Saturday, December 11, 2010
Witold was a teenager living in the Polish border town of Glabokia when he was arrested with his family by the invading Russians – at the time, in 1939, allies of Hitler.
Separated from his parents, he was taken to Moscow’s notorious Lubianka Prison and, aged just 17, condemned to 25 years hard labour, one among a million-and-a-half Poles sent to Siberia. It might as well have been a death sentence. So, he could either wait to die, or try to get away. Witold began plotting his escape as soon as he arrived, shackled in chains.
He volunteered to work as a lumberjack, and secretly carved signs on the trees, pointing the way to the south, and the free world.
Then he was befriended by the camp commandant’s wife. “She asked me to fix her radio,” he remembers. “She rewarded me with sweet tea and a slice of bread. But the best thing was that, above a desk, there was a map of Asia.”
Already a daring plan was forming as he tried desperately to memorise the details.
But commandant’s wife Maria Uszakof – even after all these years he remembers her name – read his mind. “She told me, ‘You’ll need good clothes and sensible shoes.’ She gave me a parcel of dried meat, new shoes, hand-knitted socks and long underwear.”
At midnight, with a savage blizzard howling around the camp, carrying a haversack that was a blanket tied at the corners, he tunnelled under the wire.
But when he made it through he turned to find six men had silently followed him.
“They were coming out of nowhere, like cockroaches in a bakery,” Witold says.
“I told them, we’ll walk for 20 hours a day, is that agreed? If they didn’t like it, they could sit down and wait for the Russians.
“The weather was too bad for patrols to operate, no animal or human would stick a nose out of the door, so this was our only chance. Our immediate aim was to get out of Russia. The border was 1,600 miles away. I pointed south – ‘That way!’”
The walkers set up a pattern. One man in front, forming a trail through the forest, two at the back sweeping over the footprints with pine branches.
He never discovered much about his comrades. They dared not trust one another. Their relationship was built on silent suspicion, not conversation.
Once they found a deer trapped in a ravine. They feasted on it for days afterwards and used pieces of the hide to bind up their thick felt prison boots.
Days before they reached the border with China, they had an encounter which is still vivid in Witold’s memory.
On the path was 18-year-old Kristina Polansk, a terrified young Polish girl who had fled barefoot through the forest from the Russians, who had killed her family and tried to rape her.
“She was very lonely and distressed and when I inspected her foot I knew straight away she had gangrene,” Witold says. “I didn’t want to be saddled with a sick girl, but what could we do?
“I made moccasins for her with the rest of the deer skin, and we carried her on a stretcher of poles with dry grass.
“But every day she got worse. Her leg turned black and the skin swelled and burst, it was terrible to watch.”
They crossed the Trans-Siberian Railway line, pushed on into Mongolia, and there Kristina became ravaged by fever. She shook each of the men’s hands, then closed her eyes and died.
The first to die were two of the Polish soldiers. Witold watched them deteriorate and recognised the signs of scurvy.
“They walked more and more slowly, their legs swelled up and they could pull out teeth with their fingers,” he says. “They died on the same day. By the time we had buried the first, the second was almost gone.”
The two men had always walked side by side. Now they were laid side by side in graves.
As they moved through Tibet and the Himalayas, they helped out on farms in return for food and shelter. But in the climb, the next man perished – another of the Polish soldiers, who stood on a ledge that crumbled under him.
In the final two weeks of their march, Witold had become ill and weak, and he can remember only snatches of images.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
"History is bunk," said Henry Ford, as he set about destroying a way of life that rewarded craftsmanship and thrift. "Education," said the great American flattener of our schools, John Dewey, "[must] undermine and destroy the accumulated and self-perpetuating prejudices of long ages," including, as far as he was concerned, the hoary old prejudices of religion. Neither Ford nor Dewey was much of a thinker. But we did not need them to tell us that we owed nothing to the past. We required no encouragement to forget. We have been doing that ever since Eve forgot the multitudinous blessings of God and ate of the single forbidden fruit.
Take Ford's quote, and replace "history" with "tradition," or "the faith expressed in the first creeds," or "the piety of past ages of Catholics," and you express the sentiment of any number of Catholics, lay and clergy. Do something similar with Dewey's challenge: Tack on the name of a chancery director of religious education, and see if the result raises an eyebrow. So thoroughly have we committed ourselves to amnesia that we now hug ourselves for our betrayal of our heritage, as if it were a virtue.
So too, without memory, you have no Church. You may have thousands thronging the coffee shops at Willow Creek, in the market for the latest therapeutic Jesus promo. You may have 20 people in a little niche chapel in the country, where Pastor Joanne turns Christianity into chicken soup for old ladies. But you have no Church.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Since Catholics who vote primarily on life and other "values" issues are a minority of a minority, we will need to go on relying on the activism of the Protestant Christian Right. Up to now, we've been suspicious of their apparent unconcern for the poor, their small-government bias. We were wrong. We should join them in fighting for the smallest, most localized government possible, and build our institutions to survive without state aid, and in the face of state persecution -- which may be coming. FOCA could force our hospitals to perform abortions or close -- in which case we should not only close them, but dynamite them, simultaneously. Preferably on Guy Fawkes Day.
Friday, December 19, 2008
He was deeply moved by a man who gave him a Bible. Unfortunately, he still claims that he knows that there is no God.
Monday, December 15, 2008
I've listened to my fair share of it, too—long drive across the country; busted iPod—and there's something so weird about it. It sounds like regular bad music when you first tune in. The lyrics always seem like regular bad music lyrics, too—"I feel your body next to mine/ And that makes my whole life shine"—but after a second or two you realize that they're singing about Jesus, not some girl named Mandy, and the whole thing just seems, well, creepy. Because rock music—and most other forms of entertainment, when you really think about it—is fundamentally about carnal desire. And Jesus, when you really think about it, is fundamentally not.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
...That's a 2, a 5, and four zeros - a figure that accounts, by Allen's reckoning, for somewhere north of $100 million in annual revenue for the organization, and that contrasts rather strikingly with the number 1,414, which is how many women the organization referred to an adoption agency in 2004-2005. (They've since stopped even reporting the adoption-referral number, apparently.)
If you're not against abortion, obviously, there's no reason any of this should bother you: Planned Parenthood's commitment to performing hundreds of thousands of low-cost abortions annually is a feature, not a bug. But telling people who are against abortion that they're "pro-herpes" because they don't support channeling three hundred million public dollars a year to America's largest abortion provider is the equivalent of me accusing a fierce and moralizing anti-theist like Sam Harris of being "anti-education" because he doesn't want his tax dollars being used to, say, fund the Catholic school system.