Saturday, June 12, 2010

Can’t Knock the Hustle

By David Liebers 

Wednesday, June 9th marked a shift for HIA Poland 2010.  The honeymoon is over.  As is common in any group, the days after our first meeting were characterized by general deference, getting to know one another and preparing for more serious discussions.  The serious discussions have started and its energizing to listen to people openly and honestly express their points of view and share their personal stories without fear of being admonished, reprimanded or mocked for whatever they might have to say.  A beautiful thing for sure.

Our day began with two presentations.  First, Dr. Elżbieta Mikos-Skuza, Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Warsaw, and Prof. Roman Wieruszewski, director of the Poznan Human Rights System, shared their expertise in international law.

Dr. Mikos-Skuza chronicled the history of international law from the first Geneva Convention of 1864 to the present.  Her remarkable presentation highlighted the sometimes confusing history of the development of human rights law and the importance of the Second World War in thinking about international agreements.  Prof. Wieruszewski argued that genocide is an unavoidable feature of society and our goal should be to contain the fire rather than put it out.  Unfortunately, the short time we had together didn’t allow him to expatiate on the monitoring mechanisms for human rights violations around the world.

Second, Fr. Wiesław Dawidowski, a priest of the Augistinian order, and Dr. Sebastian Duda a theologian and journalist, presented a sweeping account of the history of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland focusing in particular on its role before and after the end of the communist regime. 

A common theme emerged during our discussion of the Church in Poland.  It stands at a crossroads.  Its role as a haven for political dissidents was perhaps indispensable for the creation of a free Polish state. But now its role in creating the Polish national identity must be redefined.  Will it reformulate how it frames its values, simply allow more pluralism, or gear itself to the more conservative wing?  Each path has its own consequences both for the history of the Church and human and minority rights.

Our discussion moved to the uses of history in respect to genocide prevention education.  To what extent can we draw a comparison between the Holocaust and other genocides and what is the purpose of comparative genocide studies? Probing this question we arrived at one of the major tensions in understanding how to approach teaching genocide.  On the one hand it’s tempting to use the Holocaust as a comparative tool both to emphasize the commonalities between different human rights violations, and to borrow the weight the Holocaust carries because of its central position in the history of the West.  But diminishing differences between genocides in order to theoretically group multiple instances of genocide does not justly serve either instance since they likely had different geneses, mechanisms and historical contexts. 

As our time drew to a close, another debate opened up.  We thought back to how our respective national histories were taught to us as children.   The Ukrainian fellows debated the importance and recasting of the mass starvations in the Ukraine under Soviet rule (and their genocide status).  The German fellows debated among themselves the emphasis that Nazi Germany received in their education.  Similar debates ensued between American fellows and Polish fellows.  The only conclusion we could reach is that there is probably an incredible amount of intra-national variation in historical education.

The bell rang. We headed back to Oki Doki Hostel in Centrum, Warsaw and prepared for the next round.

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