The Polish Resistance and Me

1.

My family once knew how to resist great evil.

Less so now. Based on the current generation, we seem unlikely candidates for such heroism. The truth is, we’re average. Some of us have done better than others by whatever metric you might judge a life—career, money, education, length and frequency of marriages, number of offspring. We’ve fallen ill mentally and physically. We’ve divorced and failed in all of the other usual ways. We bicker, ignore, criticize, lie.

But during World War II, from their base at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, a batch of my first cousins, once removed, fought the Nazi regime. They glided to legend the same way they traveled to Christmas Eve’s midnight mass when snow was piled high: on skis.

The Marusarz were poor Polish-Catholic farmers whose children had to quit school after eighth grade to help with chores. But several of them—Stanisław, Jan, and Helena—showed unusual talent as skiers and turned competitive in the 1930s, winning national titles in ski jumping and downhill. Stanisław competed in his first Olympic games in 1932 and participated in four more. For a while, my distant cousins seemed poised to transcend their limited circumstances.

Then, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. After a brief but passionate fight, Poland was occupied by the Germans. The borders were sealed, and Zakopane, where the Marusarz family lived, was declared a closed town. The Tatra Mountains, which rose steeply from its limits and divided Poland from present-day Slovakia, were the one escape route left open. As a precaution, the Germans forced the local citizens to hand over their ski equipment on pain of death. Stanisław, Jan, and Helena chose to keep theirs and use it for good as ski couriers, transporting intelligence and refugees over the mountains and to resistance headquarters in Budapest, in the Armia Krajowa, or “Home Army.”

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Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World

Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World (revised)

*I published a version of this essay about four years ago. This is an updated version to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his death.

“There’s something very strange about you, because you look normal,
but it’s all going on inside. Yes, you have got a slight pleading look in your eyes.”
– Nigella Lawson to Anthony Bourdain, “London”

When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, a lot of people on news outlets and social media expressed astonishment that someone so successful would die by suicide. I was stunned that they were stunned. For my part, I’d long been surprised and impressed by the fact that he chose and was able to maintain, for years, a functional life after heroin and crack addiction. To me, that was the unlikelihood.

Yet on some level, I understood other people’s reactions. It wasn’t just because Bourdain had received accolades, amassed wealth, and scored what seemed to many of us the perfect job. We know enough about suicide, or should, to grasp that it is usually not a reaction to one specific event, and even objectively good circumstances may not preclude it. I think the shock was compounded by the fact that Bourdain was always chasing and articulating something so elemental to the human spirit. As a companion in the “Spain” episode of Parts Unknown puts it while they down tripe-spiked tapas: “Sun. Plaza. Guts.” If Bourdain couldn’t be happy with regular dosages of all three, then it seems like we’re all kind of fucked.

I was a fan of Bourdain’s No Reservations series years back but had never watched his more recent Parts Unknown episodes. Shortly after his suicide in 2018, I watched all 64 segments that were on Netflix at the time; this chunk represents two-thirds of the series. I viewed them to enjoy them and to mourn, and also to try to comprehend why Bourdain ended his life—which is, of course, impossible. But it is so tempting to wonder, to treat death as if it has an answer. If it has an answer, maybe there’s a solution too.

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