Our Guide in Warsaw
World Literature Today|Winter 2020
A couple finds their hired tour guide more sage for hire—like Socrates, an ambulatory pedagogue.
Bonnie Costello

I saw him first from the back. He was standing alone by the big lobby win-dow, looking out at the rain and mist enveloping Krakowskie Przedmiéscie, the Royal Route. A tall figure with black frock coat and cane, black dress shoes, tousled hair, white collar. I knew him. The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

My husband’s business client had booked us a private tour over the long weekend, and Leon was to be our guide. As we addressed him, he swiveled around and made a different impression—not the young Werther or even the ravaged Chopin. Older, in his fifties perhaps, though still somehow a youth in the sense that he was slightly gawky, untidy, despite his formal attire. Too tall for his clothes, I thought. Not a blond; raven hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones. Yet the resemblance to Friedrich’s wanderer would grow over the three days we spent with him, listening to his views on nature, art, god, and the heart of man. We covered many highlights of Warsaw during our tour, but it was Leon, not the monuments, that held the story, that will always hold the story.

We were annoyed at first to learn that our guide was not a Warsavian. We had paid for local expertise. He was from Minsk, in Belarus, though he had resided here a few years now. And as I learned more about Polish history, its twists and tragedies, its occupations and its accordion borders, I saw just how Polish Leon really was, despite his foreign passport, how much its history had made him. The country had been repeatedly chopped up and devoured by neighbors; colonized, muzzled, enslaved, purged, liberated, obliterated, and reborn over the centuries since its origins around 900 ce. No wonder I mistook its ubiquitous white eagle for a phoenix. Poland, I began to see, was an idea, or maybe an idea of an idea, strengthened in adversity.

To complicate matters further, Leon was, he let us know, a secular Jew; a Wandering Jew it seemed, and an uncomfortable reminder in twenty-first-century Poland of the dark calculations and betrayals in the twentieth. But Leon did not live in the twenty-first century, or in much of the twentieth. He showed little interest in discussing the news items that had reached us over the past decade—the terrible crash in Smolensk that had killed the president and more than half of Parliament, the unholy alliance between the Catholic Church and the current Law and Justice government, the party’s threat to the judiciary, Putin’s threat to the eastern border and the influx of Ukrainians, the recent revelations about violent Polish anti-Semitism. These were simply more prompts for Leon to hold forth on Poland’s tragic destiny and the universal story of man’s inhumanity to man.

No, Leon identified not with any contemporary social or political group—urban liberals, rural nationalists, or oppressed minorities; he kept company in his imagination with the great artists, intellectuals and heroes of Poland’s Romantic period and the great aristocrats of its more distant golden age. As Leon walked us down the central boulevard of Stare Miasto (Old Town), he did not see the governmentsponsored demonstrations in front of the Presidential Palace or the big Apple icon on the nylon shroud covering a restoration across the street. He saw the great statue of Christ bearing the cross, the emblem of Poland itself as the “Christ of Nations,” toppled in the war but quickly righted. He led us inside the Holy Cross Church, rebuilt from the ground after the Nazi bombing. With him we admired the beautiful baroque altar, but Leon’s worship was at the urn containing Chopin’s remains, brought home from Paris. Leon skipped the popular Rising Museum with its interactive story of 1945 (mobbed with school groups when I visited a few days later); skipped the exhibit on the Katyn massacre at the old Barbican. But he made sure we toured the Royal Castle to see the Marble Room with its trompe l’oeil ceiling, the portraits of Polish kings, the innumerable Canalettos. He walked us through the great halls of Warsaw University and paused before wigged luminaries of the Polish Enlightenment, sainted scientists from Copernicus to Curie. As for Stalin’s “gift to Warsaw,” the four-block phallic Palace of Science and Culture, it was clear to us that as far as Leon was concerned, the less said about that the better.

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