At the Crossroads: The Polish Mission and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum

Direct from Orchard Lake with JJ Przewozniak

We all have limited time here.  No, I’m not talking about the time you have to read Tygodnik Polski, or the time you have to make it to work on time or meet some deadline in the classroom.  I’m talking about the time we have on this earth.  It’s heavy stuff to ponder, but our own mortality will teach us a lesson yet; that we’d better get busy making our contributions to the world before we cash in our chips.  For me, that’s the path down which my mind usually traverses when I think about, my work here at the Polish Mission.  Usually I like to leave philosophy to the whips over at SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, but these days when we’re devoting much of our energy to our partnership with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum (A-BSM), it’s hard not to think deeper than usual about day-to-day operations here.  So the question remains: how can I make the word a better place from my office?

Though the modern-day Polish Mission has received the massive inheritance of generations’ worth of Polish and Polish-American culture stored up in community surrounding Orchard Lake, we had always wanted to give special purpose and meaning to our work here.  Service to American Polonia is our clearly-stated mission, and we’ve offered and will continue to offer educational opportunities, fun events, and exciting new ways to celebrate our storied and proud heritage to our community.  But if we want to leave a broad and well cared-for cultural landscape for the future generations, the task at hand is to engage new people with our Polish story.  I can’t begin to count the great people who we’ve had the good fortune to cooperate with, or the organizations that have supported our mission to carry out our great task at hand.  Without all that support, we wouldn’t be where we are now, plain and simple.  Now the time has come to draw even further on that generous support so Polish people everywhere can ramp up our presence in the modern-day plethora of ethnicities in the United States.  Why is our culture so important?  Why should our story be told?  As our image continues to evolve upon the ebb and flow of the cultural sea, it’s time that we look far into the future, and think about how steadily the next generations of Polish-American leaders will stand on the foundations we lay at this very moment.

So, we stand at a crossroads.  One road is manicured and clear, made narrow by the deep paths of familiar travelers gone before, but it’s length appears short, obstructed by zigs and zags making for a painfully slow-go.  The other road is untrodden, broad, and straight; as if to invite an airy and brisk journey.  It stretches out straight into the horizon, but that yet untraversed area is masked by a misty haze so as to make the final destination unclear.  All allegory aside, which way do we turn?  The familiar path is a tried and true, but will it always get us where we need to be?  In the cultural field, every day brings us to this same crossroads.

The countless pages of printed and digital prose that speak to the United States audience in the name of Polonia have dictated an in-depth litany of a tragic past, suffered by a people, putting it plainly, to whom fate had dealt a bad hand.  The tragedies and sufferings that plagued Polish people, especially those of the twentieth century, have created a massive void, wherein huge amounts of energy have been spent by outspoken and talented advocates to call due attention to the unfair sufferings of our people.  Even to this day, in our new American home, the Visa waiver program continues to be a thorny obstacle yet to be cleared by our leaders, in an effort to right the wrongs laid upon the eighth largest ethnic minority in the United States.  Though we shoulder on, these struggles have a wicked tendency to harden attitudes and make our resilient and steadfast legacy seem brittle and diminutive.  Looking forward from this vantage point, it’s hard to say what the face of Polonia will look like in twenty years, or forty, or sixty.  The familiar crossroads comes into view.

 

Our future is dependent on our actions now, and that’s why we’ve partnered with our new colleagues across the ocean.  Over seventy years ago, in the town of Oświęcim in southern Poland, a beautiful place was forced by the Third Reich to become what we now know as the epicenter of inhumanity.  Unbelievable tragedy would be defined there, and when Oświęcim became Auschwitz, the world became forever changed.  Today, we are left with the memory of over 1.1 million people, and the obligation to teach the world about what happened there.  The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum leads the museum/historical world as a unique institution that fulfills multiple roles, among which is that of an educational center dedicated to scientific scrutiny of atrocities committed there, and also that of a reverent memorial to the victims.  These roles complement each other, placing A-BSM at the forefront of global awareness of the Holocaust, and making them the vanguard institution for educating the world about the unspeakable tragedies committed on Polish soil.

Our partnership with A-BSM has been in the works for a long time.  Ever since our first meetings with Director Dr. Piotr M.A. Cywiński to share ideas and brainstorm for the future, we knew that this special association would be the most important one we could arrange for Polish Mission and for our community on the whole.  From the Auschwitz site, an educational message has been expertly crafted to engage not only one or a few, but all cultures and generations.  It’s a plan that ensures the longevity and prominence of Auschwitz history, and it’s taken A-BSM officials as far away as Australia, and even Rwanda, to bring that history to new audiences.  Fate has arranged for Poland to forever watch over the hallowed ground of Auschwitz, and so we’ve dedicated ourselves here to supporting A-BSM in their mission to raise awareness across the United States.  When the team in Oświęcim unveiled their plans to create a first-of-its-kind traveling exhibition, we were overjoyed for the opportunity to coordinate a nation-wide tour of Forbidden Art.

 

The Forbidden Art exhibition is a selection of twenty panels, each depicting an original example of inmate art created by those interned at Auschwitz and other concentration camps.  Of the over 2,000 such items in the A-BSM collections, these particular examples were carefully selected to illustrate a comprehensive sampling of what it meant to be imprisoned at the most notorious of all the Nazi concentration camps.  The examples are intriguing; rich with a dark heaviness, and each one invites the viewer to experience the raw power of the human spirit, through illegal artwork created under the most extreme conditions imaginable.  Moreover though, the ultimate success of this noble project is that the exhibition raises questions about Auschwitz; about the Holocaust; about our own human nature.  Through the inviting power of art, new and important conversations about these questions will be sparked amidst the exhibition panels, and continued beyond the exhibition-room.  Here, is the ultimate realization of a cutting-edge cultural program for the future: a tragic history delivered to a new audience in such a way, that it evokes not only reverence, but also critical discussion that keeps the subject relevant.  The foresight and careful planning exhibited in that plan is what ensures its success, and as we look toward the future of American Polonia, we would be wise indeed to shape our image in such a way.

So, we’ve chosen our path–for now, at least.  We’ll be proceeding down that broad road for the next few months during which Forbidden Art will be seen by new communities of guests and students from Detroit, to New York, to California.  As our journey cuts through that hazy mist, we ask for your continued support and friendship along the way, and when we come to that inevitable next crossroads, we’ll be sure to check in again.

For more information about our partnership with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and for all official updates on the Forbidden Art tour, please visit www.polishmission.com.

 

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