Words are powerful weapons for politicians with an agenda. Despotic leaders can blame any section of society they choose for the ills in that society and the ordinary person on the street might not have the discrimination, knowledge or courage required to challenge them. When Hitler used stereotypes of rapacious Jews to embody all that was wrong in 1930s Germany, he was doing what countless others have done before, and since, to provide a scapegoat for a nation of people who felt impoverished and disempowered. There has to be someone to blame for it all! In the UK in more recent times it is immigrants who have been singled out for this kind of hatred and resentment. The rhetoric is always black and white. People who hate cannot see shades of grey. They do not realise they are being manipulated by the clever use of words.
But while words can damn us, they can also redeem us. They can be a vehicle for the truth and in the right hands they can turn us back towards the light. In Being Krystyna, reluctant biographer Agnieszka confronts the reality of evil in the world and realises the importance of the written word in the fight against lies and ignorance. It is up to people like her to make sure the truth is never forgotten.
We left Lavender House together and made our way back towards the busy city centre. My eyes saw the crowds of people, innocently going about their business all around us as we walked along, but my mind was seething with the images of the Holocaust I had seen over the years. The harsh contrast between these two situations was striking and, where a few hours ago I had felt calm and at peace with the world, now I experienced a sense of unreality and menace. A notion came to me that the great evil which had in the past arisen to terrorise our world was merely biding its time, waiting for a chance to return and wreak havoc once again. I knew instinctively that this dark force used ignorance as its primary weapon; it made people gullible and easy to manipulate. It followed that the more people who know about the truth, the better. Krystyna’s story was an important part of that truth.
“Mum and her older sister, Eda, were the only members of their family to survive the war, you know,” said Chris. Each revelation only served to increase my anxiety. Krystyna’s story was going to be far more harrowing than I had even imagined. “Who was it who said they who forget history are condemned to repeat it? I can’t remember, but it’s so true, Agnieszka.
“Mum once told me how it all started in Germany before the war. Resentment against the Jews had simmered in Europe for centuries, but then the Nazis stoked the fires up and a new kind of hatred took over. It started in small ways at first—people telling jokes about the Jews, making fun of them, making them into stereotypes. Next thing that happens is people are treated differently, seen as inferior or bad in some way. Then they are dehumanised and excluded from society. They get sent to camps and gas chambers. We mustn’t forget what happened in Germany, but we mustn’t blame the Germans. It can happen anywhere and it must always be challenged. We can all make a difference just by choosing how we treat the people around us. Mum thinks her story is no different to all the others, and the sad thing is, she’s right. There were millions like her—but she survived, Agnieszka. She defied Hitler’s so-called master race. And perhaps her example is a lesson for the future.”
Being Krystyna – A Story of Survival in WWII
In 2012 when young Polish immigrant Agnieszka visits fellow countrywoman Krystyna in a Peterborough care home for the first time, she thinks it a simple act of kindness. However, the meeting proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience.
Krystyna’s stories about the past are not memories of the good old days but recollections of war-ravaged Europe: The Warsaw Ghetto, Pawiak Prison, Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, and a death march to freedom.
The losses and ordeals Krystyna suffered and what she had to do to survive are horrors Agnieszka must confront when she volunteers to be Krystyna’s biographer.
Will Agnieszka be able to keep her promise to tell her story, and, in this harrowing memoir of survival, what is the message for us today?