Krakow on guardFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
To visit Krakow’s tombs is to realize how often Poland has been on the front lines protecting Europe’s liberty.
It was on that day that the alliance of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeated the Teutonic knights. All of Europe had been awaiting that decisive battle. The triumph of King Jagiello of Poland and Lithuania constrained the Teutonic knights to what would latterly be called Prussia and eventually Germany, leaving space for the Slavic peoples to develop their own national identities and culture. The Jagiellonian dynasty that followed established Poland on the map of Europe, and gave rise to the great drama of Polish history, and her struggle to remain on the map of Europe, free and independent.
There is no place where Polish history is more tangible, and the litany of anniversaries more carefully recorded, than in Krakow, the ancient and royal capital of the Polish nation. The heart of Krakow is Wawel hill, the site of the royal palace and the cathedral. The crypt of the cathedral, repository of the royal sarcophagi and resting place of the heroes of Polish history, is a place of national memory.
After president Lech Kaczynski was killed in an April plane crash, his remains were brought back to Poland to lie in state in the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw, and then to be laid to rest, along with his wife, Maria, who died in the same accident, in the crypt of Wawel cathedral.
Kaczynski's plane crashed on his way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when the Soviet secret police killed more than 20,000 Polish military personnel (half of the entire officer corps) along with other social and cultural leaders. It was the definitive Soviet contribution to the dismemberment of Poland in alliance with the Nazis. Poland had already been defeated in 1939; the 1940 Katyn killings were an attempt to mortally wound the hope that independent Poland would return. The plan apparently is to make of Kaczynski's grave a broader memorial to those killed at Katyn; to register in the royal crypt, as it were, the memory of those who died at the hands of the latest ones who were attempting to kill Poland.
To visit the tombs of Krakow is to realize how often Poland has been on the front lines protecting Europe's liberty. Not far from Kaczynski's tomb is that of Jozef Pilsudski, Poland's chief of state when it returned to the map of Europe in 1918, after more than a century of partition. War soon came with the Russian Bolshevik regime, and the fighting reached Warsaw itself, continuing until Pilsudski's forces prevailed in what is often called the "miracle at the Vistula River." The 90th anniversary of that battle falls next month. Had Poland not prevailed in 1920, Russian communism would have spread to the heart of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, with dire consequences for the reconstruction of a free Europe.
While foreign visitors may not know much about Grunwald, or the Vistula, or Katyn, even casual students of history know about the Battle of Vienna in 1683, where King Jan Sobieski III turned back the Turks who were threatening to overrun Europe. His tomb is upstairs in the main cathedral.
Poland in 1410, 1683, 1920 and then again in 1989 was in the vanguard of making Europe safe for free and independent countries, facing down as they did the various empires that advanced from the east, the west and the north. That history ought to be better known, and here it is possible to touch it.
Without the tragic accident on the way to mark the Katyn anniversary, it is unlikely that Kaczynski would have been buried at Wawel. It is more likely that the next addition to the heroes buried here would be Lech Walesa, hero of the Solidarity liberation movement. The 30th anniversary of the birth of Solidarity comes in six weeks.
The visitors coming to see the new tomb and grieve the old president are reminded of all that Poland has rendered to a free Europe. President Kaczynski, who put a high priority on maintaining Poland's distinctive culture in fidelity to her proud history, would no doubt be pleased that those memories are being stirred alive, and that the anniversaries are being observed.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Krakow on guard." National Post, (Canada) July 15, 2010.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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