Bring memory to life in Warsaw

interview to Konstanty Gebert

Journalist and Jewish activist from Poland, Konstanty Gebert is one of the most important war reporters of various Polish dailies. In 1978 he was one of the main organizers of the so-called Flying university, a secret high education institution teaching the people on various subjects forbidden by the Polish Communist regime. In 1980 he joined the Solidarność Union. Here there is an interview to Gebert made by our collaborator Annalia Guglielmi.

On 5 June we will inaugurate the Universal Garden of the Righteous in Warsaw, thanks to the cooperation between Gariwo and the House of History Meetings of the same town. In your opinion, what is the value of a Garden of the Righteous in the Polish Capital?

A key element in my opinion is the fact that the movement for the creation of Gardens of the Righteous that I am supporting so strongly, because I find it is a way to bring memory to life – which is essential for European thought – has arrived also at Warsaw, the place of the worst evil that the human race has ever been able to perpetrate, but also the pace of some moments of extreme loftiness.
And to us in Poland the idea of the Righteous has a key value not only on the ethical level, as anywhere, but also practically, i.e: the existence of the Righteous is one of those elements that lades us to think that may there is hope for the future, therefore I am very happy to take part in this initiative.

How did the Jewish community welcome this proposal?

There have been no particular reactions inside the Jewish community. I think that the idea of honoring the Righteous is already apparent enough and therefore it should not spark disagreements. Obviously, people are always afraid that increasing the number and criteria of the recognized Righteous might weaken the specific character of those who have rescued the Jew during the Holocaust, but since also those who put forward this idea of creating the Gardens of the Righteous make a tremendous effort to demonstrate that this fear is groundless and it is not about trivializing the Righteous among the Nations but rather to show that somebody can be a Righteous in different ways – which any way have something in common – I would say that there is no reason to worry. And this may be one of the reasons why the Jewish Community in Warsaw did not have many dissenting responses, and instead has give us its support: The Chief Rabbi belongs in the Committee for a Garden, let’s hope he will be there at the inauguration. Thus this idea seems to a as clear-cut enough.  

You have belonged to the Committee for the Garden of the Righteous in Warsaw from the start. What are the criteria for the choice of the people to be honoured here?

As always – and I can imagine it happened so also in the other Gardens, the issue to create formal criteria has been of the utmost importance. In our debates in a way first we agreed upon the people to be honoured and then we started to think of the criteria. I suppose the same has happened for the other Gardens. There are some response attitudes in front of suffering, violence and lie that have to be honoured, identified and passed on to the new generations. Theorization in a way comes later, and it holds a certain importance: hence we sought a balance between those who have resisted one or the other totalitarian system, between Europe and the rest of the world, or between men and women. But this is a step further, as the first step was to list the people we agreed upon since the beginning. For us it was obvious that these men and women were Righteous human beings and had to be commemorated. Only later we tried to draw some general criteria.

Which universal value can this Garden of the Righteous in Warsaw hold for the young generations and the Polish youths in particular?

We will see. I often said, especially when talking to American friends, that one of the differences between Poland and the United States lies in this: when in America we say of something that “this is history”, we mean it is unimportant, while when we say so in Poland it means it is of the utmost importance. Over the past 25 years Poland lifted itself a bit of this burden of history: in a way we have escaped the historical curse of periodic destructions of the country, either for its wrong geographical position or for the wrong historical period, and so on. Let’s say that the Poles have enjoyed the pleasure to forget about history. But right in these days history is rearing its ugly face again in the Ukraine and in these upsetting outcomes of the European elections. In this time of “troublement des valeurs”, a rescue mechanism consists in looking at the example of our ancestors in situations of value crises, when people did not know how they should behave. There is a beautiful sentence by Władysław Bartoszewski, maybe a quotation from poet Slominski:  "When you are in doubt, behave decently ". In a way the first six people whom we have chosen for our garden have follow this pathway: in case of doubt, and there were doubts, they behaved decently. I suppose this can bear a certain relevance for today’s younger generations, because the time in which you could live without making too many great choices seems to be over. Then it is necessary to see how behaved the people who have preceded us, when they were the same age as us now and shared the same problems, and this can provide a reference point.

What does it mean today to gather the heritage of the Righteous?

It’s something extremely practical. Back 10 years ago it was still possible to think that the heritage of the Righteous was part of the reflection on human values and the choices to make, thus a theoretical, scholarly debate. Now not. Now the need for us to take sides is resurfacing in many daily situations and this is why are so important. When we look at their stories we see that they were all people like us, who though in their daily lives were confronted with some choices and had to make such choices. There is a huge difference between idols and heroes. An idol is something you will never be able to see, as it show superiority, perfection and all is left to do for you is to worship it, while you, too can be a hero, if you want and get committed. I would say this is the message of the Righteous – or as said in the Pirkei Avot, the ethical treaty of Talmud – in a place where there are no men you shall be the man. There is even a famous motto that says:  “you are not responsible for doing all the work, but you cannot refuse to do your part ". The Righteous did their part and this compels us to do ours.

4 June is the 25th anniversary of the 1989 alections which would lead to the collapse of communism. The Garden of the Righteous of Warsaw will inaugurated the following day. Was this made on purpose and why?

Absolutely on purpose, because 4 June from a certain point of view is part of the Righteous’ heritage – by the way one of the Righteous whom we will remember this year is Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who was one of the great personalities behind the victory of 4 June.
But there is also a deeper meaning and it is an ethical consideration: who witnessed to 1989 forever lose the moral right to be pessimist, because what happened there seemed to be impossible earlier: communism collapsing without shedding a blood drop? The USSR that says sorry and goes away? Come on! If one year earlier someone had told me, I would have laughed. This is why, for us who have seen it, us who in a way helped those event unfold, there is no more any right to tall other people “it won’t work, you don’ have any chance to do it. We participated in a miracle, something that was made by human hands, by the hands of the Righteous, and which passes on to us such an heritage which we cannot set aside anylonger.

Annalia Guglielmi, expert of Poland and Eastern Europe

4 June 2014

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