In Kraków. Yesterday, around lunchtime, as I hiked across town to get from one walking tour to another, I suddenly caught myself smiling —
in the ghetto.
I had let my mind wander, and, apparently, it chose to wander to someone I loved. Meanwhile, just meters up ahead and around the corner from where I caught myself grinning like a schoolgirl was a memorial square where the Nazis used to round people up for deportation, made them prove their “fitness” by doing ridiculous exercises, forced them to abandon their belongings, and, sadly, also committed mass murder. But I wasn’t thinking of this. I was thinking of love. And while my immediate reaction was to feel guilty for “forgetting myself,” letting my heart warm and letting myself smile in a place of so much pain. . . then I remembered my counterparts: other women in another time, walking the same streets in the era when the horrors were going on — and it occurred to me that they probably smiled about love sometimes too. Certainly, I was not the only one in history whose day had been brightened by a memory of love.
Love does this. Love is not put off by misery or terror; it’s completely undaunted by it. Even in the middle of war, people fall in love. The Nazis had lots of laws that took aim at love and sex, and codified methods of dealing with such “infractions,” but the fact that history is filled with stories, photographs, videos, and other records of these heartbreaking reprisals is proof in itself that the Nazis’ absolutely failed to ensnare the human heart.
So, a few hours later, at the end of the second walking tour, with those reflections behind me, I found myself in the courtyard of the SS headquarters. A place where (among other operations) prisoners were detained, interrogated, tortured, and executed. I decided to descend into the basement, where the prisoners were held, to read the messages they had scratched into their cells. These messages seemed to appear in three different types: Wonderings-why (“warum?” asked one man in German). Prayers for mercy (so many invocations of God, of Jesus, of the Virgin of Częstochowa). . . And love notes.
Imagine that. You’re in an SS prison, your world has collapsed, there is no hope, and you? You’re daydreaming and reminiscing about love.
One couple, Halina and Tunek, had scratched their names not just into the wooden door, but also into the thick plaster walls, inside a heart that was pierced with an arrow and crowned with tiny striations that evoked the light and the thorns of the Catholic Sacred Heart, their love for each other shining somehow borderline-religious. Divine.
Now. Consider: if the Gestapo had you in custody and didn’t already have your beloved detained — or if there was any chance that they might not have your beloved detained (or even identified). . . and if your “crime” involved being a rebel against the Reich — spy, smuggler, assassin, anything involving subterfuge — my guess is, you wouldn’t dare breathe the name of your beloved. Anything to protect them from your own fate. Those names, I would guess, never appeared on prison walls. The museum attendant concurred with this and told me that she believed Halina and Tunek were probably detained together. Therefore, there was no such danger in naming names. They could declare their devotion to one another freely. (In fact, if you look closely, you’ll notice the handwriting is not entirely the same from one inscription to the next.)
Every letter etched into the walls of that prison was heart-rending, but the love inscriptions seemed to speak to something beautiful and transcendental about the human soul. In your terror, your agony, your hopelessness. . . some might bargain, some might question, and some might turn to God. But there is the other choice: to turn to love. To find strength there. To make love your focus so that the rest can fall away. Even in the depths of your despair, to be filled with gratitude and wonder for the fact that Heaven blessed you with the fact of this person’s existence. To realize that you just might be facing the end of your life — and to decide that you will make love your very last creed, manifesto, word, and thought.
I heard a line from Hafiz in my head then: “When all your desires are distilled, you will cast just two votes: to love more, and be happy.” These were people who, when EVERYTHING was distilled, clearly cast their votes to do even more loving. With waning hours and numbered breaths — love had been their choice.
I don’t feel guilty anymore for letting love catch me in the ghetto. Love finds its way into ghettos and prisons — into any hell — quite naturally. And it absolutely has every right to be there. There is no prison love cannot penetrate. No darkness it cannot light.
How very lucky we are for that.
God bless Halina and Tunek. God bless all the Halinas and Tuneks.