Friday, December 25, 2009

A Drowned Baby Christmas

Warsaw, Poland
25 December 1936

Edward R. Murrow stood atop the roof of the Bristol Hotel and intoned solemnly, "This . . . is Warsaw."

Bundled up against the cold, a microphone clutched in one gloved hand, Murrow gazed out into the night as he continued his narration. "Once again, I'm broadcasting live from a rooftop looking out over Warsaw. For reasons of national as well as personal security, I'm unable to tell you the exact location from which I'm speaking. Spread out beyond the roof before me is a vast sea of darkness, patchily illuminated by burning buildings. The Polish capital is in blackout conditions against the possibility of air raids by the Luftwaffe, the German air force, though there have been no German aircraft seen here in over three months." As it happened, the Polish and German air arms had battled each other to a stalemate earlier on in the war, though the Poles had since been able to acquire a handful of aircraft from their British and French allies and could thus maintain a tenuous control over their embattled nation's airspace.

"Off to the west is a line of fire that marks the location of the battle line between the Polish and German armies, a line marked by the muzzle flashes of artillery, flares hanging in the air between the two armies, and burning buildings that have been struck by shells. That line goes off beyond the horizon in either direction, reaching all the way to the Lithuanian border in the north, and all the way to the Czechoslovak border in the south. Ever since Ernst Röhm launched his invasion in May, that line has flamed across the Polish nation, moving swiftly at first, then more slowly, and finally coming to a halt as the German advance stalled a month ago." Every war correspondent Murrow knew had drawn the obvious analogy from the Western Front during the World War, and expected the war to continue for years until one side or the other ran out of troops or munitions and asked for an armistice. They considered Marshal Piłsudski's demand for unconditional surrender by the Germans to be mere posturing.

"Throughout this embattled capital, the unsung heroes of modern war play their parts. Those black-faced men with bloodshot eyes fighting fires. The girls who cradle the steering wheel of a heavy ambulance in their arms. The policeman who stands guard over that unexploded shell. These things must be seen.

"For the people of Warsaw, the joys of Christmas are muted by the shadow of war that hangs over the city. Yet through it all, the people here can still find moments of joy to keep the holiday alive. An unexpected visit from a loved one. A chance encounter with an old friend. A sudden gift from an unexpected quarter. The Polish national anthem says 'Poland is still alive'. Despite everything that Ernst Röhm can do, Poland remains alive today.

"This is Edward R. Murrow, reporting live from Warsaw."

As he made his broadcast, Murrow kept one eye on his watch. Bill Paley had allotted him five minutes a week for his newscasts from Warsaw (Bill Shirer in Berlin got another five), and Murrow knew from experience that if he ran over, his colleagues in New York would simply cut him off. As his five minutes came to a close, Murrow wrapped up his report, then stood silent until the engineer beside him said, "And we're clear."

"Thanks, Ignacy," said Murrow, as the other man began dismantling his sound equipment. Through his headphones, Murrow could hear Bill Shirer doing his report from the German capital, three hundred miles distant. Murrow didn't envy Bill his posting -- from what Bill and the other Berlin correspondents had told him, Röhm's Germany was a nightmarish place where the rule of law had been overthrown and brownshirted thugs murdered and looted with impunity. The Piłsudski regime certainly had its share of dark secrets, but next to the Brownshirts they were practically angels.

As Shirer ended his report, Murrow removed his headphones and followed Ignacy through the window into the hotel's penthouse suite. The broadcast had gone off without a hitch. If the conventional wisdom about the future course of the war was correct, he and Ignacy would be spending a lot of time up here over the next few years.

From the suite, Murrow made his way down the stairwell (the elevator was no longer running) to the suite of rooms that served as both his office and the CBS news bureau in Warsaw. Since Murrow was the CBS news bureau in Warsaw, it was not a tight fit.

Nevertheless, the office was more crowded than usual, because there was a woman sitting beside his desk. As soon as she saw him, she jumped up and wrapped her arms around him, and they shared a long, slow kiss. Ignacy, abandoned in the doorway, grinned and said, "Hello, Janet."

It was a while before Janet Murrow was able to disengage herself from her husband long enough to say, "Hello, Ignacy."

"Darling," said an astonished Murrow, "what are you doing here? Why aren't you in Lublin?"

"You just told the good people back home that the front line hasn't moved in a month," Janet pointed out. "The Germans aren't going to take Warsaw, and I missed you terribly, so I've come back."

Murrow was caught between the desire to have Janet stay with him in Warsaw, and the fear that something might still happen to her. In the end, desire won out, and he answered, "It's good to have you back."

Murrow was feeling jittery, as he always did after a broadcast, so he suggested that Janet and he go out for a walk. Janet agreed, and Ignacy assured them that he could keep watch on the office, so the couple made their way down to the street.

Murrow's broadcasts were timed to make the 6 PM news in New York, which meant that it was almost 2 in the morning Warsaw time by the time he finished. The city streets were almost completely deserted, covered with the four-day-old remains of the last snowfall. In the blackout, the only light came from a gibbous moon shining down from the western sky. They took Królewska to the Saxon Gardens, which were impressive even in wintertime. To the west, across Marszałkowska, the grounds were fenced off, and they could see sandbags piled around. Murrow explained that there had been gun emplacements there, but that with the stabilization of the lines all the guns had been moved west.

The two of them were walking south down Marszałkowska when they heard a mechanical growl coming from up ahead. They hurried up to the Świętokrzyska intersection in time to see the first tank go past. Ed and Janet Murrow stood transfixed as the first tank was followed by others, all bearing Polish Army insignia, all going west towards the front. They were soon joined by Warsavians emerging from the surrounding shops and houses, silently at first, but soon transformed into a cheering crowd. The tanks were followed by armored cars pulling field artillery, then by marching troops accompanied by mounted officers.

By this time, the gathering on the sidewalks had become a general celebration. Young (and not-so-young) women rushed into the street to bestow hugs and kisses on the marching soldiers. With a shock, Ed Murrow recognized one of the passing officers as a colleague of his, an English journalist named Eric Blair who wrote under the name George Orwell. Like Murrow, Blair had come to Poland to cover the war. Within two months of his arrival, though, Blair had volunteered for the Polish army, and Murrow noticed that he now wore a lieutenant's insignia. Murrow ran up to Blair, calling his name, and the Englishman turned and motioned him over.

"Eric, what's going on?" Murrow asked as he kept pace with Blair.

Blair gestured to a Polish general riding horseback behind him. "That's General Skwarczyński, this is all his idea, would you like to meet him?"

Murrow agreed, and Blair led him over. "General," the Englishman called out in French, "this is an American reporter named Edward Murrow, he'd like a quick interview!"

Skwarczyński rode out of the formation and dismounted. Shaking Murrow's hand, the General said in French, "I've heard of your reports, Monsieur Murrow, they are very popular here. What would you like to know?"

Murrow repeated his question, suitably translated. "General, what's going on?"

"A Christmas gift for our German guests," Skwarczyński answered. "A general offensive spearheaded by tank columns. With any luck, the Germans won't know what's hit them. Would you like to come and watch?"

His mind awhirl, Murrow said, "I'd have to go back to the studio and get a tape recorder."

"By all means," said Skwarczyński. "Lt. Blair, as of this moment you're on detached duty, assigned to escort Monsieur Murrow here. Meet us at the staging point in two hours."

"Yessir," Blair said with a salute. As Skwarczyński remounted, Blair led Murrow back to the sidewalk. Looking around for Janet, Murrow was surprised to discover that she was standing by his side. He realized with a start that she had been with him the whole time, and he had never noticed.

"Are you still at the Bristol, Ed?" Blair queried. At a nod from Murrow, the Englishman said, "Then let's be off. We've an early appointment with the Brownshirts!"

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