Two weeks ago I was in Poland, and the whole country was celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of their favored, most beloved musician, Fredyryk Chopin. Here’s what I wrote one day while there:
I’m riding in a Mercedes touring coach with twenty-eight lovely people from the SF Bay Area through the incredibly green and at this point sopping wet countryside on the way from Warsaw to Krakow. We stopped some way outside Warsaw to visit the grounds of a Chopin park, wherein is located the small house in which he was born. The landscaping of the park is in many places so recent the plants are barely six inches tall, but in other areas, there are lilac bushes waving overhead, dripping in the light rain, and exuding the heavenly fragrance that only fresh lilacs in the May rain can send forth. I was reminded of growing up in Illinois where lilacs were profuse—I so miss that smell in California, where it doesn’t get cold enough in the winter (at least along the coast) to grow lilacs properly.
We have been treated to three piano concerts of Chopin’s music in the last two days, one of them in a huge park with open air seating for Sunday concerts throughout the spring, summer and fall. The other two were private concerts arranged just for our tour group, the last one in the living room of the Chopin family home where he was born. The pianists (all of them women, one very young) were excellent performers, award-winners of various Chopin competitions. What makes these performances particularly wonderful and poignant is the realization (as our guide told us) that under the Nazi regime for the five years of WWII, it was forbidden to play or even listen to Chopin – under pain of death or banishment to a camp! The Nazis held the Poles and their culture just half a notch above the utter disdain they felt for the Jews, and they spent a good deal of effort and dynamite destroying anything Polish that they could. Approximately 85% of the city of Warsaw was burned or dynamited by the German occupying force, including the murders of some 800,000 people of the 1.2 million who lived in Warsaw, about 10% of whom were Jews. When the Russians took over after the War, the Polish Communists in Warsaw insisted on raising money to restore the city to its former state “exactly”, using old photographs and paintings from the 19th century to re-create the centuries-old buildings, palaces and churches that had been reduced to rubble.