Catholic Temper in Poland

English novelist and ardent Roman Catholic‚ GRAHAM GREENE returned from an extended visit in Poland last autumn with these impressions of how a patriotic and intensely religious people reacts to its governors from Russia. Mr. Greene is widely known to Americans for his versatile writing: his psychological thrillers (This Gun for Hire and The Third Man); his serious novels on deeply religious themes (Brighton Rock, The Heart of the Matter, and Fhe End of the Affair); and his first play, The Living Room, which aroused a good deal of controversy when it was produced in New York in 1954. Mr. Greene’s new novel‚ The Quiet American, is being published by Viking this month.



THE ancient editor-in-chief of L’Humanité was leaving Warsaw; they put flowers on him as you put flowers on a tomb. The smooth managerial types stood around and kissed the nicotinous yellow cheeks, and then they shoved him on board the plane. One pushed from behind, another lugged from in front, another took the hat off his long white locks, another caught his flowers: the Communist editor-in-chief went aboard.

My own fellow passenger was young, with a bluegray puffy face; and when he took off his hat, you saw a shaven skull; he too had been seen off, and by his country’s representative, who had succeeded after seven years in fishing him out of a Polish prison where he was serving fifteen years for espionage. He wouldn’t talk, for another of his countrymen still lay in the same jail, but he ate — how he ate! There was more thick bread than anything else in our meal, but his tray was empty before I had eaten more than one sandwich, so he cleared my tray as well and emptied my briefcase of all the cookies and chocolates and sandwiches with which kind friends had stuffed it. The night before, he had eaten two kilograms of sausage, he told me, but he hadn’t been able to sleep a wink in the comfortable legation bed.

Monsieur Cachin, the oldest French Deputy, dozed in his seat out of touch with the problems of L’Humanité, and I couldn’t help smiling to think of the many readers who have asked me why I sometimes write thrillers, as though a writer chooses his subject instead of the subject choosing him. It sometimes seems as though our whole planet had swung into the fog belt of melodrama, but perhaps, if one doesn’t ask questions, one can escape the knowledge of the route we are on. A venerable old man with long white hair and long white mustaches says good-by 1o his warmhearted friends, and after life’s fitful fever he sleeps well; a young man, as young men should, has a healthy appetite. The world is still the world our fathers knew.

It might even be possible so to regard Poland. In Warsaw the Old Town has risen like a phoenix: if we stand in the main square we find it almost impossible to believe that a few years past there was nothing here but a heap of rubble. Every house has been faithfully reconstructed: each bit of molding is exactly as it was.

At first I was inclined to praise the poetic sense of the Communist government. Hitler had said Warsaw was to be erased, and here it stands again: the fifteenthand sixteenth-century houses, the little Apotheke, the old café. Faced with an eliminated town and the terrible problems of housing, one would have expected a Communist government to rear great tenement flats with perhaps another Palace of Art and Culture nearly (but not quite, for the Poles have taste) as hideous as the gift palace from Moscow that shoots up its useless tiers like a gangster’s wedding cake in the center of the city. Poetic, imaginative, a little “reactionary,” how charming to be able to praise a Communist government for these qualities.

But then a doubt niggles at the brain. The Old Town was destroyed in the insurrection of 1944, one of the bravest and foolhardiest episodes in all Polish history, when men armed with homemade grenades and a few pistols held out for two months against a German army already on the spot, seeing their city destroyed house by house rather than surrender, while the Russian generals halted their advance to allow Hitler time to eliminate these men and women who had wanted to liberate themselves. Officially the insurrection never took place; there is no record of it —so I was told— in the Museum of War, and soon there will not even be any broken bricks to show that the Old Town had ever been destroyed. We know how Trotsky has been excluded from the history of the Revolution. Perhaps history now has to be rewritten architecturally, too.

A blinkered traveler can certainly find much that seems unchanged: the wide gray windy square of Cracow with its stone market colonnade full of toys and gay peasants’ clothes and the apple women sitting in black shawls by the piles of bright apples; in Czestochowa the trumpets’ wail as the silver curtain descends at the last Mass over the most convincing portrait ever painted of Our Lady, with the Swedish lance-thrust in her cheek—“Help of the half-defeated”; the old streets of Lublin: the little fifteenth-century wooden church at Dembo with the relics of Sobieski in a vestry hardly larger than a confessional box: the humor and lightheartedness of Warsaw. (Let us give the Communist government the credit for being the source of so much humor; it was they who prevented for some while the publication of the dogma of the Assumption because they thought the date of the feast —which had been celebrated since the ninth century— was somehow connected with the defeat of the Russians by Pilsudski after the First World War.)

In the countryside there are still native craftsmen carving wooden saints and Stations of the Cross as though Byzantium had not fallen to the Turks; at a wedding in snowy Zacopnne the carriages watled, the drivers in the tight trousers of the Tatra mountains, while the inviters to the feast rode to and fro in their bright jackets, and the bride was drawn from the church by two men, and the bridegroom by two girls who held his arms, and the singing began as the carriages wheeled away.

The traditional storytellers still fix you with an Ancient Mariner’s eye, and little touches of modernity only give life to the old fables. When we picked our way through the freezing mud of one village an old man told his tale of how he had visited the United States, where a Mr. Frick possessed two piles of gold and silver so large it would have taken twelve men to shift them. A friend of the storyteller had been invited to go and see the piles, but when he got there, Mr. Frick commanded him to add twenty-five dollars in gold and twenty-five dollars in silver to each pile. Oh, he had been properly caught, his friend had been. But when the old man was invited to visit the piles, he got the better of Mr. Frick, telling him, through his interpreter, “If there were seven million fools in the world, you could climb to heaven on your piles of gold and silver.”

In the same way it would he possible to pass through Poland, as it was possible for many tourists to pass through Mexico in the nineteen-thirties, and see no sign of tension between Church and State. But the State has learned wisdom since the experience of Mexico, and here in Poland, where the Church really represents the country, the Communist has to tread with care. The Church represented the nation against Russia in the days of the Tsar, it represented the nation against Hitler, and now if represents the nation, in the eyes of the nation, far more than the group of men who rule it in the interests of Russia.

Even the workers in Nowa Hutta, the new industrial city built out of nothing in three years on the plain outside Cracow, fill the churches— not always for religious motives, but as a little gesture of independence where the opportunities for independence are few. Nevertheless the number of communicants (and a man will not go to communion as a political act) has grown enormously. Only since the Revolution has the Pole, I believe, changed his habit of communicating on certain major feast days only.

But turn the stone and the position is not so happy.

The old independent Catholic press is dead. Tygodnik Powszechney, a Catholic weekly whose circulation ran into six figures, was closed down because the editor refused to prejudge one of those clerical trials in which the government unwisely indulged before it realized the strength of Catholic feeling. For some months there ceased to be a Catholic press, but this, too, did not suit the government, which needed the façade of religious toleration. Tygodnik was started again, though no member of the old staff consented to work for it, and it was put into the hands of the Pax movement.


THE Pax movement is perhaps the most ambiguous feature of Polish life today. The leader, Mr. Boleslaw Piaseeki, was before the war a nationalist and an anti-Semite; during the war he was a partisan leader who fought courageously both the Germans and the Russians (he lost his first wife in the Warsaw insurrection). He surrendered to the Russians and was condemned to death. However, he was spared and taken to Moscow, whence to the astonishment of many Poles he returned to Warsaw with permission to start the Pax publishing firm and the Pax movement which forms a keystone of the so-called Clerical Lay Catholic National Front Activists.

Pax is a cadre consisting of only about 350 members, all laymen, and round that cadre, which reminds one a little of the Communist Party, there are a great many fellow travelers— many of genuine sincerity— including several thousand priests. Their ostensible aim is to support the social and economic, changes in Poland many of which were both necessary and admirable and to prove, as it were, the “progressveness” of Catholics.

They are allowed to publish a certain number of books from the West (and one can give a great deal of praise to this activity, though the Catechism, which has been printed in hundreds of thousands, contains phrases of political significance unknown to our “penny” version). They have two weekly papers — the new Tygodnik with a circulation which has fallen to 30,000, and the Dzis i Jutro, a more ideological weekly with a circulation of about 5000, Dzis i Jutro has been put on the Roman Index, but, in spite of this, publication has been continued.

The opponents of Pax (who are the vast majority of Catholics in Poland) sometimes claim that the movement is Russian-inspired and was a clever attempt to divide the Church. One uses the past tense; for, if that was the intention of the Pax leaders, they have dismally failed. Pax has very little importance in the Catholic life of Poland.

Conventions are held: a vicar-general appears on the platform, priests with humorless and uneasy faces help to till the big halls in Cracow and Warsaw; Vietminh priests (as the Eastern custom is) clap delightedly their own speeches, and Mr. Piasecki orates on the subject of the aggressive Atlantic powers in true Marxist terms. But the Church goes on without them, and congregations prefer for Mass or confession the churches which are served by a priest who is not a Patriot.

Peace, Democracy, Patriot —these words when spelled with a capital have been taken over in a special sense in Eastern Europe. Certainly among the fellow travelers of Pax there are many sincere patriots (without the capital letter) who wish to take part in the social reform of their country; and if a debt has to be paid by their Catholicism, they try to pay it in the smallest possible coinage.

It is too easy for its to condemn them. We have no Auschwitz to remember. The girl we entertain to dinner has no prison number tattooed upon her arm. Every visitor to Poland should be made to visit this camp of death where the prison blocks have been turned into a museum. One long corridor of glass contains behind it nothing but 20,000 tons of women’s hair; another window forming a whole wall contains a hill of tiny shoes.

In Warsaw, on every waste patch, there are rough stovepipe crosses which are the people’s memory of murder. No single Lidice is remembered —there were too many of them. The Katyn massacre fades into insignificance against six million dead. German rearmament to these people — Catholies as well as Communists — is a betrayal. No crimes have been committed by Communists equal to what Poland has suffered from Germany.

But the crucial question which I found no follower of Pax ready to answer with directness or simplicity is: “Where is your point of resistance? At what point will you warn the government that if they go farther you will cease your collaboration and close down your presses? You exist. Therefore you must be of value. Therefore you have the possibility of blackmail.”

Apparently that point was not reached with the arrest of Cardinal Wyszynski, and the Cardinal’s integrity lies on the conscience of many followers of Pax, but less, I think, on the conscience of their leaders. The Cardinal has now been released from prison and is confined in a convent at Komaneza near Sanok, not far from the U.S.S.R. and Czech borders.

Officially he can see whom he pleases, and many a Pax follower emphasizes the salubrity and natural beauty of the region where he dwells. I presented Mr. Piasecki with an open letter addressed to the Cardinal, begging the favor of an audience and promising I would make no mention of our meeting in the press. I asked to receive even a refusal in his own hand, but no reply came.

I think it probable that the government regret the arrest of the Cardinal; they have gone too far, however, to withdraw, unless they can represent his return to Warsaw as part of a bargain. Such a bargain is not impossible, but the outsider is mystified, its so often, by the present policy of the Vatican. At the moment, Vatican policy seems directed as much against the Catholic people of Poland as against the Communist government.

No one in Poland today — except perhaps some old lady dreaming of the past in her denuded apartment— wants the return of an émigré government, and yet the Vatican recognizes an émigré ambassador. It is as if the Pope still received as the ambassador of Russia some White Russian grand duke from the days of Nicholas II. Nor are any Poles prepared to consider the return of the Western Territories to a Germany responsible for such immeasurable suffering; yet when the bishopric of Breslau fell vacant a German cleric was appointed who now lives in the comfort and security of Western Germany.

Most Catholics in Poland feel a pinprick to their pride when letters to administrators in the Western ‘Territories are addressed by the Roman Curia to “Germania,” and pray for the day when the realities of the situation shall be recognized by the Vatican, and perhaps — in that case who knows? — the Cardinal they love may come back to his diocese in the capital of Poland.