President Komorowski of Poland met with Jews in the Belvedere Palace, the Polish “White House,” to light a menorah candle and celebrate Chanukah with the Jewish community. Poland has proven a land of resilient faith. The Catholics of Poland during the Cold War, alone among Communist nations, had crucifixes in state schools. Komorowski was a political prisoner in Communist Poland and was beaten by the police as a student. He is a Catholic who has been a seminary teacher. President Komorowski, in lighting a candle on the menorah at Chanukah, is continuing a tradition created by his predecessor, who died a few months ago in an awful airline crash.
Jews and Catholics in Poland suffered almost unimaginable torments from 1939 to 1989. The Second World War began when Hitler and Stalin divided Poland . Nazis crammed the large Jewish population of western Poland into a number of ghettos. At the same time, the Soviets crammed 2 million Poles, primarily Catholics, into crowded cattle cars and sent them thousands of miles into the Gulag. Millions of men, women, and children died at the hands of Hitler and Stalin. Although Hitler killed more Jews and Stalin killed more Catholics, the misery spread by these monsters did not discriminate between Jew and Gentile: many Jews were shipped to the Gulag (my wife’s uncle was one) and many Catholics died at Auschwitz (Pope John Paul II adopted his name from a priest at Auschwitz who offered his life to save a man terrified of death.)
Although anti-Semitism among Polish Catholics was very real in 1939 and exists today in Poland , this virus has been attacked most passionately by those most Catholic: Pope John Paul II was profoundly concerned with reconciliation between Catholics and Jews; his childhood friend, a Polish Jew, was the first person he wanted to see about becoming Pope. Lech Walesa, devout Catholic and real champion of freedom, was approached by Rebbe Schneerson through a Jew returning to Poland . Walesa showed unmistakably that he joined the Pope in the goal of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.
Those who are surprised by this should not be. There are more “Righteous Gentiles” at Yad Vashem, the Shoah memorial in Israel , who are Catholic Poles than any other group of people. In 1943, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto arose to fight their Nazi tormentors. While these Jews fought and died, Armia Krajowa, the Polish Home Army, attacked the Nazis from the rear and provided the Jews in the Ghetto what help they could. The desperate, hopeless resistance of those Jews encouraged the Polish Catholics in the Home Army to fight an equally desperate, equally hopeless battle in Warsaw the next year. The blood of Jews and of Catholics poured together in the streets of Warsaw. The end of the war brought only murder and rapine by the Red Army, followed by forty-four years of Communist oppression of Jews and Catholics alike.
The answer to that nightmare sometimes called Marxism and other times Nazism is faith. Alexander Solzhenitsyn went into the Gulag an atheist and came out a Christian. My wife’s mother survived the Lodz Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen because the Blessed Creator of the Jewish faith sustained her. More than survival of the body was involved in these two examples. Solzhenitsyn went on to courageously defy, practically alone, the whole awful apparatus of Soviet terror. My wife’s mother, in her quieter way, did mitzvahs of charity and kindness for the rest of her life as evidence that her Blessed Creator was indestructible.
Through the Polish people’s history of blood, of pain, of faith, and of survival has come a miracle in which living faith is finding living faith. We kid ourselves if we think free markets or victorious armies or even winning elections can deliver us from evil. We kid ourselves more if we believe that we can compromise with evil and prevail. The war we fight today is spiritual. Pope John Paul II, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Rebbe Schneerson won that battle and, as a consequence, offered the crushed hopes and broken hearts of millions with the only balm which heals all wounds: human reflection of Divine Love.
Chanukah and Christmas are a few weeks apart. Both holidays are symbolized by light. The Advent Candle, which we light at my church and the Shamash candle of the menorah have special meaning for the world. Chanukah is not a holiday about “religious tolerance.” It celebrates the fight and the survival of religious people over agnostic sophistry which sought to trivialize and secularize faith. Christmas is the time in which Christians welcome the long awaited Savior, a Jewish baby whose parents would be celebrating Chanukah with him many times. In a few days, there will be Christmas in Bethlehem as today there is Chanukah in Warsaw. When the candles of these holidays shine through the black winter night we see the promise of joy.