European Capitals of CultureΠοιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The letter of forgiveness

Adam Chmielewski, director of Wroclaw 2016 with Rev. Professor Krucina

While walking through the religious quarter, one of those coincidences occurred about which Adorno talks in 'minima moralia', insofar as he would claim a society without coincidence would be dictatorship. Naturally Adam Chmielewski would recall times when a city would be alive with thinkers and artists so that you would encounter 500 of them when walking through the streets. Compared to now there may be tourists, students, some public workers and the occasional local resident but not anyone to be recognized as standing out in terms of history.

Since Wroclaw became what it is now a Polish city only after 1945, it is not only important to recall the history of the city when still called Breslau (the name changed quite often depending on who had the say and power to enforce the name), but also what has happened ever since.

The mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz refers to the famous letter authored by the Bishop of Wroclaw, Boleslaw Kominek, when speaking about the important work of redemption in need to be done in the wake of Second World War and in the shadow of Guernica bombarded in 1937. He writes in the preface to the bid Wroclaw is going to make in an effort to become European Capital of Culture in 2016 following important wish:

"The first one is our desire to bring to the world an important message that flows from Wrocław, a message I would like to amplify so it is heard loud and clear. It has to do with the fact that Wrocław is probably the only major city where in the wake of World War II a hundred per cent of the population was replaced. The pre-war inhabitants, mostly Germans, were expelled, and new settlers, Poles displaced from the former eastern part of Poland, moved in. Thus, today’s Wrocław is in a sense the combined effect of three criminal ‘inventions’ of the twentieth century – Nazism, communism, and World War II. It was those causes that made Wrocław a city of the displaced, where – let me stress this again – a COMPLETE exchange of population took place.

In 1965 the Polish catholic bishops published their famous letter to their German counterparts. The letter, authored by the Bishop of Wrocław, Bolesław Kominek, Foreword by the Mayor of Wrocław contained the famous sentence: ‘We forgive and ask for forgiveness.’ If one realises that this sentence was written barely twenty years after World War II, that it was written by Poles to Germans, that it was written in Wrocław, the city of expulsions, one cannot but conclude that the city’s genius loci is a positive spirit that brings something beautiful, wise, and unique.

World War II put an end to the Polish culture of the so-called Eastern Borderlands. This is neither the time nor the place to analyse that development. It is worth noting, however, that in the Polish consciousness the mythical Eastern Borderlands were transplanted to the Western Territories and their main city, Wrocław. Wrocław symbolically became a repository of memories of the former greatness of Polish national culture, a culture that was, after all, born in a multicultural, multiethnic melting pot. It is remarkable that it was this place – the quintessence of Central European multiculturalism over a thousand years of its history, additionally entangled in millions of private dramas of people who were driven out of their homes and cut off from their roots – from which at some point the words ‘We forgive and ask for forgiveness’ came out.

In remembering this, I would not like to create the impression that I mean something supernatural. On the contrary. What I have in mind is our city’s very natural drive for European character. I also have in mind the fact that the twists and turns of history, interrupted by and culminating in expulsions, can also be summarised in this open and tolerant manner: ‘We forgive and ask for forgiveness.’ A proper new beginning can only be founded on openness and tolerance accompanied by full awareness of one’s own identity. This is the message that Wrocław wants to get across to the world. It could certainly do so more powerfully and effectively as a European Capital of Culture."

To meet, therefore, the thinker who was behind this famous letter was more than just a coincidence. After Adam Chwielewski had recognized him as the one of the two men talking to each other at the juncture Sw. Idziego and Kapitulna and just opposite the religious bookshop, I urged him to go over and to address him as this would be a moment not easily to be repeated.

It is always beautiful to watch when two great thinkers approach each other and begin a greeting which is what Bart Verschaffel describes in his essay about authenticity (or not) in architecture the making of a great human gesture. Rev. Prof. Krucina was not only delighted to see Adam, but he would bow repeatedly his head out of reverence to this man. Obviously he knows how great a task Adam Chwielewski faces but considers him to be a man of high reputation and integrity. Above all he recognizes that Adam does something for the city and its people.

Philosophy has always to do with recognition of the greatness in others. Vincent Van Gogh knew that as well. There are some who appreciate the greatness in others. This can be known to everyone especially when they touch upon that fabric known as the making of a human being. Nelson Mandela would be such a man. Humanity paired with humility begins with the simple smile of a child. It continues throughout the ages when something called more often the 'soul' is touched upon as the case with children painting a peace mural as part of a Kids' Guernica action.

After an introduction by Adam Chmielewski of my person, the Professor and I started to converse in German. He was a fluent speaker and used the German language in that soft manner so much akin to that special quality of the Polish language.

I gave Prof. Krucina to understand how important I consider what he did back then in 1965. At that time, and even still today, very few Polish people are ready to forgive what Germans did in Poland during Second World War.

As a measure of how difficult that can be for some, there is this one woman in Belfast who cannot bring across her lips the word 'forgive' even after talking now for years with a former IRA man who had killed her father in an attempted bomb assassination of then Prime Minister Thatcher. To bring the word 'forgive' across her lips was simply still impossible for her. It is harder to say this than to fall as Bob Marley could sing the refrain: "the harder they come, the harder they fall"!

The need to give importance to forgiveness reminds me what came up in our philosophical discussion ever since I went to Sonderborg in November and December 2010. Since Sonderborg is equally trying to become European Capital of Culture but in the year after it had been the turn of Poland and Spain, that is in 2017, it is of importance that their bid entails as well a philosophical blueprint. Thanks to an introduction by Oleg Koefoed, there has started an amazing exchange of letters, drafts of ideas and thematic proposals, that this needs to be documented seperately. But since the term 'forgiveness' came up as well, and afterall Sonderborg does mean inclusion of the German-Danish border region to be made into a new cultural region according to politician Stephan Kleinschmidt, a part of that discussion can be cited here.

Rasmus Ahrenkilde wrote among many other things the reason why he considers forgiveness important. To him it is a signal of openness to doubt:

"Forgiveness is from my point of view linked with cultures that accept doubt; cultures which have contemplated, that we don’t know where we are going and so forth. Forgiveness is in some way a functional equivalent to spiritual hierarchy. Historically forgiveness is linked with freedom, democracy and openness. These forms have not been seen developed very far in societies stronger connected to static spiritual hierarchy. With Spiritual hierarchy you don’t need forgiveness. Instead the understanding is that people rise or degrade according to their actions, which can be judged right or wrong from the spiritual center. Contrary to this Arendt sees life as experimenting and sometimes things go wrong, maybe also just because they were not synchronized. Therefore forgiveness’ is needed. Yes, it is widespread in America, but was also very important for how they went forward in South Africa and in Gandhi’s teachings."

Rasmus Ahrenkilde 4.12.2010

But to come back to this historical encounter, any description cannot capture the spirit of this man. He smiled when he heard my words. He gave me to understand that he considers this work on the letter has been done and thus it is now a part of history. Things have moved on since then and he added hopefully for the better. And without waiting for me to say something, he added, if he sees us two men, two philosophers from Poland and Germany working together for peace, then that he finds is already an expression of love and therefore something on which to base on the future. If that is the case, then that letter has achieved already something.

He bowed again to say good bye and before leaving wished Adam Chwielewski well in his attempt to bring about a successful bid on behalf of Wroclaw so that this city becomes the European Capital of Culture in 2016. The bid has to be ready by mid May and the jury doing the selection of one out of five Polish cities (besides Wroclaw, there is Gdansk, Warszawa, Lublin and Katowice) shall convene sometimes in June 2011.

This encounter in the street was a historical moment and says a lot about what philosophy can do when it stands fully behind the work of redemption to ensure love for mankind does not fade away in the newness of the future.


^ Top

« Miasto-podróż Stadt der Reise City of Journeys by Piotr Olszowka | Work of Redemption: the need to trust mistrust »