An American in Poland, Anno 1983: The Role of Churches (Part III)
How can shared hardships bring people of different faiths together?
- The Poles were sorry they had not noticed and washed the swastikas off the trucks before we would see them.
- Materially, things are good for the Protestants because of the help from the West and Scandinavia. But the Catholic Church is the place of refuge for Poland's intellectuals now.
- In Gdansk, we talked with a woman who told us she had been born in Danzig and was put into the concentration camp Ravensbrück (for women only) by the Nazis.
Back in Gdansk, the old city hall now houses a beautiful museum with wooden floors, inlaid wood carvings and paintings in golden frames.
It shows a photography exhibit of the destruction of Gdansk after the war (destroyed by Russian artillery fire).
I went into the old town with a few other students. We were in a cafe and a sleazy character approached Jörn, wanting to change money. Jörn tried it: the deal was 30,000 zloty for 100 DM.
By a sleight of the hand, which was very "well-done," the man ended up giving him 2,500 zloty for 100 DM! The same had happened to our Iranian student, Shokar. This cured the temptation for all of us to change currency on the black market.
The average income for a Polish worker, by the way, is 10,800 zloty per month, roughly $25.00 according to the black market exchange. It is very sad.
We returned to the hotel where the whole group exchanged views about the trip thus far. We talked a lot about the guide in Stutthof. Jörn found his presentation "low propaganda" and superficial, like a phonograph record.
Then we turned to the situation of the churches. Few people see the church as a means to perpetuate knowledge and to keep conscience working. How can we Westerners help Poland in the best way? This is a large question that went largely undiscussed.
We also discussed the situation between the Protestant and Catholic churches. Materially, things are good for the Protestants (relatively) because of the help from the West and Scandinavia. But the Catholic Church is the place of refuge for Poland's intellectuals now.
At dinner that night a Polish band played in the dining room. The set was all Western music, including "Georgia on My Mind."
Sunday, 17 April
We got up very early to attend a mass that was supposed to be given by Cardinal Glemp, but we learned at breakfast that the information we had been given was wrong and the mass would occur at 6 PM. Alas, we were scheduled to leave before then.
Some of us then went instead to Sopot, a former resort on the Baltic Sea. It is hardly salty, since it is fed by lakes and rivers and gets salt only from the North Sea.
The place must have been very elegant at one time (like something out of Thomas Mann). It boasted a huge hotel, a long pier — all in relative neglect, considering that building materials have to be bought with hard currency. Children are everywhere.
Back to Gdansk, where we talked with a woman who told us she had been born in Danzig ("I was born and raised in the free city state of Danzig and I knew no hatred") and was put into the concentration camp Ravensbrück (for women only) by the Nazis.
Luckily, she had stayed only a month there, since the Swedish Red Cross and the International Red Cross made a deal with Himmler and got 15,000 women (French, Polish and Scandinavian — the Germans and Russians had to stay) released to Sweden.
One day, they all traveled together in a train. She ended up attending a Polish school in Sweden.
From her time in the camp, she mainly remembers the help and camaraderie among the women. There was hardly ever betrayal. She quoted the Milosz quote that is embossed on the Solidarnosc monument in Gdansk:
"You, who hate the simple people. . . the poet remembers them. .. and if one poet dies, another is born to take his place…"
Back to Pisz. We talked to the people with whom we were staying. They said that the Western goods had helped to alleviate the hostilities between the Catholics and Protestants in their area.
They had received shipments from Scandinavia and had shared them with the Catholics. The relationship depends much on the individual Catholic priest in the area, some of whom are very authoritarian and non-cooperative.
"Mixed" marriages are a problem for the future of the Protestant groups: the young people marry Catholics (there are so many more) and convert. The Protestant groups are growing old.
We spoke with them about the swastikas on our trucks. They believed that they had probably been drawn by the small children because of the TV shows they see (the Poles seem somewhat surprised that this was such an important question to the group).
On their TV programs, they say, "It's all the same old stuff, the same as last year and the year before: A one-sided portrayal of history and especially of Germany. We do not even watch our evening news cast — it is all empty talk."
The Poles were sorry they had not noticed and washed the swastikas off the trucks before we would see them, but all in all they felt that it was an occurrence that could easily be explained and not to be taken too seriously.
The Germans, in contrast, really suffered from this occurrence. Probably no one can feel the impact of a swastika as a German does.
Then we went to the home of a family and had a party. We danced modern dances, but the best were the older men who could do the polkas and older European dances.
It was fun. They kept offering us vodka, stuff so strong that it could inebriate an elephant at one sniff. I could hardly get near it.
We left Pisz and visited Treblinka, the concentration camp, on the way to Warsaw. It is truly different. Hundreds of stones on the ground make up the memorial.
Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a five part series. Read Part II here.