Friday, August 12, 2022

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Joe's Neighborhood

Part 1 — stones


Stones are a bane to Iowa farmers. Every year, new ones work themselves up out of the dark depths of the earth to land right smack in the middle of the field that is to be planted or plowed or disced. Yup, right there in the middle of the row is a rock that wasn’t there last year. Every spring, the farmer will build a cairn of stones on the edges of the field to haul away for use at some other spot on the farm. And the next year, it starts all over, another stone suddenly appears, birthed out of the prairie soil.

In 1940, after the fall of Poland, 380,000 Jews were penned into a ghetto in Warsaw. A wall was built around that ghetto, and any Jew found outside those walls after October of 1940 was at risk. To die. The numbers inside only increased as time went on. It is estimated that another 70,000 Jews were added to the ghetto from surrounding areas in Poland, which grew to 450,000 people before it was all done.

joes1The Nazis decided the Jews could live on 184 calories a day. So the deaths began. In 1941, more than 100,000 died from lack of food and from the accompanying diseases that swept the ghetto. So many died that the dead were without burial. Bodies lay in the streets. In 1942, after the words were spoken of the “final solution to the Jewish question,” 265,000 Warsaw Jews were herded to a train station on the edge of the ghetto, known as the Umschlagplatz.

From here, the Jews were taken to their deaths at Treblinka — more than 265,000 in 1942 alone. Finally, by April of 1943, the Warsaw ghetto was nearly gone. An amazing resistance was launched by the few survivors. But by May of 1943, the ghetto was leveled, another horrific chapter of a many-chaptered book in the persecution of the Jews.

joes2The end of a time.

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A high brick wall should be easy to find, even in Warsaw. We are looking for a small surviving remnant of the ghetto wall, Sienna Street in Warsaw, the books say. The address is 55. Walking, walking, walking. We actually find Sienna Street. We walk down the street. Nothing. We retrace our route. OK, there is Sienna 55. Nothing. Zero. Zip.

Ah, the book says the entrance is on another street. Sure enough, there is a small sign pointing down an alleyway midway down the adjacent street. We walk into the alley with some concern that we are walking into a private drive — we can only see an acupuncturist’s shop on a ground floor, and in front of us, the back of a large apartment complex. In the inside courtyard, to the left, is a contained garbage bin for the complex. A man comes out to dump garbage in the bin. He leaves. All is quiet. Not another soul.

Then we see it — a corner of the ghetto wall. Abutting the face of the white apartments.

joes3The wall seems to be crumbling as we stand there. It is late afternoon. There is no street noise in this inner courtyard. You can touch the brick with an open palm if you want. No alarm will go off. No security guards are present. It seems forgotten except for the placard attached to the wall and a map of the former ghetto. The placard reads: “In the period from Nov 15, 1940 to Nov 20, 1941 this wall marked the limit of The Ghetto.”

I don’t touch the wall. There is an irrational fear that that the bricks will give voice to what occurred here. And perhaps I will be measured.

My wife and I only whisper.

Two bricks from this wall were taken for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and apparently bricks were taken for other museums around the world. And in the cavities, stones are placed. Small stones. Some on top of a note. Some with a candle.

joes4This is not complicated. Someone stood where my wife and I are standing. Today. Yesterday. Thirty years ago. They brought a stone. Maybe from Israel. Maybe from Sweden. Maybe from Des Moines. Or just maybe from the ground beneath the wall. It doesn’t really matter. Someone else was here. Someone else saw. Someone else remembered.

This spring, Iowa farmers will again collect newborn stones from their fields. These stones will come from deep within the earth to land without ceremony next to the soybeans. Clean. Fresh. New. These stones will not be soiled by human suffering. They are Iowa stones. Formed by icebergs. Stolid and reliable. But as anti-Semitism ping-pongs around Western and Eastern Europe, from soccer fields to political halls, who will remember the stones in the crumbling Warsaw Ghetto wall? CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at

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