Monday, April 12, 2010
Forgive. Forgive. "Do you want to wake up slowly or fast?" I was asked early Saturday mornnig. "Slow," I said, and the speculation began. What happened? I feared the worst, which for me would be a major terrorist attack (domestic or foreign) against our own President Obama. I decided Dave would have been crying had that been the case so my mind moved on. Nothing personal, there was no hint of that in his tone. He disappeared for a little while and after cranking open the creaky channels that flow within the frontal lobe, I picked up my iPhone, my usual source of immediate news each day. Click on mail. "Polish President killed in plane crash." News flashes from several sources. Shock. Details emerged. The mind (mine, anyway) becomes insatiable at such points. Details, facts. But lurking, always near, was interpretation. Or the temptation to interpret. To judge. And my interpretation, along with that of several dozens of Polish journalists and other leaders, as it turns out, went along these lines: churlish, pugnacious, stubborn, petulant President has to organize his own trip to Katyn, can't participate in the official one with Russians (horrors!) present. And so this happens. More or less, that's true. At a time when the theme of healing and reconciliation was being commemorated, on the 70th anniversary of the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers, professors, doctors, lawyers and other 'elite' leaders by the Soviet Secret Police, the Polish President would insist on his own terms, no compromise, no presence of the Russians who were at least moving toward owning up at last to this mass murder. The official celebration had been held days earlier. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Russian Prime Minister were together at Katyn, and Putin went further than ever before in acknowledging the crimes committed by Soviet NKVD. It should be noted that he stopped short of apologizing, a sore point, but this was progress, nonetheless. In April of 1940, less than a year after the start of World War II, some twenty-two thousand Polish leaders were shot in the back of the head, execution style, at the edge of trenches into which they then fell, their bodies covered immediately by huge land-moving machines. No word of their fate was ever officially offered. They had been taken prisoners by the Soviet (Red) Army shortly after the Soviets invaded Poland on the 17th of September, 1939. Their families heard from them for several months before all communications stopped. The prisoners then disappeared into the ether. Until 1943, when the German Army (Nazi's) held that ground, near Smolensk, and discovered the mass graves, from the ravaging of wolves within them. Word began to seep back into Poland, "Katyn," "Kharkov," and other sites, filled with bodies. I cannot even begin to get my head around a loss of that magnitude or that type. Accusations went back and forth between Nazi and Soviet forces. Who did it? When the Soviet Army finally prevailed and routed the Germans, their version of the story became official truth. And there would be no challenge. Any questioning of this account brought severe penalties, imprisonment, even death. And so it was until 1990. But everyone, quietly, everyone knew the truth. Even those who were rather sympathetic toward the USSR. I don't know anyone in Poland who did not have a father, grandfather, uncle, husband who perished in Katyn Forest. No one. I realize that says something about who my friends are, from what strata of the society, but still. It was a pervasive wound. Each friend told me their family's story in hushed tones, even within their own homes, and prevailed upon me not to disclose their 'secret knowledge,' that the Soviets perpetrated the crimes. Ironically, because of this new tragedy, more people will learn of Katyn that would have had the ceremonies gone on, unnoticed in the West. That is something good to be salvaged from this catastrophe. But this word, "forgive," presses itself on my spirit. I found myself thinking, "if only," and I wasn't alone. If only the Polish President had not been so churlish, unforgiving, had been willing to accede to the Russians' hospitality, and made the trip the few days earlier. This wouldn't have happened. The problem, of course, with that logic is that it isn't entirely logical. Fog settles in. Or not. Planes crash. Or land safely. Thankfully, no one taken seriously within Poland is suggesting that this is, in any way, the will of God. It is an accident. A tragedy. But one that could have been avoided. By a spirit of humility, of forgiving. Not of forgetting, no, the two are distinct and must never be confused or conflated. The homily prepared by a bishop who perished on the plane was printed in a Polish newspaper today. In it he gently encouraged the family members of those murdered, and the Polish people, "to be about forgiving." Citing Pope John Paul II's words to a delegation of Katyn Families at the Vatican several years ago, Bishop Ploski was going to remind those present, "what is your task, the task of Katyn Families. It seems that it is just bringing forgiveness. Yes, it is the storage in the memory of this national tragedy, personal and family, but it is also, through this memory, forgiveness." How ironic. The failure to enter into that spirit was the reason for the flight on Saturday morning. And now it is left to those who live on to pause, ponder and consider this word of mercy. All around us -- who are not Polish, who do not suffer necessarily the effects of hideous, brutal war crimes, who live more or less ordinary lives -- are reminders of how "we been done wrong." I certainly live with those daily thorns. Lesson One from this tragedy. Forgive. Let go the churlish and petulant behaviors that bespeak our hurt and resentment. Reconcile. Accept the hospitality of even the most repulsive former foe. Abandon the reckless and short-sighted reactions that lead to yet again a new cycle of suffering and tragedy. As humans, we are, of course, free to interpret and see things as we will. We don't need to draw conclusions of causality in this case, or any other, to be moved to reflection. I wondered in the early hours after this tragedy if I was alone, arrogant and inappropriate, with my first thoughts, these you read above. I read in today's Polish newspapers some very similar responses. These give me courage to offer then my own reflection. Stop the cycle. Be humble. Forgive, forgive. What is our task? "It is just bringing forgiveness."