Oasis in Berlin


A Polish catholic youth movement in the German diaspora

Sunday mornings in Berlin are usually bright and calm. The
3.6 million inhabitants of the city seem to be resting after a busy
week, especially in the sleepy areas far away from the city center.
Tempelhof, a middle class district of Berlin, is no exception. Shortly
before noon, however, the subway-station Alt-Tempelhof erupts with
vivid activity – hundreds of people exhibiting eager determination not
to be late hurry in the direction of Götz Street. A diverse ensemble of
people of all ages and from all walks of life form a long human stream.
They speak Polish and come from all over Berlin. The Holy Mass at the
Polish parish on Götz Street is the final destination of their Sunday
voyage, which can often take more than an hour by subway.

For the Polish emigrants scattered all over the world the Church has
traditionally played a very important role. For example, in the year
1854 a whole Silesian village under the leadership of the priest
Leopold Moczygeba emigrated to Texas and founded there the first Polish
"colony", Panna Maria. The Polish parishes became a kind of safe haven
for many emigrants stranded in the new world. In the late 19th century
in America, schools and social security systems for emigrants, as well
as manifold charity foundations, were founded within the parishes. The
churches were not only religious institutions, but also places where
tradition, culture and ties to the homeland were cultivated for
generations.

To many of the estimated 100,000 Polish-speaking
citizens of Berlin, the Polish parish has provided a feeling of
continuity and mental security in a rapidly changing world. During the
early 1980s, when the situation in Poland was far from stable and the
contact with loved ones was hindered by the Iron Curtain, the churches
played an especially important role. Church became a place where people
could meet, organize help for their families at home and exchange
information.

In the late 1980s West Berlin became once again
the favorite destination for tens of thousands of Poles, mostly of
German origin. This may have signalled the last time in Polish history
when such large numbers of emigrants took up residence abroad. This
time, however, they included an unprecedented number of young people
and children among them. Some schools in Berlin had up to 200 Polish
students learning German, whilst desperately trying to find their
footing in a society very different from the one they came from. In
this new and often multi-ethnic surrounding, they often had their old
experiences, values and norms questioned by fellow students, and even
some teachers. The officially encouraged integration process did not
always proceed as smoothly as planned.

The unpleasant impression of being unwelcome, due to the majority of the students’ often indifferent attitude towards the newcomers, resulted in a tendency among young
immigrants to isolate themselves. But the real differences lay deeper.
"The over-expressed individualism, materialism and hedonism of the
fun-generation was something I could not accept", recalls Marek, who
moved to Berlin at the age of 16. The questions surrounding who they
really are, where they come from, and what their goals are, sometimes
became more important for many of these teenagers than for their peers
in the old or the new country. Answers were urgently needed.

The Polish parish in Tempelhof responded to the spiritual quest of many
young people. It was Robert Zurek, a slim, strong minded and deeply
religious high school student from Chorz?w, Silesia, who had the idea
to adapt "Ruch Swiatlo-Zycie", or "Light and Life", a popular Catholic youth movement. This idea became an influencing force in the life of
some two hundred young Polish emigrants throughout the last decade.
Robert was soon joined by Dorota, the leading musician of the group and
Rafal, a restless intellectual, as well as a dozen other young people
who wanted to share their religious experiences with their peers at the
Polish parish in Berlin.

Friday Bible groups, prayers, and long discussions about faith and virtually all other aspects of human life set the weekly rhythm of the group, which begun to attract more and more people. "I was brought up in a Catholic family but at the age of
13-14 I lost my faith and quite consciously mingled with folks you
could call seditious. After one year of such a life I experienced a
radical conversion. I sensed a great happiness and a real friendship
with Jesus", recalls Robert about his time in Poland. "The work with
the group in Berlin was the logical consequence of my beliefs. And now
that Jesus expects us to share our faith with other people, I started
it within the movement I knew very well", he said.

"Light and Life" was founded in the 1970s by priest Franciszek Blachnicki and developed into one of the most popular Christian movements in Poland.
The beginnings, however, were quite difficult. The communist state regarded the Church as a political enemy and therefore opposed any activities which went beyond traditional forms of religious worship. The communist party was truly afraid of the fact that the Church was reaching out to young people and successfully attracting them. Blachnicki, a pre-war scout and active member of the Polish Underground during the Nazi-occupation, was not a person who gave up easily. His wartime experiences strengthened his resolve. After being arrested by the Gestapo he was sent for 14 months to Auschwitz and later sentenced to death. While on the death row he had a revival experience. "If You save my life, Lord, I will offer it to You", he said while waiting for the execution. The execution never came and Blachnicki kept his promise.

After
the war he became a priest, studied theology, and searched for ways of
making the society a better place to live in. His anti-alcoholic
crusade caused anger in the communist party which lead him to prison –
ironically, he was held in the same prison where he sat awaiting
execution during the Nazi occupation. After spending several months in
jail he was released in 1961. Blachnicki was eager to encourage the lay
people, especially the youth, to participate willingly in the life of
the Church. His work corresponded with the main ideas of the Second
Vatican Council.

But above all he wanted to make the young generation
feel that God loves each and every one of them, and that their lives
represent a great value, which requires responsibility. The cycles of
the two-week retreats – usually in the southern, mountainous
countryside – became a key element of the movement. In the gray and
apathetic mood into which the adults’ world sunk after the crackdown of
Solidarnosc in 1981, these retreats turned out to be a real oasis of
faith and hope for thousands of young people with their, often very
dedicated, priests. Hence, the movement became known colloquially as
the Oasis.

Under usually spartan conditions in roughly adapted rooms
offered by local farmers, they tried to build a Christian community.
They studied the Bible, sang and prayed, hiked in the mountains,
searched for solutions to their dilemmas, made ambitious promises and
daring plans for the future. The movement, which developed close links
to almost every parish in Poland, swept across the whole country. By
the 1990s, there were about 40,000 young people who took part in the
annual retreats and participated in the pastoral work of their parishes.

In Berlin the Oasis faced a number of challenges. It was not always easy
to attract people in a city bursting with entertainment options for
youth. However, despite the long distance it was possible to maintain
contacts with similar Polish groups across Germany and to join the
retreats in Carlsberg several times. Carlsberg is located near
Frankfurt, where the center of the movement in Germany was established,
and where Father Blachnicki had died in 1987. Gradually, however, ties
to Poland gained in importance and frequency.

For many younger members
of the group the retreats provided the first real opportunity to learn
about the country where they were born. For the older ones, the idea of
returning – which is contemplated by almost every emigrant sooner or
later – gained additional drive and the frequent contacts with
dedicated priests and monks reassured their religious views. By the
time the younger members replaced the generation of the "founding
fathers", the focus of their work shifted from theological disputes to
the charity work.

Marek, just finishing his diploma in economics at the Free University of Berlin, reflects for a moment when asked about his years in Oasis. "It gave me the foundation of my choices for my whole life", he said. Dorota, who will be receiving her Master’s degree in archaeology shortly, adds that during the time when
she and her father felt quite alone in Berlin, it was Oasis and its surroundings where she found reassurance and formed her ideals. "It’s not a coincidence that my husband, Slawek, worked in the movement too" she said. "We wanted to keep our ideals in our family alive for our whole life".

Was Oasis then a success story in Berlin?
According to Robert success is not a proper criteria by which a
Christian should evaluate his work. "We have done what we could."
However, he admits with a trace of disappointment in his voice that
unfortunately they did not succeed in attracting any German youth to
the movement. "Perhaps the generation who really grows up in Berlin
will be more lucky in attracting native German youth to the movement".

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