Annabel Deegan is a 2023 McCain Global Leader from the United Kingdom. She joined Chief International Anchor Christiane Amanpour’s team in 2013, working on CNN International’s prime-time daily news and current affairs programme. She became its Executive Editor in 2018. The European cohort of the 2023 McCain Global Leaders visited Poland for its Changemaker Tour.
We arrived in Warsaw to bright blue sky and a hot sun bearing down. This is a city with a tragic history but the weather was, in a way, a reminder of the light that can triumph in darkness and the warmth and resilience of the Polish people. Wandering around Warsaw’s Old Town, listening to street musicians, I found myself joining a walking tour about the city and the Second World War. More than 85% of Warsaw’s historic center was destroyed by the Nazis. An extraordinary restoration campaign followed the end of the war. But look closely and you can still see the bullet holes that pierce some original buildings. They are, our guide said, “part of our history, part of our story”. That got me thinking about the vital importance of history, the power of storytelling and of course democracy which is at the center of why we are here in Poland, with Ukraine just next door, learning about the values Senator McCain stood for and how we, as McCain Institute Global Leaders, can carry forward his legacy.
Under the Nazi occupation of Poland, radios were confiscated from citizens to stop them from listening to anything other than state propaganda. Cameras were also taken. Our tour guide’s great-grandfather was very proud of his expensive memory-maker. For him, handing it over to his occupiers was not something he could stomach. But many of their neighbors knew he had a camera. His wife was terrified of the repercussions and tried to convince him to comply. He remained defiant. With the help of a hammer, he pulled up two floorboards underneath a chest of drawers in his bedroom. He buried his camera, and secret, for the course of the war.
Radios and cameras are important broadcasting tools. They play a crucial role in helping journalists to get to the truth. Senator McCain often defended the role of strong journalism, warning that suppressing the freedom of the press is how dictators get started. Far from being the enemy of the people, they are champions of the people, holding power to account and helping democracy, in essence, freedom and equality, to flourish.
Not much could prepare us for our visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Display areas showing hundreds of pairs of reading glasses, taken from prisoners before they were led to the gas chamber. A mountain of shoes, many for very small feet. Old suitcases piled on top of each other. The horror that confronts you is that humans, just like you and I, are capable of such evil. And the anger that boils up comes from learning only a tiny percentage of the more than 200,000 perpetrators were brought to justice. The post-Holocaust global commitment to prevent genocide is conveyed in the well-known phrase “Never Again”. But both history and the current war in Ukraine prove that is not assured.
Many of the powerful conversations we had with each other in Poland were over dinner. Food and “breaking bread” is also an essential part of the human story. Thanks to the McCain Institute staff, we enjoyed restaurant dinners and even put on aprons ourselves to learn how to cook traditional Polish food including pierogi – delicious filled dumplings. A cohort from Ukraine, Portugal, Georgia, the UK, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Germany were reminded that the work of defending democracy perhaps starts with people coming together to learn from one another, challenge each other, and inspire one another; even better if you’re lucky enough to do that over a Polish dining table.