On a May spring day, in a small town outside of Warsaw, a woman walks by the iron gates of the cemetery. She follows the central avenue that cuts between rows of headstones. A grey cobblestoned path on her right takes her past a row of white concrete crosses. The broad red wings and talons of the Polish coat of arms affixed to them signifies that war heroes are buried there. Opposite their resting place is an unremarkable plot, a long grey concrete tomb with faded headstone that is inscribed with two names - one Christian, one Jewish. The woman kneels and lays a bouquet of flowers on the tomb, below a collection of small pebbles that have been scattered by snow, winds and rain. She picks up the stray stones and moves them to where they were when she last visited, nudging the pebbles into a “V”, then curving them at the top, into the shape of a heart.
I left the heart of stones when I last visited my grandmother’s final burial place.
Iwona, the woman who visits the grave, posted a story on the internet in 2010, about her grandmother, who had raised her in a house not far from the cemetery. As a child, she had not been allowed to play in one corner of the garden. She was forbidden to pick mushrooms there, not sorrel, nor flowers. Years later, her grandmother told her that women who sheltered in her house were shot by the Nazis and buried in that corner. Iwona moved a boulder to the spot where the women were buried. “I don’t know what to put on this stone,” she had mused in her article. “Maybe two swallows?”
I stumbled upon her story a few years ago. Had she not written it, my mother might never have returned to where she was hidden for nine months during the war. The day of those murders, May 23rd 1943, my mother was found by her father, crawling on the floor among the bloodied bodies. She was eleven months old.
The large memorial stone sits behind a timber fence in a garden filled with old trees that sway and rustle in the wind. From time to time, Iwona sends me photographs of butterflies, birds and trees that watch over the stone.
For as long as she is alive, Iwona will care for her garden and visit the cemetery, to remember a woman she did not know, until her story collided with mine.