The way you answer that question is determined by collective memory, according to Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a social anthropologist on the faculty of the Jagiellonian University who spoke to the seminar group to start our first full day of activities in Krakow.
For Americans, of course, it was Dec. 7, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For the Polish people, it was Sept. 1, 1939, when their nation was invaded by Nazi Germany.
Orla-Bukowksa, who was born in Chicago to Polish parents, introduced the seminar participants to the twin notions of memory and identity, giving some background about Poland along the way.
Memory is necessary for identity, she said. “You don’t know who you are if you have amnesia,” she said.
And Poland is a nation with a lot that it would like to forget, she said. Modernity hasn’t been kind to the Poles, with the country experiencing less than 50 years of true independence out of the last two centuries. And many Poles who know their country’s history feel that the nation’s Golden Age was the 15th through the 17th century, surely an idea that’s foreign to the arc of American history.
But Poles have been willing to fight for “your freedom and ours,” throughout history, Orla-Bukowska, from the patriot Kosciusko aiding the Continental Army in the American Revolution to the Polish Army’s active participation in the Iraq War.
That’s a more positive national memory than the fact that 6 million Poles — 10 percent of the country’s population — died in World War II. About 50 percent of those vicitms were Jews.
Konstanty Gebert, an author and journalist, called that a defining statistic for today’s Poles.
“Do we want to build our identity around the fact that our parents and grandparents were victims?” he said, noting a major difference in the attitude of Poles and Americans about the past.
“When you say, ‘That’s history,” it means it’s irrelevant,” he said. “Here it means that it’s of the utmost importance.”
He said that seminar participants should think about how memory is perpetuated — through records, diaries, letters and other documents, something we would find to be very significant at later points of the seminar. Again, the importance of stories.
“People don’t build their narrative around the results of historical research,” he said. “They build it around what happened to them and to people they know.”
And a lot of what happened in Poland should be a lesson to future generations.
“We’ve trusted humans to be decent much too often, with disastrous results,” he said. “There is every reason to be afraid of ourselves.”
After lunch at the appropriately-named Restaurant Nostalgia, we boarded a bus for Nowa Huta, the easternmost district of Krakow which was remade following the Communist takeover of Poland in the late 1940s into a model Stalinist city, to be populated mostly by working class people employed by a new steel mill — the literal translation of “Nowa Huta.”
It’s an interesting area, with a broad central avenue and big blocky buildings in what became known as the Social Realist style of architecture, designed to embody political and social ideas. But one of the most interesting buildlings in Nowa Huta is a church, known popularly as the “Lord’s Ark,” one of the few houses of worship built in the Communist era, and consecrated by Karol Wojtyla, Bishop of Krakow and the future Pope John Paul II, in 1977.
The area around the steel mill, ironically, became the backdrop for the breakdown of Communism as the site of many Solidarity movement demonstrations in the early 1980s.