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A FEW REFLECTIONS ON RESPONSIBILITY AND PATRIOTISM

Stefan Wilkanowicz

Znak, February 2001

It is good that Zdzisław Krasnodębski has clearly posed the issue of grandchildren's responsibility for their grandparents and the responsibility of the nation for smaller or bigger groups belonging to it. Krasnodębski has also made it clear that there are contradictions within this emotionally painful problem.


In discussions about the massacre in Jedwabne (and in other discussions about the Holocaust), a constantly recurring theme is responsibility - not collective responsibility by any means, but nevertheless a responsibility that somehow extends to various communities, be they local or national. We cannot, of course, speak about any legal responsibility for the sins of the forebears (unless we have profited from their sins, at the cost of someone else). Nor do we bear any direct moral responsibility-the fault is not ours.


But we must ask ourselves a question: what sort of links bind us to our ancestors? For me, it is gratitude and solidarity that are in play here. Gratitude for the valuable things that have been passed on to us, for equipping us with different types of tangible and intangible goods. But there is also the conviction that the evil they have done must be made up for in some way, even if this is to be a symbolic way of naming the tragedy and expressing regret for it. At times, material compensation is also needed. We do not hesitate to demand compensations from contemporary Germans who, after all, are not guilty of Hitler's crimes. And far from making money on those crimes, on the contrary, they suffered enormous losses, and the madman would surely have destroyed them if he could, for they proved to be unworthy of him. This particular responsibility for our ancestors has yet another dimension, a metaphysical or spiritual one, because the catastrophe of the evil cries out for good, and requires some sort of answer even if it is hard to speak of making up for the evil.


Christianity goes even further. We all are bound by spiritual ties and that is why we pray for each other, why we pray for those who have passed away and for those who are to come. We pray for those who died long ago and for those who are to be born centuries hence. We pray because time does not exist for God, and our deeds and prayers form a spiritual capital that He "distributes" according to His wisdom and love. We can make up different theories regarding relations between people but we are bound to each other whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not. We help or harm each other even when we know nothing about each other.


This solidarity with our ancestors is connected with something else-with our solidarity with those who will come after us. We want to pass on to them all the best of what we have, and warn them against the dangers that could threaten them. This is why we must examine the evil that has been done, because they will need knowledge about it in order to be able to avoid it. That is why we voluntarily do penance for the sins of our ancestors, so that we can leave our successors with a sense of responsibility and a response to evil, a response that offers hope. We love our grandchildren, and that is why we feel responsible for our grandparents.


Pondering over attitudes of those Jews who welcomed the Red Army units with bread and salt we do not forget about those who greeted German units the same way-for they saw them as their salvation from an evil that seemed absolute to them. Metropolitan Bishop Szeptycki wrote to Pius XII that he could not image a greater evil than the Bolshevism, and that is why he treated the Germans as saviors. It took a few months for him to become convinced that the saviors were even worse.


We understand such an attitude, but we draw from it a somewhat different moral than the usual one. Namely, that we have an obligation to absorb and pass on even the most uncomfortable and challenging information. This is a general obligation that stems not only from our self-interest properly understood, but also from a sense of responsibility and solidarity with others. This applies particularly to teachers and journalists, who cannot confine themselves to simply conveying information but must also, in the old-fashioned way, inculcate wisdom-even if they do not receive the appropriate gratification for doing so.



In our civilization, the degree of ever-widening interdependence is constantly growing, while at the same time it is becoming more fragile and more vulnerable to perturbation. Today, the "man in the street" has far more ways of doing harm to even the whole of humankind than our ancestors had of doing harm to their village. Let me only mention terrorists of various stripes, and even more so the hackers and designers of computer viruses-today we cannot even imagine the future impact of their deliberate acts or spontaneous stunts. This civilization is in an ever-greater need of a sense of responsibility and solidarity, of more and more knowledge, of psychological health and the skills of cooperation. Today's patriotism should be at once local, national, and global. It looks as if love of one's neighbor-even a very distant neighbor-has become a patriotic obligation. It is also an expression of sensible self-interest.


We will probably never learn the whole truth about what happened in Jedwabne. We will learn about various circumstances that are more or less important, that favor now one view and now the other, that make our judgments now softer and now harsher. But none of this will change my basic opinion that what happened in Jedwabne demands some sort of reply, some manifestation of the good, I do not know what it should be, but I know that it should be both local and nationwide. Young people in Jedwabne have already made a first step. What will the next steps be?


I am reminded of a young girl of eighteen who came to Auschwitz years ago with the Aktion Sühnenzeichen group to work and pray at the site of the concentration camp in order to do penance for the crimes of the Germans. When her father learned about her intentions, he slapped her in the face. Yet she came to Auschwitz in spite of his reaction. Could this have been because she loved her father? Could she have been thinking about her future children?


Stefan Wilkanowicz