Understanding Poland

The timing and location of the Apr. 10 Polish air disaster that claimed the lives of all 96 people on board, including Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and a delegation of the country’s top government officials, is no less tragic than it is unmistakably ironic.

At the time of the crash, the Polish presidential jet was en route to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre – a World War Two bloodbath in which 22,000 Polish officers and intellectual elite were slaughtered at the hands of Soviet forces. The plane crashed while trying to land at Russia’s Smolensk airbase – located less than 20 kilometres from the Katyn forest execution site.

On May 11, at the University of Waterloo’s Student Life Centre, the UW Polish Students’ Association, in conjunction with Wilfrid Laurier University’s Polish Students’ Association, hosted an event entitled “Understanding Poland.” The highlight of the event was a panel discussion featuring experts on Polish and Russian studies from UW and the University of Toronto who aimed to unpack how this most recent catastrophe single-handedly revived Poland’s commonly-overlooked tragic national history.

According to panelist Lynne Taylor, a UW history professor, “popular culture has greatly simplified the story of World War Two and eliminated a lot of the complexities.” Taylor explained that certain aspects of the North American Second World War narrative, including the rise of Nazi Germany, Hitler’s malice and the Holocaust, “have been privileged over others.”

Unarguably, this narrow focus has come “at the expense of the rest of the story.” As such, tales of Stalin’s evil, massacres such as Katyn, the Gulags and the ills of Communism have been left out of textbooks.

University of Toronto professor and panelist Tamara Trojanowska explained the divide in the acknowledgment and recognition of the plight of Eastern Europeans during the Second World War by reiterating that “history is always written by the victors and by whoever is stronger.” In light of this, as Communist regimes continued to rule in Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia post-Second World War, “The officially written national histories had many blank pages.”

However, while North American Second World War history textbooks may omit a considerable amount of this material, they are not entirely to blame for the gap in understanding.
Interestingly, panelist John Jaworsky, a UW professor of political science, explained that even contemporarily, a “distortion in Russian history remains” as the Kremlin continues to refuse to open sealed archives detailing Soviet Russia’s most-controversial historical actions.

As Poles continue to grapple with their country’s most recent national tragedy, perhaps some solace can be found in that it has forced Poland’s misfortune and historical adversity back into international conversation.