The best part about our European vacation wasn’t the playgrounds, although they were full of rad. Or the Turkish baths in Budapest, although I’d like to move into one of the changing cabins post haste. It wasn’t even the bubbly water, or the trains, or the month without a cell phone, even though each and every one of those things were worth the trip.
The best part about Europe was seeing where my husband grew up, seeing his primary school and where his family lives and where his parents lived during the war. And part of all that was seeing the cemetery where some of Viktor’s family are buried.
Most of Viktor’s family died in and around World War II and ended up in unmarked graves or concentration camps. I can count on one hand the number of living relatives on both sides of Viktor’s family combined. There isn’t much left but memories and a few photographs, so I was really excited to visit a cemetery and a family grave site.
In Europe, at least in Poland, families take care of the graves. There’s a chapel in the cemetery and while the priest and some nuns take care of the day-to-day affairs, the families are in charge of maintaining their own family headstones.
I was so excited to visit the cemetery in Warsaw. I know that sounds freaky and super Twilight Zone, but I was. I don’t normally have a thing for visiting graves, but I want to capture every last scrap of information I can before Viktor’s parents die and everything is lost with them. I want to share that with my children while I can.
First of all, the cemetery we visited was huge. It was built in the 1700’s, and I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
Warsaw is a huge bustling international city; it’s noisy and filled to the brim with people, but the second we stepped into the cemetery everything was entombed in silence, completely quiet and still. All the gravestones were covered in moss and flowers, with giant trees forming a green canopy all the way around.
All I could think about was fairies. Little tiny woodland fairies living in a green and mossy cemetery.
The headstones weren’t just headstones, they were mausoleums dedicated to and taken care of by loving relatives. There were fresh flowers and lit candles everywhere, and the only other living soul we saw was a nun scurrying back to her responsibilities at the chapel.
I’ll pay you a thousand dollars on the spot if this is your family name. There are only eight vowels in the entire thing.
The kids skipped through rows of graves, dusting leaves and dead flowers off the headstones. They marveled at the details on the graves, and were floored by row upon row of actual family mausoleums scattered throughout the cemetery.
They wanted to stay for hours, which is the exact opposite of what I expected. I thought they’d whine and moan about having to spend the afternoon in a cemetery and “Oh my gosh Mom and Dad you’re so boring, why did you bring us to a lame cemetery full of dead people we don’t care about?”
But we were all transported by the magic of the afternoon so we stayed until the sun went down.
It was extraordinary.
We passed the chapel on our way back out to the street, and I wept as I read the names of the men killed at Katyń and the crosses representing the bodies that never came home.
My children were able to see gravestones bearing their names, and connected to a part of their history they didn’t know existed; I’ll forever be grateful for the chance we had to be encapsulated between past and present for the space of a summer afternoon.