Last Sunday morning the sun was shining when I left my hotel in Mszana Dolna, Poland, on the Raba River, a tributary of the Vistula (a name shared with a clothing store for women in Kraków). The town is hilly and surrounded by modest mountains covered with trees and pastures. In May, Mszana Dolna is intensely green, and lilacs, chestnut trees and wildflowers are blooming. My plan, which was no plan at all, was to spend the day walking around the town and surrounding hills, taking pictures and notes. I said hello to a boy fixing the front tire on his bike and to another who was fishing in the Raba. As in America, vandals commonly spray-paint graffiti on walls and signs, but only in Krakow on my first day in Poland did I see the words “ANTY JUDE” in black on the side of a building.
A light rain was falling as I walked out of a church and was about to cross a bridge over the Raba. Nearby was a park dense with chestnut trees where hundreds of crows were cawing. Using the trees as cover I circled the perimeter of the park until I came to the back of a stone monument I hadn’t noticed before. The central shaft of granite is about fifteen feet tall. On top is the Polish eagle and below it a cross. Under the cross is a plaque explaining that the monument is dedicated to the victims of “Hitleryzmu i Stalinizmu” – Hitlerism and Stalinism.
A commonplace of historical understanding is that Hitler and Stalin were twins of a sort, each the evil reflection of the other, but to see their names linked so forthrightly and publically in Poland was breathtaking. Timothy Snyder writes in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010):
“In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to Western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. During the consolidation of National Socialism and Stalinism (1933-1938), the joint German-Soviet occupation of Poland (1939-1941), and then the German-Soviet war (1941-1945), mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon the region.”
A monument in Mszana Dolna I didn’t see and only learned of after returning to the U.S. on Wednesday honors the 881 Jews from the town who were murdered by the Nazis on June 15, 1942, and buried in a mass grave. Among the fourteen million cited by Snyder was the great Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jew shot and killed by a Gestapo officer five months after the Mszana Dolna massacre. Schulz died in Drohobych, Ukraine, about three hundred kilometers east of Mszana Dolna. In his story “Nimrod” (The Street of Crocodiles), Schulz writes:
“Ah, life!—young and fragile life, sent forth from the dependable darkness, from the snug warmth of the maternal womb, into a great and unfamiliar, illuminated world! How it flinches and draws back, filled with aversion and discouragement! How it hesitates to accept the venture proposed to it!”