I was in Poland in the early-middle 1990s, which meant that I was there for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, of the liberation of Auschwitz (near where I lived), of various lesser known tragedies and of the Warsaw uprising.
I attended lots of commemorations, both in my official duties and as an individual interested in history. It was a very interesting time, although one that raised lots of questions about humanity.
Human capacity to do harm is usually matched by our capacity to endure. I came to wonder about the virtue of perseverance and even bravery, never resolved the issue. Existential struggles bring out the best and the worse in people, often in the same person.
In my discussions with young people (and I almost fit in that group back then), I would often hear harsh judgements of people of the past. “Had I been there, I would have …” was a common refrain.
What would I have done? I like to think I would have been always heroic and selfless, which probably would have meant I would not have survived the war. In fact, I think the best we can hope for is that we would be heroic and selfless in situations where it made a practical difference.
I was competitive swimmer, but nothing compared to a guy like Michael Phelps, winner of 28 Olympic gold metals, but there is a way that he is no better than me – neither of us can swim from California to Hawaii. This is not a trivial thing. There are things beyond human possibilities, but that does not let us off the hook for being better.
I learned a lot about tragedies and pondered human nature. I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, and I met dozens of people who had endured things I could not imagine. I felt very privileged to talk to many of them at length, including Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, maybe the most impressive soul I have ever encountered.
The thing that impressed me most also surprised me profoundly. These people who had suffered so horribly were very often joyful and had transcended hatred and vengefulness. They did not minimize the suffering and evil; they had just (sorry to use the word again but I can think of none better) transcended it. This made them no less committed to fighting evil and in many ways made them much more effective.
People who fought in the Warsaw uprising were mostly civilians, some children. The Nazis were especially brutal in their suppression of the uprising. Of the combatants that survived, many did so my wading through filth in the sewer system.
There is a coda, a tragic one. For many Poles who fought the Nazis the war did not end in 1945. The communist government did not treat them as heroes. On the contrary, many were persecuted and some executed. The new communist order did not easily tolerate vestiges of the old and personal heroism was especially suspect in their world view.