Those on Gov. Mike Huckabee’s Journey first arrived in Kraków, Poland, home of Pope John Paul II, to learn how its most influential agent for political change during pre and post Nazi and Communist occupied Poland, was its religious leader. To the Polish people, their Pope, Karol Józef Woityla, is the most significant man in modern history who led them to freedom after suffering generations of oppression.
Wojtyla, the former archbishop of Kraków, lived through both eras of occupation and witnessed and identified with his people’s suffering and despair. Today, he is known among the generations of young people as the one who made it possible for them to be born in “free Poland,” where they can watch movies, text on smartphones, or choose their education or profession. They learned from their parents who were among more than 800,000, who in 1990 went to Kraków’s local theatre to watch Gone with the Wind, a film none had been allowed to view. To this new generation, the Pope represents the spirit of freedom and opposition to evil of their “free Poland.”
To understand the Polish, one must know two things. First, from the mid to late 1700s to the 1950s— Poland was occupied by one invader after another. It had lost one third of its population every thirty years from conflict. Second, its people’s identity is and has been for centuries, deeply rooted in and inter-connected to their Christian faith.
The Journey attendees spent three days in Kraków, where Woityla lived for 37 years. He grew up with Jewish friends; prior to Germany’s occupation in 1939, 60 percent of Kraków inhabitants were Jews. Woityla witnessed the anguish of his people—20 percent of whom were killed between 1939-1945. And not far from Kraków, hundreds of acres became the central location for the Nazi extermination camps, Auschwitz I and II and Birkenau. Over one million people, including Jews, non-conformists, Gypsies and others were transported to Poland from all over Europe– to Woityla’s Kraków.
It was his experience of “humiliation at the hands of evil” that moved Woityla to become a priest. In 1939, he created an underground theatre to keep Polish culture alive. His strategy was to fight the enemy with words, speaking truth sharply, clearly, and forcefully enough to remind them of their worth and cut through the Nazi’s lies. It was this conviction he would deploy later in his life as Pope, but his fortitude and encouragement empowered the Poles and kept morale alive.
After the Soviets ousted the Germans in 1945, they implemented an organized system to replace any remaining Polish culture with communist ideology. Under communism, Archbishop Woityla watched as the new regime first sought to eliminate any aspect of their faith. The communists destroyed and removed all crosses from public and private property. They demolished churches, took private land, and assigned housing and jobs to the Poles regardless if they wanted to move, work, or live where they were forced to go. He also observed the purpose of the Soviet’s housing structure, which forced people to live with the least interaction to their neighbors.
Over the next forty years, the Poles witnessed their loved ones disappearing, they experienced death threats, were imprisoned for months or years, experienced food shortages, and felt the overall sense of being a prisoner in their own country. As the first President of Poland and founder of the Solidarity trade union, Lech Walesa said, we “weren’t against anyone, we just wanted to be ourselves.”
In October 1978, when labor strikes were being organized in Poland, Woityla became the first Polish (and non-Italian in 455 years) Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Within nine months of becoming Pope John Paul II, one of his first acts was to visit Poland.
In June 1979, the very first message he gave to his people was, “Do not be afraid.” He knew they were living in fear. He reminded them that their identity and their humanity could only be known through Jesus Christ.
He was the first Pope to visit Auschwitz, after which he emphasized that human beings, no matter their age, sex, race, or mental capabilities have value and rights because God created them. He declared, “Men cannot be treated like a piece of equipment. Everyone has dignity given by God. Men cannot be treated as a means but as an end.”
Throughout his nine-day visit in Poland the Pope consistently challenged atheism as a political system. He paid tribute to those who fought for freedom, kneeling at the Tomb of the Unknown Solder, symbolizing his opposition to communism and solidifying Polish identity.
The Pope was the greatest threat to Poland’s Communist Dictator Edvard Gierek. Gierek lost in his opposition to the Pope’s visit, and instead implemented a large-scale “security operation.” In Kraków alone, Gierek arranged for 67,000 communist police officers, 20,000 of which were undercover, in addition to the existing secret police, and he placed hidden recording devices and undercover cars throughout the city region.
Gierek also controlled the media to make certain that the world would not see the millions of people who flocked to see the Pope. The masses of people were not shown on television or reported. Images of a few nuns, or people walking down a street were shown instead. But those who were there knew what they had witnessed.
Despite Gierek’s efforts, on June 2, 1979 when the Pope arrived in Victory Square, the crowd’s cheers loudly echoed all the way to Moscow. The Poles heard the Pope’s messages challenging the communist regime. They heard him proclaim that Poland has a right to its own culture and civilization. They heard him remind them that they had value and were loved. And most of all, they heard his admonition “to not be afraid.”
He proclaimed, “The church brought Christ to Poland. He is the key to understanding the great and basic reality that is man. Therefore Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the world.”
In response, the crowd clapped for 14 minutes. He waited for them before he continued with his speech. He understood the power of those 14 minutes, knowing it was the beginning of their emotional liberation. They began to remember their heritage as Christians, living peacefully and joyfully in community with each other.
Pope John Paul II awoke and inspired the Polish people. Once they realized that when they protested against the Soviets that the Pope would tell the truth and defend them, they were no longer afraid. Within months, millions joined what became the Solidarity Movement. Their desire for liberation could not be suppressed and within a short time their independence from Russia became reality in 1989.
Throughout their time in Poland, The Journey participants repeatedly heard first hand from every Pole they encountered that Pope John Paul II, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, was the greatest influence for political change in the history of their country.