, violet, azure, and cream. They are not flowers that naturally grow there—-it’s not the wild unkempt beauty of an English grave—it’s a typhoon of color through diligence, from the weekly, if not daily, act of bringing more, new flowers. And this celebration, this vibrant testimonial doesn’t look garish or misplaced, they work in tandem.
Warsaw is a city that lives amongst fallen oaks. It is a place where death is not obscured, not suppressed. Tragic loss happened here. But life goes on around these sites of pain and suffering.
There’s almost nothing left of the old Warsaw ghetto, just a fragment of a wall. It’s not in a museum but in the courtyard of a present day apartment building. I found myself weaving between raindrops and concrete passageways as I moved through this residential urban garden. I finally find it, off to the side. The rain has begun to pour. There’s no fence or barrier so I go right up to the wall and place my hand on it. What a strange thing these bricks are, so full of life, so full of death. Somehow, in that moment, it makes sense, to have this momentous reminder of suffering be in this inconspicuous place. Perhaps there could be no greater testament to this monument, this reminder, than the simple knowledge: life has continued.
The last fragment of the Warsaw Ghetto wall
The bison are thriving now. In their sacred sanctuary in Bialowieza, they have returned from the brink of death and extinction. Spared by a twist of fate, the protection of Bialowieza works her magic once more. Today Warsaw exists as a painstaking reconstruction of the city it once was. It’s grown from the rubbles of ruin, breathing forth another life from decomposition. I climb to the top of St. Anne’s church in the city center, and look at over the (reconstructed new) old town as the sun begins to descend. On my tour of the forest, after seeing yet another decaying trunk, I asked my guide if this was considered a dead forest? He turned and very simply said, “Does this place sound dead to you?”
The bells of St. Anne’s wrung out across the bustling square and Warsaw was aglow with heat and life and I thought “No, it sounds utterly alive.”
Warsaw will always make me think of spruce trees, benches playing Chopin, bus stops without signs, sweet pierogies, six hundred year old oaks, bison grass vodka, Elizabeth Taylor pastries, mermaids, the best graffiti, cemeteries of color, a forest fit for fairytales, resistance and hope, uprisings and preservation, wreckage and rebuilding, of life and death.
What a city it was. What a city it is.
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