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 9

The freedom that we enjoyed in the Institute allowed us to independently choose research topics.  My choices were mostly the consequence of the first study. Research on settlements in the Regained Territories introduced me to the issues of mass migrations as a consequence of the implementation of the principles of the nation state and to mass migration as one of the fundamental aspects that shaped Polish reality after 1945. I am still working in this area and am planning to continue to do so, but on a larger scale. My focus is not only migrations (forced or not) and refugees, but foremost the forces that led to them. My passions concentrate largely on the issues of the twentieth century’s nationalisms, in particular, their social consequences, both the honourable and the lethal. The relationship between these problems and my earlier work is obvious. I did not cover these issues nearly enough in my book on the birth of the system of power. I maintain that without deep penetration, it is impossible to understand the history of the 20th century Poland and Poles.

When I think today about my research choices and my motivations, I remember two sentences in Janusz Korczak’s diary written in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Korczak noted: “If I said that I did not write a single poem in my life, when I did not want to, it would be true. But it would be also true if I said that I wrote everything only when under pressure”. Let us add inner pressure. The sentences resonated with me. They sounded familiar. In this proud and, at the same time, sad reflection of a man who knows that he is at the end of his journey, I found a thought about the coexistence and inevitable entanglement of free will and self-constraint which determines the path of this particular aspect of human adventure — creativity.

To conclude these reflections: I tried to very briefly describe my adventure with the contemporary history. I tried to present it in the form of a fugue, in which the basic melody of the cultivation of history as science was accompanied by a counterpoint of the melody related to a person’s participation in historical events, the melody that sometimes was coming closer and at other times was fading away.

This talk is a recount of a continuing search for the right way. And the search is not about dealing out bows, a few bows to the truth, a few to the values dear to our heart, defined by our ideological, national and group affiliations and our ties with others. It is about realizing that the two aspects of participating in contemporary history are very closely related; it is about seeing that, although neither can free itself from the other, this dependency should not be perceived as static or fatalistic.

It means two things. Firstly, the natural desire to hold on to loyalty, truth and to one’s own hierarchy of values very often leads to conflict – and there is nothing wrong about that.  Secondly, and this is almost a postulate, it is worthwhile to try taking the paths which, in spite of unavoidable dissonances in this polyphonic fugue, lead towards an honorable coexistence of these two systems of values.  

Is it possible to achieve it? I do not know. There is a good reason why this problem has been filling the pages of history and literary works for centuries. However, what I do know with certainty is that it is impossible to achieve harmony through conformist concessions. Because these can create only kitsch in the shape of a dummy for solving existing contradictions. In fact, the so-called solutions boil down to negating these solutions or falsifying their essence. To paraphrase Milan Kundera, kitsch, naively or perfidiously, eliminates from the field of our vision a vast portion of what is unbearable or difficult to bear in human existence. Kitsch constructs dummies and masks which aim at obscuring the human right not to accept “just any living” and the right to protest against it. So the dummies of the good and the beautiful are built seemingly for everybody and then the masks are put on – the good and the beautiful mask are for our people; the evil and ugly ones are for others, the different, the strangers.

 

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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.