WE’LL GATHER AT THE RIVER
It is December of 2000, the river Oder is still and cold, the brown water made darker by the gray skies above. The river cuts through Wrocław, a vein of water that has helped to establish the city as the Polish Venice with its one hundred and twelve bridges. As we look at the river, we can see clusters of tree branches and leaves moving slowly south. Eventually, something else catches our eye. We try to tell ourselves that it’s more branches or some trash, but we know a dead body when we see one. The corpse is that of a man, stripped down, apparently starved and tortured, knife wounds all over, his wrists bound behind his back, and a noose around his neck. His eyes are open, and like an open diary sitting on the table, we can’t help but look.
The body continues its journey and wanders through the shadow of the Grunwaldzki Bridge which is stretched out across the river like a sleepy dragon. This bridge will be important later, but for now it’s just another landmark the body will pass by before finally coming to rest on the river bank. Soon, fishermen will discover the body, the police will be called, and the mystery surrounding the murder of Dariusz Janiszewski will begin.
That the body is discovered near Wrocław should be no surprise. With a thousand years of bloody skirmishes, scorching invasions, world wars and soul-crushing occupations, Wrocław is full of mysteries, murder or otherwise. It is a beautiful city, make no mistake about it, but still the dead are everywhere – beneath the concrete we walk on, deep in the basement of the apartment building we live in, in the walls of our schools, under the flowerbeds. We cannot dig without discovering bones, so when we stumble upon an unexploded bomb from the war instead, we are relieved by the absence of history; its story and purpose is so abundantly clear. Bodies, on the other hand, bring ghosts in the formless shapes of uncertainty and ambiguity.
We must know the body’s story.
We understand this implicitly, because what if that body was you? What if it was me?
The wounds on Dariusz Janiszewski’s body hints at a large story, but without clues it cannot be written. It is learned that Janiszewski was a successful businessman, the owner of an advertising firm. What was he like as a person? Was he the funny guy at the party? Was he a jerk when he drank too much? Did he even drink? Did he fall in love? Was he afraid of the dark as a child? All of these questions are meaningless when weighed against the marks on his body. The facts surrounding his death will eclipse his entire life. This is what the killer really took away from Janiszewski.
Six months pass and there are no substantial leads. The police can only do so much, and eventually the case is abandoned.
Like I said, this murder happened in Wrocław, a city designed like an erased hard drive, constantly wiped clean, but traces of the previous data still there, overwritten but not forgotten, the history building and building. We do not know what is below the ground. Construction is constantly halted because new things are discovered. Once, the renovation of a street in the city center was stopped when another street – complete with buildings – was found beneath it.
When the Germans fled the city at the end of the war, they destroyed all of their maps and plans, meaning there are miles of tunnels below us that we still know nothing about because we haven’t found them yet. And even if we do, we might not be able to figure out what they were for, like Project Reise – a secret series of tunnels in the mountains not far from Wrocław. The Osówka complex, the largest system of tunnels, feels endless, with some tunnels opening up to giant sized bunkers big enough to hold planes. It is literally a little city carved inside a mountain, but for what purpose? We don’t know. Even among the survivors from the 30,000 prisoners who were forced to dig those tunnels offer conflicting stories. We continue to excavate and search for clues, and history waits patiently for us to put the puzzle together, but one discovery offers us a dozen new mysteries.
Just as Janiszewski’s body floated down the river Oder, the story of his murder wandered aimlessly through the Internet and newspapers, waiting for someone to make a connection. There were lots of theories, but nothing concrete. And just when it looked like the murder would never be solved, a connection came in the shape of a book.
In 2003, a thriller is published by Krystian Bala called Amok. The book is not initially well received. It is considered pornographic, sadistic and disturbing. Still, there is one murder in the book that raises some eyebrows. In the story, a woman named Mary is killed with striking similarity to Janiszewski. Even details undisclosed by the police are included with haunting accuracy. The book is read repeatedly by the investigators of the Janiszewski case. More and more clues are found until the truth can no longer be ignored. Astoundingly, Bala – not content with getting away with the perfect murder – has actually documented his crime in the form of a novel.
If we were watching this as a movie, we’d throw up our arms and scoff. It’s too perfect, too easy. This kind of thing doesn’t happen in real life, and yet here we are. The evidence against Bala is overwhelming and the coincidences are a little too uncomfortable. Unlike the protagonist in Amok who is never caught, Bala is found guilty of the murder of Dariusz Janiszewski and sentenced in 2007 to 25 years in jail.
There is no car chase, no explosions, just hubris the size of Kansas. If only every mystery in Wrocław could be solved so easily, then it would be a city of closure, free from its own history rather than weighed down by it.
The Jewish cemetery on Slezna Street is overgrown with plants and many of the gravestones are falling apart, some even riddled with bullet holes from the war. Exploring the cemetery is like roaming a Borges inspired labyrinth, its magnitude impossible to take in, and you know that there’s no way they can possibly know the name of every person buried there. All of these deaths consumed by history, and the ones we know of offer vague and inconsistent information.
Speaking of inconsistency, there is one story about Most Grunwaldzki that I’ve heard a few times. But first, let me describe it to you, as I can see it now from where I’m writing.
The symmetrical arches on either side greet you like a sad face made of granite and steel. To cross, you must enter the frowning mouth and walk the meager distance of about 370 feet to get to the other side. The thick suspended cables slope at the center before rising again like wings.
When the bridge was being built in 1908, it was considered revolutionary because of its design – a bridge suspended entirely on specially designed metal plates. Upon opening in 1910, it was called the Imperial Bridge. Later it would become the Freedom Bridge before turning back into the Imperial Bridge. Today it’s simply known in Polish as Most Grunwaldzki.
During the Second World War, when Wrocław was the German city Breslau, it was known as the last line of defense, a fortress. Because of this, nearly eighty percent of the city was destroyed before the Germans were finally defeated. The Grunwaldzki Bridge was substantially damaged and would be inoperable until it was eventually renovated and reopened in September of 1947. Recently the suspension cables have been painted a pleasing light blue that matches the sky in the early morning. Nowadays, despite its revolutionary reputation and being the only suspended bridge that supports both cars and trams in all of Poland, Most Grunwaldzki is just another bridge.
So, this story. Despite the variations, the gist is the same. The story is about the main engineer of the bridge and how he was hounded by criticism because of the revolutionary aspects of the bridge. Critics complained that the bridge’s design was impossible and the suspension would not hold; people were going to die, they said. Still, the engineer persisted for many years and built the bridge as he imagined it. But all of the disparagement must’ve taken its toll on the engineer because on the eve before Most Grunwaldzki was to open to the public, he took his life, completely convinced the bridge would collapse.
I love this story because it perfectly reflects the Polish people; overeducated, clever, persistent, and yet filled with the kind of doubt and uncertainty that comes with living in a land that happens to be situated between two major powers. If only we could go back in time and inform the engineer that one hundred years later, his bridge still stands despite history’s multiple attempts to bring it down.
Still though, the story lacks a certain drama, which is why people like the variation where the mayor of Wrocław – then Breslau – threatened the engineer. Upon opening day, a regiment of tanks was to cross the bridge. If the bridge could not support the tanks, the engineer would be killed, but not before witnessing his family being murdered as well. Fearing the worst, he killed himself.
No one seems to agree on how he took his life. In real life, perhaps the engineer killed himself in his home with poison, but that isn’t interesting enough for a story.
It is December of 1910. It is the middle of the night. The engineer is standing on the bridge he created. He leans off the edge of the bridge, a rope wrapped tightly around his neck. He looks down at the river – the same one Janiszewski will be floating down 90 years later – and he knows that jumping into the water will not kill him. The water below sighs as if disappointed. He is frightened and feels the kind of loneliness he hasn’t felt since he was a child. He can feel the coldness of the metal at his fingertips and the itchy surface of the rope against his neck. A wind wanders gently past his ears. He takes deep breaths. He tries not to cry, but there’s no point.
There is a note in the front pocket of his jacket. It will explain why he did this, though a hundred years later this explanation – like his death – will have morphed into myth. This note, which may or may not have existed, will be mentioned offhandedly in a story written by an American sitting in a coffee shop that overlooks Most Grunwaldzki. The story will be about mysteries in Wrocław and how we sand down the details into stories, sometimes false, and – in the case of Krystian Bala – sometimes true. And in the end, it doesn’t matter. We do not want to be weighed down by history and there is nothing lighter than a good story.
The engineer’s body is found at dawn. The police cut his body down. They find the note in his pocket, just as I described. One of the officers reads it. The message is short, so he takes the time to read it twice. Upon second reading, tears fill his eyes. He passes the note to the next officer and walks to the edge of the bridge shaking his head.
The note is read again and again as more people arrive, each time the reader feels like they’ve been gut punched. The doctor observing the engineer’s body is allowed to read the note and he says that it will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Eventually, the body is covered and just like that the engineer’s story is over.
At both ends of the bridge, people are gathering, oblivious to the suicide, but excited to cross the bridge for the first time. All those months waiting to see what the Imperial Bridge would look like, all those weeks waiting to cross it, and now the day has arrived. The experience for them will be brief, perhaps even a little anticlimactic. One day they will cross it without considering how special the bridge once was to them. All the anticipation and excitement will be forgotten.
It will just be another bridge in a city full of bridges.
– Written by Christian A. Dumais
If you enjoy this, don’t forget to check out earlier editions of the Museioncast.