Pope John Paul II was at Auschwitz. He knelt in prayer at the Wall of Death, and for a moment it seemed as if the world fell silent with him.
The group gathered around the big color television set in the hotel room was quiet too. But as the collage of images moved on, a flash of red and gold, of pageantry and passion, the Southern Baptists and Protestant ethics in the room took up their talk again, excited and admiring of this man and what he meant.
It seemed all of a sudden that some of those with the most license to enjoy this Polish pope, his courage and his kindliness, were those with the least connection to it. Being Polish and Catholic in this country has always been a difficult dance, one that rarely includes a pirouette of public pride.
It wasn't a matter of fear or hate or active discrimination, at least not among the split-levels nestled neatly in the middle class subdivisions. It was just different, not interestingly or fiercely different, just uncomfortably so in a way that seemed to demand a quiet burial of a heritage that was confusing to begin with.
It was always too bad when the Revolutionary War ended in the history classes of elementary school. That was the last anyone was going to hear of Pulaski and Kosciusko and only the beginning of the jokes that always produced an expression that had to look strange, combining as it did a public smile and a private wince.
It was puzzling. It was doubtful that there was only one Polish-American in all the schools that one Army brat could attend in a lifetime, but no one ever mentioned being Polish the way they mentioned being French or German or even Hungarian or Czechoslovakian. The other Slavs seemed acceptable. At least they didn't seem to be dodging the same stereotypes.
It seemed odd in adolescence that so much incentive was grounded in defeating those sterotypes, in proving that being Polish did not mean being beefy and dumb and overly fond of beer, and that being Polish and female did not mean being ugly and unacquainted with razor blades.
It was only much later that is seemed that Polish in many people's minds didn't Polish at all, it meant working class. Polish was just the way that the contempt had come to be coded. Even so, the confusion remained - a determination to be proud is not the same confort as prode itself.
And then they picked a Polish pope and Polish-Americans accepted congratulations on his behalf and toasted their vindication and surprised their friends by announcing their own claim on his country. For those who weren't Polish it was an unexpected and amusing oddity and of course it still meant an endless string of Polish pope jokes.
Then he went home. And before, he ended his nine-day visit yesterday, he had laughed in the face of the gray-faced bureaucrats and pled for human rights and plucked the strings of nationalism, and even laughed at himself: "What can you do with a Slavic pope?" Some said he was headed for greatness, but at any rate, he had achieved a stunning sort of media celebrity, holding an international audience captive by charisma.
The pageantry, particularly as it was played out against a backdrop of police barricades and broadcasting blackouts, made for great theater. And like fine art, it could touch those watching, on different levels.
In the hotel room, the images on the screen provoked a disperate set of reactions, discordant, comical, thoughtful and touching. The record company executive looked at the crowds that had come to see John Paul II, a vast sea of faces that filled the entire screen. "Look at that," he said. "Just like Woodstock."
The police barricades set off one woman's memory of classroom lectures on Khrushchev, iron curtains and cold wars, and the remembrance seemed oddly out of place sitting there below the SALT, but very real. Another was jarred into thinking of the ayatollah, - "only more lovable, of course."
But others looked at the pope and sounded more personal depths as they listened to what he had to say. "Look how differently he affected us from Paul VI, said an Irish Catholic graduate of the Ivy League, Class of '72. "Paul came along when we were rejecting everything. This man comes along when we're asking what's happening to us."
This viewer is a practiced swimmer in Washington's political riptides. He has seen more than enough to be certifiably jaded. But he watched the stately processions and the enormous crowds, and he began to talk passionately about how the pope had "reminded us of the importance of values and purposefulness, that the individual is most important.He gives us a larger sense of what we are and what we are about."
But among the Polish-American immigrants, their children, and their children's children, the reactions were tempered by time and memory and they were not all tuned to the same key. What is past to one generation is apocryphal to another.
The young take it in stride, with a passing shot at delight. A young man said that he "doesn't mind being Polish anymore," and is intrigued by a growing sense of nationalism toward his long-abandoned homeland. A young woman said her mother is going about the house these days speaking Polish to everyone. Until now, her daughter had only claimed the German half of her heritage; now the Polish side is recognized.
For an older generation, the sense of pride and nationalism that came glowing out of the television cameras was a bittersweet, sometimes angry reminder of what was lost, or sacrificed or compromised or forgotten, as they tried to make it in the now discarded melting pot.
"All along, I've always felt as if I had to have a little something more to put me ahead - I don't know, maybe it was being Polish, I had to prove myself, I was the tough Pollack," said a middle-aged businessman who looked for success and found it. "To me, what's wonderful about the pope's trip is the people who come to see him. You look at their faces and you watch them and you see that these people haven't trampled on their traditions, they haven't ignored them or cut themselves off. They're proud of them, of who they are."
But among the older ones, the immigrants, the ones who left farms to work in factories and live in neighborhoods where ideals could grow as cold as the houses in the winter, among some of them "to be Polish was to be poor and to be poor has always been to be hated and what is the good in remembering such a past?" She is an old woman with rough hands and bright eyes and she doesn't live in that kind neighborhood anymore. Now it is a small home in Rockville and everything is covered in plastic, so it will not get old and worn. As she talked, the memories began to gleam in a kinder light, but they had had the sharpness that comes from a girlhood cut short.
In the hotel room, they admired the pope's courage. One talked in wonder of how, "All he would have to do is say the word and every single person there would overthrow the government in an hour." They talked about heroes and how important they are and how John Paul II has invested invidual action with value once more and how here was a hero that "Almost made you wish you were Catholic."
And as they talked the images changed once more and this time it was the miners of Upper Silesia who had come to see the pope. They were old men and men old before their time, and the hard work had rivered their faces in wrinkles and worn, unblinking expressions.
And the writer who is part Polish and Catholic who tried to hide all that until ethnicity became trendly and then tried too hard to stake a claim in a heritage she didn't earn, looked up at the faces and each one looked like her grandfather, who came here when he was 15 to work in the steel mills, and who was so proud when she was born, the first of her generation, and who died before it had become so important to know him.
Looking at the faces, a lesson was learned about heroes and pride and about coming home. CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 5, Clockwise from top left: At the Brzezinka concentration camp; Pope John Paul II; the pope at the Wall of Death; Polish women in traditional dress, with pictures of the Black Madonna; and the pope passing through the market place at Gniezno. Photos by AP and UPI; Picture 6, Traditional Polish dress at the U.S. Bicentennial, by Gerald Martineau