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Something “Beautiful” Out of the Polish Tragedy

April 29, 2010

Putin at the Katyn massacre memorial

What is the task of reconciliation in a post-Communist context?  I had been eager to learn about this, invited by Wojciech Szczerba, rector of the Evangelical School of Theology in Wroclaw, Poland, to be part of a major reconciliation event there.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Wroclaw (then part of Germany) and a Bonhoeffer statue was to be dedicated.

Then the tragic plane crash that killed the Polish president and over 90 Polish leaders.  Then the apocalyptic volcanic ash cloud over Europe that cancelled our flight.  From Wojciech’s side, he wrote, these weeks “were truly surreal in Poland, almost like a sequel to the Job story.”

Yet in a remarkable Skype call with Wojciech today, he said, “It’s hard to believe perhaps but out of the tragedy something beautiful is in the pain.”

The president had been on his way to Katyn, Russia, a site of deep Polish bitterness. Seventy years ago, 20,000 Polish military officers were massacred there by Soviet forces.  The Soviet Union denied this for decades.  Poland was crushed by the Nazis during World War II and by the Soviets after.  In 1965, said Wojciech, Polish bishops wrote to German bishops saying “we forgive you and please forgive us.”  The Germans responded, but steps toward Russian bishops were not embraced.

Film director Andrzej Wajda, whose father was killed at Katyn

Before the crash there was little hope for a new beginning.  After the crash, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally came to the site, then ordered an Oscar-nominated movie about

the massacre to be show on national television.  And now Russia has released never-published documents about Katyn and admitted the crime by Stalin.

“This is at least one step to be reconciled,” said Wojciech.  “A terrible thing of the past is not forgotten but admitted.  Given that Putin is former KGB it is even more remarkable.”

Wojciech said not only Polish soldiers but also thousands of Russians were later massacred at this site, also by Stalin.  “The blood there is not only Polish but Russian.  It may become a platform for talking together” about reconciliation.

We’re working to re-schedule our visit.  My desire is doubled, listening to Wojciech.

Wojciech Szczerba

“What a difficult time!” he wrote last week.  “Like in a bad dream. Like in a surreal movie. We tried to do our best in this difficult context.  We tried to be the best possible witnesses of hope.  Even if there are no immediate answers to questions, tears, and grief. There is still hope.”

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. His writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers with Chris Rice.

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