Warsaw is a little bleak this time of year, as I discovered on avisit to the Polish capital last week. Expeditions that look straightforward onpaper may turn arduous. On my first day, I set out for the Chopin Museum,which appeared to be a twenty-minute walk from my hotel. The temperature waswell below freezing, the wind off the Vistula invasive, thesidewalk glazed with ice. After a few blocks, I felt the need to take refuge,and followed several elderly women into Holy Cross Church, on Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of Warsaw’s main thoroughfares. Sitting in a pew, I looked to myleft and saw, on one of the church’s pillars, the legend “HERE RESTS THE HEART OF FREDERICK CHOPIN.” After a moment of confusion, I remembered a story fromthe Chopin biographies: in his last days, in Paris, the supreme poet of the piano had asked that his heart bebrought back to his native land. So while Chopin’s body rests at Père Lachaise,in the company of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, his heart resides at HolyCross, in the first big pillar on the left. I made a note to look up the storywhen I got home. The definitive chronicle is by the Polish journalist AndrzejPettyn. There is also “Chopin’s Heart,” a book by the American physician StevenLagerberg.
Thewoman who set the saga in motion was Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Chopin’s eldestsister, who heard and recorded his curious request for dismemberment. She sawto it that the heart was preserved in a hermetically sealed crystal jar filledwith an alcoholic liquid, possibly cognac. That vessel was, in turn, encased inan urn made of mahogany and oak. In early 1850, a few months after herbrother’s death, Jędrzejewicz smuggled the assemblage into Poland, hiding it under her cloak in order to elude theattentions of Austrian and Russian inspectors. In 1879, it was placed in itspresent position at Holy Cross. A memorial slab bore a citation of the Book ofMatthew: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
AsJędrzejewicz must have anticipated, the erection of a memorial at Holy Crosssoon acquired political resonance. For decades, it was the only public monumentto Chopin that tsarist authorities permitted in the city, and it drew covertdisplays of nationalist fervor. When Poland achieved independence, in 1918, the site became an openshrine. “All our past sings in him, all our slavery cries in him, the beatingheart of the nation, the great king of sorrows,” the cleric Antoni Szlagowskiintoned, in 1926. While Chopin believed strongly in the idea of a Polishnation, such sentiments might have made him uncomfortable; in one of hisletters, he dismissed as “nonsense” the idea that Poles would one day be asproud of him as Germans are of Mozart.
Duringthe German occupation of Poland, the heart was nearly lost. Conscious of Chopin’s symbolicpower, the Nazis prevented performances of his music and destroyed a statuethat had been erected in his honor in 1926. (Hans Frank, the Governor Generalof Poland, later allowed Chopin to be played as long as his name wasgiven as “Schopping.”) During the Warsaw Uprising, battles raged around HolyCross, and the building suffered heavy damage. In the midst of the fighting, aGerman priest named Schulze asked his Polish counterparts whether they wouldlet him take the heart into safekeeping. After a discussion, the priestsagreed. The urn passed into the hands of Heinz Reinefarth, a high-ranking S.S.officer who professed to be a Chopin admirer. For the remainder of theuprising, the heart was kept at the headquarters of Erich von demBach-Zelewski, the infamously brutal commander of German forces in the region.
Oncethe uprising had been suppressed, Bach-Zelewski made a show of returning theurn to Polish hands. It was, Andrzej Pettyn proposes, a “gesture aimed atreducing his own fault and present himself to the world in a more favorablelight.” A film crew was summoned to record the transfer of the heart toSzlagowski, who had since become the archbishop of Warsaw. At the crucial moment, though, spotlights that had beenset up to illuminate the scene malfunctioned, and, as the story goes,Szlagowski muttered thanks to God that the Nazis’ propaganda spectacle had beenspoiled. Not surprisingly, this grisly charade failed to erase memories of themass slaughter of Polish civilians. (Anyone who is reminded here of the plot of“The Pianist” might be interested to know that Halina Szpilman, the widow ofWładysław Szpilman, who inspired the Polanski film, is alive and well inWarsaw; I met her at a concert by the Sinfonia Iuventus.)
Thepriests of Holy Cross took the urn with them to Milanówek, outside of Warsaw. Fearing that the Germans would change their minds, theyhid it. For the first time in decades, the container was disassembled and theorgan itself glimpsed. It was “incredibly big,” one observer recalled. On October 17, 1945, the ninety-sixth anniversary of Chopin’s death, the heartwent back to Holy Cross. White and red flags flew along the route, and massesof people gathered to pay their respects. By the time the car carrying therelic reached Warsaw, Pettyn relates, it was heaped high with flowers.
Chopin’sheart remains an object of fascination and dispute. In 2008, a team of scholarsasked for permission to subject it to a DNAanalysis, in order to test a theory that Chopin died not of tuberculosis, aswas long believed, but of cystic fibrosis. (That might explain the largeness ofthe heart.) The Polish government refused therequest. Indeed, it seems right to let the heart rest in peace for along while.
Inall likelihood, the composer of the “Revolutionary Etude” has no further roleto play on the political stage, but he retains a high profile in his nativeland. When, at the end of my stay, I got into a taxi, the driver asked,“Chopin?” He meant, of course, the airport.
Courtesy: The New Yorker