Volume > Issue > Graffiti in Warsaw, Mormons in Krakow, & Basements in Auschwitz

Graffiti in Warsaw, Mormons in Krakow, & Basements in Auschwitz

TRAVELS IN POLAND

By Thomas Basil | May 2004
Thomas Basil is a 1996 convert to Catholicism. He frequently travels on business to Europe.

The Polish woman in her 70s speaks heavily accented but enthusiastic English. I ask how this particular church survived World War II. The Germans wired it with dynamite, she says, but it did not fall. The roof was bombed out, but the walls remained. This church was the only building in this area of Warsaw left intact after the German retreat. Her voice cracking with emotion, she says everything else was “like a desert of stone.” Hitler commanded his forces to “erase Warsaw from the map” in revenge for guerilla uprisings against Germany’s occupation. Some 80 percent of Warsaw’s buildings and 200,000 of her occupants perished in that conflagration.

After Hitler’s occupation came Stalin’s. I ask why atheistic Communist rulers allowed this church to be rebuilt. My hostess says, “Why, they could not stop it! Every workingman in Warsaw was giving money to see it rebuilt.” I marvel at the muscular faith: In a nation ruled by Stalin’s atheist proxies, a ruined church was rebuilt by the popular acclaim of a war-ravaged populace.

The twin Gothic spires of Najswietszego Zbawiciela, gleaming white and floodlit at night, have survived Nazism and Communism. Along the boulevard linger larger-than-life figures of socialist heroes — a miner, a teacher, a builder, a soldier — carved into the walls of the flanking buildings.

But time moves on. In 2003 those spires are contested by Western consumerism. Once-socialist buildings show the advance of the new capitalist creed. Their roofs are bedecked with neon signs, and their sides are draped with bright, multi-story advertising banners. A five-story-high poster of a teasingly unclad teenage girl rivals the steeples in prominence.

Inside the cathedral-size church it is cold. The radiators appear to have been dormant for decades. But there is abundant activity here on a Wednesday afternoon. About 20 people are kneeling at a side altar before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Adoration seems always underway, with most kneelers occupied every time I return during the week.

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