Commemoration ‘2006: Rev Dr Robin Petersen

Introduction

I would like to begin by paying tribute to a number of people.

First of all, to the courageous and heroic ordinary people of Warsaw who for 63 days in 1944 fought for their freedom and dignity against the most impossible odds. We honour and salute you.

Secondly, to the courageous and heroic and ordinary folk of the South African, Royal, Free Polish and US Air Forces who undertook a suicide mission to bring relief to the beleagured combatants and civilians of Warsaw. We honour and salute you.

Thirdly, to the Polish community here in RSA whose faithfulness in remembering this day and these events so faithfully down the years has been exemplary and inspiring. We honour and cherish you.

Why do I, in each instance say we honour you?

Because we are immensely honoured to have among us today, as we have down the years, representatives of these three groups of people.

Father Jaworski, a priest and partisan of the Uprising. We honour and salute you.

Pastor Bryan Jones, my father-in-law, navigator in 31 Squadron of the SAAF, shot down over Warsaw on the night of the 12th of August. We honour and salute you.

Andrzej Romanowicz. President of the Warsaw Flights Commemoration Committee, and tireless leader and driver of these and other celebrations — We honour and salute you, Sir!

62 years is a long time. I have just buried my father this past week, who was younger than both Bryan and Father Jaworski. So I am particularly aware of the frailty and temporality of human life. To have both of you with us today, as well as other Warsaw veterans among us, is an immense honour and privilege. And may I be so bold as to promise, Sirs, that we will continue to honour and salute your memory each year, even when you are no longer with us.

The Uprising

I think all here have heard the history of uprising. But we are taught, by all our religious traditions, that each time we tell the story we somehow bring it again to life. Our stories that we tell make it new for us each time, and help us to pass on the importance of memory to each new generation.

And so let us remember a few things on this special day of remembrance.

Let us remember the courage of the people.

The courage of 42000 combatants, but with arms and ammunition for only 2500!

The courage of the 4000 women who fought side by side with their men.

The courage of the young people who made up the bulk of the combatants.

Let us never forget the atrocities visited on the people of Warsaw.

The 200,000 people killed by the Nazis during the uprising. The complete destruction of the City of Warsaw at the end of the uprising.

The Relief Flights

I want you all to turn your eyes to Sandton City and Michelangelo Towers. Now I want you to imagine yourself at the controls, or in the nose cone, of a large, lumbering bomber, flying at that height above one of the most heavily defended cities at a speed of around 145 mph. You are blinded by the glare of searchlights that have easily picked you up as you entered the outskirts of the city. On the way you had dodged and fought of the pack of terrier-like fighters. And now you were flying over the Vistula. You are in the nose cone. You can see every detail on the ground Despite the jarring shocks every second as the plane lurches from side to side as flak and bullets rip into its fragile skin, and despite your dim awareness that two of your engines are ablaze, you tell the pilot to hold steady, to keep course. You count the bridges, every instinct of self-preservation screaming at you to pull up, to pull out, to abandon the course and get out of this hell. One, — steady — two — steady almost there, three — turn, turn, drop, supplies gone!!! Let’s get out of here!!! And relief as the lights lose you, and blackness engulfs you, blessed protective darkness. The plane’s nose is up, you are climbing away to safety and freedom, you loosen your grip. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the blackness changes, and in an instant you realise that you are about to hit the ground. You are crashing! You are going to die!! And then, miraculously, you slide along clear ground, an open field surrounded by trees. You have crash landed on Warsaw airport! You are alive! God has spared you and the rest of your crew.

This is the incredible story of one man, Pastor Bryan, my father-in-law, whom we continue to honour and salute

Scripture

Our Scripture today reminds us that greater love has no-one than to lay down his life for his neighbour. Jesus also reminds us that our neighbour is not our friend, our colleague, our blood relation or kinsman — no, our neighbour is the stranger in need, the one who calls for us to help and whom we dare not pass by. If Jesus had lived a couple of centuries later, he could easily have used the example of the aircrews that willingly went to Poland to respond to call of their unknown neighbour in need, and who, in many instances laid down their lives for them, as the example for his parable.

Do you want to know what love is? Think on this! Remember them! And honour and them by seeking to find, in the relative peace and equanimity of your life, of my life, ways in which we too can show that love.

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