Kersten's Foundation

Fundacja Kerstenów

Krystyna Kersten
 

The Kersten Foundation was established in 2011 with the aim of celebrating and commemorating the life and work of Krystyna and Adam Kersten.

My Adventure with Contemporary History

 Krystyna Kersten
  Translated by M.J. Kersten

Page 3

Ties to or identification with a side led neither of us to idolatry and worship. On the contrary, it led to a particularly pointed criticism. “My” affiliation did not mean “the best” affiliation; “my” meant responsibility, in our case, sometimes amplified responsibility. It did not mean that we were on the opposite side of the spectrum. I must admit, that I have equal resentment towards statements such as “Poles, the greatest nation” and “Poles—anachronistic, anarchistic, clerical, philistine, unable to work, provincial and parochial” - sentiments expressed by “enlightened Europeans”. In his Confessions of an Old Man Aleksander Herz wrote:

If a poet could say that Poland is a great thing, by the same token he could say that she is small. And that is what he said. Basically, all his works state the fact that the great and the small are connected.  This is what every great writer says about his or her country.  In my lifelong experiences, the question of the symbiosis between the great and the small as well as the question of their mutual conditioning have been very important and they have been constantly surfacing in my thoughts. After all, greatness and smallness can simply be different ways of looking at the same thing or looking at it from different points of view.”

I think that maintaining a sense of proportion is necessary, albeit difficult, when presenting historical phenomena. It is particularly difficult in the case of contemporary history and when one’s own country, one’s own nation are involved. When the social atmosphere is hot, when the temperature of our own emotions is raised and when one is blinded by one’s own views, it is very easy to blow out of proportion the contributions of the side with which one identifies her/himself and the sins of the opponent. It is so very easy to blur the distinction between the opponent and the enemy - with the latter, only a zero sum game is normally possible. 

At this moment, however, when I mention the necessity of keeping proportions, I am thinking about something else. I am thinking about the issue of the balance between being sensitive to what was negative (negative according to my system of values) in my country’s, my nation’s, my group’s past, including the most drastic phenomena, and at the same time being aware that there are many different viewpoints; being able to understand the multitude of emotions related to the past, particularly the most recent past which is intertwined with our biographies.

Each historian considers his vocation differently, and places emphasis accordingly. Because I am going to talk about my adventure, I have to state that I have been increasingly trying to avoid the tendency to beautify history, to smoothen excessively sharp edges that are hurtful and to show only the bright sides while running away from bitter truths. I treat my books and lectures as a raw material, as a kind of mother dough, which I knead to come up with independent judgements and opinions, and on which relies the development of rational social discourse and modern political culture. It does not at all contradict efforts to “nourish the souls”, to support the national spirit, national integrity and tradition, unless, that is, one assumes that nourishment and support have to be sustained by ignorance, delusions and myths. That would have been a primitive approach. I am convinced that it is possible to reconcile a rational approach to one’s own past with a deep attachment to this past, and its harsh criticism with affection for what is ours, what is our homeland.

While adhering to such a model of the national historical tradition, I am trying not to forget about the danger of bringing upon myself rejection. However, wanting to be read and listened to, I have to be trustworthy. If I seek to have my arguments considered, they must be formulated in a way that inspires critical thinking; the choice of arguments and the language must show respect for the topic and for the audience. It is common knowledge that our system of raising and educating children does not support critical thinking, blocking it already at the kindergarten level. We must also not forget that my field of study covers the history of a half a century of trauma and suffering; history, marked by ideological and political clashes, was subjected to falsifications, omissions, and manipulations and became an instrument of socio-technical practices, extremely brutal on occasions. All this had a very particular impact on collective consciousness of our society. It greatly shaped our social identification, characterized by the dichotomy that distinguishes “us” from “them”, and “our people” from “strangers”.  It all starts at the level of language.

 

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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.