Thursday, June 10, 2010

“The past isn’t over… It hasn’t even passed”

 By Ariel Ritchin

 Pick up the Stick. Get in the Box. Don’t call me a Martian. He’s too young to be a Ukrainian.
 There’s a lack of Spice. And a Phantom Leg. We are very good at Celebrating Tragedy.

Over the course of nine hours, starting bright and early Monday morning, nineteen HIA fellows conversed, carried, climbed, and collaborated in an effort to define leadership, and to better understand Poland as an ever-evolving society, defined in many ways by its stormy past.

The morning began with a (very) interactive workshop led by trainer of social skills Tomasz Antosiak, in which he attempted to help us better understand “how to become leaders, change makers, and activists.” Through two activities, we were forced to find solutions as a team, and to work together to achieve specific goals.

After varying degrees of frustration, and an eventual shared feeling of accomplishment, we decided that a leader must possess the following qualities: creativity/innovation, initiative, confidence, responsibility, vision, communication skills, and a willingness to make mistakes. It was interesting to compare the original leadership qualities established by fellows with respect to their home countries with those that we agreed upon at the end of the workshop. While there was a significant amount of overlap, many qualities were country-specific. For example, while the US goals were in many ways a list of ideals, the Ukrainian group proposed that a leader should “not change their mind very often,” making reference to today’s political climate, in which many remain skeptical. The German group was the most blunt offering the “ability to lie to gain the support of the people” as a common quality.

In my opinion, the most interesting part of the day followed. Konstanty Gebert gave a talk mapping “diversity in a homogeneous country,” providing us with a charged history (“in a nutshell) of a changing Polish identity, and honest opinions regarding a society that “lacks spice.” Gebert not only told us that a “nonwhite would attract the attention that a Martian would” in the most homogeneous country in Europe, but through personal accounts (as a kippah-wearing Jew), he helped us feel the stares. Gebert explained that Poland is still suffering from a “Jewish phantom leg;” that even decades after WWII the absence is still felt, and that while many Poles genuinely don’t understand some of their opinions to be racist, a “normative Polishness” indeed exists. According to Gebert (and HIA), democracies can be judged by how they treat their minorities, and while Poland has done an admirable job recovering from the catastrophe that was the Holocaust, it still has a lot of work to do.

Following Gebert, Zdzislaw Mach took us from pluralism to homogeneity, and laid the bricks for a return back to diversity. While illustrating the effects of WWII mass-murdered Jews, mass-deported Ukrainians and Germans, and changing borders Mach stressed the fact that an entire generation was brought up in a (95%) homogeneous society, with little/no knowledge and understanding of (dealing with) diversity. He explained a Polish tendency to “submerge themselves in tragedy,” and explained that, especially in the past, there was “no room for guilt in the Polish national mindset.” We then moved towards Poland today, and discussed its (imminent) quest to redefine its image, and not to lose itself as part of the European Union. We also discussed the struggle to avoid compromising beliefs to make change, and the fine line between being patriotic and nationalistic.

The day ended with a visit from three Senior Fellows, Monika, Przemyslaw, and Kinga, who discussed their experiences with HIA Poland, and what we have to look forward to in the future. Even though I’ve been here for just a few days, I’m excited for what lies ahead.

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