It is right that lessons should be drawn from history. Let us draw, therefore, from the extraordinary events that unfolded during the past century: an extraordinary century in Polish history. Let these events teach us by their example.
The first two decades of the twentieth century represented a time of preparation. Poland was getting ready to regain its independence after a long period of foreign rule. Freedom did not come until after immense sacrifices had been made by Poland as a nation, though: attempts at insurrection; imprisonments and miserable deportations to Siberia; Kulturkampf (“cultural struggle”) and struggles to keep the Polish language alive; and battles to reclaim every inch of Polish land.
Poland’s independence had earlier been extinguished in the wake of the May 3, 1791 Constitution, which reawakened the envious hatred of our neighbors. Many years later, though, Poland was once again set to appear on the world’s maps as a consequence of the First World War (1914---1918). It was this war that opened our twentieth-century history. Poles, in line with the invocation, “For your freedom and ours,” took part in it on all fronts.
The aftermath of the First World War heralded the revival of Polish independence after decades of struggling and suffering. It was revived by the forces of spirit that were unfailingly nurtured by the work of the nation’s poets, the writings of great authors, and the genius of Chopin. There were uprisings, but ultimately, this revived independence derived from our cultural traditions faithfully preserved around the Polish family hearth.
Before the first two decades of the twentieth century drew to a close, however, the young, independent republic had to embark on a new and urgent war effort, because the Red Army onslaught was approaching from the East. The whole nation, inspired to bravery and selflessness, quickly formed tight ranks that even included scouts and other youth volunteers. Across the oceans and in Western Europe, the Polish émigré community also tightened ranks to form the Blue Army.
Things came to a head in August of 1920. In the outskirts of Warsaw, Poland saw one of its greatest victories--shattering a power that carried the banner of war against God and His Mother, the Virgin Mary and Queen of Poland. It came to be known as the Miracle at the Vistula. This great battle of 1920 saved Warsaw and Poland, and also rescued Europe--a feat accomplished by Poland for by no means the first time in history. Furthermore, Poland had once again managed to do it at the very dawn of its revived independence.
The following two decades proved to be a time of unbelievably rapid reconstruction and reorganization of the country. Gdynia and its modern sea harbor were built from scratch, which meant that Poland’s long-awaited access to the coast could be exploited without restraint. A Central Industrial Circuit was then developed in another poor region of the country, Stalowa Wola. The whole country saw the rapid development of a broad spectrum of building programs. Schools and education institutes of different types and levels were founded, and Spiritual and material culture both flourished.
Before these two decades ended, though, Germany and the heir of Russia, the Soviet Union, sealed an alliance. These two neighboring powers, this time under the rule of the two greatest tyrants of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, engulfed Poland once again.
Thus, the Second World War, started by Hitler’s sudden attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, broke out. Stalin and his army quickly joined in. Once again, the Polish people embarked on a heroic struggle, fighting bravely in the Underground Army and on all European fronts, from Narvik to Monte Cassino, as well as in the extraordinary Warsaw Uprising. These struggles were accompanied by the inhuman suffering of the whole nation. As the regime of terror intensified, their extermination plans were systematically executed, but in such a way as to not lose too much slave labor too quickly. The extermination process of the Polish population was slower than that of the Jewish population, which was carried out with infernal haste.
Terror reigned to the East and West, and was the instrument of the Civilization of Death. Poles were most affected to the East--there the terror was incarnated in Katyń, where Soviet authorities ordered the mass execution of Polish military officers, policemen, and civilian prisoners.
Soviet gulags (“labor camps”), were another mark of extensive persecution, and were filled with innumerable Poles. The gulag network was akin to Hitler’s concentration camps, and the total number of both is difficult to count. Of these, Dachau, located in Bavaria not far from Munich, was the first to be built, and was the scene of the oppression of Polish clergy and faithful.
The inmates of gulags and concentration camps became somewhat of an army in their own right, and defended Poland alongside the Underground Army, the Polish Armed Forces, and the Warsaw Insurrectionists. They came into formation first in the West, and then also in the East. The prisoners defended Poland with as much bravery as those on the outside, just in a different way. It was of these brave prisoners that the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyła spoke of at Monte Cassino in 1970 (quoted in Chapter 17, page 000). It is not possible, before God and man, to evaluate or measure the total contribution toward freedom afforded by this innumerable host of prisoners: those who made for a free Poland through passion, terror, and death.
You Shall Be My Witnesses is a witness to my own prison experiences. It is meant as a representation of what was but a drop in the ocean of the suffering experienced by all Poles during the Second World War. Its story, however, is typical of twentieth-century Polish history, because evil is not creative, and implicit to it is the horrid mark of rebellion against God, and of disregard for man. Evil always tries to appear under the guise of law, but it does so dressed in the lies and cruelty of the Civilization of Death.
Freedom returned to Poland shortly before the middle of the century, but it was a very tenacious freedom, and excesses committed not long ago are still being chronicled.
The twentieth century finally ended with a chain of wars erupting throughout several continents--the last one in the Balkans, right on Poland’s doorstep. What happened to the solemn declarations for peace forged by the world international organizations? Has mankind in this century lost track of the right to peace--that is to say, the right to life?
We have just recently celebrated a series of anniversaries of great events: the Nuremberg trials, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Atlantic Pact. What have these distinguished events, all resulting from the experiences of the Second World War, contributed? Have we been able to forestall the return of additional atrocities? Where are we heading? These questions are just, but difficult. An address entitled, “An Attempted Conclusion--The Way Ahead,” that I delivered on December 1, 1998 at the closure of a symposium sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life, represented an attempt at some answers.
Which way are we heading--for or against life? That is a question on which man’s very existence depends. An eminent demographer who spoke at the twenty-eighth International Family Congress in Warsaw has published a well-documented paper carrying the eloquent title: “Europe Is Dying Out.” In it, the chances ahead for Europe and the European Union are evaluated in various ways. Is it known, however, that above and beyond all the other forecasts there looms one of Europe’s demise? The publisher of that paper notices that “no one is speaking out about it. . . .” Moreover, Poland is dying out--who is speaking out about that? Apparently, the European Union wishes Poland’s population was half its present size. Can anybody explain this?
It is imperative to speak out. It is important to identify the Civilization of Death for what it is, and to counter the maddening propaganda machine that is almost universally spread by the mass media. However, if there are any media at the service of the Civilization of Love, they ought to be placed on a pedestal among our greatest achievements.
Which way should we be moving? We should be moving in the way of Truth. “The truth shall set you free.” (Jn. 8:32).
A great effort is needed to convince people in our rather decadent twentieth-century cultural circles that they ought to choose the blessing of life, not the curse of death; that they should look with favor not on the murderer Cain, but on the noble Abel; and that they ought to rejoice in the truth and joy that “another man has been born into the world” (cf. Jn. 16:21), not that the mother never heard the silent scream of her own child killed in her womb.
Instead, however, a great effort is being expended to convince man that the Civilization of Death has great appeal and affords good prospects for the future. Hedonism, consumerism, lust of the body, and fascination with evil all serve to oil the gears of the Civilization of Death.
Is it, therefore, true to say that the inspired words: “Conquer evil with good,” have lost their power? Are we allowed to admit thoughts to ourselves that God’s grace is no longer omnipotent? Or that two-thousand years after his coming into the world, Christ’s words, which have been unceasingly repeated by the Church, have lost validity--those words which assure us “your sins are forgiven, go and sin no more”? (Lk. 5:20; Jn. 8:11).
He said, “You shall be my witnesses.” (Acts 1:8). Are we?
Which way should we proceed? Let us go in the way of Christ’s witnesses, right through to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8), though first to all the corners of our own country.
“The family is the way of the Church,” preaches Pope John Paul II. Without this “community of love and life,” there shall be no true life for man, nation, Church, and humanity.
So which way should we proceed? We should proceed in the way of the family; decisively, ardently, and wisely.
Lastly, we must return man to God. Alone, man will never save himself. Without God he will die mercilessly at the hand of man--man who has rebelled against God. Man alone, without God, is capable of inflicting on his fellow man that which he has already done toward the end of the first half of the twentieth century, and continues to now at an ever-growing pace. Man has become both victim and oppressor in one.
Which way should we be heading? We should be heading toward the God of Life--toward the God of every man’s life.
Return man to God, and welcome man as coming from God’s hand. God is Creator and Father of every man. Do not say: “Let there be some exceptions, there must be some.” Do not say that, because every man’s life, no exceptions made, carries the price paid by Cain.
I have been called to give witness, and I wish to give it. The Lord God has granted that I have come to very closely know people who have given their whole lives to save life.
We hear the Savior of the world say: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.” (Mt. 25:40). He says this to each woman and mother, to each man and father, and to each doctor who has been called to protect life and health. He says this to all of us--those sitting in the world’s parliaments, and those resting in the seclusion of their family homes. He says this to people everywhere.
Direct yourself to the God of Life. He is the only way of salvation available to us. Listen again to Pope John Paul II, who, throughout his pontificate, exhorted us to “open the doors to Christ!”
When we ponder the question of what prospects lie ahead for the coming century and for the next millennium, a thorough answer ought to be based on a profound hope.
The Polish people are now living in their own land--a land which has no price to it. We can breathe in its history and share it with Europe and the world at large. We continue to develop the culture we have accumulated down the centuries, and hand it on to the next generations. We herald the coming of the twenty-first century and later centuries to follow, marking each with Christ’s Cross as we have ever since the day of Mieszko I (the first historical ruler of Poland), and singing the anthem, “Bogarodzica (Theotokos),” meaning “Mother of God.”
The numerous undocumented sacrifices of the past century were made by several extraordinary figures. During this time, a Polish priest was elevated to the See of Peter, and it is this Pope who came to lead the Church, the world, and Poland into the new century and the new millennium. There is no need to hide our feelings here. Such is the untold glory of our country, Poland.
We have lasted through indescribable oppression, and we shall continue to live on; for we look to a future which has been underpinned with a great treasury of spiritual values, and of love for God and for the country He has given us.
Down the centuries our Savior has repeated to us, as he did on the Cross: “Behold your Mother,” and He shall continue to point to His Mother Mary.
Let us prove ourselves worthy to be her children.
Archbishop Kazimierz Majdanski
On the fifty-fourth anniversary of Dachau’s liberation