istory is a teacher of life and, for Poles, also a teacher of death” – this is how the President of the Institute of National Remembrance, dr Karol Nawrocki, paraphrased the ancient proverb at one of the panels of the Congress of National Remembrance held in Warsaw on 13-15 April 2023. It was attended by more than 13,000 people, including more than 7,000 young people.
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and at the same time Chairman of the Council of the Jan Karski Institute of War Losses Arkadiusz Mularczyk recalled that Poland is demanding reparations from Germany for the extermination of Polish citizens and other crimes and destruction during World War II. He recalled, for example, that “the Germans stole 200,000 Polish children, which was of no interest to the Tribunal at Nuremberg trials after the war. The International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant against Putin for the deportation of several thousand Ukrainian children”. The German state finished paying war reparations for the First World War to France and the UK in 2010. It has now made a commitment to pay reparations to Namibia for the genocide committed there between 1904 and 1908. Genuine reconciliation requires that the Polish state also be dealt with adequately.
Preserving history for future generations
After World War II, Germany concluded reparation agreements with all European countries except Poland. They are aware that they owe huge sums to Poland, much more than to other European countries,” assessed prof. Bogdan Musiał.
The experts taking part in the discussion on communist crimes were unanimous in their opinion that while Western Europe wants to settle the German crimes of the World War II, it lacks understanding of the desire to punish the perpetrators of communist crimes.
Despite numerous studies and publications, there is still a perception in the West that these are not equally criminal political systems. The panelists called for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to speak in unison on this issue in the international arena, and for this voice to be heard, among others, in the European Parliament. There were also calls for at least symbolic punishment of the perpetrators. It is also important that, in seeking to punish those guilty of communist crimes, we should not forget to honour the victims of the system.
Discussants at a panel on the political transformation in Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s agreed that regaining sovereignty after the communist era of dependence on the Soviet Union did not happen in 1989, but was a longer process. “The communist regime and its people were not really judged and completely removed from power,” said prof. Slawomir Cenckiewicz. “They excelled in this system, very often becoming the economic and political elite. There are also the two terms of President Aleksander Kwasniewski – a leading activist of the PZPR [communist party in power in Poland controlled by the USSR] in 1989.” “The difficulty is to pinpoint a specific date from which Poland has been independent. Because 4 June 1989 was not the end of communism in Poland”, said prof. Cenckiewicz.
The Congress was inspired by the report “Education for Remembrance”. Research has shown that around 50 per cent of young and adult Poles are indifferent to the history of their country. The Congress served to popularise the information from the report and to share the experiences of the IPN in the field of alternative methods of teaching history.
So there was the Histhack hackathon – the first coding marathon for young people in Poland, and perhaps in the world, which required knowledge of programming and history.
Alternative Education of History
The congress provided a venue for alternative education about history with the help of the “Cyphers Game” virtual reality and the underground print shop “Fighting Solidarity”. Numerous educational workshops offered to learn how to create animations about history, and it was possible to pick up and learn about the operation of military equipment and everyday objects from a bygone era, such as a typewriter. Visitors to the congress were also able to print posters in person using the method used in Solidarity’s underground print shops.
Among other events, the Congress included the “Echoes of Katyn” International Film Festival on Totalitarianism The main award for feature film went to Latvian director Viesturs Kairiss for his film “January”. The film is an autobiography highlighting the political upheavals in the early 1990s that changed the lives of the people of the former Soviet Union. It is still a timely story about art, love and war. In the short and medium-length film category, the first award went to Polish director Miłosz Kozioł for his film “Rotmistrz Pilecki”, about a heroic Pole who volunteered to be imprisoned in the German concentration camp Auschwitz in order to organise a resistance movement there and send information to the world about the extermination of Poles and then Jews carried out at this site of tragic events.
However, among the many events of the Congress, special attention should be paid to the inauguration of the new multimedia exhibition “Trails of Hope. The Odyssey of Freedom”. It shows the struggle of Poles on many fronts of World War II: the airborne “Battle of Britain”, Norway’s Narvik, Libya’s Tobruk, Italy’s Monte Cassino, and other battles also in France, Belgium or the Netherlands. The exhibition also shows the fate of civilians evacuated from the Soviet Union with General Anders’s army, and received in refugee camps scattered around the world. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin agreed to organize an army of almost a hundred thousand people from the Polish exiles, who were evacuated via Iran. The Institute of National Remembrance wants to show this exhibition in around 50 countries. This is at the same time an acknowledgment of the people of dozens of countries including Iran, Iraq and Israel and Palestine to Italy, France, Belgium, India, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mexico, Canada and New Zealand.
The experience of Poles in exile in the 20th century taught us how we should help those who are defending freedom, which is not something assured for eternity and for which we still have to fight. In the face of the current war in Ukraine, Poles have welcomed into their homes one and a half million Ukrainian refugees. In recent history, this is an unprecedented phenomenon, as until now, war refugees received in other countries were placed in special centres. In this way, Poland continues its commitment to the struggle to free the world from today’s totalitarianisms. This is why it is worth recalling the Odyssey of freedom of our ancestors.