May 18, 1920 Karol Jozef Wojtyla is born in Wadowice and baptized on June 20.
August 16-17, 1920 Red Army invasion of Europe is repelled at the "Miracle on the Vistula."
August 1938 Wojtyla moves to Krakow to begin undergraduate studies in Polish philology at the Jagiellonian University.
September 1, 1939 Germany invades Poland, launching World War II in Europe.
September 17, 1939 The Red Army invades Poland, which is subsequently divided between two totalitarian powers.
November 1939 Karol Wojtyla, now a manual laborer, begins underground academic life and resistance activities.
Fall 1942 Wojtyla is accepted into Krakow's clandestine seminary program.
Fall 1945 Wojtyla's name first appears in communist secret police records.
May 3, 1946 Wojtyla participates in a student demonstration that is attacked by communist secret police and internal security forces.
June 30, 1946 Krakow returns largest anticommunist vote in Poland during falsified "people's referendum."
November 1, 1946 Karol Wojtyla is ordained a priest and leaves Poland two weeks later for graduate studies in Rome.
January 17, 1947 Parliamentary "election" confirms communist control of Poland.
November 12, 1948 Stefan Wyszynski is named archbishop of Gniezno and Warsaw and Primate of Poland.
March 17, 1949 Father Karol Wojtyla begins academic chaplaincy at St. Florian's Church in Krakow.
March 5, 1953 Stalin dies.
September 25, 1953 Cardinal Wyszynski begins three years of house arrest.
October 12, 1954 Dr. hab. Karol Wojtyla begins teaching in the philosophy department of the Catholic University of Lublin.
February 25, 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounces Stalin's cult of personality at twentieth Soviet Communist Party Congress.
June 28, 1956 General strike in Poznan leads to armed repression and deaths of Polish workers.
October 23, 1956 Hungarian Revolution breaks out.
October 28, 1956 Cardinal Wyszynski is released from house arrest and returns to Warsaw.
The truth of Witold Pilecki's life would beggar the imaginations of the great tragedians.
He was born in Russia, in 1901, of a Polish family forcibly resettled after the failed anti-czarist insurrection of 1863-64. After fighting with Polish partisans in the last days of World War I, he served with Polish forces in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-20: a largely unknown affair that saved newly resurrected Poland from Bolshevik conquest and prevented the Red Army from blazing its way across war-exhausted Europe. Decorated twice for heroism in the struggle to defend Poland's new independence, Pilecki was mustered out and spent the interwar years as a farmer; he married and fathered two children.
Less than a week before the outbreak of World War II, Pilecki took command of a cavalry platoon in the 19th Polish Infantry Division. After two weeks of fighting against the German invaders, the division was demobilized in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Poland; Pilecki and his commander, Jan Wlodarkiewicz, went to Warsaw and launched the Tajna Armia Polska [Secret Polish Army] as an underground resistance movement. In 1940, its 8,000 members were incorporated into the Armia Krajowa [Home Army, or AK]: successor to the Polish military in occupied and partitioned Poland, and the fighting arm of the London-based Polish government-in-exile.
Later that year, Pilecki brought his AK superiors a daring plan: he would get himself arrested and sent to Konzentrationslager Auschwitz, located in that portion of Poland that had been incorporated into the Third Reich. There, he proposed to organize prisoner resistance, collect intelligence, and get it out to the AK, which had ways of transmitting such information to London. The superiors agreed. So, under the nom de guerre "Tomasz Serafinski," Pilecki deliberately got himself caught in a Gestapo sweep of civilians; he was arrested, tortured, and then dispatched to the labor camp at Auschwitz, where he became prisoner 4859. At Auschwitz, Pilecki got busy organizing the Zwiazek Organizacji Wojskowej, or Union of Military Organizations [ZOW], which worked to improve prisoner morale, distribute smuggled clothing, food, and medical supplies, and train a resistance movement capable of taking over the camp in the event of an Allied attack. Contacts were maintained with local Polish patriots, and intelligence on camp operations was gathered. By 1941, ZOW had managed to build a radio, and Pilecki's intelligence reports on life, death, and torture at Auschwitz I got out to Polish resistance and thence to London. The prisoners' hope was that these reports would lead to a joint attack on the camp by the Home Army and the Western Allies, perhaps using the Polish Parachute Brigade that had been formed in exile.
After two years, however, Pilecki decided to escape and make his way to AK headquarters; he wanted to make the case in person for a relief attack on the Auschwitz complex, which had now been expanded to include the gas chambers and crematoria at Birkenau (sometimes known as Auschwitz II). With the help of local patriots, he made good his escape in April 1943 and eventually worked his way to Warsaw. His reports on Auschwitz were considered exaggerated by the British, who seemed incapable of imagining mass murder on an industrial scale; and without Allied air support, the Home Army leadership concluded, an attack on the concentration and extermination camps was impossible.
Pilecki then joined a unit within the AK that, in addition to its anti-Nazi activities, was dedicated to resisting a postwar Soviet takeover of Poland–a possibility not unlikely in light of evolving Allied strategy. After the Warsaw Uprising broke out on August 1, 1944, Pilecki initially fought anonymously as a private. Later, on revealing his true rank, he took command of an important sector that held out for two weeks against fierce German assault. When the AK authorities surrendered after sixty-three days of epic struggle, Pilecki was captured and spent the rest of the war in two German POW compounds. After these camps were liberated, he joined the famous Polish II Corps, victors at Monte Cassino and in Normandy's Falaise Pocket. The commander of the Polish II Corps, General Wladyslaw Anders, had another mission for the intrepid officer who had demonstrated such remarkable courage and ingenuity for five years. Pilecki was asked to return to a Poland being strangled by the Red Army and the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB); there, he was to reestablish his intelligence network and report to the government-in-exile in London, which still claimed legal authority over Polish affairs. It seemed another futile mission, but Pilecki agreed to go, and in addition to performing his assigned intelligence duties wrote a study of Auschwitz. When the government-in-exile decided that its situation was hopeless and ordered the remaining resistance fighters to return to civilian life or try to escape to the West, Witold Pilecki dismantled his intelligence networks but remained in Poland. In 1947, he began collecting information about NKVD and Red Army atrocities against Polish patriots, often former members of the AK or Polish II Corps.
Arrested by the Polish communist secret police in May 1947, Pilecki was brutally tortured prior to his trial, but revealed nothing that would compromise others. The suborned "evidence" used against him at his March 1948 show trial came from, among others, a fellow Auschwitz survivor, Jozef Cyrankiewicz, who would later become one of communist Poland's prime ministers. Pilecki freely admitted that he had passed information to Polish II Corps headquarters, which he believed to be his duty as an officer. Falsely charged with plotting assassinations, which he denied, Witold Pilecki was given a capital sentence and shot on May 25, 1948, at the Mokotow prison in Warsaw. His grave was never found; it is thought that the body may have been disposed of at a garbage dump near a local cemetery.
This was the Poland in which Karol Wojtyla, whom the world would come to know as Pope John Paul II, was ordained a Catholic priest in 1946: a country in which men of unblemished honor and extraordinary heroism could be convicted as traitors and murdered by communist thugs, their bodies tossed onto garbage heaps. The forces that created, and brutally maintained, this particular heart of darkness were the nemesis–the seemingly invincible opponent–against which Karol Wojtyla contended for more than three decades.1
The Time and the Place
By most historical accounts, Poland was something of a bit player on the twentieth-century global stage: rarely a protagonist, often a victim, a country whose heroic virtues seemed to go hand in glove with a striking incapacity for governance and diplomacy. Yet if we define the "twentieth century" not by conventional chronology but by its central drama, the truth of the matter is that Poland played a pivotal role at several crucial moments between 1914 and 1991: those seventy-seven years of Western civilizational crisis that began when the guns of August launched World War I and ended when one of the greatest effects of the Great War, the Soviet Union, disappeared.
By Lenin's own admission, the "Miracle on the Vistula" in 1920–in which the Polish forces of Marshal Jozef Pilsudski repulsed the Red Army cavalry and thrust Trotsky's forces back into Russia proper–was a "gigantic, unheard-of defeat" for communist world revolution.2 Nineteen years later, Poland was the first European state to offer armed resistance to Adolf Hitler, demonstrating the imperative of defending freedom against totalitarianism rather than attempting to appease its appetites. Fifty years after that, in 1989, Poland once again asserted its right to freedom against seemingly insuperable odds, and became the fulcrum of a nonviolent revolution that swept European communism into the dustbin of history while giving birth to a new, democratic European order.3
The Poland in which Father Karol Wojtyla would spend the first years of his priesthood was a Poland that had been dramatically–some would say, "completely"–changed by the Second World War, and by the postwar arrangements agreed to by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.4 It had been picked up and moved several hundred kilometers to the west, losing territories that had been Polish for centuries and gaining lands that would be a bone of contention with postwar Germany (and an excuse for Soviet hegemony) for decades. Politically, the Poland that emerged from World War II was a wholly owned subsidiary of the USSR, a central piece in the postwar Soviet imperial puzzle and the land bridge to communist East Germany. Postwar Poland was ethnically more Polish than Poland had ever been, its Jews having been destroyed in the Holocaust and its Ukrainians incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Culturally, postwar Poland was arguably the most intensely Catholic country on the planet, not only because of genocides and population transfers, but because the Catholic Church, which suffered terribly during World War II, had emerged with its honor intact and its historic role as the repository of Polish national identity and memory confirmed. Economically, the country was a ruin, having been one of the battlegrounds on which two totalitarian powers had fought an armed struggle to the death. Psychologically, Poland was dazed and depressed; fear stalked the land even after the country's putative liberation. One-fifth of Poland's prewar population had died between 1939 and 1945. The survivors sensed that the flower of the nation had been sacrificed in the war Poland lost twice, even as the new postwar communist order was imposed with a ruthlessness matching that of the previous, Nazi occupying power.
Yet Poland had somehow survived World War II–as Poland had, somehow, been reborn in the waning days of World War I, after 123 years of exile from the political map of Europe. It was a close-run thing. Crushed in September 1939 between the totalitarian pincers of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, the Second Polish Republic was in mortal peril. As one historian puts it, by October 1939 "the Polish state . . . faced the threat of not only total military defeat, but also the loss of legal and constitutional continuity. Almost its entire territory was controlled by an enemy alliance, and its constitutional authorities had been incapacitated by an erstwhile ally."5 That ally, Great Britain, would continue to regard Poland as a diplomatic headache throughout the war, despite the heroic contributions of Polish squadrons to British victory in the Battle of Britain, and of Polish infantry and armor to Allied victories in Italy and Normandy.
Poland's postwar fate was sealed by one event and one decision. The event was the Battle of Kursk, the greatest armored battle in history, which, in August 1943, effectively ended the German invasion of the Soviet Union and set in motion the long, bloody process by which the Red Army fought its way to Berlin. The decision was the strategic choice made by Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at QUADRANT, their Quebec City conference that same month. By agreeing to the American plan to invade Hitler's Festung Europa from the west, across the English Channel (rather than from the south, through the Balkans), the Western Allies ensured that Poland would be overrun by the Soviet army rather than liberated by Anglo-American forces. During the latter part of the war, the incapacities and internal quarrels of the Polish government-in-exile were not inconsiderable. Yet those Polish failures were, in a sense, as irrelevant to the great power Realpolitik game being played at the "Big Three" conferences in Tehran and Yalta as were the heroics of Polish RAF pilots during the Battle of Britain and of Polish soldiers at Monte Cassino: cursed by the geographical reality of being a broad, flat plain between Germany and Russia, Poland was now a pawn in the emerging, bipolar, and deadly chess match between the Soviet Union and the West.
1. The story of Witold Pilecki and his persecution by Polish communists was not publicly revealed until the collapse of communism in 1989. Pilecki and others falsely condemned were legally rehabilitated by Poland's first postcommunist government on October 1, 1990. In 1995, Witold Pilecki was posthumously awarded the Order of Polonia Restituta. A Polish Foundation, Fundacja Paradis Judaeorum, now works to have May 25, the day Pilecki was shot, declared a European Union holiday, "The Day of the Heroes of the Struggle with Totalitarianism."
An extensive literature on Pilecki now exists, and his remarkable Auschwitz report is available online. For links, see the entry "Witold Pilecki" at en.wikipedia.org.wiki/Witold Pilecki; a brief article with details on Pilecki's resistance activities may be found at polishresistance-ak.org/14%20Article.htm. See also Kamil Tchorek, "Double life of Witold Pilecki, the Auschwitz volunteer who uncovered Holocaust secrets," Sunday Times, March 29, 2009.
2. See Richard Pipes, ed., The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 95-115.
3. On these three points, see Andrzej Paczkowski, The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom, trans. Jane Cave (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003), pp. vii-viii.
4. On Poland being "completely changed" by World War II, see ibid., p. ix.
5. Ibid., p. 38.
From the Hardcover edition.