For several years I organized the Tertio Millennio Seminar in Krakow that every July brings together 10 students from America, 10 from Poland and 10 from other countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union. I first went as a participant in 1999 and over meals during the three weeks of the seminar I asked several students what their life had been like under communism. Their answers astonished me, having grown up in the comfortable west. Their answers lead me to ask others during my many visits to Poland. Most spoke of a very grey life, both literally and figuratively. The pollution choked the air and buildings were covered with soot. Infrastructure projects were few and far between, and when they happened, often materials like concrete were stretched with sand or other additives, leaving the completed project crumbling within months.

The gray also tainted most social relationships. No one was to be trusted. People from every walk of life were on the government payrolls in exchange for travel visas, better jobs, food or cash. One priest discovered decades later when documents were made public that two women had the job of listening in on his every phone conversation for years.

Distrust, disunity and fear were some of the Soviet’s favorite tools. Apartment buildings were constructed to prevent residents from encountering each other in common areas. Large families were discouraged by tiny apartments and abortion was offered on a massive scale.

State brutality and harassment were quite commonplace. One night I witnessed a strong Polish man, now a high ranking government official, break down in tears as he watched footage of the police brutality of the 1980s under martial law. He had been there and reliving it was too much to bear. 

As for faith, any kind of it, particularly in countries other than Poland where the Church was able to keep some kind of a public foothold, was treated as a deep secret. Bohdan from Ukraine spoke about how his grandmother baptized him and taught him about the Church, but made him promise to never tell a soul, not even his parents (today he is a priest).

Commercial goods were always scarce even if one could afford them. Shoes were all made of plastic (and were nothing like crocs), mattresses from hay, the toilet paper was miserable, and there was no deodorant. All the items that seem so commonplace to Americans were simply not available. One mother told me how she had to boil her children’s diapers because the only laundry soap available irritated their skin. Even a coke can was a treasured item. Hubert told me about how his father sacrificed $1 from the family’s monthly salary of $30 for him to get to drink a coke. He (and any other Polish child lucky enough to get one) saved the empty can for years, storing pencils in it.

Private property was also no longer a right. For centuries, Jan and his aristocratic family had a lovely manor home in the north of Poland. Under communism, the Soviets moved perfect strangers – several families, in fact -- from eastern Poland into their home, dividing it up so that Jan’s family was left with the use of the kitchen and a bedroom.

Things changed dramatically when the Berlin wall came down. Agnieska told me about her first visit outside of Poland. Her uncle and a friend were planning a trip to Berlin to have a meal and then return. Agnieska, enthralled by the idea of seeing the west, begged her uncle to take her and her young son on the long car trip with them. Not having enough money to pay for a meal, Agnieska and her son sat in the car, taking in everything West Berlin had to offer while munching on bread. After hours of dining, the two older men returned to the car and they all drove six hours home. For Agnieska and her son, the long trip had been worth it.

Perhaps the best glimpse of the Soviet “lifestyle” is offered in City of Saints in the chapter on Nova Huta, or the city built without a church. The city was constructed by the Soviets to be everything Krakow was not: industrial, secular, with angular and sterile architecture, in contrast to Krakow the city of royalty, scholarship and art. In typical communist planning, none of the resources for the massive steel mill were indigenous to the area and had to be brought in from distant regions. Hundreds of thousands of young robotniks, or factory workers, were also moved from distant areas in the hope that separating young people from their families and pious devotions would turn them into atheistic communists. As I wrote in City of Saints, the communists were never quite successful:

The construction of Nova Huta (“New Mill” in Polish) began in 1949, and from the outset, the city plan (which included wide boulevards for May Day parades) included no church—a first in the millennium-long history of Poland. At the height of production in the 1970s, Nova Huta produced 6.7 million tons of steel per year. What it did not produce was “New Soviet Man,” Polish-style. The people of Nowa Huta demanded a church, and made that demand known by erecting a large wooden cross on the site where they thought a parish church should be built. Bulldozed and rebuilt, time after time, the Nowa Huta cross became a powerful symbol of the failure of the communist program of remaking Poles in the image and likeness of proper communist workers. (pg. 220)

Eventually, Nova Huta got its church and Poland got is freedom – both because of the courage, wisdom and faith of Pope Saint John Paul II.

These stories aren’t told much anymore and the students of the Tertio Millennio Seminar are generally much too young to have experienced communism first hand. And yet they are still important for several reasons. One is to learn from the past, but another is to understand the oppressive reality under which Poland struggled. To understand this struggle is to understand just another reason why Pope John Paul II is still so revered and loved in his country that today is so vibrant, colorful and alive.