In this week’s blog, Evie Woolmore recalls how a weekend in Warsaw inspired a novel.
To arrive in Warsaw by train at the end of the last century was like waking up inside the memories of one of John Le Carre’s characters in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The train had cut a ponderous path through the Czech Republic, slowing but not stopping at tiny concrete stations on a single line track. Through the dirty windows I glimpsed slender, behatted men, always alone, pulling up the collars of their coats, turning a cold shoulder to onlookers as they lit their cigarettes, waiting, always waiting for something. At every border crossing I had been scrutinised by uniformed soldiers, moustachioed, bushy eyebrowed, curious about the British woman travelling alone through their country. The Iron Curtain had long been torn down but its shadow still seemed to fall, gauzy and grey.
It is not surprising I arrived in a contemplative frame of mind as the train pulled into the subterranean central station. When I emerged into the late October afternoon, I realised why Warsaw nestles shops and walkways beneath the streets – because even on a bright sunny day in autumn, the wind is brutal, scouring the plains all the way from Siberia, and whistling across the sheer glass facades of the endless modern buildings that dominate the modern Warsaw skyline. The roads seemed as wide as the buildings were high, perhaps echoing the Wisla River that cuts a swathe through the city, separating the Old Town, the Royal Route and the Jewish Ghetto in the west of the city from Praga to the east of the river, where the Russians waited until the Germans had destroyed the entire city before moving in and claiming it as their own as the Second World War drew to an end.
The city is pockmarked not just with the bullet holes of the 1944 Uprising but with memorials to sacrifice, devastation and discrimination. The land is sinking, not just into the sewers that the Home Army used to move unseen beneath the city, but also through the brick roads that lie beneath the asphalt. Amid the police sirens and the screaming advertising banners that hung from buildings, it was hard to hear the Warsaw that lies beneath, even though its presence is acknowledged in the perfect reconstruction of the Old Town and the heavy metal sculptures of so many heroes, immortalised for all eternity.
In the quiet leafy streets of Muranów that criss-cross the area once walled in to form the Ghetto, I thought I heard something. Silence. Between the Umschlagplatz memorial – etched with the first names of those who were dragged away to the concentration camps – and the rock of the ZOB bunker – a cairn amid a housing estate lit up by glimmering tealights – dozens of utilitarian apartment buildings stand barely tall as if afraid of falling back to earth. Here one community has been rebuilt atop another, and yet I felt as though everyone were holding their breath for others from whom it had been snatched away. I tiptoed, as though afraid of waking the dead. Reconstruction was the obvious solution to restoring life here, yet I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to live on the floor above the basement of history.
In a slim city guidebook* I found words I could not write myself:
“The Muranów housing district was built in the early 1950s directly on top of the levelled rubble of the former ghetto. To this day, the walls of those buildings keep cracking as the rubble ground-fill continues to settle…..”
And I wondered whether those who live there heard its echo too, as the present sinks and the past beneath it rises up, bearing secrets to the present.
* from Warszawa zburzona i odbudowana (Warsaw Ruined and Rebuilt) by Jablonski and Zielinski, 1999