A version of this article was posted here: “Responding to Distortions About Poland’s Catholic Church by The New York Times,” The Post Eagle [Clifton, NJ] 6 February 2013.
Your obituary of late Cardinal Joseph Glemp, Catholic Primate Emeritus of Poland, was rather uncharitable and inaccurate.
First, Glemp’s predecessor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, was not “a thundering autocrat” but a realistic politician, suave diplomat, and firm prelate. He was no Cardinal József Mindszenty who defended Hungary’s Catholic Christianity through public defiance of the Communists. His Polish counterpart usually avoided open confrontation with the Soviet puppet-regime and preferred to work for the Church and his flock behind the scenes. While remaining unbending about the principles, which eventually landed him in jail, Wyszyński preferred tactical compromise. Most of all, Wyszyński wanted to prevent bloodshed and always opposed violence. He was Glemp’s master. The latter’s tenure as a primate should be viewed as continuity of Wyszyński’s line without the master’s royal charisma. It is inaccurate to separate the policies of both men.
Second, you dwell on Glemp’s awkward statements about Jewish-Catholic/Polish relations which caused the churchman to be “dogged by the allegations of anti-Semitism.” The quotation you use about “dear Jews” and “esteemed Jews” reflects the spirit of love and reconciliation with which Glemp thought he was infusing his message to the Jewish people. Then he proceeded to structure his speech with unfortunate clichés which, by the way, continue to function widely around the world. For example, they were replicated recently by Rupert Murdoch who was reprimanded by the ADL’s Abraham Foxman for it. Like Murdoch, Glemp apologized several times for offending. Give him a break, posthumously at least.
Third, you have broached the topic of the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz. Yet, you fail to explain the controversy fairly. Pace your opinion, the Vatican did not agree to move the convent in 1987. A solitary liberal Polish Catholic bishop did make a vague and unauthorized sympathetic statement at a Swiss meeting with Jewish leaders who took it seriously as a promise and pressed resolutely toward that objective afterwards. A crisis ensued, for no one on the Catholic side was prepared to deal with the issue comprehensively. So much for the origins of the campaign to evict the nuns, which was eventually adjudicated by Pope John Paul II to conform with the Jewish sensitivities.
Further, you have also failed to explain the reason for the presence of the Carmelites at Auschwitz. Most victims, over 1.1 million (and not “millions” as you would have it), of this death factory were Jewish. However, it has escaped you that about 150,000 of them were Polish Catholics. In the 1980s, the nuns set up a convent close to a Nazi execution spot, where Christians, mostly Catholics, had been killed, to pray for all victims. Since the nuns were not experts on Jewish theology, they had no idea that it would be offensive to the Orthodox adherents of Judaism and their supporters to do so. In fact, most Christians were astounded to learn that. The nuns had no clue that the spirit of ecumenism was unwelcome in this instance. Moreover, their convent was quite far away from the main killing ground of Auschwitz, the death camp at Birkenau where the bulk of the Jewish victims had perished. That Auschwitz was also a slaughterhouse for the Christian Poles has been acknowledged by no less a place than the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which—on Holocaust Memorial Day, coinciding with the Soviet entry into Auschwitz in January 1945—recognizes one of the Polish resistance heroes, Captain Witold Pilecki, who volunteered to be arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz so he could inform the world about this secret German installation. A few words about such common historical facts would have contextualized the Carmelite convent controversy properly and anchored Glemp’s support for the nuns accordingly.
Fourth, your facts about Jedwabne are incorrect. A preliminary archeological and forensic investigation, terminated prematurely by the Polish authorities because of the pressure of a few rabbis (because of Jewish Orthodox strictures against handling human remains), suggests that the victims were not “1,600” but perhaps 300, and that there were bullet casings present at the crime scene. Since carrying arms was a capital crime for anyone not German in Nazi-occupied Poland, the perpetrators had to be the Nazi police or military. My own work strongly points to German complicity in the murder with some local help: The Massacre in Jedwabne, July 10, 1941: Before, During, After (Columbia University Press/East European Monographs, 2005). Since the Jedwabne murder was not properly investigated in 2001, Glemp refused to participate in the phony show of lachrymosity that the post-Communist President Aleksander Kwasniewski put on to score political points and deflect accusations of complicity of his “social-democratic” party, including some in his immediate entourage, for the anti-Semitic campaign of 1968. The Cardinal refused to help the post-Communists to legitimize themselves and to dupe the West. Instead, he held a high profile church service in Warsaw begging Jews for forgiveness for the Polish sins against them. This somehow escaped you.
Fifth, you also tar Poland’s only evangelical radio station—Radio Maryja—with a brush of anti-Semitism. In 2007 a team of leftist graduate students led by a former Communist party member now turned liberal gay scholar monitored the radio 24/7 for a month and, to their own shock and dismay, found no trace of anti-Semitism in its broadcasting. The results were published as Ireneusz Krzemiński, ed., Czego nas uczy Radio Maryja [What we learn from Radio Maryja] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Akademickie i Profesjonalne, 2009). Please check your facts more carefully.
Sixth, you write that “despite an increasingly secularized population, Cardinal Glemp advanced his agenda” in the public square, supporting Catholic education and pro-life legislation. It was not Glemp’s private agenda but, rather, the Catholic Church’s. And the Church consists both of the religious and the laity, the people. Since the Poles remain overwhelmingly Catholic the reforms introduced in the 1990s after the collapse of Communism still stand. They reversed democratically previous legislation that had been imposed on Poland by totalitarianism. That much should be obvious even to you.
Printing this would do much to reverse a sordid legacy of The New York Times’ almost invariable provision of negative commentary on Poland and her affairs since the middle of the 19th century. Don’t take my word for it. IWP’s Kościuszko Chair assistant Pawel Styra has prepared a scholarly monograph on the topic. Time to face the music.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz