Thursday, November 06, 2008

All Hallows' Eve: Is There a Special Fire Code for Cemeteries in Poland?

[syndicated from my fun blog]

This post is about All Hallows' Eve as I experienced it in Poland, about remembrance, and the unseen economic forces I observed behind the scenes.

As part of my trip to Poland (which I will cover in a later, much happier, post) I met with Ela, whom I had briefly met before in Israel. She took me to a local cemetery for All Hallows' Eve. It was an uncomfortable walk, an emotional visit and a place where many background things showed themselves, and how they may be quietly, economically, impacting the world.

Ela is an ideologist with strong opinions and refers to herself as a "dissident". Highly loyal to her country (yet not afraid to be a critic) she works to right wrongs and protect the weak--Anywhere. She has an agile mind, but is so "on target" that she can at times miss the obvious, but not for long, and despite being moved by her emotions, she recognizes cold reason when presented to her.

I had a lovely meeting with her, but before we could sit and chat she insisted on taking me to a nearby cemetery. I'll first describe what was seen, and then what I saw--The hidden economy of life, and I suppose in this case, of death.

Being religious, Ela doesn't appreciate Halloween, as she sees it as a caricature of her worship. Demeaning the day in which she remembers those who have passed, inverting its purpose of self reflection. Being open-minded, she doesn't care if others celebrate Halloween in the now replicated "American" way (even me, partying here in Israel or there in Poland) but it's not for her.

First laying eyes on the cold stone fence and the tombstones behind it, I sighed audibly. What a waste of time. And of effort--To be polite. Yet, I was there. And as I was so was I now intrigued.

What I saw in the cemetery moved me. Hundreds if not thousands of graves, all of which with but few to many dozens of lit oil lamps (and some flowery plants) placed on them, displayed for the world to see. Strife and opinion put aside, Poles all go to the cemeteries that day to show respect, and remember. That, or in all likelihood their parents make them--No matter how old they may be--Much like they will "ask" their children.

Looking into the night I saw lights in the darkness, some twinkling behind a tree, others lined up to the distance. All carefully placed by the multitude of those who probably never even spoke to each other, all for the same reason, remembrance--resonating deep within me.

Not knowing the right etiquette, I still commented to Ela "let's not walk on the grass," there is something about such places that you simply know.

I am not one to get in touch with the holy feeling of any place, and I am one to get bored in museums (barbarian!!). Yet, even if moving between the graves was just going through the motions and feeling a bit odd--The multitudes, be it of people or of lamps, had me wondering all the while I was wandering, truly aimlessly and with bright eyes, on the beaten track.

There were some secrets to the cemetery.

Some, were obvious. I'd ask "Ela, what of the odd grave every once in a while with no lamps on it?". These felt so lonely. And she'd reply "these people probably have no relatives in town, or at all," I'd nod thoughtfully and she would go on "we have no family in town, either. So, we go to a grave with no lamps on it and place ours there. Elsewhere, someone does the same for our relatives' graves. We respect our dead, and the dead who have no one to come to them."

It's a win-win situation, you see? :)

Others, were obvious, and probably also noticed. "Ela," I'd say, dropping the extra "sexy" I often add when addressing her. She'd reply "Yes, these massive hills of garbage" at the entrance of the cemetery, mind you "...are in poor taste!"

I agreed, but couldn't help but comment after a moment of thought "and yet, there is order to the chaos. There is no garbage thrown on the grounds, anywhere."

The cemetery itself would put even Buffy's local cemetery in Sunnydale to shame, but it wasn't creepy. It was a place of memory, stones, and green grass. Yet the grass isn't always as green as your neighboring grave's, as you well know. Walking deeper into the cemetery, the previously clean tracks between graves were suddenly so full of leaves from the Fall that you could hardly step on the Earth.

A sign of decay? A show put on for the outside? A lazy keeper? More trees in that area? We didn't stop to check.

That area was darker, and also had significantly less graves in it. It had a monument on one side, and a large cross at the other. One was for the fallen soldiers who fought the Nazis during World War Two. Another was for the fallen in the resistance against the Nazis. Another monument was for the fallen in the resistance against the Soviet Union.. many of whom were members of the first resistance, but non survived many years into the occupation. This made this monument one for those who were "disappeared" during the reign of the Polish satellite state of before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Each monument, or cross, was a mass grave. I didn't quite grasp that while staring into the darkness of grass with no graves on it.

Once I came over my half-shame at thinking about it, the patterns in which people placed the lamps on the graves caught my attention. Some were just put there in seemingly random placing. Others were immaculately placed. Some were on the ground, others on the tombstones.

Why half ashamed you ask? Well, I voiced the thought when we passed a double grave (probably for a husband and wife). There were big red lamps placed in a line right between the graves, separating them and other lamps put on both graves. "Probably trying to separate them from fighting beyond the veil." I joked, unsure how Ela would react.

Looking at the cemetery and the.. event.. show.. taking place in it, with an economic eye, the market which formed outside, selling lamps, flowery plants and food, was probably a boost to Poland's economy that day, kind of like on the 4th of July in the States. A big business--People are dead, but there's a bright side! Right? ...?

More interesting though was the thought of the Warsaw Fire Department. I would really like to know what they were doing that night, and how many calls they received. Is there a special fire code for cemeteries, in Poland?

It reminded me of the potential for fire and how the Fire Department is aligned to cope with it, here in Israel for Lag BaOmer (a holiday where everyone and their sister lights a bonfires, all around the country (emptying every construction site of wood while they are at it, up to the point where these give away wood they buy especially just to keep themselves afloat).

I was there to experience Poland and its people (in the few days I had after my lecture), unlike many Israelis who go to glimpse what the holocaust left behind. While most of my trip was fun and games, I am glad Ela took me on this.. adventure? I am glad that I went, however unwillingly.

This was an interesting, touching, experience. One which I doubt many Israelis who visited Poland had experienced. Thank you Ela.

Gadi Evron,

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