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Fake lake

How tribute to an ancient Slavic myth of a water nymph reveals a memorial to Poland's dead Jews

Poland in winter. Nu.

Poland in winter. Better take a walk.

One of my favorite places to walk here in Poznań in the western part of Poland has been Lake Rusałka. When I lived here as a Dominican novice ten years ago, a run around (sometimes three or four times around) this lake was a rare breath of fresh air and freedom. Novices don’t get out much.

But now I can go to Rusałka whenever I want. And I do.

We get to the lake from our monastery in the heart of town (right next to an opera house dating from Kaiser Wilhelm’s time) by walking through a serpentine system of parks. What you see is a sort of 19th-century idea of bourgeois elegance dampered by decades of socialism and eroded by the dampness of a clammy climate.

It’s mud with benches.

Here it is at twilight, that is, about 3:30 p.m.:

All photos in this post are mine unless otherwise marked.

As we wander on, a drainage canal disguised as a creek flows off toward a combination boathouse-café chantant.

It is pleasant in the right light.


Closer the lake, we pass tennis courts where the annual Poznań Open is played.

Then comes the unelaborate stadium of “T.S. Olimpia” — a sport club founded in the auspicious year 1945. Some latter-day Brutalist endowed it with this attractive scoreboard and viewing perch:


Under the adjacent railway bridge…


… and through a brambly wood…


…we emerge onto the lake.

Lake Rusałka measures 36.7 hectares, more than 90 acres.

Lake Rusałka. Named for a water nymph of Slavic culture. Russian speakers will know what I’m talking about. As will Czechs: Dvořák wrote an opera called Rusalka of which a fabulous super-Seventies film was made.

Here’s a rusalka imagined by Ivan Bilibin, a Russian who died in the Siege of Leningrad. You can — no joke — read about him on meettheslavs.com.

Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin, 1934. Wikipedia.

Rusałka. Sounds lovely and a little mysterious. Like the Lady of the Lake.

I associate the Lake with breezes and birds and — in other months — sunshine. And I’m not the only one. Rusałka is part of an official running trail, as marked on this sign:

The sign says “Running Trail”. Someone has scrawled a Celtic cross, a common racist symbol, on one edge.

There is a beach on one bank of Rusałka. I remember being dumbfounded in August, years ago, by the sight of round pale Poles jostling over its yellow sand in the tiniest of swimsuits in the local version of matkot.


Some years, there’s even a waterslide.


And why not? It’s a lake, near the heart of the city. It’s a perfectly nice spot.


This lake isn’t as ancient as the Slavic myth of rusalka. It isn’t even a real lake at all. It’s a fake lake. And it’s been on this site since the middle of the Second World War.

As the English entry on Wikipedia puts it, “It was formed in 1943 as a result of the damming of the Bogdanka River.” Formed is a dank and slimy word.

Formed how? The Polish version of the article jumps in with this: “To form the earthworks related to the establishment of the reservoir were forced Jewish prisoners from Nazi labor camps in Poznan.” (Pardon the backward syntax of a literal translation.)

Forming earthworks. It’s almost poetic.

To get the real story we need to go — oh yes — to the website of the Polish edition of Runner’s World:  an old-school magazine from the 1960s whose original American edition happily advertises “running news, gear tips, training advice, running shoe reviews, and more!”

On the Polish pages, darker stuff: “Mroczne tajemnice poznańskiej Rusałki” — “The sombre secrets of Poznań’s Rusałka.”

The author quotes an older gentleman — a local academic and friend of Israel, Wojciech Meixner — who explains:

Jews imprisoned in forced labor camps in Krzyżowniki, in Strzeszyn, in Golęcin and in Fort Radziwill constructed the Lake. Prisoners were used to break up bricks from a demolished brickyard on Niestachowska Street. Then they dumped out the rubble to form new roads and paths, then rolled it flat. Slave laborers also fortified the banks of the river Bogdanka.

Jews were in the worst situation of any of the prisoners: they were forced to work in Golęciński Wood [the spot that became the Lake itself]. The river flowed through this wood. Clay pits were there, too. In this place, often standing waist-deep in water, Jews had to dig the depression that, after the waters of the river were dammed, became Lake Rusałka.

To strengthen the bottom and banks of the lake, as well as other surrounding structures, they used matzevot [Jewish gravestones].

I remember when I was a child I often went with my parents to walk around Rusałka. I remember a little bridge, in the Woli neighborhood, over the spot where the Bogdanka flows into Rusalka. It was built with stone slabs covered with Hebrew writing. They were gravestones. The bridge still stands there today; the Hebrew letters are no longer visible.”

Some beavers have a lodge near that bridge today. I have trotted over it many times, never knowing.

And I never would have known had not an older monk — a member of our community who happened to die in the hospital this morning — mentioned it in passing over lunch one day in September. (“You know the Germans. They like parks.”)

God rest his soul.

Thousands of prisoners lie in mass graves around the Lake. Some who once lay there were later disinterred and incinerated, a technique we know from other — less picturesque — murder spots.

There are memorials to what happened in and around Rusałka.

To call them improvised would be generous.

This is the memorial to the Jewish dead:


If it looks like a drain to you, that’s because, in a way, it is.

img_1649The round drum you see is the top of a lock or sluice, a water-gate controlling the runoff from the lake and directing it into underground channels. In other words, it’s the entrance to a storm sewer.


And here some very kind people, some very good people, keep a perennial crop of funeral candles and silk flowers and tufts of ribbon going. This has been happening since the ’90s, they tell me.


A few little burned-out candles, their caps smudged with soot. That’s that.

It’s more moving, I think, for its homeliness. For its homemade-ness.

This isn’t a marble plinth designed by someone Finnish and funded by a foundation. People go to the supermarket or the Ladybug (Polish 7-Eleven) and buy those plastic lanterns and light them with their cigarette lighters and replace them when they’re dead.

They aren’t letting the joggers or the sunbathers forget: we inhabit the landscape of the Holocaust.

Yet the most eloquent memorial to the dead, Jewish or not, may be Rusałka itself. With its tit-birds and its crack-willows, with the joggers and the strolling oldsters and the kids high on Push Pops, the Lake is beautiful.

And it is alive.


About the Author
Born in Wisconsin, Erik Ross is a priest of the Dominican Order who lives in Switzerland and comes often to Israel. For many years, he was stationed in Poland. He has long been active in Jewish-Christian conversations. He writes here with the permission of his major superior.
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