The Steadfast Gaze

In Poland, unanswered questions about the war in Ukraine
A performance artist in Krakow, Poland, 2022 (Rand Richards Cooper)

In the main square of Krakow, packed with May Day tourists, a solitary performance artist stood vigil beneath the medieval clock tower. Dressed in a black robe, her head shaved and her face devoid of expression, she stood there—a gaunt and somber figure, mutely holding up a placard bearing a big question mark. Before her, affixed to an easel, a statement in Polish and English addressed the war in Ukraine. “The canvas is wrapped in gauze to reflect shared pain and trauma,” it read. “With a question mark, into which you can put the most disturbing questions: ‘How is this possible?’ ‘Will it end?’ ‘What will happen next?’”

I’d come to Poland with an American magician, Bill Herz, who was performing shows for Ukrainian refugees. Herz and his wife, Gwenn, had seen the plight of families fleeing Ukraine and felt called to help. And so, to the flood of aid flowing into Central Europe—of arms, food, medical supplies, and money—Herz was adding the Mouth Coil, the Hat Tear, the Human Xylophone, and other illusions. These were nonessential goods…and yet every show produced an audience of captivated kids raucously laughing as mothers in the back of the room aimed cellphones, taking pictures to send back to their husbands in Byrdansk and Kharkiv and Mariupol. Look, those pictures said, our child is happy, our child is laughing, our child is safe.  

Bill Herz is a droll court jester: always a quip or a joke, or a piece of sly advice that sounds like a joke (“How can you guarantee late checkout at a hotel? Go to the front desk and say, ‘We ate in your restaurant last night, and my wife’s stomach is upset.’ Guaranteed!”). Yet the trip itself—the mothers we were meeting and the stories they were telling us about the assault on their country—was anything but funny. A woman from Dymer, near the Belarussian border, described helicopters firing, rockets flying “from morning to night,” and the streets of her town on fire. Another recalled the outbreak of war on February 24 in Kharkiv. She and her family hauled mattresses, water bottles, and food to the basement, hiding for the next two weeks as bombs rained down and she explained to her four-year-old son that their city was being attacked “by a bad man with fireworks.” She described the fear they felt—how it steals your breath, paralyzing your muscles and freezing you “like a wax figure.”  

Bill’s tricks delighted the kids, and his sleight-of-hand never failed to evoke clucks of astonishment when he worked the crowd afterward. I was as baffled as his audiences. See enough magic tricks and you almost can’t help thinking that something uncanny is happening. Bill scoffs at illusionists who encourage people to believe that their magic is real. “It bothers me when someone truly believes that I can read minds,” he told me. I wondered why. He had explained that even very young kids could appreciate magic, since all you needed was a capacity for basic object permanence. Yet that phrase contains sharp ironies for the Ukrainian children, whose world now includes almost nothing permanent.  After one show, Bill stood looking out at the room of milling children. “It’s important to me, when I do magic with kids, that no one leave the room actually thinking I have the power to move things around through space.” Especially these kids, he seemed to imply. Their lives had vanished, and it would be cruel to let them think someone might be able to put them back, just like that.

She described the fear they felt—how it steals your breath, paralyzing your muscles and freezing you “like a wax figure.”

As for the children, a grade-school teacher at a show outside Warsaw told us about the big difference between those kids who left Ukraine early in the war and those who left later. The later ones, she said, “have seen things, bad things.” Some had trouble focusing or even talking. Touch one on the shoulder and he might flinch in a reflex of terror.

We struggled to imagine what these children had gone through. “Hearing bombs at night, seeing dead bodies?” Bill mused. “Having your mother tell you you’re packing a bag and leaving, and who knows when you’ll see your father again? How do you get over that?” One day the newspapers quoted Ukraine’s human-rights commissioner charging the Russians with war crimes against children. The commissioner called it an attempt not just to conquer Ukraine, but to destroy it. “When they kill children,” she said, “it means that they do not want our nation to be in this world.”

Two books I’d brought with me underscored the grimness of these stories. One was Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, a chilling account of how Soviet and Nazi policies in Poland and Ukraine resulted in mass killing on a scale unprecedented in human history. Snyder’s chronicle reminded me that Putin’s attack on Ukraine threatened not simply destruction and death, but something even more drastic: obliteration, through precisely the kind of national vanishing that Poles knew all too well from their own history. An awareness of such existential threat is built into the national muscle memory of the Poles and helped propel their spectacular generosity in taking in three million Ukrainians—almost 10 percent of their own population—and providing them housing, health care, and education. (“The Polish people have the biggest heart in the world,” one Ukrainian woman told me.)

The other book was On the Natural History of Destruction, W. G. Sebald’s survey of the obliteration of German cities during World War II and his complaint about silence afterward—both the refusal to talk about it and the reliance on poeticizing or romanticizing literature that prettified it, which Sebald viewed as a colossal failure on the part of German writers. Things must be faced squarely and seen in all their direness, Sebald argues in the book: “only a steadfast gaze bent on reality” can provide the necessary approach to historical horror.

 

In Krakow we took a walking tour of Kazimierz, the city’s former Jewish quarter, led by Tomasz, a towering, jovial guide whose English bore a curious Cockney trace. The tour started outside a synagogue in ulica Szeroka, a pretty cobblestone square that exudes a ramshackle charm. A big part of that charm is its Jewish character. Along with two synagogues, there were falafel and shawarma joints with signs in Hebrew lettering, and klezmer music played around a menorah. We passed the Jerusalem Tea Room, the Judah Food Market. “Hummus is Happiness,” read a sign on a building.

Tomasz filled us in on the history of this neighborhood, where eighty years ago Jewish residents were killed in cold blood on those same cobblestones, or herded across the river to a hastily built ghetto to be shipped to the death camp at Belzec. Of the seventy thousand Jews living in Krakow before the war, only a handful had survived. How is it that yesterday’s site of horror becomes today’s leisure destination? Schindler’s List was filmed in Krakow, and Tomasz reinforced the themes of our tour with frame-by-frame recountings of scenes from the movie. “Right here,” he’d say, “is where Amon Goeth’s SS officers chase the man down the alley.” But wait, was that the movie or reality? Time passes, and from the calamity of famines, pogroms, genocides, and cities bombed to bits arises a pretty tourist square. Is this redemption or blasphemy? In Kazimierz it is hard not to feel a queasy awe at the prospect of suffering alchemized into gold; of trauma polished, burnished and marketed. Hummus is Happiness.

Only through a direct gaze can we achieve acceptance, and only through acceptance can we get to progress.

We crossed the Wisla River by a footbridge into Podgorze, site of the former deportation camp. In the bridge’s suspension cables, bronze sculptures by Jerzy Kędziora depict figures in poses of acrobatic skill on a high wire, evoking precarious balancing acts. On the other side of the river the tour wound through narrow streets of houses where Jewish families had crouched in fear, encircled by Nazi wolves and largely unassisted by Poles. I asked Tomasz about the efforts of nationalist-minded Poles today to minimize or deny Polish antisemitism during World War II. “Of course Poles were antisemitic,” he said. “It is silly to say otherwise. But you do see people defending this position. And defending becomes denying.” He continued with words that eerily echoed the passage in Sebald that I had read just the night before. “It is important to see the past as it was,” Tomasz told our group. “Only through a direct gaze can we achieve acceptance, and only through acceptance can we get to progress.” 

Tomasz was a polished storyteller, interweaving narrative strands cued by buildings and houses, then tying them together at the tour’s end, in Plac Bohaterow Getta—Ghetto Heroes Square. The square is set with sixty-eight empty bronze chairs, one for every thousand Jews murdered in Krakow, and as we stood among those empty chairs, Tomasz painted a vivid scene featuring a young boy named Raymond Liebling, who escapes—a boy who will later become known as Roman Polanski—and a girl named Rena Wohlhaber who survives because, during a death-camp selection right there in the square, she impulsively gives her puppy to Untersturmführer Amon Goeth, who spares her. Tomasz appended a tantalizing coda in which, seven decades later, a German writer named Jennifer Teeger published a book expressing her horror at discovering that she is Goeth’s granddaughter, whereupon Rena Wohlhaber—by now an old woman—wrote to Teeger, telling her that for at least one crucial, merciful moment, Goeth had been something other than a monster.  

It was a bravura narrative performance, and on the guided-tour scale it registered a clear ten. Yet I couldn’t help but think that Tomasz’s story, even with its heavy cargo of human suffering, represented still another act of romanticizing, one that revealed how nearly inescapable it is, this attempt to marshal horrific events into an order that will, in some manner and to some degree, spare us.

 

The Herzes and I flew home two days later. In a week and a half, the family had logged over a thousand miles and entertained over a thousand Ukrainians. Bill called the trip the most emotionally draining thing he had ever done. “I haven’t even begun to process it,” he said. “But I know I won’t forget what we saw here.”

Now, in early summer, the war in Ukraine grinds on. Putin has pulled back his initial countrywide assault to focus on areas of the south and east that he clearly hopes to annex. As a result, the refugee flow between Poland and Ukraine has become bidirectional, with some refugees continuing to arrive even as others head back. Life in Kyiv is said to be returning to a semblance of normal, even as terror, turmoil, and destruction continue in the east.

This “normal” is both a wonderful and an awful thing. As I watch news stories showing young Ukrainians enjoying themselves once again in the cafes and clubs of Kyiv, I keep thinking about the solitary mute figure standing in the central square of Krakow, with her list of questions and the expressionless look on her face. I understand now that her message resided less in her questions than in that look itself, its intensity and fixity reinforcing the power of witness even as it underlined the challenge of the steadfast gaze: how hard it is to find it, and then to keep it.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

Also by this author
American Dolchstoss

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books