WARSAW, Poland – Words are life.
That’s the message from the movie, “The Book Thief.”
That’s the message from the novel by Markus Zusak.
That’s the message from the prison walls in Warsaw where people left their last words.
In “The Book Thief,” Liesel Meminger is 9 when she moves in with a foster family on Himmel Street in Germany in the late 1930s. She is illiterate but begins to steal books. She rescues books from the Nazi burnings, steals them from the personal library of the mayor and learns to read. She uses words to breathe life back into Max, the Jew her family hides in the basement, and to comfort families huddled in bomb shelters.
Zusak wrote that he was struck by the importance of words in Nazi Germany, how Hitler destroyed people first with words. Zusak created a girl who stole them back.
The power of words has haunted me every since I went to Poland in November with my sister to promote the Polish translation of my book, “Be the Miracle.”
One of the most powerful places we saw isn’t in the guidebooks. Most people don’t know it exists. No. 25 Szucha was once the most feared address in Warsaw. Gestapo headquarters was tucked in the basement there.
The sign over the big brown door now reads: Mauzoleum.
Inside, we watched a brief movie with black and white faces of people who were tortured and killed there. We walked past the isolation and interrogation cells. We passed the room full of wooden benches where people sat listening to the screams of others while waiting their turn.
The place consists of two narrow halls with cell after cell of bare grey walls. The rooms have been left as they were. The blood has been scrubbed away but the bullet holes remain in the walls. So do the final words of prisoners.
Men and women carved their last words into the walls. Their names. Their innocence. Their cries for help. Their pleas for freedom.
One room still has a chain with leg cuffs attached to the floor. The room that served as a Gestapo office has a shelf full of instruments of torture, metal rods for beatings and tools for electrocutions. A fading portrait of Hitler darkens the wall.
One exhibit sums up the power of each life in words. Press a button on a face and you read that person’s fate. Most everyone listed died, except for one nurse who was transported here 57 times. Wanda Ossowska underwent “brutal torture” before ending up in three concentration camps. Somehow she survived. She lived to be 89 and to meet the first Polish pope.
University student Elzbieta Zahorska faced the firing squad shouting the first words of the Polish national anthem, “Poland has not yet succumbed.” Her crime? She tore down a German propaganda poster.
Oh, the power of words.
I shared how haunting those cells were with my Polish publisher, Tomasz Brzozowski, from Insignis Media. When I returned to Cleveland, he sent me this email about the power of words to harm but also to heal.
He told me about Henryk Gorecki, one of the most famous Polish composers of contemporary music. In 1976 he wrote his “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.” It achieved great popularity in 1992 when it was recorded with Dawn Upshaw and London Sinfonietta with conductor David Zinman.
Tomasz wrote, “The whole piece is breathtakingly beautiful. But the second movement of this symphony is quite exceptional. It is inspired by the writing on the wall of the Gestapo prison. The music and the text will place your soul in the cramped death cell and then liberate it by taking your feelings, mind, everything into a completely different dimension.”
Gorecki had learned of an inscription scrawled on the wall of a cell in a Gestapo prison in southern Poland. The words belonged to Helena Wanda Błażusiakowna, who was just 18. She wrote, “O Mamo nie płacz nie – Niebios Przeczysta Królowo Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie. (Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven supports me always.)
The composer was struck by her words, and how they were different from the screams of innocence or anger that covered the prison walls. Here was a teenager who didn’t cry out in despair, who didn’t call for revenge, who didn’t scream out for herself, but for her mother. Her last words were a prayer to comfort the person who loved her most.
Words have such great power to harm, but also to heal.
Words truly are life.