Kersten's Foundation

Fundacja Kerstenów

Krystyna Kersten

Fundacja Kerstenów została założona w 2011 roku, aby uczcić i upamiętnić życie oraz dokonania Krystyny i Adama Kerstenów.

My Adventure with Contemporary History

 Krystyna Kersten
  Translated by M.J. Kersten

Page 1

Given the title of the lecture, when I was thinking about what to say on the topic, it took me some time to look for an appropriate formula. Initially, I was going to talk about my work on contemporary history and eventually about my adventure with it. This assumed a personal perspective and posed a danger of crossing the fine line where the personal touch ends and a territory susceptible to egocentrism, and even exhibitionism, emerges. There was a danger of immodestly shifting the balance in favour of the word “my” instead of  “contemporary history”, these words being  linked in the sentence by the word “adventure”, a word that implies something fascinating, with an element of risk and surprise.

The key points—“my” and “contemporary history”—define the boundaries of a territory to which I wish to lead my audience today.  This territory is situated at the border between two places: one is the place of methodological, methodical, professional and research cannons– cannons that recognize the specificity of problems and the conditioning of contemporary history; the other—the place is my own individual engagements both social and intellectual, my curiosity, passions, emotions and also my need to experience bonding and belonging—being true to myself.

The first area is related to the researcher’s responsibility, which binds him or her to professional requirements and ethics.  The second area belongs to the sphere of responsibility of an individual who lives hic et nunc in a complex reality, making choices and defining his or her place in this reality. The two coexisting areas can complement each other but, more often than not, they compete. Already this suggests that the subjective thread, that is the personal colouring, cannot be ignored. After all, history lived is the context in which historians work. We historians cultivate our professional garden while being at the same time the participants of evolving events.  Those who chose the patch of the history of Poland and Poles after 1945, are in a particularly difficult situation because the feedback between historical developments that evolve and historical research is particularly intense.

I am saying this because I feel sad and very guilty.  Or maybe, not exactly guilty but rather aware of the illusion which I held  for a long time - the illusion that it is possible to escape from the entanglement of historical research and the history in which I am, was and will be personally engaged.  That is, a possibility of freeing myself from the pressures of what I am going through, of which I am a part, so that I may write and speak as a historian. And also, the other way round, i.e., freeing myself from the influence of my knowledge of the past on the views, attitudes and behaviour concerning the issues of today. 

While formulating the topic of this presentation, I was not fully aware of the many meanings of the statement, “My adventure with the contemporary history”. I was drawn, frankly speaking, to its effective, maybe even provocative tone.  However, it is this wording —partly subconscious—that depicts the message which I am presenting here.  It simply boils down to an attempt to gain an understanding of the effects of a difficult, often dissonant, coexistence of two rhythms evoked by participation in the history evolving before our eyes - one rhythm refers to the role of a historian-researcher and the other to a person struggling with the magnitude of problems that define his or her existence.   It would have probably been less dramatic had I not chosen contemporary history after graduating.  Well, had it been a different choice, the adventure might have been safer, but at the same time so much less exciting and devoid of the taste of taking on challenges thrown by life.  Maybe this essay is to some extent a challenge, lending a voice to thoughts reluctantly revisited.

I mentioned "choice", but the words "I chose" do not accurately represent the facts. I should rather say, "I was chosen" by my masters and teachers. Moreover, this choice was not meant to be an honour or distinction. On the contrary, prof. Malowist and prof. Manteuffel did not waste better students than I to work on the most recent history. It is also true that I, without facing any major battle or objections, left prof. Malowist's seminar, the seminar of a teacher who shaped me as a historian, to whom I am indebted for my approach to the craft of historical research and for the knowledge of the principles of historical thinking. I abandoned the 15th century, and instead of researching the local market in the 15th century Wielun I researched a West Pomeranian village after the Second World War. I abandoned studying the Grodz's political circles and focused on the reports prepared by the government envoy and the secretary of the Provincial Committee of the Polish United Workers' Party (KW PZPR).

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Polish source: Transcript of a lecture "Moja przygoda z historia najnowsza" given at the meeting of the History and Culture Section of the Fans of History Society (Towarzystwo Miłośników Historii), which took place on October 27th, 1986.