Katyn Remembered- Then and Now, a Debate

Memory Remains

Now I was going to write about the Katyn Massacre sooner or later.  But events of the last 9 days have forced me to do this now.  Those who read anything I have written before know that I remember.  I remember the Holocaust, Marek Edelman, Witold Pilecki, Communism.  I remember many more and plan to write about some of those things, the tragic story of the 17 year old Inka is in the works.  Today I perhaps should be writing about Marek Edelman’s friends who in an act of desperation and pride took up arm against the German murderers 67 years ago.  But that will come too.  The other Warsaw Uprising will also get its tribute.  Those boys and girls so deserve to be remembered by all.  Hopefully I will find time and inspiration to write more about Polish history, to present to you some of the tragic, heroic, and not so tragic, nor heroic chapters of my native land’s history.  But why do I bother someone might ask.

Well the question was presented to me personally and in general over the past days.  Ever since the tragic plane crash that took the lives of Polish president Lech Kaczynski, the first lady, Maria, and the last Polish president in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski and 93 other Poles, parliamentarians, Polish Armed Forces commanders, religious figures, prominent Polish officials, other famous Poles, bodyguards, the plane crew.  And last, but most certainly not least, the Katyn victims family members.  A tragic loss to Poland, Europe, and dare I say, the world.  Nowhere in modern times has a nation lost so many citizens of such importance at once.  This past week was one of mourning and remembrance.  Yes remembrance.  Poles from all walks of life and religious and political persuasions, by the millions, took time to remember those who were lost.

Yes, we all remembered.  Even those like me, who live far away from Poland, all over the world, Poles remembered.  Yet as the candles were still lit, and the flowers did not yet begin to wilt, and the tears did not yet begin to dry, some questioned our mourning.  Yes.  Whether because of politics, or a world view, some even mocked the tears that were shed.  Not only the tears shed for the recently lost, but the tears shed for those who were murdered in 1940.  Yes, apparently its not hip nor sexy to remember one’s past.  Screw those who died, let them rot, who cares why or how they died, we have more important things to worry about, like the new show on TV, or a new film that we want to see, our jobs, our lives.  After all, rehashing events from the past does no good to anyone.  It causes problems with others, in Katyn’s case Russia, and it makes us uncomfortable.  Hell being patriotic is not cool any more.  Poland has its democracy and freedom now, who cares how it got it, and what had to happen in order for Poland to gain that freedom.  We have it, and now we want to go out into the world and live our lives, so piss off and stop boring us.

One of the biggest bores who made people remember and uncomfortable was the late president of Poland.  Lech Kaczynski was a patriot.  He forced people to remember.  When he and the other 95 people died, they were going on a state mission, to commemorate the Katyn murders.  Yes, the silly little man wanted to remember and honour almost 22,000 Poles who were murdered in 1940.  How dare he!!!  What was he hoping to achieve?  What is all this history going to get us?  Poles are constant martyrs, or at least they present themselves that way.  They have a victim complex, they want the world to constantly apologize and to feel sorry for them.  Silly Poles, can’t they just eat their hamburgers, listen to their iPods and enjoy life like the rest?

Problem is that it was not just foreigners saying such things (I paraphrased for dramatic effect).  The loudest voices of criticism came from Poles themselves.  Yes those cosmopolitan Poles, the European Poles, who want to take advantage of the new wave of integration with Europe and the world.  The globalization Poles.  They want to have nice things, good jobs and worry about today not about some dead soldiers.  When I say cosmopolitan I do not mean cosmopolitan in the proper sense.  The new age cosmopolitans are not really worldly.  Watching American TV shows, eating fast food, and enjoying the fruits of integration and globalization does not make one a cosmopolitan.  Many have no clue about the world around them.  Many have the knowledge but just don’t care.  To them eating sushi or Vietnamese food makes them cosmopolitan.  Wearing the latest styles and scents is what matters, not how those things got here, were created, or why they were created.  They pick modern beach resorts for their holidays all over the world while never really stepping out of those resorts to see where they actually are.  Now I may be a bit harsh, but hell, they are telling me that I should not care about my past.  They are telling me that it does not matter how I got to where I am.  Basically they are telling me that it does not matter who I am.

Yes, that’s right.  I am who I am because of mine and my ancestors’ past.  If I did not remember where I come from and how I got to where I am, I would be a different person.  Of course there is a danger of living in the past, not being able to move on and dwelling too much in it.  Yes, that is true.  And that is what the nouveau cosmopolitans say, especially when it concerned Lech Kaczynski.  To them the man only talked about the past, they took his patriotism and historical identity as backward nationalism.  But it wasn’t that.  He didn’t just constantly harp on about the past.  It only seemed that way to them because they disliked him.  Before we can move on, we must remember and come to terms with our past.

Unfortunately for Poland there was a lot to come to terms with, a lot to remember.  A lot to get right.  A hell of a lot.  Poland as a nation dramatically changed in the 20th Century.  Independence was quickly followed by a victorious war, then internal turmoil came.  Then the Second World War.  6 million Poles perished, almost 20% of the population.  Poland then changed not only geographically, but also demographically and politically.  Ancient Polish cities belonged to us no more.  Cities we should not call our own are now a part of Poland.  Poland went from a multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-religious society to monolithic nation.  Yes, one people, one culture, one religion replaced all those who participated in Polish life for centuries.  The biggest loss was Polish Jews.  90% were murdered in WWII.  For almost 8 centuries they were a big part of Polish life, and are no more.  Their numbers went from over 3 million to under 100,000 in a space of a few years.  Polish cities were destroyed.  Polish culture pillaged, best, bravest and brightest Poles perished by the millions.  Then Civil war that lasted into late 1940’s.  Totalitarian Soviet enforced Communism.  More drama during their rule, 1956, the sorry episode of 1968.  Then 1970, and then Solidarity, Martial Law, and finally freedom.  That’s a lot for a nation to take.  That’s a lot to remember.  And in those 70 years between the Second and Third Commonwealth so may smaller dramas took place.  And we are just supposed to forget that?

You expect a president who fought for that freedom, and whose father fought in the Warsaw Uprising, and whose wife’s father also fought in the AK, whose uncle fought at Monte Cassino and another uncle that was murdered at Katyn, to forget all of that?  Really?  After 45 years of lies and deceit?  You want him, all of us, to move on and just forget all that?  In the name of what?  Political expediency?  Mindless comfort?  Poland had just 20 years to right the wrongs, to untangle the lies, to remember properly.  And we should move on?  70+ years of great drama is supposed to be forgotten over 20?  When so much is yet unresolved?  Well fuck off.  No, I wont, we wont, forget.  That is why institutions such as IPN (Institute of National Memory) exist.  To untangle the web of lies that were spread for decades.

People have a right to criticize Lech Kaczynski for his conservative policies.  Hell, I have done so on numerous occasions.  His backwards politics should be criticised.  But they should not be confused and banded with his patriotism and search for truth and remembrance.  Those are two different issues.  One dealt with here and now.  The other with national memory.  Even when the need to pursue that truth sometimes made problems in the present.  Like with Katyn.

Yes, the Katyn issue was a problem.  But it was not Poland’s problem.  It was not Lech Kaczynski’s problem.  It was only a problem because of Russian, and formerly Soviet, politics and behaviour.  Now I wont bore you with the gory details of the Katyn Massacre, to get information all you have to do is read a Wiki article or any other readily available source.  What we are examining is why Katyn is still a problem between Poland and Russia.  It is not the fact that the Poles are unwilling to forgive the Russians for committing these murders.  Nor do we want to hold this over their heads for years and years.  If that were true then we have many more things to hold over the Russians from the past 200+ years.  But no one dwells on that.  What Poles want, what Lech Kaczynski wanted, was the truth and some sort of repentance fro the Russians.  Until the last few days, we got almost none.

Yes, around 20 years ago the Russians finally admitted that it was them.  Before we were told it was the Nazis, or what was actually most advisable, it was best to just not mention it.  But Russia, even after admitting to the crime, never repented for it.  No steps were taken to heal the rift between the two nations.  Instead, Vladimir Putin’s government systematically made efforts to rehabilitate the worst of the criminals, Stalin first and foremost among them.  Soviet “achievements” were glorified, their crimes omitted.  Russia made a concious effort to glorify all of its past, on many occasions, at the expense of Poland.  One, at first glance, seemingly banal example would be Russian state sponsored films, in which Poles are vilified.  Russian foreign policy, since 1989, has also not been Poland friendly.  For 20 years Russia objected to and interfered with Poland’s integration with the West.  Getting back to Katyn.  Poland needs closure, all documents have to be declassified, the Russian government needs to make a gesture of goodwill and friendship to Poland.

That goodwill and friendship seems realistic now.  The tragic death of the president and the rest of the delegation perhaps did what could not be previously done.  First, the world found out about Katyn.  What is even more important, Russia learned about Katyn.  In that sense, the latest deaths were not in vain.  Now Russians will not look at Poles who want to remember Katyn as annoying pests who only want to embarrass Mother Russia.  But they will have some understanding and empathy.  Before they just did not know.  Russians as a people are just lovely.  Kind, welcoming, giving, as they showed in the days after the plane crash.  Now armed with the new knowledge the Russians, Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn, was shown on Russian state television, will seek from their govt a gesture.  Now that govt wont have an excuse of keeping it a secret.  That govt, with president Medvedev and premier Putin has behaved impeccably since the crash.  The flowers, gestures, and words and actions have given me hope, that finally, through his death, Lech Kaczynski, will achieve what he wanted.  Katyn remembered, and afterwards, a warming of Polish-Russian relations.  Now is the time, lets all hope that the politicians wont let that chance pass them by.

It is the same within Poland.  Political debate has been degraded to insults and finger pointing.  Now is the time to come together and look at political opponents not as enemies, but honourable rivals and compatriots fighting for a better Poland.  We don’t have to agree politically, but we can behave like adults and debate like a civilized people.  Finally, Poles themselves have an opportunity to change.  Again, they can see themselves as part of a whole, not as enemy factions forced to live together.  And its patriotism and remembering our common history that should bring us together, not divide us.

The cosmopolitans should remember that among those who died with the two presidents, were an actor, the chief of the Polish Olympic committee, and a symbol of Solidarity, as well as politicians from all of the main parties.  Including the lefts presidential candidate.  People from all walks of life, socially and politically.  A microcosm of Poland.  Those who almost seemed glad that the plane crashed would do well to remember that there were several family members of those who perished at Katyn in 1940.  You want them to quietly remember their loved ones?  Well they can’t.  Because unlike my father, their death was not a family tragedy.  It was a national tragedy.  They died because they were Poles.  And they should be remembered by Poles.  All of us.

It is our duty to remember.  it is our duty to learn from they deaths.  It is our duty to learn why they died.  Remembering and being a patriot does not necessarily collide with one’s cosmopolitan lifestyle.  You can be a good Pole and be a good citizen of Europe, the world.  You can be a good Pole while being a good capitalist.  Being a Pole does not prevent you from having your own politics, religion, or non-religion.  Or anything else.  There is nothing hip about forgetting who you really are and where you come from.  There is nothing modern about being an ignorant buffoon.  Without your past, all you are left with is a shallow, almost empty human being, devoid of values and history, and real self worth.  So yes, do criticize the late president for his policies.  Do criticise the Polish Catholic Church for its sins and transgressions.  But do not forget, you come from a country with a 1000 year history.  And that history always went hand in hand with that church.  In good times and bad.  One can not run away from it.  One does not have to love it.  But one can not ignore it, nor disrespect it, without disrespecting oneself.

And that is why we must remember, and respect, the ones who perished at Katyn all those years ago.  And all those we died on their way to honour their memory.  May they all rest in peace, may we never forget them.

Just want to say a word.  I do not pray, but am thinking today about the tragic heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto, who on this day, in 1943, rose up to die the way they chose, not the way their Nazi oppressors picked.  We will never forget.

(the youtube link, is the music that was played all through out last week during the memorials on Polish tv.)

Also:  Fell free to comment and express your opinion, I do not moderate discussions, unless they are really offensive.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I agree with your article, thank you for writing it.

    I must say however, that Poland existed before 966, it was only the RECORDED period of history, which is one of the perks of becoming a Christian society. The reason we abandoned our unique religion for another that was headed by the Germans at the time (in Rome) was for political reasons, so they wouldn’t have an excuse to invade us.. So Poland did exist before Christianity, but because we weren’t “recognized” by the Christian World, it wasn’t a detailed recording. History is written by historians. I sometimes marvel at the uniqueness the countries would have would it not be for pressure to convert… Iran, Ireland, etc… much more natural and “fitting” religions, by them, for them…

    anyway, just a thought

  2. I don’t disagree. Christianity was brought in to stem the advance of the Germans and take religion away as an excuse for those. You are correct there. But Poland as such was unified just a short time before by Mieszko. The Slavic tribes that later made up Poland arrived on the Vistula plain just a couple of centuries before and settled there. But Christianity, for good or bad, existed in Poland for most of its history, so we can not deny it. Poland is a fully Christian nation, whatever that means. Thanks for the comment Conrad.


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