Eastern Europe’s Rich Legacy May Be Lost in War Coverage | Opinion

If our sources of information were limited to cable news or social media, we would miss out on appreciating how different parts of the world uplift the human spirit.

Take the example of Eastern Europe, for example. Considering the Russian war in Ukraine, one could hear that the Baltic nations (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) are important as a “northern flank”. We could also learn that Poland is an important ally to “fill” military resources. Finally, we can express our admiration for the Slovenian, Polish and Czech heads of state who, a few weeks ago, sneaked across the Ukrainian border to stand resolutely Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

But Eastern Europe holds a much deeper human heritage, which often goes unnoticed. While teaching a course on the cultural contributions of European Jewish scientists, artists, and public figures for the honors program at BYU between 2018 and 2020, I had the chance to study this underappreciated, historically located part of the world between the former Polish-Lithuanian, Prussian, Russian, Habsburg and Ottoman Empires.

The achievements of Eastern Europe represent the high points of world history. Indeed, Eastern Europe is more than a collection of NATO allies. It is a center of faith, a center of enterprise, a center of research, a center of culture and a deep source of courage.

Inasmuch as what follows is intended to persuade you of the importance of Eastern Europe in world affairs, it is also a series of invitations to appreciate these achievements. The serious student of the region will also consult the definitive analysis of the region’s recent history: John Connelly’s “From Peoples to Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2022).

First, Eastern Europe is a center of faith. In the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, Wenceslas IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, ruled his vast estates from the medieval city of Prague. His wife, Elisabeth of Pomerania, cultivated a network of European figures as far away as England, where the reformer John Wycliffe challenged the Catholic Church.

One of Wenceslaus’s subjects, a religious innovator named Jan Hus, took heart from Wycliffe’s reforms, which included New Testament translations for common people. Robust Bethlehem church wallslocated near Prague’s iconic main square, Hus made the sacramental chalice and bread available to all parishioners and championed the dispersal of sacred writings in the local language.

Unfortunately, Wenceslaus’ brother, Zygmunt, elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1410, betrayed Hus, who was imprisoned and finally burned at the stake in June 1415 for his alleged heresies. Thus, 100 years before Martin Luther unwittingly took the first steps toward deep reform, leveling influences were already underway farther east. The eminent historian Theodore Rabb offers a compelling account of Hus’s courage in “Renaissance Lives: Portraits of an Era” (Basic Books, 2000), an exquisite book written for a general audience.

If a center of faith, Eastern Europe is also a center of earthly enterprise. Even before the end of the Cold War, farsighted Poles, Czechs and Hungarians anticipated market reforms.

While many remember the leader of the Solidarité union The stubborn leadership of Lech Walesa to force systematic reforms in Poland, hundreds of his fellow citizens headed west to Germany, where they bargained for profits at makeshift flea markets in Berlin’s Reichpietschufer. Likewise, the winds of freedom revived a strong industrial base in and around Prague, where myriad manufacturers flourished before the Cold War. At the same time, Hungarian farmers turned specialized crop production into a lucrative business, while today Slovakia stands as a 21st century showcase for automotive assembly.

Right now, these countries are arguably even more market-oriented than their Western counterparts, their entrepreneurs eager to preserve openness even as authoritarianism further east threatens to stifle innovation. the Heritage Foundation Economic Openness Index 2020 places Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Czechia (the former Czech Republic) and Austria ahead of the United States.

And, as University of Vienna historian Philipp Ther observes, throughout his exciting “History of Europe since 1989” (Princeton University Press, 2016) even enterprising Ukrainians have headed west to these countries in search of free market opportunities – a trend that has only been exacerbated by Russia’s execrable onslaught. .

As trade and innovation go hand in hand, Eastern Europe has also historically been a center of inquiry. Eighteenth century German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn argued that science and faith were not mutually exclusive. This movement, known as Haskalah or the Jewish Enlightenment, opened the doors to a liberating search for truth throughout Europe.

Jewish memoirs of the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially those of the extraordinary novelist and historian Stefan Zweig, are difficult to read. “The World of Yesterday” (Nebraska, 2013), without recognizing that the highest aspirations of European Jews were in the field of education.

Unfortunately, these same traditions, which have flourished in today’s Ukrainian city of Lviv, a college town of Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, served as the backdrop for the genesis of the term “genocide” and of the concept of “crimes against humanity”. British lawyer Philippe Sands describes these tragic consequences of 20th century dehumanization in his gripping family history-focused book “East West Street: On the Origins of ‘Genocide’ and ‘Crimes Against Humanity'” (Knopf, 2016).

As an extension of creative research, Eastern Europe is also a center of culture. Prague’s built environment and Ukraine’s window to the Black Sea, Odessa, convey a sense of pre-communist architectural achievement. Following the fiery destruction of Prague’s Jewish quarter in the early 20th century, wealthy citizens adorned their new homes with Art Nouveau motifs, including embellishments of femininity, flora, and the orient.

If this movement was undoubtedly born further west in the Paris of Erte and the secessionist Vienna of Gustav Klimt, Alphonse Mucha gave it a decidedly Czech touch with his elegant depictions of avant-garde women, images that still grace the pages of calendars and art books today.

The Ukrainians were not about to be outdone by their bohemian neighbors, equipping their working-class port city with an opera worthy of great performances, still standing. Historian Charles King wrote about these early artistic achievements of Odessa’s educated intelligentsia in his history of the city, “Odessa: genius and death in a city of dreams” (WW Norton, 2012).

While few buildings bear witness to the presence of a distinct Hungarian Post-Impressionist artist community, which flourished in the village of Szentendre, the Hungarian National Gallery, located close to Budapest’s Castle Hill, bears witness from the inspiration that idyllic Hungarian villages lent to talented eyes. of artists including Karoly Ferenczy.

Finally, if art encourages the human soul, bold action sustains it. Thus, Eastern Europe is a source of courage for the rest of humanity. Centuries of conflict have forged resolve in the face of overwhelming adversity. Poland offers many examples.

The piano is an appropriate symbol for the democratic challenge. You’ll find one on the mezzanine floor of Warsaw Chopin International Airport. More recently, at least one Ukrainian sympathizer drove a pianoforte to the Polish-Ukrainian border, where he welcomed the refugees with tones of triumph.

A few generations earlier, Wladyslaw Szpilman, author of the memoirs “The pianist” (Picador, 2000) signed the last Polish national radio broadcast in 1939 with a live performance, even as German bombs fell on Warsaw. He then performed for German officers to save his life as he avoided certain death in the wartime ghetto.

Equally compelling, the twenties Polish diplomat, Jan Karskiescaped Nazi captivity twice before colluding with the Jewish resistance to visit the Warsaw ghetto, as well as the Izbica concentration camp, a transport point for Jewish prisoners.

Little concerned about his own life, he made these humanitarian outings. Then, at the age of 25, and as a representative of the Polish government in exile, Karski shared the reality of the Holocaust with Franklin Delano Roosevelt during an extraordinary interview at the White House on July 28, 1943. Karski was later hailed as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem the World Historical Memorial Center and recounted his wartime experiences in “Story of a Secret State: My Testimony to the World (Penguin Classics, 2019).

A recently produced theatrical monologue on Karski’s life, “Remember This: The Lessons of Jan Karski,” (Georgetown University Press, 2021), recently revived at Shakespeare Theater in Washington, DC, further testifies to the heroism of this Catholic Pole who became a beloved professor at Georgetown University in the nation’s capital.

Even as Szpilman and Karski survived to bear witness to the West, others gave their lives to preserve a darkened, even erased past. the intrepid Emanuel Ringelblum, Jewish historianformed a cadre of fellow Warsaw Ghetto citizens to meticulously document the atrocities perpetrated against and the achievements made by their extraordinary community.

In “Who will write our history? Rediscovering a hidden archive of the Warsaw ghetto » (Vintage, 2009), historian Samuel Kassow recounts how these sheaves of history – a living testimony to a vulnerable but resilient community – were entrusted to nine tins and a milk container, then buried under buildings in Warsaw. Salvaged after the war, these voices from the rubble helped condemn Adolf Eichmann’s Crimes Against Humanity in 1961.

The extraordinary dented metal milk container that preserved part of this history, designated “Memory of the World” by UNESCO in 1999, is still on display at the Jewish Historical Archive in Warsaw.

In sum, Eastern Europe is as important to the pageantry of human experience as any other region of the world. As we better see the similarities between our experiences and cultivate an awareness of the outstanding achievements of the region, we can better engage with those of the region we meet in their own quest for freedom, faith, creativity and of knowledge. Ultimately, when we celebrate these achievements and those who forged them, we will gain a deeper belief that protecting their values ​​will only strengthen our own.

Evan R. Ward is an associate professor of history at Brigham Young University.

Mary I. Bruner