In a few days I shall be embarking on a pilgrimage. It will take me to Groszowice, a small town in Silesia in Poland. Like many pilgrims, I shall be looking for the comfort of a church when I arrive, and for some better understanding of who I am and where I am going. I suppose like many pilgrims also, I have no real certainty that I shall get that better understanding, and I am not altogether sure that my journey will give me comfort – but of course I am hoping that it will.
In fact, this is a personal family pilgrimage. My father was born in Groszowice (or ‘Groschowitz’) to a Prussian-Polish family in the early 20th century. In the second World War he was a German soldier, and at the end of the War his family property was confiscated as Silesia was transferred from Germany to Poland in the post-Yalta carve-up of Europe. Unlike some others I have met with a similar personal history, my father accepted this outcome of German fascist adventures and atrocities stoically, and at no point in his later life — lived in Germany and Ireland — did he ever indicate any resentment at the loss of his family possessions. Eventually he returned to visit his birthplace, and expressed satisfaction at how well it had been maintained.
I have never been there myself, but some six years after my father’s death I have decided to visit the place where he was born and grew up and about which he spoke often. I am not a ‘roots’ person, and so in all truth I don’t have any fixed idea of what I shall find. But to my great surprise, I am approaching the visit with rather more emotion than I had anticipated, and the idea of seeing my father’s house, and seeing the graves of his (and my) ancestors is turning this into an unexpectedly sentimental journey.
I suspect that not many of us can approach some lost heritage with indifference. We may neglect and ignore it for a long time, but bring us face to face with it and it will produce a reaction — perhaps one of awe, or of revulsion, or of a sense of loss, or of frustration, or of suspicion, or of love. For myself, I am not yet sure which of these it will be.
By a quirk of recent events, I am travelling to Poland just as a German pressure group is lodging legal claims for the return of or compensation for lost properties in Silesia. I shall have to emphasise that this is not my mission. I am not going in order to claim the heritage as my property. And this has reminded me that none of us should make such claims, because in doing so we trespass on the heritage of others. Our memories must co-exist, as must we.
Many of the squabbles in Anglicanism over the past year or two have been about lodging claims to exclusive heritage rights. Some of these claims are made by people who have not yet made, and perhaps have no intention of making, the pilgrimage to the source. And beyond Anglicanism, groups are placing flags in territories in which nobody should be claiming exclusive rights.
The Roman Catholic church of the perhaps rather short-lived Vatican II era spoke about the ‘pilgrim church’. Many of today’s would-be pilgrims appear to be marching in formation and singing battle songs. Maybe we should all be seeking to go on that great pilgrimage of uncertainty, of not quite knowing who we are or where we are going, of unknown emotions — but knowing that others are on the same journey; different people, different aspirations, but with the same rights. And then maybe we can accept the past as the past, and move on.
When I arrive in Silesia, I shall visit (at his invitation) the Archbishop of Opole (my father would have called it ‘Oppeln’). He has written to me to say that ‘if you grieve at the loss of your father’s posessions, then I can reassure you that, here in Silesia and everywhere else, you are welcome as a family member in our Father’s house.’