By Bronek Korczynski, Co-Chair of PeaceQuest Kingston
I have waited for over 50 years. This summer it finally happened.
You see, my father, long deceased, was the only member of his family to have escaped Poland. The Second World War had everything to do with that unplanned and painful departure. But that is another story for another time.
The rest of the Korczynski family struggled on. Most survived that war’s tragedies. Survivors were caught up in the massive migration of refugees following the redrawing of the map of Europe in 1945. After that, they endured life under the heel of the Soviet Union until its eventual collapse.
It was not easy for them or for hundreds of thousands of others. But not only did they survive; they have been flourishing during these last decades.
One cannot travel to Poland … this was my first visit … and fail to notice the long, dark shadows still cast by the tragedies of WWII and the ensuing Communist era. They are everywhere, whether you are looking for them or not.
My cousins served as generous tour guides for my wife and me. They determined for us what was essential to see and understand about their long suffering country. It became evident to us early and often that we were walking in those dual shadows of war and its grim aftermath.
In Warsaw, for example, the city centre is dominated by a stark, monolithic building, a “gift from the Russian people” in the 1950s. It still elicits strong (usually negative) emotions from many Poles. A visit to one of the city’s main cemeteries saw us standing before a huge monument erected as a reminder of the tragedy of the Smolensk air disaster which, in 2010, saw 96 deaths (perhaps assassinations?), including the country’s president and several cabinet ministers. Concerns about a new and emerging “Russian Empire” under Vladimir Putin are real.
The most casual walk through Warsaw’s restored old town reveals plaques and markers noting the places where Poles were summarily executed by the Nazis.
Even travelling along the most non-descript side street can yield a neighbourhood memorial to the ill-fated Warsaw uprising of 1944. Such memorials often feature fresh flowers or burning vigil candles, gestures by people who still grieve those tragedies.
And if you happen to miss these smaller Warsaw memorials, you cannot miss the more grand gestures, many of them museums dedicated to the memory of these tragic events. The Warsaw Uprising Museum; the Museum of the History of Jews in Poland; the Polish Military Museum; the Cathedral of the Polish Military, to name but a few.
Visits to Poland’s other major cities feature similar sites and memorials, for me perhaps the most memorable was Oswiecim … better known to the world as Auschwitz/Birkenau.
All of which has provided much food for thought. And for comparison.
A stroll through Kingston’s picturesque City Park, and undoubtedly the central parks of most Canadian cities, invariably leads to an encounter with at least one, if not more, war memorials. But the images invoked, and the stories they attempt to elicit, seem out of sync with my recent experiences in Poland.
My Canadian experience, with rare exceptions, might be characterized as encounters with historic memory … graven images of military personnel, allusions to heroic sacrifice, the defence of freedom, acts of patriotism, and ultimately, military victories. And I have found few, if any, recently placed bouquets or burning candles (except around November 11, of course).
Which approach proclaims to me more loudly “Never Again; Never Again!”
Which ones ask more urgently, “How could we have allowed this to happen?”
Which ones invite me to consider, “Why is war still happening in our world?”
Which ones more effectively challenge my own present actions, “What am I doing today to prevent this from ever happening again?”
So what’s the difference?
As I see it, most Polish memorials are anchored in the experiences of the victims, the oppressed, the suffering and the brutalized. My Canadian experience has more often than not offered the perspective of the victor, underscoring the unquestioned valour of those who served in the military, with little or no explicit reference to the broader tragedy that war always brings.
For me, it is not just a difference of tone; it is a difference of substance.
Memorials to war and conflict are important. Indeed, the collective memory they help to nurture is vital. But perspective also is critical.
Memorials do invite us to consider, if not honour, the heroic service and sacrifices of those who have served in the branches of the military. But they also must invoke the larger questions. Not only why these tragic events unfolded as they did, but how they can be prevented in the future.
Memorials, such is prominent in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, challenge us to work for peace.
The present flow of refugees from the Middle East is only one of the latest tragic consequences of unresolved conflict.
At a time when nations have the nuclear capacity to annihilate the entire world many times over, questions about restoring and preserving peace must consume more of our time and energies, at both personal and political levels.
After all, if we fail, there may be few remaining to build any memorial suitable enough to commemorate a lifeless planet.