My family once knew how to resist great evil.
Less so now. Based on the current generation, we seem unlikely candidates for such heroism. The truth is, we’re average. Some of us have done better than others by whatever metric you might judge a life—career, money, education, length and frequency of marriages, number of offspring. We’ve fallen ill mentally and physically. We’ve divorced and failed in all of the other usual ways. We bicker, ignore, criticize, lie.
But during World War II, from their base at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, a batch of my first cousins, once removed, fought the Nazi regime. They glided to legend the same way they traveled to Christmas Eve’s midnight mass when snow was piled high: on skis.
The Marusarz were poor Polish-Catholic farmers whose children had to quit school after eighth grade to help with chores. But several of them—Stanisław, Jan, and Helena—showed unusual talent as skiers and turned competitive in the 1930s, winning national titles in ski jumping and downhill. Stanisław competed in his first Olympic games in 1932 and participated in four more. For a while, my distant cousins seemed poised to transcend their limited circumstances.
Then, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. After a brief but passionate fight, Poland was occupied by the Germans. The borders were sealed, and Zakopane, where the Marusarz family lived, was declared a closed town. The Tatra Mountains, which rose steeply from its limits and divided Poland from present-day Slovakia, were the one escape route left open. As a precaution, the Germans forced the local citizens to hand over their ski equipment on pain of death. Stanisław, Jan, and Helena chose to keep theirs and use it for good as ski couriers, transporting intelligence and refugees over the mountains and to resistance headquarters in Budapest, in the Armia Krajowa, or “Home Army.”
Poles know how to put up a fight. But the melody of self-sacrifice plays over their lives with the tricky insistence of a Chopin nocturne. Helena was caught within the first year and, after several months of interrogation and torture, shot in the woods at the age of twenty-three. My male cousins fared better. Jan survived the war and enjoyed the distinction of shepherding Krystyna Skarbek, reportedly Churchill’s favorite spy, back into Poland as part of a mission to raise citizens’ morale. Stanisław was captured and escaped, then was retaken and sentenced to death after refusing an offer of collaboration; the Nazis wanted him to teach their soldiers and athletes to ski. He managed to break free from his Krakòw prison and hide out for the rest of the war in Hungary. A Polish movie celebrates his daring exploits.
I wondered: How could these people be related to me?
Resistance is a part of every life.
Since childhood, I have been designated as the black sheep of my family. By the age of eleven, I was certifiable. I spent half a year committed to psych wards after I almost succeeded in starving myself to death. For a long time, I thought my sense of isolation from my family was due to madness—both mine and our dysfunction as a unit. In researching my cousins’ resistance activities, however, I came to wonder if what elevated my family’s wartime cadre to heroism and separated me from the current generations was, respectively, religious faith and lack of it.
Like Helena, Jan, and Stanisław, I was raised Catholic. The mystery of the sacraments appealed to me from an early age. So did the incense, songs, and stories. I enjoyed Sunday school, except for the day when a stern female teacher horrified us with graphic details of the Holocaust while extolling Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish-Catholic priest who was later canonized for offering to die in another prisoner’s place at Auschwitz. When I was nine, I went with my mother and aunt to St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, to visit a family friend who lived there as a Trappist monk. I was entranced. Music unspooled from every building on the sloping hill, the fine woodwork gleamed, and everyone was smiling. I asked my mother if I could become a monk too.
Up until my confirmation at age thirteen, I was fervent in my beliefs, praying for a visitation from the Virgin Mary and teaching catechism to fourth-graders. During the molting of adolescence, however, my Goth girl iteration rejected the chrysalis of religious strictures. I’m not at all proud of it, but when my mother insisted that I keep going to church, and no other protest on my part had worked, I retaliated one weekend by standing up before communion and spitting on the cushioned pew.
Crude, but it worked: After that, my mother excused me from mass.
In college, I skirted the spiritual wilds, foraging for mystical writings in various religious traditions. My senior-year paper at Amherst College focused on how the philosophers of the Kyoto School misappropriated the writings of Meister Eckhart to further Japanese nationalism in the interwar period. Beyond that topic, I loved the dark nights, clouds of unknowing, and secret bridegrooms of mystical theology. What I really wanted was the stigmata. Ron Hansen’s literary mystery, Mariette in Ecstasy, about a sultry young woman who is either saint or charlatan, ravished me. I longed to be streaked and smeared with religious ecstasy, envisioning it as a coat of bright paint that would mark me as special.
In other words, I missed the point entirely.
By the time I arrived in Lublin, Poland, on a Fulbright research grant fifteen years later, my opinions about organized religion had been tempered by the alembic of mental illness, drug addiction, and various subgenres of trauma. I no longer needed for God to mark me as special with the stigmata or ecstatic trances. Mental illness was enough stigma, and now I just wanted to survive. Soon after my husband and I landed in Lublin, I was forced to undergo withdrawal from my powerful cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds, most of which weren’t available there. When I came out the other side, I felt—I admit—born again.
It took a few months before I was steady enough to take the train journey from Lublin, where I was being sponsored by the John Paul II Catholic University, to Zakopane. When I arrived in spring, the linden trees were already breathing in heat. From the mountain slopes, prickly Arolla pines peeped at the larkspur unbuttoning thousands of violet blouses far below. The whole town smelled of cheese, bread, and beer. Art-Nouveau-inflected gingerbread houses, dreamed up in the late-nineteenth century by architect Stanisław Witkiewicz, alternated with shops peddling wooden shoes.
Zakopane is a microcosm of swojski, a Polish word expressing an ideal of cozy hominess. A peek inside any traditional Polish home, with its dark-wood paneling and walls stuffed with photos, paintings, and knickknacks, will quickly convey what is meant by this word. At the same time, Zakopane has mystical qualities of its own. Historically, the highlanders of the town and the surrounding Podhale region have been viewed by their countrymen as the embodiment of “true Polishness,” with customs and dress unique to the area. Even the Nazis tried to capitalize on this idea by positioning the Podhale highlanders, whom they called Goralenvolk, as separate from neighboring Slavs. The occupiers claimed them as descendants of wandering German tribes and offered them special identity cards and privileges in the hope of securing native collaborators. Less than one-fifth of the population took them up on the offer, but that was enough to further endanger resistance fighters like Helena.
In Zakopane, I visited Peksow Brzyzek Cemetery, where both Helena and Stanisław are buried. Peksow Brzyzek looks more like a secret garden than a graveyard, with mossy stone slabs and intricately-carved wooden gables marking the deceased. Red and white flowers spill out from the gravestones, floral tributes to national pride. I knelt down before Helena’s grave to say a prayer, my first in many years.
That’s when it hit me: Faith had sustained her through the dark climbs.
Until that moment, I hadn’t been able to imagine how someone from my bloodline could have had the courage to save people at the cost of her own life. But very likely, it was due to her Catholicism. Religion, then, wasn’t just a capitulation, a brainwashing. For many years, I had viewed organized religion as fanaticism. And it can be, but I now saw that was too simplistic to apply in all cases. Perhaps the mystery was not how Helena had located the courage to resist the Nazis but how she and my other relatives had found the courage to maintain faith in something unknown.
Expectorating in pews and my other acts of resistance had been pathetic. Yet I had tapped into the vein of my family’s valor by surviving mental illnesses. Perhaps I could take it on faith that I belonged among them.
During World War II, I learned, there were many forms of resistance.
As I continued to research Poland during World War II, I found another way into understanding my relatives. Namely, education had been an essential component of the Polish resistance, just as it had been a steadying hand in my own life. I learned that the John Paul II Catholic University, my host institution, had been one of the few universities in the country that was not shut down as soon as the Germans invaded. Or rather, it had been shut down and then allowed to reopen, possibly because the occupiers confused it with a seminary. Professors voted to continue teaching as long as possible, at considerable risk to themselves.
That discovery was my gateway into investigating Poland’s long history of education as resistance. When the country was partitioned by Russia, Prussia, and Austria-Hungary from the late-eighteenth to the early-twentieth century, teaching Polish language and/or history was banned in some sectors. In reaction, professors taught classes in their own homes, in what became known as Uniwersytet Latający, or “the flying university.” By this method, many women were granted an access to higher education that they might not have had otherwise; Maria Salomea Skłodowska, better known to the world as Marie Curie, was educated in the Varsovian flying university.
After the September Campaign in 1939, the flying university was revived and renamed the Tajna Organizacja Nauczycielska (TON), which can be translated as “secret teaching organization.” One of the Nazis’ first round of killings targeted professors, journalists, and other members of the Polish intelligentsia—anyone who could foment resistance through rhetoric and prestige. Many of the professors who fled major cities and hid out in the countryside taught covert classes in the TON, thereby elevating the standards of rural education. By the end of the war, the TON had conferred thousands of college degrees and hundreds of medical degrees, made possible by medical students completing their training while masquerading as hospital orderlies.
Resistance workers who engaged in courier missions and acts of sabotage were aided by the floating classrooms of the TON, which provided a meeting place and a way to circulate messages at a time when most places of congregation, including churches, were closed. Teachers, saboteurs, and ski couriers like my distant cousins were all working for the same cause, just coming at it by different angles.
Thinking of it this way allowed me to feel closer to them. Even today—especially today—I see university teaching as one way to fight the good fight as politicians and conservative pundits denigrate truth, facts, and historical accounts of atrocities. Teaching is about forging connections between yourself and students; between students and critical thinking; between disparate subjects, cultures, moral codes, and eras. Like religion, education is a unifying force, as much congregation as inner calling. When COVID-19 broke out in Canada and classes moved online, I reminded my students that education has always adapted to extraordinary circumstances. I told them the story of the TON and suggested that we establish a virtual community and fight our latest invader together.
Religion called to me once again, but I felt some resistance.
One of the resistance strategies espoused by Poles under occupation, when speaking Polish in public had been outlawed, was to pretend they didn’t understand German even if they did. If a German soldier gave orders, some Poles would simply respond, in Polish, “Nie rozumiem”—I don’t understand. They risked mockery and beatings by this insolence, but the right not to understand in their own language carved out pockets of protest and dignity in a conquered land. The numinous, then, is not just the illegible interpreted as God’s grace. It may also be, in certain situations, a conscious and articulate tactic.
Eighty years later, in these distressing times, this phrase, nie rozumiem, resonates with me. It is one of the most beautiful I know in any language. The fact is, I don’t truly understand my family or what is happening to the world today. That apophatic statement represents both despair and wonder to me. In it, resistance and humility are intertwined like the letters and vines of an illuminated manuscript.
In other words, within that statement, and within Poland, I think I finally found the essence of religious faith.