Fyodor Dostoevsky set a crucial scene of The Brothers Karamazov at the Optyn Hermitage in Kozelsk, which in 1939 and 1940 became the site of a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp. It housed members of the Polish National Army, which had been crushed earlier by the Wehrmacht and, finally, by the Red Army as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, contained within a secret protocol= the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had divvied up Eastern Europe. In the case of Poland, which possessed one of the largest concentrations of Jews in Europe, it was divided straight down the middle. The most famous exchange in the book took place between a young nobleman and monastery elder about the possibility of morality without God. If God is dead, is everything permitted? In 1940, the real building where this fictional conversation took place, the former residence of monks, housed NKVD interrogators (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or in Russian Народный комиссариат внутренних дел). They represented a Soviet answer to that question: only the death of God allowed for the liberation of humanity. Unconsciously or consciously many of the Poles provided their own answer as they went about preparing for Easter services or—in many cases, owing to the Jewish community’s overrepresentation in the educated classes—Sabbath. The chief interrogator at Kozelsk, the man who inherited the residence of Dostoevsky’s monastic elder, put this delicately: it was a matter of “two divergent philosophies.” In the end, the Soviets could enforce theirs: the Polish prisoners-of-war housed at Kozelsk joined their compatriots in being some of the 21,892 executed by the NKVD.
As we go about our day, let us consider what sort of philosophy we want on this Memorial Day.