Saturday 11 August 2007


Of evil and good

Whilst man can be capable of heartfelt selfless and incomparably magnanimous good, their propensity for unimaginable and abominable evil cannot be discounted.

In Poland, I had planned to see some of the machinations of the Nazi and Russian occupation of a country and people who for hundreds of years fought to gain self-determination and only just attained it in 1989 after the fall of Communism.

An English expatriate who sold up in England and moved to live in more affordable Poland offered to take me to a site that featured the deepest and darkest memories of man’s inhumanity to man.

Pawiak (Peacock) Prison

Pawiak Prison which was built by the Russians in the early 19th century as a political prison and a entry point for Poles that would eventually be sent to the gulags of Siberia.

The Russians, Poles after their first independence 1918 and finally, the Nazis used this prison for all sorts of devilish inquisition and unspeakable torture.

The main elements of the sprawling prison that extended the whole length of the street above ground has disappeared as the perpetrators of evil tried to obliterate evidence of their deeds, but the underground cells have been converted into a museum now called the Mausoleum of Memory of Martyrdom and the Pawiak museum.

Memories, dark memories

As I approached the museum, memorial stones of groups that were persecuted in the prison lined the outer walls and there stood eerily, a tree without leaves – now replaced with a fibre-glass replica as the original tree is being infused with chemicals to give it a more enduring quality – with little posters which I later learnt to be obituary notices.

Down into the cellar, one long corridor with cells on either side where the occupancy of two was usually bumped up 14 in some cases. Spartan and barren those cells were, the social rooms were really communal places were people visited toilets in the presence of everyone else.

Refusing mental slavery

Then one room with relics of an age so palpable, rosaries made from hardened bread, poetry too grim and yet full of hope because of the enduring power of having breath to dream, to wish, to desire and above all pain able to keep true to a quest and aspiration for liberty and freedom.

This prison did not house criminals, rather, it was the minds and brains of Poland, the intellectuals, people who were emancipated who allowed their God-given ability for self-determination to gain ascendancy over the peasantry of the many who allow themselves to be lead by the nose by every trendy doctrine including the most heinous ones.

Like Bob Marley once sang - emancipate yourselves from mental slavery - no matter the cost as that is what makes us men and separates us from animals.

A death carnival of men

37,000 of these people perished in this prison and 60,000 were sent to concentration camps. Basically, totalitarianism and despotic regimes cannot countenance independent thought because it is the predisposed entitlement of men to live free of bondage and repression.

After signing the visitors’ book, I went into the main museum which showcased the many concentration camps that thrived in Poland – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, Sobibór, Treblinka and Warschau where 200,000 non-Jewish Poles perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Too much for me

When, I got to one end of this room, the back wall was filled with portraits of persons who were believed to have died in this prison, I could not look at anymore of the stuff in the museum again, I had to get out, it is unimaginable what went on in that prison over 60 years ago, thankfully, the doors or the walls could not talk, but places where innocent blood has been spilt can never keep silent and will never sleep.

I felt the weight of the place and the price that many paid for the freedoms we now take for granted and are ready to give up for the temporary safety from terrorism real and contrived.

Our duty to rise in honour

And we all citizens of this world, beneficiaries of this great emancipation of humanity from savagery to enlightened civilisation, who have hardly had to fight to the death for any of the rights we now enjoy denigrate the many who were sacrificed and martyred for the selfsame fundamental human rights subsuming our objectivity and logical analysis to accepting the patently unacceptable.

The illegal wars, the rape of Zimbabwe, the troubles in Darfur, the abuse of democracy in Nigeria, the plight of the Palestinians, the men who still seek freedom all around the world – all these take lightly the great sacrifices of fellow human-beings hardly a century before.

I sometimes wonder if we would ever learn from history not to commit the same mistakes, my visit to Pawiak convinces me that we have not, I do wonder what the eventual visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would teach me.

Never forgotten

However, since men learnt to record events in writing, sketching and photography, we cannot wilfully ignore the realities of times past, the smiling guards, the medical staff and the suffering people – the history of mankind in a microcosm of evil.

To Pawiak memories and many places like this, we owe, if only a fraction, no matter how minuscule, our freedom to express ourselves.

Thank you!

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