Responsible for reconciliation and the future

To mark the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, a Polish-German ecumenical Memorial and Peace Service took place at the Holy Trinity Church in Warsaw on August 31, 2019.

The service was organized at the initiative of the Polish Ecumenical Council (PRE) and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD).

The participants were greeted by co-chairs of the Contact Commission of the PRE and the EKD: Praeses Annette Kurschus, representative of the EKD Council responsible for Polish-German cooperation and Praeses of the Evangelical Church of Westphalia, and Bishop Jerzy Samiec, President of the PRE and leading bishop of the Evangelical Church of Augsburg Confession in Poland. Praeses Kurschus drew attention to the suffering that came out of Germany during the war. - We honestly and openly acknowledge this history and our responsibility that stems from it: responsibility for reconciliation with our Polish neighbors and for peace in Europe - she said.

Bishop Samiec emphasized that apart from mentioning difficult events, one should remember about the achievements in the field of reconciliation and about very good present relations between young Poles and Germans. - This allows us to look forward to the future and expect that we will build it together in Europe - he said.

Texts read during the liturgy included passages from the Book of Genesis, the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles. Biblical texts and prayer intentions were read by representatives of the Churches associated in the Polish Ecumenical Council, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen in Deutschalnd [Working Group of Christian Churches in Germany] and a volunteer of "Zeichen der Hoffnung". An Orthodox youth choir sang. Paintings by a Ukrainian artist Alisa Temchenko accompanied the service and reflected its contents: ranging from the testimony of suffering, through the steps of reconciliation to the image of a new home in Europe.

The participants had the opportunity to have a closer look at the last eighty years of the history of relations between Poland and Germany. The testimonies were presented by people affected by the war, people involved in the process of Polish-German reconciliation, as well as volunteers working in both countries.

Testimonies of suffering

Stanisław Zalewski, a Polish former prisoner of Nazi concentration camps, spoke about the reality of the camp: killing people in the gas chambers, fighting for food, suicides of prisoners.

Agnieszka Milbrandt presented the recollections of her mother - Maria Milbrandt, who belonged to the Home Army during the war, was a nurse in the Warsaw Uprising, and after its collapse found herself in camps for POWs. During the occupation, she narrowly escaped death by being shot. "It was a horrible feeling when every sound of footsteps behind me could mean that life was about to end. And I don't think that was about life itself, but about that terrible humiliation and sense of debasement ‑ not for what you have done, but for who you are ‑ a subhuman," wrote Maria Milbrandt in her memoirs.

A German pastor Hans-Henning Neß spoke about his forced displacement from Lower Silesia at the age of nine and about the fate of the Germans who, like his family, were forced to leave the territories that became part of Poland after the war. - The older I was, the more I realized what a catastrophe the Second World War had been for Germans and their neighboring nations, especially Poles. This catastrophe was followed by another one: the Soviet Union turned Eastern Europe into a great prison for nations. Myself and many other people were convinced that we should do everything to prevent such disasters from happening again," he said.

Steps of reconciliation and exchange of volunteers

In the following part of the worship service, the process of Polish-German reconciliation was recalled. The speakers mentioned initiatives such as the Evangelische Gesellschaft für Ost-West-Begegnung [Evangelical Association for the Meeting between East and West], the "Zeichen der Hoffnung" association and the partnership between the Berlin Cathedral and the Evangelical-Augsburg Parish of the Holy Trinity in Warsaw initiated this year. Two very important documents from 1965 were recalled: The Eastern Memorandum of the Evangelical Church in Germany and the letter from the Roman Catholic Polish bishops to their German counterparts. The former settled the complicated history of the Second World War, pointing out that the unjust expulsions of the German population were part of the misfortune that the Germans had brought upon themselves and other nations. The latter called for mutual forgiveness.

Also volunteers presented their testimonies: A German woman implementing a project of "Zeichen der Hoffnung" in Poland and a Polish man who was a volunteer in one of the elderly care homes in Germany some years ago.

Remembrance and responsibility

Praeses Annette Kurschus and bishop Jerzy Samiec delivered sermons. – Remembering is not an easy exercise. It touches on the sensitive wounds in the hearts of those who have witnessed this story at first hand. It rips off the barely formed scar tissue, which suddenly starts to hurt again. In the face of guilt and shame that do not expire throughout one's life; in the face of silence that still paralyzes those born afterwards – said Kurschus. She also criticised attempts to detach oneself from war history and to distort it in the name of „hollow national pride”. She referred to it as „dangerous mockery” made of the many years of work for German-Polish reconciliation. – Remembering is not an easy exercise. At times it seems like an imposition, which however can have a healing effect in the end. – she argued.

Bishop Jerzy Samiec, recalling the tragic events of the Second World War, drew attention to the transgressions and what preceded them: a false teaching about the superiority of one man over another. – Unfortunately, for their own benefit, the Churches blessed the cannons and fascist and Nazi ideologies. Those who protested suffered the consequences of taking the side of the Truth. The resistance of these few does not invalidate or diminish the responsibility and discredit of the Churches, which instead of listening to the Saviour's voice, chose to betray the Gospel and to listen to the cries of the leaders who said what the multitudes wanted to hear and cynically stirred their lowest instincts. – said the president of the PRE.

He also stressed that the painful lesson of the Second World War prompts us to think about the future and take responsibility for the world. In this context, he recalled the situation of refugees and the issue of climate protection. - The tensions that emerge rouse old demons. How easy it is to manipulate people when you prey on various fears or tell them that others are a threat. Unfortunately, on both sides of the Oder, there are again slogans that exclude others. Instead of building bridges of understanding, old fronts are being reopened," he regretted. He also mentioned three tools that Christians can use to take responsibility for the world: social engagement, talking about threats and influencing leaders, and prayer.

Greetings and an award for commitment to reconciliation

Greetings were given by: the German Ambassador Rolf Nikel, Chairman of the Council for Ecumenism of the Roman Catholic the Polish Episcopal Conference Bishop Krzysztof Nitkiewicz and Chairman of the Working Group of Christian Churches in Germany Archpriest of Radu Constantin Miron. Agnieszka Lenartowicz-Łysik conveyed greetings on behalf of the President of Poland, Mr. Andrzej Duda.

During the service, an award of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Poland (Princess-Anna-Vasa Church Award) was presented to the association "Zeichen der Hoffnung" for "commitment to Polish-German reconciliation and for building bridges between our nations and churches".

The association was founded in 1977 on the initiative of the German Evangelical Churches. Its aim is to help the victims of national socialist violence in Poland, especially former concentration camp prisoners. The association organizes for them material support, holidays, as well as care in their old age. In addition, it initiates meetings with them in schools, prepares discussions and lectures on Polish-German relations, and sends volunteers to Poland. The Polish Ecumenical Council has partnered with "Zeichen der Hoffnung" in the organization of assistance for former prisoners of Nazi concentration camps.