Sunday, May 25, 2008
“You Must Give Testimony”
Today, sixty years after the death of Witold Pilecki, his memory should unite not only his compatriots, but everyone around. Will Europe be willing to commemorate the heroes who struggled with totalitarianism?
The 20th century has gone down in history as the time of totalitarianisms and mass extermination. Although conflicts have accompanied people since the dawn of time, never before had genocide been an industrial killing. Never before had people created “death factories” with all their meticulously designed infrastructure, constantly refined during its functioning. Never before had humanity been as trampled on as this. Nowadays, despite the postmodernist tendency to question symbols, sometimes even facts, the memory of “the epoch of the ovens” and its evil is a vital element of common knowledge. If we want cultivation of this memory to have any deeper meaning, we should not ignore human greatness which emerged in the twentieth-century hell on earth. Lest the experience of battling with the evil of the last century should be wasted, we must fulfil our duty to do justice to all those who had the courage to face totalitarianisms. This duty particularly concerns the restoration of the memory of the bravest ones; those who paid the highest price for remaining faithful to the ideals of humanity. But for their sacrifice, the victory would not have been possible.
we are despite everything
the guardians of our brothers
With this quotation as our motto, this January we initiated the action called “Let’s Reminisce about Witold Pilecki”. Its aim is to give the Captain his due place in the consciousness of contemporary people as one of the greatest figures in Polish and world history. The Poles should not be the only ones to reminisce about him, but the whole world should “recall” his heroism. All people of goodwill ought to nurture his memory. Especially those who believe that we owe our freedom to such heroes like Pilecki. The year 2008, which is 65 years after the Rittmeister’s courageous escape from the Auschwitz Concentration Camp and 60 years after his judicial murder, should become the year of Witold Pilecki. This does not necessarily have to happen by an official government order. Although the support from political and self-government institutions would be valuable, the initiative in this respect belongs to the civil society. Every one of us can contribute to the accomplishment of the action “Let’s Reminisce about Witold Pilecki”, of which there are three. Firstly, disseminating “Witold’s Report” dated 1945. Secondly, arranging a strong lobby group for shooting an international blockbuster movie which would tell the story of “a volunteer for Auschwitz”. Thirdly, establishing the Day of the Heroes of the Struggle with Totalitarianism on May 25, which is Pilecki’s death anniversary. This date would be a new holiday in the European Union. The project to commemorate the figure of Captain Pilecki has met with a kind reception of the high-ranking EU officials.
ignorance about those who have disappeared
undermines the reality of the world
Persuading a major overseas film studio to shoot a movie with the working title “Volunteer for Auschwitz” might seem difficult. The actions to be taken to carry out such an undertaking necessitate considerable financial outlays. Meanwhile, it is possible to propagate “Witold’s Report” through much less “rich” means. In the age of widely accessible Internet, getting acquainted with the late Captains’s report would not pose any difficulties. However, it is necessary to put foreign translations of the report on the Internet; without that it is hard to imagine how the inhabitants of different continents will have better knowledge of the particular fragment of European history which our Hero described. There are strong arguments for “Witold’s Report” being worth reading. Above all, we need to mention the high ethical value of the report. Moreover, as far as its factual aspect is concerned, this document may turn out to be exceptional for many Polish and non-Polish readers. One must realize that the circumstances of Witold Pilecki’s imprisonment, his stay in Auschwitz and his flight are the missing piece of today’s people’s consciousness. The memory of the heroes of the Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowych, ZOW) is getting fainter and fainter year by year. In contemporary Poland a lot of people, particularly the post-communist generation, do not even know the name of the Auschwitz inmate resistance movement’s creator. To cap it all, foreign mass media tend to shift the responsibility for German war crimes to Poland, which insults the memory of Pilecki and his companions. Such terms as “Polish concentration camps” or “Polish extermination camps” constantly appear in the mass media all over the world, which shows how serious and widespread a misconception about the responsibility for Holocaust is. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum guides have first-hand experience of the terrible effects of our neglect. On more than one occasion, tourists from abroad asked, “ Are these the turrets which Polish soldiers shot the prisoners from?” The popularization of foreign translations of “Witold’s Report” should help to put an end to this alarming misconception.
we must therefore know
draw up exact accounts
“Witold’s Report” should become a required reading for the inhabitants of the global village primarily out of respect for the historical truth, but also for the above-mentioned timeless values of this document. Witold Pilecki presents the reality of hell on earth from a humanistic perspective, which is familiar and important to us too. After all, we live in the age of a triumph for human rights. Therefore, it is especially worth realizing the price which some of our predecessors had to pay to save this world. Lest good “purchased” at the cost of their heroism should be wasted, we need to take care of such elements of Europe’s common heritage as the Captain’s testimony. “Witold’s Report” is also worthy of note for formal reasons. Typical of the author’s terseness of a professional officer, concrete language, economy of words, acute sense of observation and large sensitivity to details make this document almost a literary work. As a result, dramatic scenes provoke a reader to think deeply about the sense of basic human values. In contrast to the realities of the world of ultimate evil, where good is a scandal and meets with an inevitable punishment, the smallest signs of goodwill stand out very distinctly. In the context created by unrestrained hatred and contempt, a penchant for freedom, fraternity, honor, perseverance, mercy, bravery and faith gain significance, which is hard to detect in some abstract phrases of various declarations. It should be emphasized that a respect for a human being, his dignity and indispensable features became for Pilecki, who was a Christian and ardent Polish patriot, an unconscious reference point . This perspective allowed the author to do justice to each person mentioned in his written memories from the largest “death factory” created by the Third Reich, regardless of their nationality or function in the machinery of terror. One of the most harrowing fragments of “Witold’s Report” are the ones about a despicable Pole (Mieczysław Pańszczyk) and a noble German (Otto Küsel).
summon them by name
ready them for the road
There is no splinter of the devil’s mirror in the eye of the hero who described the reality of Anus Mundi. Pilecki was free from any forms of nationalism and xenophobia, which we know about both from “Witold’s Report” and accounts of those who knew him. This patriot and a man of deep Christian faith, which is often emphasized by his children, was the epitome of the most noble things in our Polish and European tradition. Witold Pilecki, a descendant of a mighty family, was never patronizing towards others. Numerous accounts confirm his innate modesty, which frequently emanates from “Witold’s Report”. The criteria according to which the Rittmeister evaluated others differ completely from what today is the indicator of belonging to the élite. Today, the political class members tend to refer to working for the common good to justify their stances, but for the prisoner no. 4859 the sense of this work was disparate. The scene where Pilecki describes the “illegal” Christmas Eve supper in Auschwitz, 1941 should be contemplated not only by members of our parliament. The author’s final appeal in “Witold’s Report” should be taken to heart not only by his compatriots. The biography of Pilecki, a hero of the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21) and the Second World War (1939-45), a creator of ZOW, a soldier in the Warsaw Uprising (August-October 1944) and an officer of the Polish Armed Forces, constitutes a very noble example of the permanence of the ethos of chivalry in Western culture. Also, our concern for the “healthy roots” of our civilization ought to motivate us to make the world remember or rather learn about Witold Pilecki.
in (...) a ring of fidelity
The action “Let’s Reminisce about Witold Pilecki” is the first grassroots initiative of this kind this year. By the middle of February, several hundred people had become actively involved in it and nearly thirty state institutions had declared their support. I personally sent the invitation to “reminisce about the Captain” to over three thousand people in Poland and all over the world. Among these are: local authorities, high schools and universities, foundations, associations, trade unions, museums, educational institutions, publishing houses, mass media etc. As early as January, I sent the information about the action with an appeal for support to the highest authorities of Poland: the President and the Speakers of the Sejm and Senate. I have also made the efforts to get the Ministries of National Education and Sport, Culture and National Heritage, National Defense and their subordinate institutions interested in our action. Therefore, our hopes of “Witold’s Report” becoming a mandatory reading, whether in a Polish school or in the Polish army, are not at all vain.
May 25 – the European Day of the Heroes of the Struggle with Totalitarianism?
This year, in which we are celebrating the important anniversaries of Witold Pilecki’s activities, it is worth trying to contribute to the more extensive (both factually, geographically and institutionally) and the more lasting commemoration of those who dared to face the totalitarian tyrannies last century. The biography of the late Captain is in a sense an apogee and a summary of the fate of many individuals. Giving Pilecki his due place in our consciousness can and should be accompanied by the commemoration of other heroes who fought “for our freedom and yours”. I would like to emphasize that we should cherish the memory of not only the innocent victims, but above all of those who had the courage to challenge evil. The courage, for which they sometimes paid the highest price.
With the above-mentioned arguments on the agenda, on February 1, I submitted the official letter to Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament. I quoted the basic facts about Witold Pilecki and requested taking action to establish the European Day of the Heroes of the Struggle with Totalitarianism on May 25, which is Pilecki’s death anniversary. I also expressed my hopes that Mr. Pöttering would be willing to help to propagate “Witold’s Report” among the Members of the European Parliament and all the European Union citizens as well as to include this document in the canon of required reading in schools of all member states. I also submitted letters in this matter to Katerina Batzeli, President of the European Parliament Committee on Culture and Education, Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission and Jan Figel, Member of the European Commission responsible for Education, Training, Culture and Youth.
I trust that in view of the great value of the Captains’s testimony and the ethical universality of the message in “Witold’s Report”, all people of goodwill, including the representatives of the highest authorities of the Republic of Poland and the European Union, will consider my suggestions and requests favorably. I trust that they will be willing to do everything in their power to pay tribute to the heroes who struggled with totalitarian evil. It is our duty to keep the memory of the bravest from the brave alive. I believe that the free nations of Europe will pay off the moral debt to those of our predecessors who we owe our freedom to.
Krakow, Poland, February 2008.
President of Paradis Judaeorum Foundation (Fundacja Paradis Judaeorum),
initiator of the worldwide campaign “Let’s Reminisce About Witold Pilecki” (“Przypomnijmy o Rotmistrzu”)
The quotations (except the last one) are taken from the poem “Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision” by Zbigniew Herbert.
Translated from Polish by Marta Koziarz
"The Envoy of Mr. Cogito"
by Zbigniew Herbert
Go where those others went to the dark boundary
for the golden fleece of nothingness your last prize
go upright among those who are on their knees
among those with their backs turned and those toppled in the dust
you were saved not in order to live
you have little time you must give testimony
be courageous when the mind deceives you be courageous
in the final account only this is important
and let your helpless Anger be like the sea
whenever your hear the voice of the insulted and beaten
let you sister Scorn not leave you
for the informers executioners cowards - they will win
they will go to your funeral with relief will throw a lump of earth
the woodborer will write your smoothed-over biography
and do not forgive truly it is not in your power
to forgive in the name of those betrayed at dawn
beware however of unnecessary pride
keep looking at your clown's face in the mirror
repeat: I was called - weren't there better ones than I
beware of dryness of heart love the morning spring
the bird with an unknown name the winter oak
light on a wall the splendour of the sky
they don't need your warm breath
they are there to say: no one will console you
be vigilant - when the light on the mountains gives the sign- arise and
as long as blood turns in the breast your dark star
repeat old incantations of humanity fables and legends
because this is how you will attain the good you will not attain
repeat great words repeat them stubbornly
like those crossing the desert who perished in the sand
and they will reward you with what they have at hand
with the whip of laughter with murder on a garbage heap
go because only in this way you will be admitted to the company of cold
to the company of your ancestors: Gilgamesh Hector Roland
the defenders of the kingdom without limit and the city of ashes
Be faithful Go
See also: Witold Pilecki in English Wikipedia