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A Valentine for the Heart of Frédéric Chopin

By Ian Holubiak i.holubiak@classicalite.com on Feb 14, 2014 04:18 PM EST

Walking around New York City, there are more than a few reminders of World War II and the Nazi influence that defined an entire generation of immigrants coming to America.

Personally, I am a first-generation Ukrainian on my father's side. WWII is the sole reason my grandparents made the voyage to the United States, which brought with it visions of hope and opportunity.

In short, my father is the American dream.

The Nazi invasion on the Poles bruised many other family lineages and histories, destroying millions that had to contend with Hitler's firestorm.

The famous Parisian cemetary Père Lachaise, when I last saw it, reminded me of that fact specifically.

I remember Frédéric Chopin's grave lay meticulously framed among Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Honoré de Balzac and Oscar Wilde. And while his body was interred there in the Parisian soil, his heart--literally--was still in his homeland.

In a recent New Yorker tribute battering Chopin's chambers, Alex Ross, too, that the heart of the composer was not in Paris, but in the monumental Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of Warsaw's main thoroughfares.

This odd form of dismemberment proved difficult for Chopin's executor and eldest sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, who hid the heart beneath her cloak from Austrian and Russian inspectors.

In 1879, the heart was enshrined at Holy Cross, slabbed with a memorial citation from the Book of Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

The Nazi occupation of Poland, however, almost destroyed Chopin's ticker. Harbored in that small place inside a church, the structure received some heavy damage from the combat.

Surprisingly, it was Heinz Reinefarth, a high-ranking S.S. officer, that vowed to safeguard the heart after Polish priests agreed to move the monument. For a few years during the war, it was kept in the quarters of Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the infamously brutal commander of German forces in the region.

The heart changed hands between caretakers as the priests grew weary that German overseers wouldn't keep Chopin's heart safe. It eventually landed in Milanówek, outside of Warsaw.

"For the first time in decades, the container was disassembled and the organ itself glimpsed," writes Ross.

"It was 'incredibly big,' one observer recalled. On October 17, 1945, the 96th anniversary of Chopin's death, the heart went back to Holy Cross. White and red flags flew along the route, and masses of people gathered to pay their respects. By the time the car carrying the relic reached Warsaw, [Chopin chronicler and Polish journalist Andrzej Pettyn] related that it was heaped high with flowers," Ross writes further.

Chopin's heart has since become an object of amazement and study. In 2008, a team of scholars beseeched the Polish government to test a theory that claimed Chopin did not die of tuberculosis but, instead, cycstic fibrosis. Poland, thankfully, condemned the proposition, and the test was never conducted.

It seems right, then, to let the heart rest, as it has traveled much further than its body ever deemed possible.

Chopin's heart remains a stoic object that stood up to the Nazis as well as time, itself. Along with the revival of art once thought lost, (i.e. The Monuments Men hits theaters soon), this February 14, we dip our hands to grip the small pieces of history from beyond the tainted surface of a war-torn pool of memories.

To wit, here is Chopin's Étude Op. 10, No. 12 in C minor, known as the "Revolutionary Étude" (or, even better, the "Étude on the Bombardment of Warsaw"), performed by Stanislav Bunin.

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TagsNazi influence, Chopin's Heart, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Heinz Reinefarth, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Jim Morrison, Père Lachaise, Alex Ross, The New Yorker