The Polish Experience:
War, Oppression and Strength
On September 1, 1939 German forces, in collaboration with the Russians, marched into Poland and began the nightmare of suffering and pain for its citizens. I had anticipated a worldwide acknowledgement of this on the 75th anniversary of the event. But on September 1 of this year, I turned to the New York Times and the Washington Post and was astonished to find no mention about it. Not one word. Later, in November, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall received much better coverage. Virtually every newspaper and TV station commemorated that historic event signaling the end of communism in Europe and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. That was fitting.
Between those two dates (9/1/39 – 11/9/89) the utter debasement of the Polish nation took place. Admittedly, I am passionate and biased about the plight of the Polish people at the hands of its hate-filled neighbors, led by Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. But in this case, facts astound the imagination. Let me review that history briefly.
The Story of Modern Poland
Poland lost six million of its citizens during the Second World War, roughly half of them Polish Jews and half Polish Catholics. In marching on Poland, the Nazi troops closed all colleges and universities and imposed iron-fisted rule, allowing not even a semblance of self-rule either locally, regionally or nationally. They sent thousands of young Polish men to work in German factories that supported the war effort and hundreds of young Polish women to serve in German households whose master was at the front. It was pure slavery. During that period, the Nazis also annihilated Jewish people throughout Europe in an orgy of profound hatred, a diabolical holocaust, perpetrated chiefly on Polish soil.
The Russians proved no less barbaric in their cruelty. Stalin ordered 1.6 million Polish men, women and children to be simply removed from their homes in what was then Eastern Poland and transported forcibly to Siberia. They lost everything. A remnant of their progeny still survive today in that wasteland. Stalin also demanded that all Polish military officers be sent to the Katyn Forest where one by one they were each killed with a single bullet to the head. The world media again remained silent about this intolerable carnage.
Before long, Hitler also turned against the Russians. Stalin then joined with the Allies in their march to destroy the entire Nazi war machine. The united allied forces succeeded. Roosevelt and Churchill then rewarded Stalin for his efforts by giving him complete control over Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and many other nations in Central Europe at the Yalta conference. He quickly imposed communism, and the Iron Curtain fell over those hapless peoples. It would take two more generations before the eventual triumph of the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. These actions resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Empire.
My Personal Response
As a young boy, I witnessed my mother’s tears and anguish at the fate of her siblings. My uncles had lost their lives in the Nazi onslaught — one dragged into the woods with other village leaders and slain while his wife was pregnant and had more small children to care for. Another was captured in the Warsaw underground and taken to Gestapo headquarters and tortured to death, and still another driven out of his mind after serving in the Polish army and dreading the same fate as his brothers. I shared my mother’s pain.
When the Iron Curtain finally fell 50 fifty years later, I rejoiced and yearned to assist in the liberation of the Polish people. An opportunity soon came to do just that. In 1992 I accepted an invitation to spend a year on the staff of the Higher School of Business (Wyzsza Szkola Biznesu) in Nowy Sacz, Poland. At the time, I was serving as education director for the American Bankers Association in Washington, D.C.
Assisting in a nation’s transition from a communist economy to a capitalistic economy proved a tempting and difficult proposition. The book had not yet been written on how to accomplish that feat. It had never been done before. In collaboration with universities in Europe and the US, cities across Poland quickly established dozens of business schools. The prospect of working in one of them to facilitate the development of entrepreneurial skills in eager and capable young people tempted me very much. I could not say no.
So for a year I held the title of Dean of the Higher School of Business in Nowy Sacz, not far from the beautiful mountains and famed ski region of Zakopane. It was too short a time to accomplish much. And yet, by the end of that year the school was ranked as the top business school in the country through a process of rankings similar to that implemented by US News and World Report.
I bring one other perspective to this narrative. I am an ordained Catholic priest who requested and received a dispensation to marry in the Catholic Church. Married in Holy Trinity, the Jesuit parish in Georgetown, I remained active as a layman there for 33 years. As a lifelong practicing Catholic, I am very much aware and proud of the deep faith that inspired the Polish people through generations of suffering, torture and death. Many have identified with the suffering of Christ, so familiar in the Catholic tradition that echoed in the midst of unprecedented pain and deprivation. That image always stays ingrained in my consciousness.
I am now very happy to see the progress made in Poland during the last quarter century. David Brooks in a recent article in the New York Times (“The Legacy of Fear,” Nov. 10, 2014) listed Poland among the few post-communist nations that have emerged as successful capitalists. He observed cogently:
“A nation’s economy is nestled in its moral ecology. Economic performance is tied to history, culture and psychology. Poland, for example, had been invaded throughout its history, yielding a pragmatic survivor ethos. The Poles had a keen desire to initiate reforms on their own. Poles also had a clear sense of justice and injustice, since they had seen the Russians do things the wrong way on their own territory. They placed a high value on education and social mobility.”
David Brooks captured the essence of the Polish experience. He convinces me that the Polish eagle will soar again to new heights.
Anthony P. Kowalski
Author of “The Crowned White Eagle