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Do not be afraid

By Alex Storozynski

In October 1979, one year after he became Pope, John Paul II visited Battery Park and gave a speech about freedom. My mother stood in the rain for hours with thousands of New Yorkers to see the Polish Pontiff. When he finally arrived, hundreds of immigrants began chanting in Polish, "Long live the Pope." Swallowed by the multitude, my mother cried out, "Long live Poland!"

When he heard her, Pope John Paul stopped in his tracks and made his way through the crowd. He took my mother by the hand, looked into her eyes and said, "Long live Poland."

At that point, despite its democratic history, Poland was still stuck behind the Iron Curtain. This was a moment when two people who had suffered through the destruction and occupation of their homeland, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviet Union's communist regime, expressed hope that someday Poland would again be free.

With the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop, the Pope said in his speech: "On this spot, I wish to pay homage to this noble trait of America and its people: its desire to be free, its determination to preserve freedom, and its willingness to share this freedom, to remain a moving force for your nation and for all the nations in the world today!"

A few months before his visit to New York, the Pope, born Karol Wojtyla (pronounced Voy-ti-wah), visited his native country and told the Poles, "Do not be afraid." The message was a call to action.

The following year, Poles rose up against the atheist regime and created the Solidarity trade union to challenge the totalitarian system imposed on them. Eventually, the Kremlin told its puppet regime in Warsaw that unless they crushed Solidarity, Soviet troops would. When John Paul II learned of this threat, he sent then-Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev a letter that said if the Russians moved against Poland, he would "lay down the crown of St. Peter and return to his homeland to stand shoulder to shoulder with his people." To avoid a bloodbath at the hands of Soviet troops, Polish generals cracked down on the union. Union leaders were thrown in jail and Solidarity was outlawed.

In 1981, in a desperate attempt to stop this Polish Revolution, the Russian KGB ordered the assassination of the Polish Pope. John Paul II survived the shooting and became more determined to speak up for freedom.

Karol Wojtyla and Solidarity inspired me so much, that after graduating from journalism school in 1985, I went to Poland to delve into my Polish roots. There I saw what my mother and the Pope had known for years: Communism was a cruel joke being played on mankind, and it had to be abolished. The only things communism created in abundance were poverty and indignity. Store shelves were nearly empty. Ration cards were required to buy meat or sugar. Toilet paper was nonexistent. The currency was worthless. The press was censored. The communist bureaucracy was so paranoid that people had to fill out forms just to make a Xerox copy. Yet there was one injustice that the overpowered Poles would not stand for ^ they would not succumb to the Soviet system's atheism.

Christianity has been dominant in Poland for a thousand years. Poles would die before giving up their religion. The Catholic Church was Poland's second government, and mass was still the one place Poles could pray for freedom.

As he imposed communism on Eastern Europe, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin talked about forcing atheism on people who were willing to die for their religion. He said, "How many divisions does the Pope have?" Eventually, the Poles proved that it does not take tank divisions to overthrow tyranny. It takes solidarity.

I interviewed the Solidarity leaders inspired by the Pope. They told me that their belief in God helped them to use passive resistance the same way that Gandhi and Martin Luther King did to fight injustice in their own countries. Solidarity founder Lech Walesa told me that he could not compete with Soviet tanks, so he worked to change his country through evolution, not revolution. In his apartment he had pictures of the Pope, and he wore a pin with the likeness of Jesus and the Black Madonna on his lapel. Solidarity was down, but not out. Freedom would not be denied.

In June 1987, John Paul II made his third trip to Poland since becoming Pope. The communist authorities publicly warned that it would not tolerate any protests by Solidarity activists.

The Pope stuck it to them.

I attended a large open air mass in Gdansk, where a large altar in the shape of a wooden ship was built in a field near Walesa's apartment building. From this ship hung two large anchors, reminiscent of the symbol Poland's underground army used when it fought the Nazis and Soviets in World War II. The acronym that symbol stands for: "Poland Fights On!"

In his homily, the pontiff extolled the virtues of free speech, pluralism and human rights. The Pope used the word "solidarity" seven times and urged the Poles. During this mass, a sea of worshippers unfurled hundreds of red Solidarity banners.

By the end of the decade, the Poles had thrown off the shackles of communism. This anti-communist revolution spread throughout Eastern Europe, ending with the Germans tearing down the Berlin War. Make no mistake about it, John Paul II ended the Cold War and saved the world from nuclear annihilation.

John Paul II urged Poland to follow the path of dignity, respect and freedom. In fact, he did that in each of the 129 nations he visited as Pope. Millions of people around the world have attended masses celebrated by this Pope. Each one of them will remember him for addressing injustices that affected them. He also addressed issues that transcended Catholicism. John Paul II was the first Pope to enter and meditate in a synagogue and a mosque. He reached out to build bridges between the world's cultures and religions. He was respected by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.

The world has never seen such a champion of peace and human rights. For that, John Paul II will be remembered as the most significant figure of the 20th Century. And to that, I say, long live freedom. Long live dignity. Long live the memory of the Polish Pope.

Alex Storozynski Editor in Chief amNewYork 145 West 30th Street, 9th floor

 

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