Sunday, November 1, 2009
Remembering as a subversive activity
Not all memories are allowed. Not officially. Or rather, we now get to put that in the past tense. Glory Hallelujah! Twenty years ago it became officially okay to remember everything. Up until then, from 1945 until 1989, the Poles used All Saints' Day as a subversive act, an opportunity to stir up forbidden stories of Polish heroism that defied Soviet power, ignored Soviet reality, told the truth of history. As you scroll through the photos to the right of these posts, you see a cross monument to Katyn, the site where some 22,000 Polish leaders, especially its military officers were executed by a shot in the back of the head by the Soviets in 1940. Any acknowledgement at all of this travesty, even mention of the name, was forbidden during the communist era of the People's Republic of Poland. There was no memorial to the victims of the Katyn Massacre until after 1989. Likewise, you see memorials to the fighters and victims of the Warsaw Rising (not to be confused with a separate event, the Warsaw Jewish Ghetto Uprising, which took place a year earlier). It was forbidden to teach, to mention this event during the communist period. Officially, it did not happen. These memorials are also new. See the stunning memorial to the victims of deportation to Siberia, hundreds of thousands of Poles who were summarily sent off in unheated train cars to exile, forced labor in the perma-frost, the deplorable life described in the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenizten, during the War, most of whom never returned. Those memories were forbidden, but not extinguished, during the Soviet-dominated communist period and the remembrance was a goad to action, to resistance, to defiance. There are graves of opposition leaders and critics of the communist government who have recently died, and others that have become known, and are revered. But. Even before such memorials were put up and remembrance was permitted, the Poles had their ways of finding heroes, martyrs, symbols of resistance and courage to commemorate and celebrate. And they did it as much to thumb their noses at the prevailing powers as to honestly acknowledge the significance of such individuals and events. Father Jerzy Popieluszko was a powerful opponent of the communist regime during the Solidarity period. He pastored a parish in a northern district of Warsaw and drew overflow crowds for fiery sermons. He was murdered in October, 1984 by the Secret Security police, to shut him up and stop his influence, and to intimidate the renewal movement. As these things go, of course, the plan backfired and in response to Fr. Popieluszko's martydom, the Poles rallied on a regular basis at his parish, St. Stanislaw Kostka, where he is buried. When I visited a few months after his death, the churchyard was still covered with flowers and the Solidarity banners were hung with bold defiance on the fences. They were the only Solidarity banners flying openly at the time and, because they were on church territory, they were allowed. It was a constant irritant to the Party, the government, and a constant source of inspiration to the people. The banners and flowers and candles and vigils continued there until the end of the communist regime. And they continue to this day. Say all you will about the church's faults and failures, we have to acknowledge its powerful role in the process of change in Eastern Europe during the 1980's. The Roman Catholic Church in Poland undergirded the power of Solidarity at every turn. The election of John Paul II, the Polish Pope, had an awful lot to do with the changes that followed. In fact, it is likely impossible to over-estimate the influence and correlation of the Pope's power, politically and as a source of inspiration to hearts and minds all over Eastern Europe. These memories have highlighted the moral bankruptcy and hollow integrity of the oppressors and lifted up the values that must be incorporated in a subsequent society. During periods of occupation and oppression, the Polish people have been quick to find sources of pride and success in the past and to be fired up to heroic deeds in their own times. For some, these past saints were simply a source of hope. It was not so easy to walk through all of the walkways of the Powazki Cemetery in Warsaw in the 1980's. And there were not as many monuments to see. But what was there, they found. And lit up. Lights burning in the night. The beautiful, haunting scene of red candles lit from inside and flames shooting up from time to time, lighting up the old graves and illuminating the faces of those who find in these lights a reason for future hope. Flickers of flame, leading one on and on, deeper and deeper into the graveyard, into its stories, into its depth. The authorities in the old days always breathed a sigh of relief when All Saints' and All Souls' Days were past. They dared to hope that the remembrances were sentimental. But no. They were fuel. In the days to come, we will remember the stories of the days of early November, 1989, as the "Polish disease" spread throughout Eastern Europe, became endemic, cracked open the sealed borders between Czechoslovakia and Austria, and finally brought down the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. Not much mentioned will be the names of those whose graves I visited, left candles, prayed. Jacek Kuron. Bronislaw Geremek. Rikard Kuklinski. Ryszard Kapuscinski. Fr. Popieluszko. Even Mieczyslaw Rakowski. And countless others. Who made a way. And those still with us. Adam Michnik. Leszek Balcerowicz. Lech Walesa. Anna Walentowicz. Bold. Clever. Brilliant strategists -- most of the time. And doggedly determined. And then, of course, the women and men whose labor is less well known or almost altogether hidden. Friends, family, colleagues, faithful servants of humanity. Is it too much to ask that as the media help us to remember those remarkable days, we give the Polish people the honor due and acknowledge and marvel at the impetus they provided for this "quiet revolution" of 1989 that finally joined Europe in freedom from West to East. Again. And may your subversive memories spur you to bold deeds. I'm thinking of what to do first.