The Star (Nairobi)

10 January 2013

Kenya: Are There Any Lessons for Kenya From World War II?

The former Polish Ambassador, Anna Grupinska, loved Kenyan literature and music. Every so often she invited Kenyans to a cultural event which blended classical Polish jazz with Kenyan literature.

In my first encounter with the Ambassador I was in the company of writers Philo Ikonya and Jacob Oketch, on the eve of celebrations to mark Poland's Independence Day during an exploratory visit to prepare the stage for readings and poetry performances on the material day

However, it turned out that the group put together by Philo never performed. As soon as we left, somebody went back to the organisers and claimed to represent our team!

I had in the meantime interviewed Anna Grupinska, and instead of doing a long profile, I condensed the interview into a crisp narrative in form of a poem of four lines which is tucked somewhere in my collection of poems. The original version was given to the ambassador.

Anna had an exemplary and pleasant diplomatic career in Kenya, a country that she first visited when she was an undergraduate student back in 1969.

Anna has since gone to serve her country elsewhere in a different station, but I still receive invitations from the Polish embassy whenever there is a literary or cultural event in Nairobi.

Such was the case with the celebration marking 70 years since the death of doctor-turned-journalist and children rights activist Janusz Korczak, being the adopted Polish name of Henryk Goldszmit, a prominent Jewish figure who perished in the notorious Treblinka concentration camp during World War II.

One of the most striking features of Janusz was his magnanimous heart and selfless appeal which are today immortalised in writings and film, several decades after his death.

Here is a man who chose to be led into the extermination camp to die alongside the children of an orphanage when Nazi soldiers rounded up the Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland.

He could have lived a few days longer had he wanted to, because the marauding Third Reich soldiers could not have known he was a Jew.

I remember also last year a French filmmaker contacting the Star newspaper about a project of making a documentary of the great African philosopher and Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop, 26 years after his departure from the face of the earth.

Why so? Because history is a fact! This truism must stand in opposition to the many Kenyans today who, driven by self-indulgence, are rushing to write their own personal stories in an act of architectural distortions designed to impair the eye of future generations.

On this particular occasion something very striking happened. Here was Polish ambassador Marek Ziolkowski, Israeli ambassador Gil Haskel, Danish ambassador Geert Aagaard Andersen, and several European diplomats gathered at the Goethe Institute (German Cultural Centre), in a union of friendship that was impossible a few years ago in a warring Europe.

This point was underscored by the Director of Goethe Institute Johannes Hossfeld: "We come from a history where it was unimaginable to have a German, a Jew, and a Pole dining together."

There are innumerable historical accounts about World War II and the Jewish Holocaust. What is sometimes lost from that grimy past are the genocidal atrocities in Poland that claimed three million Poles.

Of note is that outside Germany, Poland was the next theatre of systematic ethnic liquidations of Jews and Poles alike, when Hitler's tribal bigotry and adventurous hegemonic arrogance darkened the skies of Europe.

A gripping documentary novel, Years of Turmoil, by Polish Journalist Patrycja Bukalska about the life of a Polish-Jewish lone survivor, Stanislaw Aronson, which was released on this occasion, retraces the horrifying events that marked that traumatic period.

Stanislaw is a Jewish soldier who fought alongside Poles in the revolutionary war against Germany invasion before his dramatic escape to Palestine where he was immediately conscripted into a ragtag Jewish Army to fight in Israel's War of Independence in 1948. Stanislaw's parents and relatives perished in the notorious Treblinka Camp, whereas his sister disappeared one day without trace. What is it in a name in Kenya that it can mean life or death?

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