Learning to mourn with the Poles

It was a few minutes before noon on a chilly November morning when the professors and students from every department at the university, from mining to history, slowly filed into the majestically ornate Room 66 of the administration building. They had been asked to convene to attend a critical lecture about the overhaul of their institution of higher learning–among the most prestigious in the land. Their country, now under an occupying force, was about to undergo a forced ideological and cultural transformation and the new rulers declared the national education system was to be scrapped and replaced with their own.

Anxiety about how a change in the curriculum would affect the university was palpable and the scholars feared their jobs and careers might be in jeopardy. As the campus’ 144 faculty and their assistants and students took their seats and a few minutes had passed, it became apparent that there was no speaker and no lecture to be delivered. The rector’s mandatory invitation to the entire university to attend this lecture was a trap.

As members of a military known for its merciless brutality entered the room, it was evident something had gone eerily wrong. For the next half hour the building was filled with screams, shrills and tears as the men in uniform arrested all the attendees on the pretext that the university was operating without the authorization of the new government. In a remarkably efficient act of intellectual annihilation, and in less than an hour, the country’s oldest university, dating back to the 14th century, had been completely dismantled.

This is the story of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland which on 6 November, 1939, two months after the Nazi invasion of the country, ceased to exist. At the end of the incident, 184 members of the university community were arrested and deported to  concentration camps in Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Auschwitz and others where 34 lost their lives, and the rest were scarred by the torture they experienced and the horror they witnessed.           

This incident in Krakow was repeated all over the country in an operation known as AB-Aktion (Außerordentliche Befriedungsaktion) or Extraordinary Pacification Action which was devised to eliminate the intellectual class in Polish society. In all, 60,000 leaders, professors, teachers, aristocrats, artists and priests were arrested or executed in ten regional sites during the Nazi control of Poland.

Every year on 1 and 2 November (All Saints Day/Day of the Dead) Poles lay wreaths and light candles on the grave and spots commemorating their dead. During those days, the country is covered with flowers candles, especially in Krakow, the regional capital of Nazi rule and a main artery in an extensive network of concentration camps. Auschwitz lies just 60km from the city. Over the past week, flowers sat in front of Room 66 of Jagiellonian University’s main building to remind the academic community of what it sacrificed 71 years ago.

I often ask the Poles I meet about their collective psyche. How do they deal with loss and mourn death? How do they repent from guilt? How do they overcome trauma? Some say the Poles have developed an aesthetic appreciation and acceptance of somberness and melancholy. Others say that despite their pride as a nation, they have a strong sense of responsibility, bordering on self-deprecation. While Americans celebrate the day of the dead in the provocative, seductive, and absurd costumed festivities of Halloween, the Poles visit their family graves. Americans have a remorseless and unending pursuit of happiness that attempts to obscure the sadness of loss and replaces it with the mimicry of fantasy. The Poles engage with mortality and fear not the somber contemplation of loss. It is not surprising given the millions of people killed in cold blood in their land.

Yet most countries are following America’s example—a nation where dire political circumstances are dominated more by farce than fact, where it is easier to distract than interact. It is not surprising that the largest political demonstration in Washington, DC this year was a faux protest called by a political satirist (Jon Stewart) and a parody of a right-wing pundit (Stephen Colbert) on Halloween weekend at a time of overwhelming duress in the American polity.

In our increasingly high-tempo, consumerist lives where we are often inundated by a seemingly infinite number of distractions, we are less inclined to deal with the unpleasant, grotesque and deeply moving. But lead lives chasing after gratifications. We do not know or care to understand where our garbage goes, we have a narrowing patience for human tragedy, we are disgusted by the processes that bring food to our table, we are increasingly intolerant of aging, we go to great lengths to escape the specters of illness, and try to abbreviate the mourning of death. So how then do we deal with trauma if we spend much of our lives avoiding it in every small way?

Dealing with trauma is about exploring and re-articulating histories and truths. In Egypt we have a precarious relationship with truth. For those with the luxury of camouflaging their woes and escaping their responsibilities to society, their blindness to reality around them has created novel ways of seeing the world. But for many the dire reality is inescapable. It lives in every alley, yells from every rooftop, and sleeps in every shallow grave.

How do we deal with unpleasant realities and dark histories? How do we deal with the poverty that surrounds us? How do we confront our complicity in living conditions of the Gazans? How do we come to terms with our exaggerated historical narratives, like that of our victory in the 1973 War? How do we begin to address and who do we hold responsible for the systematic decline of Egypt's intellectual class from the early days of the 1952 coup until today?

As controversial and problematic as these are, they are infinitely less burdensome than the guilt that the Poles continue to shoulder. Despite being under Nazi occupation, they too have to live with the burden of these genocides. While we may not have participated in, condoned or sat silent during the mass extermination of millions in our backyards, we too have skeletons in our closet, the kind that no Halloween costume can obscure. And while we continue to ignore the symptoms of the gaping wound in our collective consciousness, we go on like the living dead, sleep-walking in a seemingly consequence-free environment. But we must heed the impending revisionist history of our current day which no measure of propaganda, laziness or distraction can efface. Let us take a page from the proudly self-critical Poles by counting our losses, accepting defeat, admitting mistakes, repenting and atoning for our hand in tragedy, and block out the careless chorus of inchoate optimism that has left us with few alternatives, and even fewer intellectuals.

Adel Iskandar is a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. His column appears every other Thursday.

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