The director of the Warsaw Rising Museum Jan Oldakowski told us why it is important to collect the stories of civilians who suffered from the full-scale war Russia is waging. He also shared his vision of what a modern museum should look like and what role the testimonies of war victims will play in the future.
“We could not even imagine that in the third decade of the 21st century a war is possible in Europe not for a part of territory, not for a region, but a war where one big power intends to destroy other state”
Can the crimes of the russian army against Ukraine’s civilians be called genocide of the Ukrainian nation?
-Looking at what is happening now and at what was taking place in Warsaw during the Rising, we, as the Museum of Warsaw Rising, believe that there is genocide in Ukraine. People are killed there only because they are Ukrainians, because they want to live in a free country, according to their own rules.
We at the Warsaw Rising Museum talk about an event that was dramatic one because the Rising began with the resistance to German totalitarianism, the occupation by the Third Reich. But it grew out of a desire for freedom.
And we see that there are states, such as the Third Reich or russia, which do not want to allow some nations to be free and secure this freedom for themselves. This is why it is so important to document war crimes at the time when all this happens, as later, when years pass, it will be possible to demand punishment.
We have been working on the lists of civilians who died for 15 years now, and to date, we have collected less than a half – that is half of them have no names identified. This is an example of our work. This shows that at the moment when a crime is committed, and such crimes are happening in Ukraine now, all this should be documented in one way or another. The crime scenes and even DNA samples of victims. But people’s testimonies should also be recorded, which will later make it possible to prove the crimes and convict and punish perpetrators.
Did you know that the war would start? How did you feel when you heard the news about the full-scale russian invasion of Ukraine?
- When the invasion began on 24 February 2022, we could not believe it. On the one hand, we heard about such plans, we knew that russia was frightening – it was possible.
But on the other hand, we could not even imagine that in the third decade of the 21st century a war is possible in Europe not for a part of territory, not for a region, but a war where one big power intends to destroy other state.
Russia planned to occupy the whole of Ukraine and destroy it. That is, to implement a plan that putin had voiced previously in his public speeches and publications. In essence, he denied the right to exist to the entire nation.
He intended to do what he wanted to that nation. And that shocking genocide that we learned about later, – people died in Ukraine and those were people who did not correspond to a certain template that vladimir putin fabulated. Those were the crimes in which women whose husbands fought at the front died, the families of people who fought in Azov regiment died, and those who protested against what had been happening since 2014 died too.
All those who had their own opinion, those who wanted to be free and wanted to secure their freedom, were included in the plans for extermination – complete annihilation.
Russian troops also harnessed the experience of the Third Reich. They not only committed crimes, but also tried to hide them – they burned human bodies and destroyed documents, so that this could not be identified later. We saw this similarity and it was even more shocking, as the experience of World War II was never to be repeated anywhere.
How could it happen that one nation decided to impose their will on other nation in such a hideous way?
How will russia’s war against Ukraine strengthen the Ukrainian nation? How will this war change the world?
The ongoing war has shown Ukrainians to be fighters for their freedom and their state. It has shown people for whom freedom is at times more important even than their own lives. It has shown people who are ready to fight in such an incredible way – they impress and captivate the world with their courage, heroism and motivation to fight. As everyone was convinced that this is a fight against a stronger enemy.
On the other hand, they can win. This is where those similarities come from. Similarities with the actions of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa) that fought against the Third Reich 70 years ago. And like the Home Army could count on the help of the West, we are glad that Ukrainian soldiers can also count on the help of their allies, on the greatest power in the world – the United States.
Poland was finally able to show itself as an ally, partner and friend of Ukrainian people. That we can cooperate in both humanitarian and military spheres. Ukrainians can count on us while they are fighting for their own freedom.
And this is very important – the fact that peoples who fight and remember the sacrifices, the price they paid, can count on each other. There is hope in this for Ukraine in its fight. After all, the moment of victory will come, as in the end, peoples who strive for freedom always overcome peoples who are governed by totalitarianism.
Dictators always lose. These are the lessons of history and it will happen as soon as possible. The war will end, peace will prevail, and then rebuilding will begin, in which Ukraine will rise as a completely different state – it will have the experience of the war won thanks to the superhuman strength of its citizens and soldiers.
The Warsaw Rising Museum coordinates the work of the Committee of Ukrainian Museums. What have you managed to do so far?
- When we heard that the war started, it was obvious to us that we had to step up our efforts. We knew that the museums would not be engaged in the fight, that some of the museum workers would not go to the front and would stay where they are. We knew that their task was to preserve exhibits from wartime destruction.
That is why the Committee was created, which unites several dozen Polish museums with several dozen Ukrainian museums. The task of this committee was to engage in the assistance provided by the Polish state and the Ministry of Culture. It was necessary to provide something that would ensure the integrity of exhibits, for them not to be destroyed by the war.
Therefore, as a committee, we are preparing the next steps in our cooperation because we want to show what to do with those exhibits, but also want to encourage our colleagues from the Ukrainian museums to learn how to prepare museums for the return after the war.
Once there will be a day when peace comes, and it will become known that the war was in order to preserve these exhibits, documents, photos, which will show the development and history of the Ukrainian state and its people.
Museum workers have a clearly defined task – when peace comes, they will need to prepare exhibitions anew. To show these exhibits, but not in the Ukrainian-Russian context, but as an expression, manifestation of own history.
The museums have a big task too – to tell people about this conflict, pay homage to the fighters – soldiers and those who died, as well as pay tribute to those who supported the army in various ways.
Above all, the museums and media of the future free Ukraine must retell this history because it will form your national myth, the most valuable thing, a treasure that future generations will be retelling in the next hundreds of years.
Why is it important to collect the stories of civilians who suffered from the war?
- Today’s world is the world of visual culture. The world of films and short forms. For our history to be told truly and truthfully, it must be recounted by witnesses – those who experienced it and saw it. Only then will our story be true. And when we show it from different view angles and listen to the witnesses, we can have a true picture.
That is why the stories about the Warsaw Rising told by the participants themselves are so important. Just as important will be the stories of those who are fighting in the war, their stories about every day.
It is important to create archives that will show in the years to come what this war was like, what your soldiers went through, how they fought in the most difficult moments, how they coped with the wounds, with dismay, and the challenge of not seeing their families for half a year.
Because when peace comes, they are to become heroes. They ought to hear the words of gratitude from the Ukrainians themselves. That there is someone who takes care of this – so that it could be voiced that it is thanks to these heroes that Ukraine is free.
This cannot be done without keeping the counts, making lists, but also without listening to their stories. That is why the creation of such a large collection of testimonies is very important not for what is happening now, but for what will be happening in the future, when peace comes.
The online Museum of Civilian Voices has been collecting stories of civilians affected by the war since 2014. How would you assess the Museum’s mission?
- The Museum of Civilian Voices is important. In fact, all institutions should be engaged in this, but perhaps this institution should be the most important one or should have a coordinating role in the collection of such evidence. Because you cannot tell people about this war, once it ends, without the stories of its participants. There must be stories that will show the crimes of the russians in Ukraine.
This is one of the most important tasks. To show crimes and suffering – that there are witnesses who know what happened. Witnesses who will remember the names of those who died during the shelling and those who were killed. So that the memory of the victims does not vanish.
And the second important function of the Museum is the function of gathering information about those who fought. About the soldiers, but also about those who supported them, in order to show how outstanding this struggle was. Such things tend to be easily forgotten but the future peaceful Ukraine must have some common rituals – both at the level of the state and self-governed, local ones, which will pay tribute to the fighters.
To do this, you need to have collections of memories from those people, certain items, weapons, uniforms, things that brought them happiness – some individual things that were with them throughout the war. It would be good if people show something when telling their stories, so that every account is accompanied by an artefact that makes the story human.
Therefore, the main task is to collect all these voices because there are a lot of fighters. Moreover, this task is important not only for Ukraine in its fight, but also for the post-war, peacetime country.
What should a modern museum be like so that the memory is preserved by contemporaries and future generations?
- When we have a witness’s story, we can do multiple things with it. We can edit and show it on social networks; we can show it to children at school, make a documentary film and show it on television. We can make a performance that will show that event, illustrating it with the most valuable and interesting stories.
Thus, having a story, we know it from our experience, we give it to someone, share it on a daily basis. We have 5,000 stories of Warsaw Rising participants recorded over the past 20 years, and literally every day, we give someone a video to be used in a presentation at school, to make a documentary or a campaign on the Internet or social networks.
If we had not recorded them, we would be doomed to having some other interpretations. And our experience shows that the truth is only in the testimony of a story’s eyewitness. Only from them you can hear what really happened – not a feature movie, not a text, but the testimonies in particular are the most important.
This is a very important task for the Museum – collecting testimonies, as decades later they will be used to retell, recount this history over and over again.