Prof. Żaryn on the “The Volunteer” and the figure of Captain Witold Pilecki who has recently become a symbol of our values - Instytut Pileckiego

Prof. Żaryn on the “The Volunteer” and the figure of Captain Witold Pilecki who has recently become a symbol of our values

Every nation has a right to its own uniqueness. Professor Jan Żaryn discusses the book “The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz”.

In September 2020, the Polish edition of Jack Fairweather’s “The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz” was published jointly by “Znak Horyzont” and the Pilecki Institute.


What do you think about the fact that the book about Pilecki was written by a British-American journalist? The publication is not an academic paper but rather a piece of documentary literature. It has been received very positively in the West and has received prestigious awards. How does it conform to narratives about Poland and the perception of our history around the world?


Prof. Jan Żaryn: First of all, it is a book written by a war correspondent, a reporter who is aware that telling one or another story requires him to maintain a reliable narrative. As he himself writes, he reached out to many sources, including those in Polish archives. He had good translators who provided him with information from source material and studies on the history of Poland, the history of the underground state, the conspiratorial movements and Polish politics of the era. This body of knowledge is enormous and the author was also able to reach Witold’s children. All this allowed him to combine the perspectives of history great and small, because this issue concerns both world history and the figure in question. He has undoubtedly been able to translate it very skilfully into journalistic language. This is not difficult literature, it is literature written somewhat like the script for an adventure film; on the other hand, however, it is a very serious book.


Which in some way brings Poles closer to the Western European perspective in understanding the history of World War II?


The author conforms to the existing West European-American and British knowledge base, which has both advantages and disadvantages. For example, it strikes me that he is unable to employ a language that would refer to the Polish experience of World War II. His narrative is dominated by the concept of “Nazis”. He cannot and does not want to call the perpetrators of that wave of atrocities which resulted from the occupation of Polish lands “Germans”. He continues the narrative that the greatest crime of World War II was the Holocaust, and makes no attempt to verify this claim or show that the crimes against the Polish nation were equally important and worthy of consideration. Jack Fairweather was raised in a certain context of British-American politics in which the Holocaust is clearly treated as an extraordinary case of genocide incomparable to any other. Perhaps if Witold Pilecki only reported on the misfortunes of Poles, and not of Jews, he would not deserve such great attention. I know it may sound rude, but one must understand that this narrative is not the fault of the author; the author is a native of the Western world, which has not been properly prepared to comprehend the history of Poland as we understand it. It is, however, to Fairweather’s credit that he enters the Polish space and does not lose sight of his origins. Because why should he discard them? This is not a complaint, but an understanding of natural limitations. The author is a man of British-American origin, he has knowledge resulting from his own historical path which he has followed through his life. However, he tries to incorporate this with some sort of novel figure, in this case Witold Pilecki, a Pole and a Catholic. That is good. Fairweather himself emphasizes that Witold was brought up in the traditions of Catholicism and the landed gentry, that is to say concepts with which are unfamiliar to the author. And this is a certain area that he himself has to travel through in order to understand Pilecki through the prism of his own perspective, in which World War II is primarily represented the Holocaust.


And is it not the case that we too are shaped by our own history and we cannot overcome our limitations? After all, it is to no one’s discredit that one has such and such knowledge and not another.


Bravo! On the contrary: I do not consider it a disadvantage. I am simply trying to understand the limitations resulting from a certain uniqueness of each country, in this case Poland. Jack Fairweather sees our uniqueness from a perspective that is 100 percent Western European.


But what does this mean? This uniqueness? Each nation is unique in its own way.


It is not that easy to understand. Nations are cultural communities limited in their uniqueness. The British and Americans also have their own culture, historical policy, and internal conditions. And a Briton who cares about understanding the Polish narrative does not cease to be British, just as a Pole does not cease to be a Pole when he tries to reach the world with Polish knowledge, very often encountering ignorance at the same time. Here we have an example of an author who introduces new content into his country’s historical policy, with the best possible intention of presenting not only to his own country, but also to the whole world, what is called the history of Poland precisely by presenting the phenomenon of Witold Pilecki. This is a great clash of different perspectives, a great opportunity for dialogue between self-respecting traditions from different parts of the world. We should just be pleased with it.


I am not only a professor. My name is Jan Żaryn and I have my own views. I am a supporter of the ideological thesis that nations are the space in which the process of understanding one’s own heritage takes place and that they have the privilege of cultivating this heritage, although this privilege sometimes results in complicated relations with other entities, nations. After all, each of them has the right to be unique and to nurture their message. Crossing the boundaries of these national traditions should not be conditional to removing the possibility to propagate one’s own narrative, but to seeking rapprochement by understanding the context.


In other words? Please explain…


For example I, as a Pole, want to pass on knowledge about Poland and I am faced with many contexts that I do not understand. I am unhappy that I do not understand them, and as a consequence I have a feeling that the history of my country is not being properly received. This is a mistake. It consists in the fact that I do not want to respect a different view, in this case the British-American view, the right to one’s own identity, or the perception of the concept of freedom developed by a given country throughout its history and culture. Captain Pilecki is perceived in other countries through the prism of the experiences of their own citizens and understanding this is essential for dialogue. Here we have a British-American journalist who really does everything to enter this space of Polish tradition, of the Polish perception of reality, in order to understand Witold Pilecki and, at the same time, to understand the Polish culture he represented. Through mutual dialogue, the interpenetration and clash of different perspectives, we come closer to understanding the phenomenon of the tradition and culture of a given country.


In one interview, you said that historical politics are intentional acts aimed at gaining international sympathy for our own history, identity and achievements. I am asking about historical policy for a reason, because imprudent conduct can lead to a catastrophe. The hows, whos and whys which occur in international dialogue are of great importance.


It is indeed very important for the Polish State to be able to pursue a purposeful historical policy, both externally and internally, addressed to Polish society and to the broadly understood public consciousness of the world. It is important to build the message honestly and to base it in truth. But reaching the recipient will only be effective if he or she is sympathetic.


Why sympathetic exactly?


Because sympathy arouses interest, openness, indulgence, curiosity in a recipient, and this in turn creates a chance to make friends with a given country and its history.


By presenting not only interesting and key events, but also figures?


Yes, outstanding figures are carriers of timeless values, they are role models. In the case of Poland, this collection of people is very rich. We have a beautiful, sublime history built on the greatest of values: freedom.


But isn’t every country striving to nurture this particular value and is this not the most important value for everyone?


Yes, of course. Pay attention, however, to the fact that freedom and Poland have been inseparable ever since the dawn of its history and many generations of Poles have found themselves emboldened by it. It should also be emphasized that our understanding of values ​​and the modes of living in accordance with them was not shaped by strangers, was not imposed or given, but developed by us over many, many generations. We were stateless in the nineteenth century, but we had such a strong culture that piqued the imagination that many people of German, Jewish, French or other nationalities who lived in Poland fell in love not with the culture of the partitioning powers, but with Polishness. Some of them devoted their entire lives to this Polishness, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren pass on this strong national tradition and history to this day. The ability to influence other cultural groups is even more important when the state is independent and sovereign, as it is today. And undoubtedly, the figure of Captain Witold Pilecki has recently become just such a symbol of our values, a figure capable of captivating the outside world and the West.

This interview was published in Polish on the website

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