Book Recounts Plight of 'Prayer Workers' in Warsaw Uprising

Maria Okonska Penned Memories of Her Secular Institute of Helpers of Mary of Jasna Gora, Mother of the Church

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Shots of the rosary

There are very few books about religious life in the Warsaw Uprising. There is more information from soldiers’ reports than civilians from that painful time. Therefore, the booklet of the founder of the Institute of Primate Wyszynski, Maria Okonska, who died last year, has such a great value. The title of the book is «Reminiscence from the Warsaw Uprising.»

Is the word ‘civilian’ adequate for the closest cooperator of Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and her friends? Indeed the women from the ‘eight’ participated actively in the Uprising, not taking part in armed fights. They chose another ‘weapon,’ bringing spiritual consolation to fighters, supporting them with a prayer and mobilizing them to it. So it was how their role was understood by the late president Lech Kaczynski, who in 2009 granted Maria Okonska and Janina Michalska and Maria ‘Lilia’ Wantowska after her death, Commanders’ Crosses of the Medal of Poland for their activity in the Uprising.

Somebody must be kneeling

Why do we return to this book edited in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, if it was already presented in Niedziela 10 years ago? First of all, because before the death of the author, the book was complemented and corrected. We also do it in respect for the optimistic message of this book and the truth included in it, about which we easily forget, that at the most difficult moments God is always with us.

Maria Okonska did not have any illusions that the Warsaw Uprising would end with a defeat. She stayed in the capital city in order not to leave those who decided for the unequal fight. This motif must be considered in a discussion about the attitudes of young Warsaw inhabitants of 1944. Not everyone believed in the victory naively. Many young people, for similar reasons as the ones of Okonska, did not leave Warsaw, not to leave their relatives.  

When the ‘W’ hour broke out in occupied Warsaw, the Secular Institute of Helpers of Mary of Jasna Gora, Mother of the Church, founded by Maria Okonska, had been functioning for two years in Warsaw; the institute was concentrated around Father Stefan Wyszynski. Eight women (hence the name ‘the eight’) based their evangelical program on eight blessings. They were realizing it in extremely difficult conditions. The purpose was revealed by Okonska in the beginning of her book: ‘We will start with a continuous prayer before the Holy Sacrament on a day and at night in the intention of fighting Warsaw. When insurgents are fighting and nurses are dressing the wounded, then somebody must be kneeling, to pray for them and cry out to God through the intercession of the Blessed Mother’. 

This program of the ‘eight’ was being realized consistently, although they were accused of cowardliness: we are here, on barricades, and you are praying in a safe place.

Smashed Hitler

The ‘eight’ had an ambitious purpose. They decided to encourage the whole of Warsaw to pray. And, indeed, the capital city fell to its knees and, no matter that sometimes the syndrome functioned: ‘When in fear, then to God’, the girls created a place of prayer, were putting up posters calling for spiritual mobilization, were consoling inhabitants of Warsaw, were helping priests get to insurgents under fire, were providing the hosts for the Holy Mass. Thanks to them many people reconciled with God, and priests brought by the women, did collective absolution.

Maria Okonska notes the statement of a priest who was aware that he might be celebrating the last Holy Mass of his life and, therefore, he consecrated so many hosts so that there would be enough of them for a few days.

This attitude of the brave girls was appreciated by the insurgent authorities, and their ‘hit’ was the text ‘New mobilization of fighting Warsaw’.

It was written by Okonska on captured paper, while she was sitting on a kind of a chest, and expressing ideologies of the insurgent work of the girls from the ‘eight’ extremely accurately, as ‘the national retreats of the Transfiguration’. The founder of the Institute of Primate Wyszynski writes: ‘Fighting Warsaw says one common prayer every day – the rosary. There are rosary shots fired from Polish homes, from shelters, cellars, positions of the fight, in the rhythm of insurgent shots of a rifle’.

This text in the conditions of a permanent danger from the Germans was printed in 10,000 copies! The description of how it happened is one of the most fascinating fragments of the book.

Despite the tragedy, there were also funny moments. Maria Okonska describes a barricade that was created by carriages, pavement plates, stones, rails and sacks with sand. On the top there was a portrait of Hitler. Would it be a freak of volksdeutch? Nothing like that. The author explains: ‘Here it was all about war tanks conquering barricades which had to run over their lord and master first. Inhabitants of Warsaw always have a sense of humour and lots of ideas’ – says the author.

Maria Okonska does not pretend to be a heroine. In a few places she confesses to having a feeling of fear. When one of the insurgents points out the fact to her that ‘children of the Divine Kingdom do not have a reason for fear’, she is thinking about him in the spirit: a crazy man and….she is running away to a shelter.

Foxtrots under the barrel of a tank

Maria Okonska was gifted with a literary talent, therefore, her record reflecting ‘the painful picture of days’ is interesting to read, and some scenes are worthy of a film camera. Here is one of them, which is even surrealistic: ‘On the first floor of our house two boys are waiting with a bottle of petrol for a war tank, which is terror of the street. We are neither surprised nor amused that there are only two of them, that there are only a few bottles of petrol, whereas a war tank is enormous and the Germans are armed very well.  We know that the boys will cope with it. In order to shorten the irritating time of waiting, somebody sat at the piano and played tango and foxtrots. These melodies somehow painfully get into souls; one can feel that everyone would like something else. Then I sat at the piano. A moment of reflection, later a melody flew with a strong sound, first the Polish hymn ‘Poland has not been perished yet’, and later ‘Here is a day of blood and glory’. Everyone stands at attention, something shakes throughout the whole body. We sing ‘A song of Warsaw’, forbidden for five years, with emotion at the closed door and windows: ‘Who survives will be free, who dies is already free’. It is difficult to refrain from crying. Tears fall down on the piano keys’.

This story about excellent Polish women, who, as it might seem, set off with a hoe onto the sun, is a beautiful testimony of the spirit’s strength in the Polish nation, steadfast faith and hope, when, thinking in the human way, there was no hope at all.

The small book confirms the regularity of the Polish history, starting with the battle at Grunwald: that together with an armed action, there was always the prayer of the nation.

One cannot help feeling that this experience from the times of the Uprising hardened the spirit of the members of the Secular Institute of Helpers of Mary of Jasna Gora, Mother of the Church, so much that in the worst years of the communist terror, when even bishops failed in their ministry, they were the ones who remained heroically at the side of their Father, primate Stefan Wyszynski.

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Grzegorz Polak

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