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Priests and Communists in Poland

Interview With Historian Peter Raina

WARSAW, Poland, AUGUST 4, 2006 (Zenit) - Some Polish clergy who lived under the Communist regime are being falsely named as a former spies by government officials, says historian Peter Raina.

Peter Raina, author of numerous books on Modern Church History, analyzes in this interview with us the truth of the relationship the clergy had with Communists.

Raina obtained a doctorate from the University of Warsaw and taught Contemporary History at the University of Berlin. He has written essays and articles on Father Jerzy Popieluszko, killed by the Communist regime, and Father Konrad Hejmo, accused by the press of being a Russian spy in the Vatican.

This interview was conducted for us by Wlodzimierz Redzioch.

Q: A few weeks after the death of the Servant of God John Paul II a widespread campaign of denigration of the Polish clergy began. They were accused of having collaborated with the Security Services of the Communist regime.

The first priest to be the object of such accusations was Father Konrad Hejmo, a very well-known person in Poland and in the Vatican because for 20 years he headed the center for Polish pilgrims in Rome, and accompanied groups of pilgrims that visited the Pope.

The headlines of newspapers worldwide were terrible: "Communist Spy in John Paul II's Court," to mention one of the most widespread. You have described the Father Hejmo affair as "a lynching of the priest." Could you explain what is behind this lynching?

Raina: I have written in detail on the "Hejmo affair" in my book published in Polish entitled "The Anatomy of Lynching" [Von Borowiecky Publishers], but I can briefly go over this sad story.

Not even two weeks after John Paul II's death, Dr. Leon Kieres, director of the National Memory Institute, reported that one of the priests close to the Holy Father furnished information to the Security Services.

As the director did not reveal the name of the alleged spy, at first all thought it was an old friend of Cardinal Wojtyla, Father Mieczyslaw Malinski. In the following days, Father Malinski had to repeat to the media that it wasn't him.

A few days later, moreover, Kieres revealed in a spectacular manner to journalists the name of Father Hejmo.

But sadly, from the beginning the news spread by the director was dubious or false. First of all, he informed journalists that he had received Father Hejmo's dossier from the Interior Ministry only on April 14, 2005. Later it was discovered that he was already in possession of the material since December 2, 2004.

The questions then arise: Why did the Interior Ministry send the material, relative to Father Hejmo, in December 2004? Who requested this material?

According to the norms established by the Polish Parliament on the functioning of the National Memory Institute, state organs can request the institute to check if a person who is to occupy a post in the administration of the state had collaborated with the Communist Services. But Father Hejmo had no desire to occupy a post in the state apparatus! Why, then, did they decide to concern themselves with his case?

Moreover, director Kieres could not reveal publicly, as the institute's statute states, the name of the verified person. Why then did it decide to do so, bringing on itself also the criticisms of the Guarantor of Citizens' Rights?

The "Hejmo case" is just one of many. Then it was Father Drozdek's turn, rector of the very well-known Marian shrine of Zakopane, and that of others.

Q: How was the apparatus of repression of the clergy organized in Poland?

Raina: One of the main objectives of Communist totalitarianism was the psychological destruction or physical elimination of opponents. Physical persecution consisted in the use of violence, including murder. Psychological terror served to destroy a man's personality.

Useful for this were long years of seclusion in prisons, often in complete isolation. Every citizen could find himself in a "dead-end" situation.

All had to be conscious that their private life, professional career and future depended on the Security Services -- in Polish "Sluzby Bezpieczenstea," or SB. The security apparatus was part of the structure of the Interior Ministry, where there was a special department, called Department IV, which was concerned specifically with the struggle against the Church; then there was talk of the struggle against the "reactionary clergy."

There was also an office of special investigation -- "biuro C" -- that gathered information on "suspicious" persons.

It must be said that despite the persecutions, which lasted over long years, the Communist authorities did not succeed either in destroying the Catholic Church or in breaking its ties with the people, as many other non-Communist organizations have.

The reason for this failure was the profound root of the Church in Polish society. The Communists also failed because at the head of the Church in Poland in those difficult years was a great pastor and statesman -- Poland's primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. His stance toward totalitarianism became the symbol of the struggle against Communism.

Q: How did Security Services officials succeed in getting priests to collaborate and in what did this collaboration consist?

Raina: The Security Services used two methods. First, was the anti-ecclesial policy of the authorities; for example, the abolition of religion classes in schools, the ban on the organization of religious ceremonies, the hindering of the use of the media by the Church.

The second method, psychological terrorism, was much more treacherous.

The ways of terrifying priests were many and it is worthwhile to enumerate a few: the more zealous priests were accused of activities against the state and of service to the imperialist enemy. They were tried in spectacular farcical trials that ended with capital punishment or long detention punishments. Some priests, as for example Father Kaczynski, died in prison.

Attempts were made to compromise priests to be able to blackmail them. It was common practice to gather all the information possible on the habits of each priest: if he liked alcohol or women, if he was frustrated in his work.

Often, women-agents were used to create some compromising situation for a priest; photographs were taken secretly or the agent would say she was pregnant. Then, being able to blackmail the priest, a proposal was made for collaboration with the Services. Collaboration with the SB consisted in furnishing information on the situation of the parish, the parish priest's activity, the conduct and convictions of the bishop, etc.

In every province, the Offices for Religious Confessions -- Urzad ds. Wyznan -- operated, linked to the Secret Services, which controlled the activities of ecclesiastical organizations. Every time the Polish episcopate published a pastoral letter containing a criticism of the Communist system, every local bishop was called by the president of the province for a meeting in which he had to give explanations and clarification on such a letter.

On those occasions, state officials used the method of the "carrot and stick": They passed from threats to offers of help -- for example, in the construction of a new church -- if the bishop promised to distance himself from the primate.

In general, the bishops rejected all collaboration and for this reason churches were not built. The financial police controlled maliciously the parishes' bills and taxes; seminarians were mistreated during their compulsory military service.

State censorship was generally limited to the printing of ecclesiastical magazines. The increase in the printing depended on the decision of the employee of the Office for Religious Confessions, which collaborated with the Secret Services.

With priest-directors or secretaries of magazines, the method was used which I would call "something in exchange for something." Promises were made to give permission to increase the printing or to furnish more paper -- the distribution of paper then was completely in the hands of the state -- if those in charge of magazines committed themselves to provide information about the members of the editorial board. Some of those in charge, with the verbal permission of superiors, accepted such blackmail because the possibility of increasing the religious press's printing was regarded as a priority.

One of the most-used weapons of blackmail by the Secret Services was the granting of a passport to be able to travel abroad. Every citizen that applied for a passport was requested to attend a meeting in the SB offices.

Also valid in these cases was the "something in exchange for something" rule: The citizen was given a passport if he promised to furnish information, and the Services wanted to know everything about people.

Obviously this rule was also valid for priests who, to be able to study abroad -- many priests dreamed about visiting Rome and doing their studies at the pontifical universities -- or to be missionaries, had to request passports. Generally, the priests would recount events without any significance to satisfy in some way the official of the Services, who took notes on everything.

Q: Were members of the old repression apparatus judged for their crimes after the fall of Communism?

Raina: Sadly, no. Some criminals of the Stalinist period, the '50s, were condemned, but almost none from the following period -- from the '60s to the '80s. This impunity is the fault of the governments that have followed in the post-Communist period.

Q: What has become of the huge files of the Communist Secret Services?

Raina: All that occurred and occurs in the old files of the Communist Services is something strange and outside the norm. I'll give you an example, beginning with the first post-Communist government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

The prime minister appointed as minister of the interior his colleague Kozlowski, assistant editor in chief of Krakow's weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. With the permission of Minister Kozlowski, four persons, among them two activists of the old political opposition, a historian and a journalist, scrutinized the files for six weeks.

The sole fact that Kozlowski would allow strangers to have access to the files with state secrets is an illegal act, which would be punished in a state of law.

Officially, these people were "ordering" the files of the Interior Ministry, but an employee of the ministry itself said privately that "certain persons" destroyed their dossiers. Moreover, the historian himself admitted recently to having collaborated with the Secret Services in the '70s during his stay as a student in Federal Germany.

Nothing is known however about what the journalist did in the archives. The fact is that, in the meantime, it was discovered that persons of the editorial board of Tygodnik Powszechny collaborated with the Services. The topic is much more disagreeable if one thinks of the ambience that often arises today as the nation's "free voice."

People have the right to know the truth about these people.

According to the decision of the Polish Parliament -- Sejm -- the Secret Services' archives should have already been for a long time in the depths of the so-called National Memory Institute -- in Polish, "Instytut Pamieci Narodowej," IPN -- but this isn't the case. Part of the archives has been kept in the ministry and, paradoxically, former officials of the Service are employed to order the archives. We can only imagine the results of such work.

Q: What forces and reasons are behind this media lynching of the clergy in Poland?

Raina: I have no doubts at all: Behind this lynching are certain former Communist realms together with the liberal cosmopolitan realms that want to compromise the Church in the eyes of the citizens. It is no accident that they have elected people who have a certain moral prestige in the society.

The moment obviously is not accidental: The earlier mentioned realms waited for the death of the Pope they feared, to unleash a frontal attack on the Catholic Church.

Q: Accusations against priests are based on written reports by members of the Security Services. How valid are these documents?

Raina: The documents of the Services that I was able to consult personally are credible, but each document must be read carefully and one must know how to evaluate it.

We must not forget how these reports were written. Often officials added something to their reports to be seen to work well. It could happen that officials said they paid an agent, when it wasn't true, because the money ended up in their pockets.

It must be emphasized that to meet with officials of the Services does not mean one is a collaborator.

Therefore, before accusing some one, one must be certain that the accused had signed the document of collaboration or that he received money. One cannot declare publicly that some one was an agent or a spy only because he met with the officials of the Services. This means to denigrate the person.

Q: Since Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz has become archbishop of Krakow, they have also started to accuse priests in that city of being collaborators of the Communist Secret Services.

These accusations have also been pushed by a priest, Father Isakowski-Zalewski, who, without the archbishop's permission or any scientific preparation, started to scrutinize the documents of the Services. This priest then called a press conference to distribute the list of the alleged "spies."

Cardinal Dziwisz opposed this to avoid denigrating the priests. The cardinal's decision was harshly criticized by some of the Italian media. How do you assess Cardinal Dziwisz's decision?

Raina: Cardinal Dziwisz's decision is very just, because Father Isakowski-Zalewski has not behaved properly, not even according to the law. If he has succeeded in obtaining his dossier from the National Memory Institute, he is free to publish its content.

But why does he threaten to publish the names of other priests? And how is it possible that the institute gave him the dossiers relating to other persons? According to the law, the institute can give such dossiers only to historians for their research, but Father Zalewski does not engage in historical research; he seeks rather to arouse clamor around his case.

The control of citizens to verify if they collaborated with the Communist regime must be done with much responsibility. That is why Cardinal Dziwisz's initiative to create a special diocesan commission to study the phenomenon of collaborationism among the priests is important and laudable.

Q: The majority of Poles are disappointed because in democratic Poland criminals of the past Communist regime, organizers and executors of the terror system have not been prosecuted. Moreover, the victims, namely priests, are subjected to public condemnation by the media, making them victims for a second time.

And something even stranger: The journalists and judges who faithfully served the Communist dictatorial state have not been prosecuted. Why all this?

Raina: It is true that democratic institutions function in Poland, but Poland has not yet reached the condition where a true state of law governs. Sadly, the political struggle looks to seats and private interests and not to the interest and good of the nation.

Opportunism has prevailed. The media is characterized by extremism and not by impartiality. I would say this is a new form of totalitarianism and in this climate victims of Communist totalitarianism are lynched for the second time.


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Priests, Communists , Poland, Raina, Spies

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