Although even secularist historians admit that Pope St. John Paul II inspired the rise of Solidarity and dealt a death blow to the Soviet Empire, the pivotal role Polish Catholicism played in anti-Nazi and anti-Soviet resistance is less well-known. The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II this year is a fitting time to remember three Polish Catholics whose faith led them to courageously resist totalitarianism. Their moral victory can inspire today’s Catholics, who again face a hostile world dominated by perverted ideologies.
For Western Europeans, the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, was a time of jubilation. Americans, meanwhile, consider the capitulation of Japan (which, depending on one’s point of view, occurred on August 14 or September 2) to be the end of the war.
However, for most Poles 1945 was not quite as jubilant. Poland was the first Ally and endured the harshest occupation of any country during the war, losing one-fifth of its population (half Jewish and half Gentile). Nonetheless, Poland had the fourth largest Allied army (larger than the Free French). Polish mathematicians cracked the Enigma code before Alan Turing, and Polish airmen killed the most German planes during the Battle of Britain. Yet Poland’s contribution to the Allied cause went unrewarded. While in the post-war era West Europeans and North Americans enjoyed prosperous decades marked by blue jeans, Coca-Cola and convertibles, censorship, ration cards and political prisoners dominated post-war Poland after the country was overrun by Red Army tanks and sold out to Stalin by her Allies.
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland in 1939. Stalin and Hitler both knew that their dream of eradicating Polish culture could only be possible by destroying Polish Catholicism. Thus half of all Polish priests were sent to concentration camps. Yet this did not extinguish the Catholic faith of the Polish people, which played a key role in the Polish resistance. While the Home Army, the largest underground military organization in Nazi-occupied Europe, featured diverse political groups from socialists to nationalists, its members undertook the following oath: “Before Almighty God and the Virgin Mary, Queen of Poland, I take in my hands this Holy Cross, the sign of Suffering and Salvation, and swear loyalty to Poland….” It is worth recalling three Polish resistance fighters who can inspire present-day Catholics.
Jan Karski (1914-2000) was born in multicultural Lodz. His childhood friends were Poles, Jews and Germans. The young Karski (real name Kozielewski) was a devout Catholic active in the Sodality of Our Lady, a lay movement encouraging Marian devotion. Although growing numbers of Catholics became infected by nationalist tendencies in interwar Poland, Jan’s mother taught him that in Christ’s eyes, all regardless of ethnicity are equal.
After the 1939 Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland, Karski was drafted into the Polish Army. He narrowly avoided the fate of 22,000 Polish reserve officers shot by the NKVD in the Katyn Forest. Karski rallied several intelligence reports to the Polish government-in-exile in London. In 1942, Jewish leaders smuggled him into the Warsaw Ghetto twice. Disguised as an Estonian guard, Karski later visited a concentration camp. Horrified by what he saw, he reported on the destruction of European Jewry to the Polish government-in-exile, which informed the Western Allies and appealed for them to act. Tragically, Karski’s pleas fell on deaf ears. A greater disappointment befell him in 1943, when he personally told President Roosevelt about the horrors he saw. Although he had the military capabilities to bomb concentration camp crematoria, Roosevelt responded to Karski’s plea with incredulity and skepticism, instead asking him about Polish horses.
After the war, Karski settled in Washington, where he became a professor at Georgetown. For years he felt depressed, frequently awakened at night by pangs of guilt for not having averted the genocide of millions. Yet who had genuine reasons for feeling guilty: Karski or Roosevelt?
If Jan Karski was fortunate to not see the Katyn massacres, Zdzisław Peszkowski (1918-2007) was one of the few who survived to say they did. Born into an aristocratic, patriotic family, Peszkowski enlisted in the Polish Army. Having miraculously escaped a Soviet POW camp for Polish soldiers, Peszkowski joined the 2nd Polish Corps. After the war, he escaped to the West, studying at Oxford and becoming a priest in the United States.
It wasn’t until Gorbachev that the Soviets admitted their culpability for Katyn, for decades blaming the crime on Germany. When the wartime Polish government-in-exile asked for the Red Cross to investigate Katyn, the American and British governments, who needed Stalin to defeat the Nazis, chastised the Poles. As a priest, Peszkowski traveled far and wide lecturing on Katyn. He authored many books on the topic and fought for a dignified burial place for Katyn victims. Whereas the Soviets and their Western admirers spread propaganda against Peszkowski, he prayed for forgiveness for the Soviets. Since Peszkowski’s death, there have been calls for opening his cause for beatification.
Another morally victorious Catholic war hero was Witold Pilecki (1901-1948), a rittmeister in the Polish cavalry. During the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, the local population was terrorized through frequent roundups, or łapanki, resulting in concentration camp deportations. In 1940, Pilecki purposely went out on the street to be caught. This was because he wanted to go to Auschwitz. His intention was to gather intelligence in order to inform the Allies of what was going on there (as in the case of Karski, his hopes they would bomb the camp were in vain). Pilecki also began to organize a resistance movement within Auschwitz.
In 1943, Witold Pilecki achieved a feat few succeeded in doing: he escaped Auschwitz. He then worked to inform the outside world of what was happening in the death factory he voluntarily entered. In 1944, he took part in the Warsaw Uprising, in which the city’s people rose up against their German occupiers. Despite the insurgents’ heroism, 200,000 people died and Warsaw was razed to the ground.
Pilecki’s bravery inspires awe. However, Poland’s new Stalinist masters thought otherwise. Due to his connections to the anti-communist Home Army, he was sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of espionage for the West. Despite being tortured, he never sold his soul to the communists.
Like Karski and Peszkowski, Witold Pilecki was a devout Catholic. His faith inspired his struggle against Nazism and communism. In recent years, a group of Catholics has been lobbying for an opening of his beatification cause.
From a human perspective, all three Catholic heroes failed. Jan Karski did not persuade the Western Allies to stop the Holocaust, Witold Pilecki was sentenced to the gallows and for decades Father Peszkowski’s telling of the truth about Katyn were ignored for years. Yet all three triumphed morally. They did not give in to lies and indifference. In the long term, Karski and Pilecki can inspire other witnesses to evil ideologies to not remain silent. Meanwhile, the Soviet system collapsed in part thanks to people like Zdzisław Peszkowski, Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko and St. John Paul II who confronted the lies of communism instead of accommodating to them. Although defeated militarily and politically, the Polish nation remained faithfully Catholic. As a result, Solidarity exploded in 1980 and Poland became the first nation to break the shackles of communism nine years later.
Today’s Church again faces an adverse world. In many regions, Christians face violent persecutions; in the case of Iraq and Syria, it would be no exaggeration to speak of genocide. Although not bloody and less tangible, Catholics in Western democracies are faced with an increasingly aggressive “dictatorship of relativism,” to quote Pope Benedict XVI, that threatens religious liberty and spreads lies about human anthropology.
May the example of Polish Catholic heroes of World War II, who never accommodated to evil and achieved moral victory, inspire today’s Church.