Just before I traveled to Poland last September, I came across a timely quote by Lee Roberson: “Faith in God has not saved people from hardships and trials, but it has enabled them to bear tribulations courageously and to emerge victoriously.” As I deplaned in Warsaw, I thought once again of the courage and triumph of the believers in Poland.
Victorious in Persecution
On my first trip to Poland in November 1990—one year to the day that the Berlin Wall came down—I visited a good number of churches. The first one, near the Baltic Sea in the north, had been commandeered by the Germany army of the Third Reich during World War II and turned into a dance hall and brothel. Later it was used as a bakery. It felt good breaking the Bread of Life in this church that was now being used once more for its intended purpose. At a nursing home operated by compassionate Christians, I saw a 98-year-old woman who was reverently reading her Bible. I was told that she had been brutally sterilized by Nazi doctors in one of the dreaded camps. But they could not sterilize her faith in God because she emerged victorious.
At another church near the town of Oswiecim (you know it better as Auschwitz) I met a Christian woman named Halana. The preacher wanted me to hear her story. After World War II, Poland was “annexed” by Russia and Communism was forced upon the people. Beginning in 1950 many faithful preachers and teachers were sent to Siberia because they refused to quit sharing God’s Word with others. Halana was one of those teachers. “What was your ‘crime’?” I asked. She smiled and said, “My ‘crime’ was teaching the children about Jesus. They told me to stop.”
“And what did you do?” I asked, even though I had a good idea what her answer would be. Halana smiled again. “I kept teaching the children about Jesus!” For this “terrible crime” she was arrested and sent to Siberia, where for six long years (1950-1956) she worked at hard labor in a totalitarian slave labor camp. But God gave her strength to emerge victoriously.
Victorious in Ministry
The story of how the New Testament church came to be in Poland is recounted by the late Paul Bajko in his book A History of the Churches of Christ in Poland (Polish Christian Ministries, 2001). A young man, Konstanty Jaroszewicz (1891-1984) wanted a Bible. A priest told him he would have go to America to get one. So he did. Walking the streets of New York one summer night, he heard God’s Word being preached on a street corner. He went to church, was baptized into Christ, and a Christian mission in New York sent him to Johnson Bible College in Tennessee.
After four years of college and five years of ministering to Slavic people in New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago, Jaroszewicz returned to his native Poland in 1921. By 1939, with the help of many other dedicated Polish evangelists, there were 4,000 baptized believers in 85 churches and 320 mission stations. They had also planted churches in Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, and Latvia. Then came the Nazi blitzkrieg. During this time of tribulation many churches were closed down and believers were sent to Siberia. The majority of them never returned.
One who did survive, however, was Nikon Jakoniuk (1901-1984). Arrested by the Germans three times—the first time was for refusing to fight for the German Wehrmacht—he spent seven months in prison. He referred to his imprisonment as “Bible college” where he preached to fellow prisoners. On one occasion he was interrogated for 48 hours straight. But he too, emerged victoriously. His son Konstanty “Kostek” Jakoniuk later planted a church in Bielsk Podlaski. For many years during the Cold War, this church helped smuggle thousands of Bibles into Russia. On my first visit in 1990 they were preparing three van loads of food, clothing, and Bibles for believers in Romania. Kostek continues to carry on the work of his father. “Faith of our fathers, holy faith! We will be true to thee till death.”
Paul Bajko (1922-2017), the founder of Polish Christian Ministries, was sent to a forced labor camp in Germany in 1944. There he worked long hours in a factory and preached the gospel to his countrymen. He remained in a displacement camp from 1945-1950 where he continued to preach Christ to many young people. He too, emerged victoriously. He immigrated to the United States in 1950 where he married Adela Burghardt (who had also been forced to work in a German labor camp). Since 1954 they have supported churches in Poland producing vital radio broadcasts, hymnals, Christian literature, and raising financial support for about 40 congregations.
Victorious in Hope
Today the outlook is bright for dedicated believers in Poland. Through the visionary leadership of Andrew Bajenski (nephew of George “Ring the Bells” Banjenksi), there are 2,000 Christians meeting each Sunday in five sites in Warsaw—four of them being daughter churches of the famed Pulawska Street church. A dynamic Christian youth camp in Ostruda has been in operation since 1972 thanks to the efforts of George Bajenksi and Kazimierz “Kazik” Barczuk—the latter who now brings many survivors of the Holocaust and children from neighboring nations to special emphasis weeks of camp where they are taught about God’s love and forgiveness. Nina and Bronek Hury diligently edit Word and Life, a full-color quarterly magazine (begun in 1988) that is published for the Polish Christians. Christian Bible institute (founded in 1984), directed by Michael Weremiejewicz, has graduated more than 2,000 students and published hundreds of Christian books for leaders.
In my most recent trip to Poland (September 2017) I spoke in several churches. One was in Lodz, one of three Evangelical Christian Churches in the third-largest city in Poland. We spent the afternoon visiting the infamous Lodz Ghetto and Radegast Station (where thousands of Jews were sent by rail to extermination centers). My interpreter, Elizabeth Modnicka, a member of the church, told me that her aunt helped rescue 13 Jewish families during this period of time. It reminded me that at Majadenek, another concentration camp near Lublin, I was told that believers in the city went out at night and, at great risk to their own lives, threw bundles of bread and clothing over the high wire fences for the starving prisoners. God’s people in Poland have always been at their best when times were the worst.
On September 10, 2017, at the 50th anniversary of the church in Bielsk Podlaski, I preached “The Triumph of Faith” from 1 John 5:4, 5. I noted that a few years ago, on the 95th anniversary of the Churches of Christ in Poland, the churches chose to meet in the Palace of Culture. In 1952-1955 Joseph Stalin built the Palace of Culture and Science as a “gift” to the Polish people—a “gift” built on Polish forced labor. But rather than tearing it down, the Polish people let it stand as a sign of their ability to “bear tribulation courageously and emerge victoriously.” Stalin is dead, Communism has crumbled, Christ reigns, and the believers in Poland have emerged victoriously!
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri.