Commemoration ‘2008: Rev Dr Robin Petersen

Warsaw Uprising Memorial Sermon 6 September 2008


In our Gospel reading from Matth 25, we find a parable of why we are here today. The Gospel tells us of the judgement of the nations at the end of time, the separation of the just and the unjust, the sheep and the goats. And what is surprising is that those who are separated, who are declared to be just and unjust, are surprised! ‘Lord, when did we feed you, or clothe you, or visit you in prison?’ And the answer? ‘Truly, I tell you, just as you did it for the least of these you did it to me’.

Gentlemen, tonight your target is Warsaw‘. The route, laid out in red ribbon on a large wall map, outlines a chilling, frightening, impossible mission. ‘An unfair act of war’, as Colonel Dirkie Nel had called it. Flying thousands of miles over enemy territory, at the outer limits of the aircraft range, avoiding night fighters and anti-aircraft fire, and then descending to 200m with full flaps over a fiercely burning, heavily defended city, to drop desperately needed supplies to the Polish Home Army. The crews of 31 and 34 squadrons of the SAAF, far from home, volunteers all, are faced with an impossible task, a task which commentators have called ‘the most daring aviation feat in the history of war’. They are faced with death, and they have to overcome their fear as they stoically and heroically set out on their long, almost suicidal, journey.

And for whom? A people whose history and language they do not know, whose names and faces and struggles they do not know, whose bravery and courage in rising up in resistance they will only learn of later. They do not know of the 42 000 combatants of the AK who, with ammunition for only 2500, have taken on the might of the German army. They do not know of the 4000 Polish women in the AK like Myra Sobczyk who is here among us today, who have joined their men in resistance. They do not know of the young people crawling through the sewers to ensure survival. They not know of the history of betrayal of the Polish nation, and of its proud struggles to resist domination. They have not yet heard about the previous uprising of the Polish Jews in the Ghetto. They did not know that Hitler had determined to crush the Poles and destroy Warsaw forever.

They have heard none of this that might have made their mission seem more meaningful. All they have heard are the chilling words, the impossible words, ‘Gentlemen, tonight your target is Warsaw‘.

And because it is their duty, because it is their calling, they go. Overcoming their fears and doubts and trepidation, they go. And many of them do not return. Others, like Bryan Jones who is with us today as the last remaining survivor of those in his squadron who flew to Warsaw, are shot down and miraculously survive.

Like Moses, I am sure, they all thought to themselves ‘Who am I that I should go?’ But like Moses they went, many in the knowledge of God’s presence with them.

And so it is, as in our parable of the sheep and the goats, they are surprised, humbled, moved, amazed when their actions are so honoured as they are today. As Bryan’s son-in-law, I can testify to his continuing amazement at how you all have honoured him and his colleagues. He does not regard himself as a hero, yet you have honoured him as such. In annual celebrations like this one, in memorials erected in their honour in Poland, in their medals and awards, and above all in the way in which you have welcomed them and their families into your gracious and loving embrace, you have surprised, humbled and moved us all.

And as we all gather here today, with our different histories, our different memories, the wonderfully diverse and separate paths that we have taken to end up here, at the Katyn memorial on a glorious spring day in Johannesburg, I am moved, stirred with a deep emotion at the simple, yet profound nature of what we remember today and how it has brought us all together. An act of courage and mercy and fulfilment of simple duty, has had power that has spanned over sixty years of memory, over vast distances of time and space, and has united us in our diversity: South Africans and Poles, Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews, and has brought together in humility former enemies now friends under this simple cross, at this simple place.

I was recently given a book to read by Bryan, who is, as we know, a Protestant Pastor. He urged me to read it. It is called Memory and Identity, and it is written by a very famous Pole, Karol Wojtyla, or as you might know him, Pope John Paul II.

The late Pope ends the book with these words, which I find most appropriate to end our reflections today.

“All human suffering, all pain, all infirmity contains within itself a promise of salvation, a promise of joy: ‘I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake’, writes St. Paul. This applies to all forms of suffering, called forth by evil. It applies to that enormous social and political evil which divides and torments the world today: the evil of war, the evil of oppression afflicting individuals and peoples, the evil of social injustice, of human dignity trodden underfoot, of racial and religious discrimination, the evil of violence, terrorism, the arms race — all this evil is present in the world partly so as to awaken our love, our self-gift in generous and disinterested service to those visited by suffering. In the love that pours forth from the heart of Christ, we find hope for the future of the world. Christ has redeemed the world: ‘By his wounds we are healed’.” (Memory and Identity — Pope John Paul II)

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