The following is an op-ed by Greenpoint resident Konstancja Maleszyńska, reflecting on the defacing of a public monument in McCarren Park.
On May 3rd, Poland’s Constitution Day, the monument to Father Jerzy Popiełuszko at a square by McCarren Park was vandalized – the pedestal was covered with trash and the head was bound with a plastic bag. The words ‘No Polish’ were also written on it. The New York City Police Department is investigating it as a hate crime, and those with any information may call 1-800-577-8477.
Having found out only on Friday about what had happened, I decided to spontaneously organize a vigil the next day. On Saturday, May 8 at 5 pm, despite the rain, 25 people responded to the call to restore the dignity of this place, symbolic for Poles and Polonia. Among them were residents of Greenpoint, but also of Middle Village and Westchester, Poles and Americans, younger and older. A blooming, vibrant park on a spring Saturday in Brooklyn paused for a moment to the sound of Chopin’s nocturnes to remember Popiełuszko.
Popiełuszko was born in 1947 in Okopy near Bialystok, where many Polish immigrants who settled in Greenpoint are from. He was deeply religious from a young age, and encouraged by his family to become a priest in an increasingly difficult political climate. In the mid 60’s, he attended seminary and then did mandatory military service in a special, high security unit for clerics. He and his faith prevailed despite harassment and physical abuse, although he was never again in good health. He assumed a post at the parish of St Stanisław Kostka in Warsaw. He was active in organizing Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimages to Poland, and in 1980 became the chaplain of Solidarity, engaging in charitable aid to those persecuted by the system.
Under communism, churches became the bedrock of resistance in Poland, a traditionally and deeply Catholic country. They were one of the very few places where the right to gather could be exercised. The gatherings were a resistance – political, cultural, artistic – as much religious as they were secular. And Popiełuszko led that resistance, holding a popular monthly Mass for the Homeland. He organized the first pilgrimage of workers to a holy Polish site, Częstochowa, which evolved into an annual labor pilgrimage which still takes place till today.
After the August 1980 Agreements, signed by the Gdynia shipyard labor workers, chief among them Poland’s future president and Nobel Peace prize recipient Lech Wałęsa, ten million people joined Solidarność (or Solidarity), including my mother who is still a member. Ten million people in a country of thirty-five million was a staggering number, and it took only eighteen months until the pressure from the Soviet Union and the immediate threat of military being sent from the east to station in Poland caused the then-leader Wojciech Jaruzelski to institute martial law on December 13, 1981. Curfews, arrests, internments, food shortages, power outages, censorship, secret police terror, tanks on the streets. The hope that Solidarity gave brought a backlash, and speaking out took courage, and that courage had a price.
On the evening of October 19, 1984, Popiełuszko was on his way from celebrating a mass in nearby Bydgoszcz. He had been a target for years, observed and followed by the secret police, intimidated and threatened, operating in an atmosphere of increasing political terror. That day, Father Popiełuszko was kidnapped, gagged, bound, held for many days and tortured, and then thrown into the Wisła River in a bag filled with stones. He became a victim of the system but also a martyr for freedom, faith and democracy. His murderers – three secret police agents and their low-ranking supervisor – were tried in an unprecedented but theatrical trial, directed by the government. None served a full sentence, and the higher-ups who ordered the murder were never tried.
The Secret Police of the communist government knew that messengers of love, kindness, faith and freedom were a threat to their authoritarian rule. They knew people of faith were a threat, and not just those of religious faith – also believers in brotherhood, civil liberties, workers rights, and humanity’s right to thrive. Those are the ideals under which we as neighbors of many nationalities met on Saturday. It is the practice in which we engaged, remembering the life and legacy of Father Popiełuszko.
This place is a meeting spot. It is not the first time we have held a vigil there. For example, we meet here to remember the victims of communism each December. But folks come here almost every day, intentionally, to light a candle, lay flowers, pay respects, pause with a heavy bag of groceries on a bench, eat a deli sandwich, meet some friends. Some, the less fortunate of us, also sleep here. This space is good and safe. This space is sacred. And not just because it commemorates a beatified priest who is a step away from being proclaimed a saint by the Catholic church for his martyrdom – it is sacred the way our free public commons are. It is sacred the way gardens or parks or forests are.
We know that statues can and have been divisive and not just since last summer. Many were erected to commemorate villains of history, and came down in due time. I lived through the post-communist transformation in Poland and the taking down statues of Lenin, and renaming of most main city streets in my hometown of Poznań: from Red Army Avenue to St Martin Street, from Stalingrad Avenue to Avenue of Independence. But whoever violated this statue, whoever scribbled ‘No Polish,’ whoever threw trash at it and tied a plastic bag over its head, did not violate a carved stone. They violated the memory of father Popiełuszko, violated our city’s tradition of multi-ethnicity, and violated the social contract we all make with each other when we enter public spaces.
If it was done out of ignorance, I hope that the meeting and this text fulfill their role, reminding of why the sacrifice of Father Jerzy goes beyond Polish ethnic heritage. Of we save this place in our park as a meeting point, a place of rest, and a place where good grows, Father Jerzy’s message will be fulfilled, a message and a dream to overcome evil with good.
Op-eds are submitted by community members and do not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Greenpointers staff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to publish your opinion.