Wednesday, March 14, 2007

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part eight

Edward Galinski, a Polish student, scratched this portrait on the wall of cell 18, block 11, at Auschwitz.

Edward was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1940 for opposing Germany's invasion of Poland. He worked at forced labor in the camp. One day, Edward was assigned to repair buildings at the women's camp next door. There he met Mally Zimetbaum-- a beautiful, doe eyed girl imprisoned for being a Jew.

Edward was completely smitten. He started talking with Mally under the watchful eye of the guards. After several weeks of furtive exchanges, the couple found a way to pass secret notes back and forth between the two camps. Against all odds, through the barbed wire and brutal guards, love bloomed.

Edward realized that Mally would eventually be killed in the gas chambers, so he came up with a daring escape plan. On June 24, 1944, he put on a stolen SS uniform and escorted Mally through the front gates using forged paperwork and passes that Mally had obtained. Once outside the camp, they disappeared into the tall grain and headed for the Czech border.

In his book about Auschwitz, Polish author Wojciech Kielar wrote that when the escape was discovered, every prisoner in Auschwitz spoke about nothing but Edward and Mally. The young couple in love became a symbol of freedom and hope for a new generation.

Edward and Mally had twelve days together. It would have to be enough.

Mally was captured by a German patrol at the Czech border. Edward was safely in the clear, but when he saw that Mally had been captured, he returned and surrendered to be with her. Back at Auschwitz, Edward and Mally were thrown into isolation cells in the basement of block 11. There they were tortured for details of their escape and the names of any accomplices. Another prisoner in block 11, Zbigniew Kaczkowski, recalled that Edward had a secret way of checking at the end of each day to see if Mally had survived: "Every night, pressing his lips to a crack in the door, [Edward] would whistle a certain melody; he would get a reply, the same melody from Mally in a distant cell."

Edward was held in cells 18, 20 and 23. There he paced, desperate and helpless while his beloved Mally was tortured down the hall. In each cell, he drew a portrait of Mally on the wall and wrote their names together.

Edward and Mally never did betray their helpers. Their captors executed them in front of the entire camp to discourage future escapes. Edward was hung from the gallows in the male prison yard. He shouted his last words, "long live Poland," with the noose around his neck. One historical account recalled that at the moment of his death, "an anonymous voice shouted out from among the prisoners: 'Hats off!' and the entire camp, as one, removed caps in a defiant salute." Mally tried to kill herself on the gallows but was intercepted and stomped to death by SS men in front of the women prisoners.

I would like to say two things about the sad story of Edward and Mally.

The first has to do with the role of art. I find it strangely moving that human beings turn to pictures for solace in times of great distress. When the woman he loved was being tortured down the hall and there wasn't a thing he could do about it, Edward drew a picture of her face. There is no logical explanation for this. Why should lines scratched on a wall make him feel closer to Mally? Images contain powerful magic, even at the outer extremes of bearable human experience.

My second point is about-- for want of a better word-- love. Sometimes I think about what Edward and Mally were able to condense into their twelve desperate days of freedom.

Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, "the butterfly counts not months but moments and has time enough." Generally I take little comfort from this because humans are different from butterflies.

But in the case of Edward and Mally one hopes that whatever they shared during those twelve days was enough to sustain them during the ordeal ahead. Years ago Richard Kennedy wrote a fairy tale called the Dark Princess, about two would be lovers, a princess and a jester. The two could never have a life together. In fact, they could not even look at each other or talk to each other. The sum total of their life together was one brief moment as they jumped off a cliff and were able to touch once before perishing in the sea below. Kennedy wrote the following about that touch:

And in that moment they touched, the sun rose a million times for them , and the Princess and the Fool could see each other and all the things of life and the world.... And that moment they touched outlasted the life of the King and Queen, and outlasted the life of the Kingdom. And that moment they touched is lasting still, and will outlast us, too.


Anonymous said...

What a moving story. Kudos to you and hats off for the lovers!

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thank you.

leifpeng said...

Despite the horrifying circumstances these two people had to endure and their tragic ending, their story, as told by you, is fantastically uplifting, David -- thank you.

lotusgreen said...

yr such a poet at heart, david.


David Apatoff said...

Lotusgreen, the world's a poetic place. I had nothing to do with it.

Anonymous said...

I will quote the great art critic John Berger as to why Edward may have drew her picture on the wall:

"When in love the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words nor and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accomodate."

Mick said...

You've done it again David. Great post. I'm with Diego, except I'll have to buy a hat, just so that I can take it off.

theory_of_me said...

I don't think butterflies can count. And yes, humans are not butterflies so I can't imagine an insect savoring a moment like a person can. The reason we can enjoy a moment so intensely is because we know it's going to end but our imaginations are so great we can almost fool ourselves into believing it can last forever. Someone who actually convinces himself of this has reached insanity.

Pretty typical of one destined for the ash pile of history like Tagore to suggest people be more like insects than strive to be worthy of the name "human".

lotusgreen said...

HUGE lalique show in paris at the moment ;^)

Matt Jones said...

Just discovered your superb blog. Left a message on the Ronald Searle post November 2006

Anonymous said...

this is in reference to what 'theory of me' wrote, first ly i must say that it is onlt thanks to the ash piles of history that we exalted beings who consider ourselves superior to say...insects for example are given material to learn our lessons of life from, and sometimes fail even at that.
secondly what tagore meant you very enlightened being of the world is not that an insect feels with equal intensity as a human being (a point i wont even bother going into with you....) but he presents to you a metaphor speaking of how sometimes entire livetimes can be worthless, in the case of some of us, and yet even a moment of love beauty happiness and greatness can be the crowning moment of some lives. that realisation IS WHAT MAKES US HUMAN....oh and by the way some people do believe that moments people souls and LOVE lasts forever, its called the VEDANTA.......look it up....thank you!

Karen said...

I have immersed myself in this historical period and what never fails to impress me is the passion, conviction, and amazing hope that seemingly always rises atop the brutality. That something as real and tender as love can be nurtured during this time should tell us all something; few of us have to endure the torture or claw out our existence when our very own families have been robbed of us. Yet, we still hate with such frivolity. We still judge with complacency, and we still live a life of ungratefulness.
If anything, I hope to really learn about how to live from the experiences of those such as Edward and Mally. To live a lovely life of hope apart from the ugliness that is too easily succumbed to.

Unknown said...

what a unique story!