In memory of the brave women: building bridges over Europe’s painful past - JA KOBIETA testimony
In the framework of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 (EYCH2018), AGE is collecting testimonies from and about older women and men who through their personal and professional lives have been promoting common values and enabling the post-war reconciliation, reconstruction, prosperity and peace in Europe. For our members the focus of the EYCH2018 goes beyond the narrow sense of cultural heritage, such as architecture, art or literature. It is above all about universal values that the European Union has been built on and for which older Europeans stand united: democracy, rule of law, respect and tolerance, individual liberty, as well as cooperation and intergenerational dialogue. They all are indispensible for the European Union to further develop and allow its citizens of all ages to fulfil their personal and professional aspirations.
We have the pleasure to give the voice to Hanna Nowakowska from our Polish member-organisation, Foundation for Women, JA KOBIETA (*) and who seats as a substitute member in AGE Council. We invite you to learn about Hanna’s engagement, contributions and feelings about the European Union (EU) cultural heritage:
Maciej Kucharczyk, AGE Platform (MK):
Hanna, what does being a European mean to you?
Hanna Nowakowska, JA KOBIETA (HN):
'First of all, as a European I am able to travel freely everywhere in the European Union. It's so easy today to explore and admire the beauty of individual European countries, know better their cultures, history and, above all, their people. You know it hasn’t always been this way... As a vice President of the International Committee of Ravensbrück - ICR(**) I meet wonderful mature women, my peers from many countries. The ICR commemorates and represents the wishes of the survivors of the Ravensbrück camp and their families. Ravensbrück was the largest concentration camp for women in the German Reich. My grandmother and mother were both prisoners in Ravensbrück. So my engagement for Europe builds on our family’s single story. Every meeting and conversation with women who survived Ravensbrück is a new experience and new piece of information… In short, for me being European means reconciliation with the past, and also new opportunities, activities, ideas and projects in which I can engage with other Europeans.'
MK: More specifically, what is the added value of the European Union in your daily life?
HN: 'I think it brings me a broader view of the world and our place in it as Europeans… having many great friends in different corners of Europe, the ability to communicate on a daily basis, getting to know their opinions, discussing and understanding them better. The EU creates connections and facilitates dialogue between all of us… I gain new historical knowledge by meeting ICR members from so many countries. I read more about history, I am interested in learning about various points of view, and I want to know even more. Since Poland joined the EU I discovered new fascinating books, films, music, poems. For example, now I can easily listen to music created by the great Spanish singer Marina Rossell or the pianist Carsten Dahl from Germany.'
MK: In your activities you often pay attention to intergenerational dialogue. Why? Are there any particular values, traditions or knowledge that you would like to convey to your own children and grandchildren?
HN: 'I would like to tell all young people, not only mine, how fascinating history is and why it is worthy to meet with the Witnesses of the History. Thanks to meetings with former prisoners of the Ravensbrück camp, young people learn not only what happened in the past but also how to become more resilient by learning from these fascinating older women how they managed to survive and then to move ahead with their life in a positive way. They all were extremely brave and strong – although only very few still live – and gave great exemplary testimony of humanity. Through their actions and attitudes during the most difficult time, they showed that everyone can remain human and support each other. For today’s kids and youth who are sometimes lost or stressed, the testimonies of the former prisoners can be empowering and serve as inspiration. In the camp, these brave women fought for their survival, human dignity, femininity, while in the post-war days they managed to rebuild their lives for the benefit of their families and compatriots. They also knew that to survive they should forgive and look ahead beyond the atrocities they went through. They teach us why it’s important to care for each other, how to enjoy each day, how to get on with your life, remembering those who have already left.
It is worth seizing any opportunity to draw lessons from the experience of older close relatives or friends. My mission is to ensure that their efforts and sacrifices will be neither forgotten, nor wasted because it is an essential part of the EU cultural heritage.'
MK: Looking into future, what do you think should be improved to build a stronger and sustainable European Union?
HN: 'I believe that the most important is integration and cooperation. I prefer to look at what unifies us rather than what separates us. This is what I learned from my mother and grand-mother. And I think it is worth trying to look for consensus, to see where Europeans can act together.'
Warsaw, July 2018
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(*) The Foundation for Women, JA KOBIETA (In Polish: Fundacja na Rzecz Kobiet, JA KOBIETA) was established in 2003 with the objective to ensure equality of rights between women and men. Integration and reintegration of women threatened by social exclusion in the labour market and help them fully participate in society, are among the other objectives of the Foundation. Over the last fifteen years, JA KOBIETA has been an active AGE member contributing to our advocacy actions, in particular to fight against old-age discrimination and to enhance gender equality across the life span. The involvement of JA KOBIETA was particularly rich over the period 2007-2014 when its representative, Halina Potocka, seated in AGE Executive Committee as a Vice President. During the European Year 2012 on Active Ageing and Intergenerational Solidarity JA KOBIETA and AGE successfully advocated for mainstreaming ageing and older people’s human rights into Polish national policy making. A department dedicated to the population ageing was created at the Polish Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment, launching several initiatives and securing financial support for civil society. JA KOBIETA was part of two AGE-led projects on social inclusion (AGE/inc and INCLUSage), and co-organised internal AGE expert meetings, as well as policy seminars and debates involving key policy stakeholders, for instance the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights or the Intergroup on Ageing of the National Assembly.
Today JA KOBIETA’s engagement is being pursued through new actions and initiatives in the fields of human rights, social policies and cross-border cooperation. In cooperation with the Polish section of the ICR they recently implemented a project ‘Strength and Hope’. Through informal meetings and debates gathering Ravensbrück camp’s survivals with young women and girls, as well as by publishing a comic strip dedicated to these brave women’s life in the camp, the project raised awareness about the war history. But above all the project tries to empower the younger generation to overcome daily challenges and difficulties, to be more resilient against vicissitudes of destiny and eventually to fully enjoy life. JA KOBIETA is also part of an informal coalition of organisations of older persons and/or working from them, Forum 50+, Seniors of the 21st century. At present, the coalition consists of 22 non-governmental organizations from all over Poland. For more information about JA KOBIETA, please see: http://www.kobieta50plus.pl/
(**) In June 2018, Hanna Nowakowska was elected Vice President of the International Committee of Ravensbrück (ICR). In this new role, Ms Nowakowska represents the Committee’s members from across Europe including Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia, Spain and Ukraine. Her personal objective is to strengthen cross-border and intergenerational bridges in memory of all the brave women whose common destiny passed by the Ravensbrück concentration camp to help younger generations of women build a better future for all. To learn more about the history of the camp and activities of the International Committee of Ravensbrück, please see: http://www.ravensbrueck.de/mgr/index.html and http://www.ravensbruck.pl/