A Human Heart Buried in a Pillar, A Secret Exhumation & Vows of Secrecy

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Though it seems like something straight out of the next Dan Brown novel or even an ancient work of Edgar Allan Poe‘s, these events are quite real.

In the shadowed sanctuary of Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, Poland, shortly after midnight on the 14th of April, 13 people gathered in hushed whispers to remove the human heart of Fredrick Chopin resting in one of the building’s pillars. Why is this only now becoming public information? The members were sworn to secrecy, though why they’ve decided to come forward to the press now remains a mystery. Over 1,000 pictures were taken of the sacred relic.

The reason behind this secret exhumation was so that two scientists that were part of the group of 13 could look at the heart to determine if Chopin had suffered from cystic fibrosis. Historians long suspected he actually died of CF, not the tuberculosis blamed at the time of his death. Geneticist Michael Witt, one of the recent secret 13 said the heart “is much enlarged, suggesting respiratory problems linked to lung disease, and bears TB nodules.” Historical accounts suggest the composer stood 5’6″ tall but only weighed 88 pounds. Steven Lagerberg, author of “Chopin’s Heart: The Quest to Identify the Mysterious Illness of the World’s Most Beloved Composer,” told the AP:

“The mystery of this man’s illness lingers on – how he could survive for so long with such a chronic illness and how he could write pieces of such extraordinary beauty. It’s an intellectual puzzle, it’s a medical mystery and it’s an issue of great scientific curiosity.

Fredrick Chopin, son of a Polish mother and French émigré father, was born in Warsaw in 1810 and lived there until 1830, when he moved to Paris, choosing to live the rest of his life separated from his homeland due to the oppression of Imperial Russia, who had taken over the land. Sadly, the composer died in 1839, of what people in his day thought to be tuberculosis. On his deathbed, Chopin whispered his last request with his last agonizing breaths in what would become legend: after he died, cut out his heart and entomb it in his beloved Poland, that his soul might rest where it truly belonged. His eldest sister, Ludwika, honored his last request, smuggling the heart through Russian patrols beneath her skirts. Safe inside its intricate urn, the heart was kept in the family home for a number of years before finally being entombed in the a pillar at the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw. The plaque reads: “Here lies the heart of Frederick Chopin,” and quotes the Bible verse: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

In 1918, Poland gained it’s independence and the site became a shrine much as a saint’s would. However, during WWII, the heart was removed from the pillar for fear of its destruction amidst the Nazi attacks. Ironically, it was given for safe-keeping into the hands of a high-ranking S.S. officer, Heinz Reinefarth, who allegedly was also a fan of Chopin’s music. At the end of the war, Nazi officers in a token of goodwill, gave it back to the church in a public ceremony, possibly hoping to reconcile after slaughtering the Polish people and destroying the city. Afraid that the Germans would change their minds and the relic be destroyed, church leaders hid the urn by disassembling it and the soul of it’s son was seen for the first time. Buried inside two wooden boxes, the relic floated in an amber-colored liquid in a crystal glass jar. One man observed that it was “incredibly big.”

On the 96th anniversary of Chopin’s death, on October 17, 1945, his heart was returned to Holy Cross Church, where it took its place once again in the shrine. Though forensic scientists have wanted to solve the mystery of Chopin’s death for decades, the keepers of the heart refuse to let it be brought under scientific testing. Members of the recent exhumation say they allowed it to happen due to an alarm raised by scientists fearing that after so many years, the alcohol could have evaporated, making the heart dry up. Another opening to check the condition of the relic is planned in 50 years, members say.

After assuring members that the heart was indeed still in it’s preserving liquid, scientists added more wax to ensure against any future evaporation. The archbishop recited prayers and the relic was returned once again to its place inside the pillar.

The group says they will not release the more than 1,000 pictures taken during exhumation to the press. Artur Szklener, director of the Fryderyk Chopin institute in Warsaw, a state body that “helps preserve the composer’s legacy,” told the AP: “We don’t want this to be a media sensation, with photos of the heart in the newspapers.”

Chopin’s body still lies in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris where it was originally buried, though this piece of his soul has traveled many miles and seen many places. Residents are very protective of the relic, as they see it’s destiny as being intertwined with Poland’s, her greatest struggles and achievements over the many decades since Chopin’s death. As Bogdan Zdrojewski, a minister who took part in the recent ceremony said,

“We in Poland often say that Chopin died longing for his homeland.”

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About the Author

T.S. Walker
T.S. Walker is a freelance writer and a voracious reader, who enjoys simple things, laughter with loved ones, and wide open spaces.

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