Knowing Chopin By Heart

During his dying days in Paris, Frédéric Chopin requested that his heart be returned to his homeland, Poland.  Alex Ross tells the story of how the relic came to rest at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw:

The woman who set the saga in motion was Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, Chopin’s eldest sister, who heard and recorded his curious request for dismemberment. She saw to it that dish_chopinheart the heart was preserved in a hermetically sealed crystal jar filled with an alcoholic liquid, possibly cognac. That vessel was, in turn, encased in an urn made of mahogany and oak. In early 1850, a few months after her brother’s death, Jędrzejewicz smuggled the assemblage into Poland, hiding it under her cloak in order to elude the attentions of Austrian and Russian inspectors. In 1879, it was placed in its present position at Holy Cross. A memorial slab bore a citation of the Book of Matthew: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As Jędrzejewicz must have anticipated, the erection of a memorial at Holy Cross soon acquired political resonance. For decades, it was the only public monument to Chopin that tsarist authorities permitted in the city, and it drew covert displays of nationalist fervor. When Poland achieved independence, in 1918, the site became an open shrine. “All our past sings in him, all our slavery cries in him, the beating heart of the nation, the great king of sorrows,” the cleric Antoni Szlagowski intoned, in 1926. While Chopin believed strongly in the idea of a Polish nation, such sentiments might have made him uncomfortable; in one of his letters, he dismissed as “nonsense” the idea that Poles would one day be as proud of him as Germans are of Mozart.

(Image of memorial at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw by Ralf Peter Reimann)