Within the last year and half I have traveled four times to Poland. I have by no means covered the broad expanse of this great country, but I have managed to visit Warsaw, Sulwalki, Lublin, Kraków, Oswęciem, Wadowice; I have spent much time in Katowice in Upper Silesia, and its surrounding towns such as Tychy, Piekary, and Glicem. I lived among my Polish friends, worshiping, dining, shopping, watching TV, walking, driving, visiting monuments and museums. From the perspective of everyday life in Tychy, Poland the storm of controversy about Poland’s new law protecting the truth about the German death camps seems hyperbolic and inflated. The lived history of the Polish people, as well as the history of past centuries, is exceedingly complex and filled with much sacrifice and suffering.
This region of Silesia in particular has such a history. It took three uprisings for Silesia to join the new republic in 1921; it was one of the first regions invaded by the Germans in 1939; and the Soviets exacted a terrible vengeance here after 1945 when the Western powers allowed Stalin to seize equipment and workers and ship them back to Siberia. I have heard many stories of men who were captured by the Nazis, released after the war, returned to Silesia only to face deportation to the East, kidnapped by the Soviets as they emerged out of the mining shaft. The cries of these men and their fractured families were muffled and silenced by the Western approbation of Yalta. I dine and speak with the sons and daughters of coal miners. My friends speak without bitterness of the suffering of their fathers and uncles and grandfathers in the mines, under the harsh and unjust occupation of both Germans and Russians. Cardinal Karol Wojtyla found his strong voice on human work and the right of religious freedom through his annual meeting with thousands of Silesian miners and workers who gathered for Pilgrimage at Piekary on the outskirts of Katowice. The first strikes against the 1981 martial law were not in the shipyards of Gdańsk but in the coal mines of Silesia, including the strike at the Wujek coal mine in Kattowice where 6 men were shot dead by the police. The cook at the rectory told me at lunch that her father was down in the mine when the miners were shot. I met a miner who was with the team of miners who were assaulted and shot. He survived and now gives his testimony at a small memorial at the Wujeck mine.
It was in this region, very close to Tychy, that an old military barracks at Oswęciem, renamed Auschwitz by the Germans, was turned into a labor camp for Polish priests, patriots, or hapless youth who wandered into a Nazi dragnet in their attempts to escape. Their houses were torn down, food appropriated, men enslaved for the sake of the German ambitious scientific industrial expansion. In the face of the victimization and brutalization many stood up bravely and faced execution. The workman at the rectory told me that as a child he could obviously detect the stench that wafted out of the camp. People knew that a very evil death dealing enterprise was at work in their vicinity. Many joined the Home Army to offer armed resistance. And many helped victims to hide or escape. Priests, religious and lay people helped in the effort to save victims including countless numbers of their Jewish neighbors.
When the nightmare of world war ended, the Polish people awoke to another nightmare, this one lasting not six years but forty-four long years. Longer cycles of cruel oppression, imprisonments, humiliations, extreme want, economic slavery. But through the inspired and heroic witnesses of Wyszńsky and Wojtyła (and countless others) the Polish people endured and eventually triumphed through the solidarity of work and prayer. But a scant 27 years ago this country emerged from the two-fold nightmare with its pride intact and its hope for a better future buoyed up by its faith and its spirit of work and solidarity.
This past week I was amazed to discover such a sudden worldwide interest in Poland, and the facile and angry judgment of the western media. Poland’s identity and self-determination became everybody’s business and so many people stepped forward to teach Poland a lesson or two. But what most astounded me was the lack of proportion between the hyperbolic and near vitriolic denunciations of Poland and the solid and evident truth of the law and the sincere effort of the Polish people to seek to express their own memory and identity. One of the least controversial truths has created such controversy. The law seeks to embody a core truth of Polish experience and history, a narrative that I heard reflected in the personal narratives of so many. The compressed core truth is this: after 120 years of partition and domination by big powers, and the hiatus of 21 years of a developing free Poland (1918-1939), the country was invaded and savaged again by two of its former oppressors—by Germany on September 1, 1939 and by Russia not but 14 days later.
It was Poland that was most extensively oppressed by the expansive German ambition to appropriate, humiliate, consume, use and destroy the lands and peoples to the east for its lebensraum. The primary means for the national agony and ordeal of Poland were the extensive labor and death camps built throughout their beautiful and historic land. These camps (and others in Germany such as Dachau) were populated by Polish people: Polish patriots and political leaders, priests, intellectuals, artists, with countless young men who refused to serve in the Wehrmacht or wandered into the wrong corner of the country or city were put in the camps to await execution or the slow death of starvation and slave labor. The duly constituted government of Poland was thus decapitated and eradicated by the German occupiers; some gathered in exile, and some carried on a spirited resistance through the home army. These traces of Polish self-governance organized and worked with might and main to fight the German occupiers and to resist their evil policies of murder and extermination. The institutions and civil society constituting the Polish nation were likewise decapitated as George Weigel puts it through the execution of professors and priests. But such bonds of national solidarity also flourished underground as we see in the very life of Karol Wojtyla—he was part of an underground Rhapsodic Theater dedicated to Polish memory and then joined an underground seminary. Such organized institutions as these represent the Polish nation.
So now my friends please take a look at the law recently signed by the Polish president:
Whoever publicly and contrary to the facts attributes to the Polish Nation or to the Polish State responsibility or co-responsibility for the Nazi crimes committed by the German Third Reich, as specified in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal – Annex to the Agreement for the prosecution and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis, executed in London on 8 August 1945 (Journal of Laws of 1947, item 367), or for any other offences constituting crimes against peace, humanity or war crimes, or otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the actual perpetrators of these crimes, shall be liable to a fine or deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years. The judgment shall be communicated to the public. Art. 55a. 1.
Please notice the precise truth being protected here—the Polish nation or the Polish state, that is the self-conscious and self-determining actions of the people. These entities were not the agents of death camps or genocidal policies, the Germans were. The Germans take responsibility. A tribunal was set up to assess the guilt and complicity of the German state. Their responsibility should not be diminished. But does not everyone know this? Apparently not. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, signed this law in order for it to serve as a marker or point of reference in a topsy turvy world where President Obama could speak of Polish death camps in his very attempt to recognize the heroic actions of a Polish patriot (see the initiative taken from some Polish people to correct this oft mistaken phrasing).
People regularly deny that Poles were the first to be placed in the death camps and endured such fate until the end of the war. Some deny or diminish the truth that the destruction of the Polish people was an integral part of the German plans for their conquest. The international press will magnify the presence of a small group of neo-Nazis at an event for national celebration and attempt to brand Poland as an emerging threat because they sit under the thrall of extreme nationalists and right wing fanatics. And of course the deconstructionists of the academic world concoct new hypotheses of Polish guilt because of the country’s Christian roots, or because of sociological stratifications, or purported benefits to the Polish people from these death camps. One would hope that a decent respect for the opinion of mankind would draw back from such falsehoods, detraction and malicious innuendo. I say that Poland has every right, and is right, to make an effort to define their memory and protect their honor.
I was deeply distressed by our Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he stood to lecture the Polish people about his concern for freedom of speech. Really? He sounded like a school boy reciting his lessons from the promptings of his tutor. “Class repeat after me—‘speaking the truth is intolerant and a threat to dialogue’.” Who is Mr. Tillerson’s handler and writer? If it is someone on the Polish desk at State that person should be fired at once. Tillerson is over his head on this one. Our founders understood the appeal to sacred honor, why can’t he? The law is not a cowering attempt to silence uncomfortable truth, for it is not a blanket immunity for the actions of all Polish people during the war. I have read some accounts that report the law considers it illegal to question whether the Polish “population” had any complicity in the suffering of the Jewish people during the war. But that is not what the law says. The Polish state is a defined entity and Polish nation or people means a self-conscious social body structured through its institutions and civil society. No doubt there were many anguished decisions made during this terrible time, some not to the credit or honor of its agent or of its people. But such acts or particular people are not acts of the state or the people as a whole.
The deeper issues at stake in this law and controversy around it pertain to the very understanding of the human person and responsible action. Is an authentic understanding of conscience available to us today and if not what are the consequences? And most troubling, have we really come to terms with the sources of the spiritual ruin of Germany in its turn to Nazism? The Polish state and nation have much to teach us from their witness to the truth of the twentieth century. In his Apostolic Letter on the Outbreak of World War II, St. John Paul II said that it “is our duty before God to remember these tragic events in order to honor the dead.” But in addition “we have the duty to learn from the past so that never again will there arise a set of factors capable of triggering a similar conflagration” or to learn the “process which brought this conflict to the very depths of inhumanity and suffering” (§2). St. John Paul II identifies the root factors as contempt for law, for man, and for God. These attitudes opened up a “moral abyss.” The key to the whole process, John Paul claimed, was “the abandonment of all reference to God and to all transcendent moral law” (§7).
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Poland’s president Andrzej Duda. (Photo credit: Wikicommons)