Our key project is called “Chronicles of Terror” and is aimed at creating Europe’s largest database of the accounts and testimonies from witnesses to history. We would like to provide an opportunity for the victims and their families to speak out and share their testimonies.
In conversation with Anna Gutkowska, Acting Director of the Witold Pilecki Centre for Totalitarian Studies
What is the purpose of the Witold Pilecki Centre for Totalitarian Studies?
The Centre was created to stimulate interdisciplinary reflection on the Polish experience with the two largest totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Our goal is to circulate knowledge about the tragic history of Poland and commit the Polish experience to global memory. We would like to build bridges between research and culture, and initiate and support projects that address the history and experience of the 20th century through culture and arts. Our research activity is primarily focused on recording totalitarian crimes, translating archive records into English (a contemporary lingua franca) and providing access to source materials to promote the Polish experience to the general public and opinion-formers both in Poland and abroad.
What projects are you carrying out at the moment?
Our key project is called “Chronicles of Terror” and is aimed at creating Europe’s largest database of the accounts and testimonies from witnesses to history. We would like to provide an opportunity for the victims and their families to speak out and share their testimonies. We are undertaking a difficult task to reach out with our accounts to the main academic research centres in Poland and abroad, as well as major libraries and the media. This is an important task as it designed to promote our source materials globally. For moral and methodological reasons, these source materials will provoke anything but indifference. We are planning to create a collection for reliable authors who carry our visits to seek library source materials and create publications designed both for academia and the general public. Our website zapisyterroru.pl provides access to more than 800 testimonies, half of which have already been translated into English. A new English interface of the website featuring a variety of functionalities will be available at the beginning of 2017.
We also host domestic and international conferences. To our November 2016 congress we invited a number of renowned lawyers to examine the legal classification of crimes against humanity committed in German-occupied Poland. The Wola Massacre in 1944 was discussed, one of the largest and most terrifying massacres of civilians during World War II.
I have already mentioned that we are also committed to culture and education. We used Smarzowski’s “Volhynia” as a starting point for the series “Images of History” to showcase film productions of key moments in our history. The series comprises screenings and Q&A sessions with a myriad of artists and historians. The audience are also invited to join the debate, and the auditorium was almost packed to the rafters with nearly 500 people. I am very happy that our cause resonates with people, both young and old.
What role is the Centre going to play in commemorating German atrocities during World War II? Can former German concentration camp sites be part of the equation?
Former concentration camp sites carry a symbolic import, as they are also covered with mass graves and stand out as memorials to hundreds of thousands of victims of Nazi Germany. However, they also serve as material evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity, as well as crimes against the legacy of European culture. Most of the sites have been converted into museums and memorials to human suffering and the moral degradation of the perpetrators. These places serve as a warning and word of caution to future generations.
The Centre for Totalitarian Studies has undertaken an important and responsible task to foster the memory of genocide. We investigate complex and tragic accounts of the 20th century, including the stories of the victims, their friends and families. At the same time, we do hope that our testimonies will also resonate outside of Poland and will be committed to global memory. This may sound, but once they are fully available in English, these testimonies will be visible and audible, so to speak, to the international public. Our website chroniclesofterror.pl will help us to achieve this.
Who initiated the Centre?
The Centre was created on the initiative of Professor Magdalena Gawin, Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. The Centre’s patron, Witold Pilecki, is a hero of the Polish underground, a man of numerous virtues and incredible courage; he epitomises solidarity with the victims and a tragic individual struggle against two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and Communism. The commencement ceremony of the project “Chronicles of Terror” was attended by Witold Pilecki’s family – his daughter Zofia Pilecka-Optułowicz, his son Andrzej Pilecki and his nephew Professor Edward Radwański with his wife.
The Pilecki Centre has undertaken a difficult mission to promote and raise the awareness of hard facts on the 20th century, or the age of totalitarian regimes, among the global public. We raise awareness of the indelible mark the 20th century left on German-occupied and Communist Poland; our primary focus being on the civilian victims of the German and Soviet regimes. It is high time we made our voices heard.