Archives for April 2012

Through Their Eyes

JJ almost waxes poetic in this article, featured in:

It seems like more and more people are taking pictures these days. Especially now that film has practically gone from industry standard to old-time novelty, or even charming retro medium, the age of the digital photograph has empowered unheard of numbers of folks to record more and more images from the world in which we live. How wonderful! With all due apologies for the cliché, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and for the historian or cultural enthusiast, not much could be more exciting! Even though I’ve heard more than a few complaints about how what used to be an easily manageable couple of shoeboxes filled with printed photographs has now evolved into an unwieldy collection of thousands of digital snapshots, the value of those pictures can’t be understated! Trust me, even if seems silly, the next generations of historians and ethnographers will sing our praises for taking so many pictures, regardless of how silly they seem to us today. Mark my words!

Recalling my days as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college student studying history, I can’t remember how many hours I spent pouring over historic photographs, searching for elements that I could use to support my thesis. I’d bring a shovel with me to the library! At times it was so frustrating to have no pictorial account of some important moment from the past. Finding just the right one, even snapped candidly from the sidelines, can provide much clarity and insight for the researcher. If I had a nickel for every time I’d wished that at one specific moment in time, someone took more pictures, I certainly wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I’m pretty sure my people mover expenses would be covered for at least a few years. Photographs are primary sources, that is, accounts of an historic event recorded first-hand by those who were there.  As such, they’re an exceptional tool for learning about the past.

Apart from all the young historians leading to the library with a pick-axe, what we do to memorialize the past takes on a different path.  Where treasuries of photos can create an intimate connection with history, public commemoration of great events is usually helps the most to shape the memory of the next generation. We build monuments, create museums, and dedicate works of art to the memory of those who made some of the greatest moments in history happen.  When we read the inscription on the plaque, or read the panel at the museum, we’re encouraged to learn more about our history and we’re led to wonder what things were like when that great moment happened. It can be a sad, in a way, to stand by some monument and long to do something great in your own life like those who went before, but then again, that’s where inspiration kicks in—it’s the awesome way history works—to inspire us to create a better future!  In any case, the people who inspired the creation of monuments and museums are largely lost to the past, so when we want to know what happened back then, what we’re left with are the stories they told, and the records they left.  Sometimes that can be nothing more than a poetic few lines in stone. That’s great and all, but the degree to which you can experience closeness with the past is something that many monuments, though beautiful and epic, and museums, though interactive and fun, fail to get across.  It can be a real downer, but that’s the passing of time for ya.  That’s why those written accounts, recordings and photographs are so important to us; they fill in the details of history’s most epic events by giving life to those monuments and feeling to those museum exhibitions.

All those hallmarks of the past we’re going through invoke an amount of reverence in us. Be it a monument or photograph, it goes hand in hand with all the inspiring I mentioned earlier.

What’s often missed though, I think, are the most valuable primary sources there are. I’m talking about the living photographs! These are the people whose testimony to the past is something that makes up the very definition of invaluable. Though the monuments and museums tend to draw most of the attention, it’s those people, often unassuming and mild-mannered, who command more reverence than even the most grandiose monument. Just the other day at Orchard Lake, we were proud to host a group of people whose perspective on one of Polish peoples’ most significant events is as valuable as it gets.  If you were to find yourself in Warsaw, in August of 1944, you’d likely be pretty scared.  Odds are you’d find yourself fearing the ominous siren of the Stuka dive-bomber, while feeling soreness in your legs from so much crouching under the bullets whizzing just overhead. You’d probably be busy building a barricade across the street, made from all types of scavenged materials, to stop the next wave of armored vehicles, or, rushing through holes and sewers as fast as you can bearing stretchers from wounded fighters.

Amidst all that chaos though, I’d imagine that you’d combat your fears with the courage gained from the determination of the people all around you.  The loving hand from a nurse, unflinching in her duties to bring aid from under a blanket of enemy bullets, or the friendly smile, expressed in freedom from your comrade-in arms, given as if to assure you that all will be well, would probably do a lot to cool your nerves. Some of those very people who so impassionedly fought back against the German occupation of Poland from 1939 are still with us today, and command a degree of reverence that no monument can equal.  Here at Orchard Lake, it never fails to amaze me that I can be amidst this group. Drawing on a long history of Polish identity, Orchard Lake regularly draws a very special crowd to reminisce, celebrate, and enjoy each other’s company, and I have to say that I’m honored to be close to that group. From my office here, I’m so proud to stand on the shoulders of those who went before, to stand on the same path blazed by Fr. Dabrowski, so be a part of the Polish community that traces its roots to shore of Orchard Lake.

Just like standing at the foot of those monuments, what’s before me can feel intimidating.  What can I do to support this?  What shall I do to teach others about this?  The great events that those people directly shaped are a constant source of inspiration, and as long as we allow ourselves to be inspired, we’ll always have a place in the pages of history, perhaps not in the section reserved for heroes of bygone days, but in the special section reserved for people who remembered.

Until next time,

JJ