In less than three weeks, thousands of American pilgrims will travel to Krakow, Poland, to celebrate World Youth Day (July 25-31) with Pope Francis and millions of young Catholics. Others will take part in stateside World Youth Day celebrations, and many more will be in Krakow in spirit. Regardless of which category you fall into, it’s wise to know a little about the country that will be the capital of the Catholic world for a week. This guide to the best books and films relating to Poland’s and Krakow’s history, culture, and Catholic faith will serve as excellent preparation.
If I were to recommend just one book to buy in preparation for World Youth Day 2016, it would be City of Saints: A Pilgrimage to John Paul II’s Krakow by George and Stephen Weigel and Carrie Gress. This is an engrossing introduction to this beautiful, historically rich city where both tragedies and truly miraculous events occurred. The book shows the significance of Krakow in St. John Paul II’s life and legacy.
Numerous general histories of Poland have been written. For one that isn’t too esoteric, dense, or academic, I suggest Adam Zamoyski’s The Polish Way: A Thousand Year History of the Poles and Their Culture. Americans should also check out Alex Storozynski’s biography of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who fought for Poland’s freedom and American independence.
An entertaining work of fiction about medieval Poland is Eric P. Kelly’s The Trumpeter of Krakow, winner of the 1929 Newberry Medal. Although written for young readers, the novel is equally enjoyable for adults. Kelly, an American who lived in Poland, colorfully recreates medieval Poland, complete with alchemy and magic, the Tartar invasion of Poland, and historic figures like St. John Cantius and King Casimir the Great. Another enjoyable work of fiction on Polish history written by an American is Poland by historical novelist James Michener.
One of the most glorious events in Polish history was the Siege of Vienna of 1683, during which King John III Sobieski of Poland defeated the Turks and saved Europe. Polish-Greek historian Miltiades Varvounis’ biography of the warrior-king is a fine introduction to this exemplary Catholic statesman.
The Siege of Vienna was also the subject of a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, known for his many novels on Polish history, like With Fire and Sword. Many require knowledge of Polish history, so for non-Poles it’s best to start with Sienkiewicz’s classic Quo Vadis, about a pagan Roman patrician who falls in love with a Christian girl during Nero’s persecutions of Christians. This work beautifully shows what’s right about Christianity. There have been multiple film versions (Italian, Polish, and American), but the 1951 American one is considered to be the best.
The Polish nation suffered greatly during the Second World War, yet at the same time it contributed immensely to the Allied victory and the Poles formed the largest anti-Nazi resistance in Europe. An inspiring and ultimately heartbreaking work on this that’s impossible to put down is Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud’s A Question of Honor. This tells the adventure-filled story of Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain of 1940 yet were ultimately betrayed; during that battle, Poles made up a tenth of the Allied pilots and shot down the most German planes. This is interspersed with the story of Poland’s wartime fate, and is accessible even to those with no knowledge of Polish history. Meanwhile, Alexandra Ritchie has written an illuminating work chronicling the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, during which the Poles bravely tried to liberate the Polish capital from the Nazis, with tragic consequences.
One unforgettable memoir of the occupation of Poland and the Holocaust, during which Nazi Germany murdered most Polish Jews, is Wladyslaw Szpilman’s The Pianist. Szpilman, a famous Polish musician of Jewish origin, first witnessed the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, after which he was hid by his Polish friends on the “Aryan” side of the city, later seeing the destruction of Warsaw. The Pianist is one of the most powerful books I have ever read; it depicts unspeakable cruelty and suffering, but also great human kindness. Roman Polański’s award-winning film version is equally powerful.
Another film about Poland during World War II I recommend is Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn, which tells the story of the titular massacre, during which the Soviet secret police shot 22,000 Polish reserve officers and blamed the crime on the Germans. The film by Wajda, whose own father died at Katyn, is as much about the actual crime as about the cover-up.
No list of recommended films and books about Poland would be complete without a discussion on Solidarity, the non-violent movement inspired by Pope St. John Paul II that played a crucial role in the fall of the Soviet Empire. A thorough chronicle of Solidarity was written by the British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash, who speaks Polish and himself was in Poland at the time. Meanwhile, Andrzej Wajda’s stirring drama Man of Iron shows the early glory of Solidarity.
Poland is a country of many holy men and women. Towering above them is Pope St. John Paul II. A great primer on his life and legacy is George Weigel’s The End and the Beginning. Of the many films made about the Polish pope, arguably the best are the documentary Nine Days That Changed the World, about his 1979 visit to Poland and its impact on the fall of communism, and the American television film starring Jon Voight. Other excellent cinematic treatments of Polish saints and blesseds include a Polish drama and American documentary about Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko, the pro-Solidarity priest killed by the communist regime; the well-acted Faustina, a biopic about the Polish mystic St. Faustina Kowalska, featuring a beautiful score by Wojciech Kilar; and Krzysztof Zanussi’s take on St. Maximilian Kolbe.
Poland is a thousand-year-old country with a fascinating history and rich Catholic culture. These books and movies will help you better understand why this year’s World Youth Day is so special.
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