The Mystery Of a Mass Grave

An excerpt from Roman Daszczyński’’s interview with writer Stefan Chwin prompted by the recent discovery, in the northern Polish fortress city of Malbork, of a mass grave from the final days of World War II. When the grave was discovered as foundations were being laid for a new hotel, the local authorities’’ initial reaction was to cover up the burial site of nearly 2,000 Germans and keep building the hotel. However, heavy rains washed up more human bones, prompting an international scandal (for more information click here and here).

Stefan Chwin:  – If at all technically possible, the bones should be assembled and buried individually, and each gravestone should be marked NN.

Roman Daszczyński: Why?

–  So that they can be interred as human beings, not as a pile of broken bones. Remember, these bones were once men, women, and children. Some of them may have been sinners. But that is immaterial now. Because when we die, we lose our nationality, ideology and political convictions. People are saying: “Why get excited about a heap of bones? Don’’t we have more serious problems to worry about?”

That it’’s a waste of time and the money….

–  Well, I think this is silly talk and believe it is in our interest to renew a sense of the majesty of death. We bemoan the growing crime rate but if young people learn from the grown-ups that human remains are just some sort of rubbish that is in the way and can be thrown in a pit and shovelled over, we must not be surprised if a young person doesn’’t bat an eyelid before killing someone, that is to say, turning another human being into this kind of ‘‘rubbish’’. Restoring the sacred status of human remains is a great and burning issue of our day.

This sense has been first destroyed by totalitarian regimes….

… and right now it is being destroyed by the pop culture.  Lots of people watched the slaughter in the Balkans on TV and perceived it as something really banal. A million people were murdered in Rwanda. A pyramid of bones left behind no longer impresses us. And what is most terrible is that the greater the number of corpses the more boring the crime appears. If someone’’s family gets murdered it is a tragedy but if a hundred thousand people perish in some distant war the figure becomes just an abstraction and ultimately makes people yawn. And similarly, we are not shocked by the death of thousands of tsunami victims because this figure is off the scale of our moral imagination.

And what does pop culture have to do with it?

– Have you seen Pirates of the Caribbean, the massive global box office hit?

I have.

– Films like this teach us that human skeletons are cool and funny. You can kick them, and they fall apart. Films like this and all sorts of games make young people lose the sense of taboo and of the sacredness of human remains which has been part of our culture since times immemorial. When a group of my friends and I found the remains of a German under a plum tree after the war, we did feel this sacral awe. The young people of today don’’t have problems like this.

After all, it’’s all just matter, a bone is a bone? Who cares that these are the remains of someone’’s father, son or daughter?

– Something like that. Let me give you another pop culture example – the film Poltergeist.

In that film ghosts haunt a family that has moved into a house built on a former cemetery that had been raised to the ground.

–  And the family had no idea that there used to be a cemetery there. The developer who had built the suburb knew but what would people not do for  profit? It’’s a bit like with the hotel in Malbork.

“Poltergeist”, however, is about the violation of the boundary between the world of the dead and about the revenge of the spirits. The family escapes from the haunted house….

– Did you enjoy the film?

Yes I did.

– And that’’s exactly the problem with pop culture – death becomes a form of entertainment.  These days what matters is that we have to do something about it.  A few days ago my wife and I visited Auschwitz for the first time. The pyramids of objects now look like those piles of bones in Malbork. Nevertheless, it is a kind of a triumph of totalitarianism.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Polish in the Gazeta Świąteczna, the Saturday supplement of the daily Gazeta Wyborcza on 14 February 2009.