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Blog post of the month: Doing good against all odds – remembering the forgotten

Leszek J. Sibilski's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In February 2017, the featured blog post is "Doing good against all odds – remembering the forgotten" by Leszek J. Sibilski.

The opportunity for doing mischief is found a hundred times a day, and of doing good once in a year. - Voltaire
 
Every November 1st, Poland observes All Saints Day or as some call it, the Day of the Deceased. In the middle of the Polish Golden Autumn there is a day when all Poles meet each other at the cemetery. Flowers and candles are lit to honor loved ones who are no longer with us. Most Polish cemeteries are very pristine and well cared for. For me this is a day of national truce and solidarity intertwined with the Roman-Catholic tradition. All Saints Day is celebrated in other countries, but the poignancy and mobility in Poland has no match. The day before and the day after, millions of Poles patiently travel for hours in never-ending traffic jams.
 
I am not always able to attend All Saints Day in my native Poland, but there are always flowers, wreaths, and candles, exceeding the number of my living distant relatives at the grave of my parents. And then there are the invisible friendly hands that clean my family's tomb a few weeks later, before the beginning of winter. The culmination of this holiday is an outdoor mass before dusk, which basically occurs at every cemetery. I must admit that for as long as I can remember; I have always tried to skip the mass service saturated with the presence of thousands of worshipers for the sake of long walks in the marvelous fall festival of lights a few hours later where the cemeteries are almost deserted. Imagine, walking in darkness on the fallen and golden dry leaves amongst the orange glow of thousands of lit candles that blend with a scent of burning wax and the array of thousands of flowers. Surrounded by people who act most courteously towards each other, and then there is the humbling moment of realizing again that death is a destiny for each of us. All of this is accompanied by solemn tranquility and feelings of nostalgia.
 

This blog is a follow up to two of my previous blogs and a closure report to our readership on the impact of the positive social action taken to commemorate five Polish cyclists who died prematurely in a still unsolved plane crash over Bulgaria in 1978. One may wonder: was this collective social action an extension of the Day of Deceased’s Polish tradition? Probably, but it lasted over twenty long months of persistent campaigning associated with many ups and some downs. This article is also a tribute to those who helped us and there were many who immediately understood that we couldn’t fail in this mission because there was no one to accept our excuses in case we failed.
 

And we didn’t fail. On the eve of November 26, 2016, during the Polish Cycling Season Ending Ceremony; a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the entrance to the track of the Pruszkow Velodrome. The families of Witold Stachowiak and Tadeusz Wlodarczyk were able to witness in person this very solemn and important event for the Polish cycling community.

Unveiling a plaque commemorating the tragically deceased cyclists - Arena Pruszkow


The obituary on the granite plaque reads as follow:

 “The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.”
In memory of
Marek Kolasa
Krzysztof Otocki
Witold Stachowiak
Tadeusz Wlodarczyk
Jacek Zdaniuk
cyclists of the Polish National Team who died on March 16, 1978 in unsolved circumstances in the plane crash near Gabare in Bulgaria.

From a time perspective, I can say that all of my teammates held this tragedy deep in their hearts and memories, but somehow the spark to action was missing for over 37 years. As soon as we started the campaign, I could see the overwhelming agreement that something had to be done for our five lost teammates. The social mobilization reached people who never heard about this tragedy as well as those who were first informed when it happened.
 
After our meeting in Richmond, VA during the UCI World Road Cycling Championship, we started our social action by reaching out to as many as possible. Undoubtedly, the initial assistance provided by Sina Odgubemi and Roxanne Bauer from one of the World Bank Blogs, People Spaces, Deliberation was a huge in advancing the message to the cycling audience around the world. Chris Peck lent us a hand with social media channels at the UCI HQ in Aigle, Switzerland and renowned Polish cycling reporter and broadcaster Tomasz Jaronski contacted me with yet another aspiring writer of the younger generation Jakub Zimoch, who wrote a beautiful piece about our mission in the Polska Times. His article was well received by many cycling enthusiasts in Poland. All of our efforts would have been in vain if it were not for my friend, Waclaw Skarul, then the President of the Polish Cycling Federation.
 
One of our former teammates Andrzej Pajor designed and made the plaque in his stone-workshop, and a few weeks later quietly along with another one of our teammates Witold Mokiejewski, he drove from Wroclaw to Pruszkow to mount the plaque at the entrance to the track at the velodrome. Then Adam Baloniak, Tomasz Celmer, Ireneusz Olszacki, Radoslaw Serafin, Marek Kulesza, Andrzej Pajor, and I collected the funds needed to pay for the plaque.
 
In my determination to drive this action, Adam Baloniak sent me a picture from the 1977 National Track Championships where I stood on the podium with two of my long lost friends and competitors Marek Kolasa and Krzysztof Otocki, both died in the 1978 plane crash. It was a very sobering feeling but one that also electrified me to carry on.  From this moment, I knew a proper honoring for these victims would happen no matter what.  And it finally did after 38 years of total silence regarding their tragic death.
 
American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once stated: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” Perhaps we did not change the world, but we honored the forgotten from the past and we will enlighten many in the future. Olympic cycling hopefuls from all over the world would now be able to reflect on their lives before entering the track of the Pruszkow National Velodrome.
 
President Skarul called me right after the unveiling ceremony, I could sense that he was really moved by this event; especially with the reaction of the families which finally were recognized for the terrible loss of their loved once. The reaction of the grandmother of Tadeusz Wlodarczyk, who cried tears of relief and gratefulness, was very gratifying. The green Brazilian granite plaque radiates with the memory of the five young talented athletes whose lives were cut short. We truly hope that at some point the archives of the National Institute of Remembrance will shed light on this still unsolved catastrophe. The families deserve to know the truth.
 
Why should we share this story with the global readership of People, Spaces, Deliberation Blog at the World Bank? Once, I heard President Jim Y. Kim passionately asked young people to change the world. I would add that this call for social change should also be directed for those who are young at heart. I must say that in order to be involved in such social action you have to be in a very unique selfless emotional mode usually associated with maturity. I know that somehow I was getting ready for this call when I was involved in the commemoration of the Israeli Olympians slain in Munich in 1972. I truly hope that one day at the Opening Ceremony I will eyewitness a minute of silence for the Munich 11 – we are working very hard everyday towards this still unrealized wish of the families and the Olympic community.
 
Overall, it took over twenty months of nudging, countless phone calls overseas, early morning hours on the Internet, but we all feel like a heavy burden of moral responsibility has been removed from our shoulders.  Although it was an emotional and time consuming task with no space for errors we now feel we can move forward with our lives.
 
If after reading this article one has the impression that this process was smooth please think again. In a situation like this we should focus on final outcomes and pay tribute to the lives of those who left us so tragically and prematurely. Whenever you try something new you have to deal with growing pains, ruffled feathers, and reluctant, or even doubtful reactions of those who are still stuck in time. His Holiness The Dalai Lama once said: “It is not enough to be compassionate – you must act.” … and we did. I believe that from time to time we should take the chance of and do good by local positive social actions to enhance our and others lives.
 
On December 20, 2016, my daughter, Agnes who is an aspiring military physician, out of the blue invited me for a walk at the Arlington National Cemetery. While we were waiting for the Changing of the Guard ceremony, I asked, “Why did you want to be here?” She replied: “I will be serving families of those who paid the highest price, and I can’t ever forget that.”

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