One of the advantages of getting older is that you begin to remember little bits of history as it happened. I have a vivid memory of a TV program from the early 80s. It was a documentary of a piano competition. The unusual thing about this broadcast was that it was from behind the Iron Curtain, as the competition was in Poland. The final 10 minutes or so was a complete rendition of the slow movement of Chopin’s second piano concerto. This is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written, almost like a lament. In between seeing the pianist playing there were pictures of rows of bodies lying in fields, lines of ragged people walking along roads with only what they could carry. This was the reality of Poland in the second world war: A fifth of its population died in the war; whole areas forced to move to different parts of the country; most of the Nazi concentration camps were built in Poland and millions of Polish people were put to death, not just Jews but intellectuals, homosexuals, anyone whose face did not fit.
Then, after the war, there was no NHS, no swinging sixties, no 80s financial boom. What the Poles had was the heavy hand of Soviet communism. In Great Britain we take it for granted that we can think and do what we wish. This was not the reality for the Poles: Before, during and after the war, their country was not their own.
‘So?’ You might say, ‘Its not our fault’. Which is true, of course. Even in the strange fault finding of the 21st century the problems of Poland cannot be laid at the door of the UK. But does that make a difference? Surely the Christian point of view is to help those who need helping, even if we have not caused their problems. Poland’s economy is growing now and they are finally able to be themselves. Europe is not perfect but the Poles are being offered something honest and worthwhile by being part of it. We, in the UK, should feel proud that we are contributing to this. By welcoming workers from Poland and other Eastern European countries we are playing a small part in the rebuilding of their country.
I thought about putting some stories in this blog of people I know from Romania and Poland but the truth is we all have these stories. They are stories of honest, hardworking people. Some go back and some stay but I don’t know anyone who has a bad word about an individual they have known from these countries.
When we were in Berlin in August I was struck by something unexpected. It seemed to me that the European project was partly about healing the wounds of the 20th century. Initially this was the second World War but also the Cold War. If we want, we can be part of that healing process.