Iron Curtain excerpt: Anne Applebaum on why the communist party had trouble controlling the miracle at Lublin cathedral.

The miracle at Lublin Cathedral.

Josef Mindszenty
Cardinal Josef Minszenty, an opponent of Stalinist Communism, in Budapest, Hungary

Photo by Michael Rougier//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Politics could be controlled. The media could be controlled. But emotion, especially religious emotion, could not be controlled entirely. This was especially true in Poland, where an extraordinary, spontaneous outburst of religious emotions took place in 1949, in the city of Lublin. It began in the summer, on July 3, when a local nun noticed a change on the face of a Virgin Mary icon in the city’s cathedral. The Madonna—a copy of the black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland’s most revered icon—appeared to be weeping. The nun called for a priest. He witnessed the miracle too, and both began to pray. Others followed suit. With astonishing speed—this was before telephones were common—the news of the miraculous weeping virgin spread across the city. By evening, the doors of the cathedral could not be closed because of the size of the crowds.

In the days that followed, the news spread further, and pilgrims from all over Poland began to make their way to the cathedral. Of course there was no public announcement of the miracle, and the regime did what it could to discourage the faithful. The authorities blocked public transportation into the city and placed policemen along the roads to prevent people from getting there, but to no avail, as one eyewitness remembered:

It was in July, 1949. Five of us went on foot since they had already stopped selling tickets for the train to Lublin. When we got to the cathedral we stayed there all night and in the morning there were already thousands of people, and at about seven o’clock they began standing in a queue waiting for the cathedral doors to open. After some time a policeman came and took away the priest but people still waited longer. And then they came again and took the keys to the cathedral and still people waited.

And then a bishop came and told people to go home because the cathedral was not opening so then people were really shocked and sang and prayed and that went on until afternoon when I went to the side entrance of the cathedral and at first I didn’t understand what was happening and then … I saw that they were breaking down the doors and I am helping and people are singing and praying and shouting “Don’t close our church” …

Eventually, the eyewitness entered. He saw the face of the Virgin Mary light up. Tears of blood flowed down one of her cheeks. “I believe it was a true miracle,” he wrote.

Communist officials were stymied. At first, they kept the story out of the newspapers, in the hope that it would go away. But as more and more people came, and as the cathedral square filled up with pilgrims, many of whom set up camp in front of the church doors, they changed tactics. On July 10, they launched an “anti-miracle action”: An extra 500 policemen arrived from Warsaw and Łodz, and the newspapers were given the go-ahead to begin a negative propaganda campaign. The pilgrims were described not as “peasants” (a positive word in the Communist lexicon) but rather as a “crowd” or “mob” of “country people,” naive illiterates, even “speculators” or “traders” who could be spotted carrying vodka bottles in the evening. Government authorities solemnly examined the miraculous painting, declared it had been damaged during the war, and said that any apparent markings on the face must be due to humidity. Church leaders, including Cardinal Wyszyński himself, were pressed to declare the miracle false. Fearing that the pilgrims could face terrible repercussions, clergymen told the faithful to go home.

But the faithful kept coming. The following Sunday, July 17, the inevitable confrontation took place. Local party leaders organized a demonstration in Litewski Square, in the city center. They denounced “reactionary clerics” through megaphones so powerful they could be heard inside all of the city’s churches. Inside one of them, the Church of the Capuchins, the congregation began to sing a hymn: “We Want God!” As mass came to an end and people poured out onto the streets, arrests began. The church-goers tried to escape from the town center, but policemen blocked the side streets and herded them into armored trucks—a scene, one historian remarks, not so different from the street arrests which the Nazis had carried out in Lublin a few years earlier. Some remained under arrest for a few hours, some for up to three weeks.

By August, the authorities had found a way to fit the event into their overarching narrative. How had it happened that news of the “miracle” had travelled so quickly, even to places hundreds of miles away from Lublin? Who spread this fantastic rumour through the whole country? Polish radio had the answer: “The organizers of the ‘miracle’ in Lublin turn out to be reactionary cliques of clerics, acting in concert with enemies of the Polish nation and the People’s Republic, together with ‘Voice of America.’ ” This, the reporter ominously concluded, was hardly surprising: “Voice of America was very pleased that in Poland people abandoned positive work in the fields, and ordered them to gather in front of the cathedral in indescribable conditions. … This was not a manifestation of faith. It was an organized demonstration of medieval fanaticism … for purposes which had nothing to do with religion.”

Eventually, the communist party reasserted itself, re-established its narrative, and the hysteria died down. But the event was yet another reminder that they were not achieving their aim: total control of all aspects of the economy and society.

This article is the second of four excerpts drawn from Anne Applebaum’s book, The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956.