The Polish Pope

History’s Turning Point

The Pope in Poland
Pope John Paul II returns to Poland, Aug. 18, 2002 (Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP-Getty Images).

It happened on June 17, 1983. It is hard to believe that more than 20 years have passed since that day. But that is how it was, and this is what really happened. And in my heart of hearts, I believe this was the moment the system collapsed.

We were still deep in the repression of martial law, or post-martial law. Thoroughly pacified and worn down, still hopeful but increasingly doubting the purpose of hard resistance; surrounded by a sea of malice and the audacity of the authorities as well as mounting helplessness and deepening passivity in the society.

I say “we”—the people of the contemporary underground, existing as it was within the conspiratorial structures, hounded by the security force, detained repeatedly, set free, and locked up again.

Then, something incredible happened. The authorities gave permission for John Paul II’s visit. Today we can ask why it happened, and we can come up with several equally plausible answers, by delving into political and psychological analyses designed to grasp the state of mind of Gen. [Wojciech] Jaruzelski’s posse, his colleagues, and political adversaries. Today, they all (with the exception of [former government spokesman] Jerzy Urban) rush to profess that they were merely Polish patriots, crushed under the Soviet boot, truly cherishing with all their hearts this great Pole, that this is the reason they extended their invitation that memorable June of 1983, welcoming him to his homeland with open arms.

I, however, have my own truth. I was there, along with friends from the resistance, at the Tenth Anniversary Stadium. We, and a million others. For the first time, I saw a sea of people, with my own eyes. We understood then, we and our kind—the “outcasts” and “instigators” of the nation—that we were not alone, that we had a purpose, that it was not over, and that no one had broken us, the Polish people, down.

The pope blessed Poland, his homeland, and firmly though diplomatically spoke of the essence of truth, love for one’s brother, and the need for freedom in every sense of the word as man’s highest value, it being impossible without “solidarity.” This last word we all understood unequivocally, all of us, a million people. We understood the quotation marks, the code for a movement.

Following the pope’s speech, a storm of applause, songs, and well-wishing for him passed over Warsaw. Most of the spectators had tears in their eyes and hearts gripped with emotion. Not only because they understood that they needed to live freely but that they needed to live more wisely, better, and initiate a communication among themselves, among the Polish people.

With this message, hundreds of thousands of people left the stadium, marching over the Poniatowski Bridge to the left-bank part of  Warsaw. Smiling, stronger, with renewed faith in the fight. Dusk was falling when the head of the column reached the building of the Central Committee of the United Polish Workers’ Party, where the Warsaw stock exchange later found a home.

The atmosphere was peaceful and joyful, without a trace of aggression. So many waved toward “the other side” in a friendly gesture, though during the march Solidarity’s banners and slogans had gone up, unfurled at the stadium.

Shouts of  “Come join us!” could be heard, but there was no response. The building’s windows were dark, not brightened by even the smallest light. But they must have been there, at the windows, watching the human river passing beneath. Separating us from them was a cordon of ZOMO [armed police forces], backed by police cars and forces ready to intervene. But it was not necessary.

Although I do think they feared us from the beginning, in August of 1980 [the start of the Solidarity labor movement], and did not stop fearing us after Dec. 13, 1981 [the beginning of martial law], they were truly frightened at that moment, surreptitiously peering from behind the curtains of that “white house,” realizing that they were alone and unwelcome. Perhaps they also understood then that it was time to join us. How this developed is a different story altogether.

It was on that day, June 17, 1983, that we defeated the system—first in Poland. Later the revolution picked up speed, like a storm.

Without him, our Polish pope, and the strength he gave us then, it probably would have taken several more years. How he managed it and how it was possible is a question I will ask myself for the rest of my life.