In May of 1990, I visited the St. Stanislaw Kostka Church in suburban Warsaw with a handful of college students on a study trip to Poland.
By the third day, our group was churched out. We had been to church after church since we arrived, and they all began to look alike.
But what we saw and heard at St. Stanislaw Kostka woke us up.
In the churchyard was the grave of Father Jerzy Popieluszku, an anti-communist parish priest who had been brutally murdered by Polish security thugs, on orders from the KGB, five years before.
While Popieluszku was alive, dissident Poles flocked to his church to listen to his thinly-veiled anti-government homilies.
When he was martyred, 250,000 people showed for his funeral. After that dramatic display of Polish solidarity, security forces didn’t dare invade his former church. The church’s basement became a center for resistance to the brutal Soviet-backed Polish puppet government.
Once the leader in resistance to Soviet rule, Poland had been passed up by the other Eastern bloc nations by the fast-paced revolutions of 1989. It still had a staunch communist general as its president in the spring of 1990.
The people were antsy. Our guides whispered, afraid that if Russia were to reassert its rule over Poland, they would be punished for telling the truth.
In the church basement, a priest surreptitiously showed us each a Polaroid photo of Father Popieluszku’s battered body. He covered the picture between each glimpse we took.
Only months before, such an act could have landed him in a far-away gulag.
Back upstairs in the sanctuary, we passed by dozens of praying Poles — the churches were full from dawn to dusk as the revolution unfolded — and walked to the front of the church to view a small but famous plaque.
The controversial monument? A simple shrine to victims of the hideous massacre in the Katyn forest, where 22,500 Polish officers, a group which, due to the structure of the Polish military, included most of country’s intelligentsia and political leaders, were shot by order of Stalin in 1940.
Until 1990, the Soviet Union denied any involvement, blaming the Nazis instead.
If you wanted to get thrown in the gulag or end up in a drainage ditch dead from KGB-related “natural causes,” all you had to do was breathe one word about the Soviet responsibility for Katyn.
Earlier, we were guided by a woman in her mid-80s who just didn’t care. Her parents had been Polish nobles. They had thrown a party for 200 of their peers in August of 1939 just before the Soviets and Germans invaded in September.
By spring, all of the males who attended the party had been shot at Katyn. A little girl at the time, the tragedy was as clear to her as if it had happened yesterday. She openly blamed the Russians.
We stood in the front of the St. Stanislaw Kostka Church, the only place in Poland where the police allowed a commemoration of the Katyn slayings, a plaque which left off the date so as to not implicate the Soviets.
Events were moving fast that spring. Gorbachev had admitted Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre just three weeks earlier. Even so, the guide whispered to us confidentially: “The Russians did it.” He still feared retribution.
When we turned from the plaque to walk to the back of the church, a startling scene greeted us. Six men carried a crude wooden casket on their shoulders. A funeral had begun.
Rather than rush us out of the church, as we would have preferred, the guide lectured to our little group in a loud whisper about who was responsible for Katyn as the funeral proceeded a few feet away.
First things first.
Twenty years have passed. Last week, Russia invited Polish leaders to the Katyn forest to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre.
Tragically, the Russian plane carrying the Polish president, Poland’s top military leaders as well as some Polish artists, war heroes and heroes of the resistance, crashed, killing all aboard.
It was as if the ghost of Stalin had replicated the original massacre on a smaller scale.
Russian autocrat and former KGB thug Vladimir Putin immediately formed a commission, with himself at the head, to investigate the incident.
Don’t think the Poles will believe a word of the resulting report.
They’ve seen it all before.