I’m guessing you’re Catholic.” Ania nodded. “Me too,” the tour guide replied. “They’d destroy the church in Poland if they could, but there are too many of us.” (Excerpt from “Ania: Behind the Iron Curtain” by Lois Chance, written in collaboration with Anna Kowal and published by Outskirts Press).
Looking back nearly 50 years, it is difficult to remember the tyranny and oppression of life under the Soviet Union. For those who did not live in the 1970s and 1980s, we did not see with our own eyes the collapse of global communism in the Warsaw Pact nations in Eastern Europe; we did not see first the growing cracks in the façade of communism even in its repression of basic human freedoms. We learned only later what it took to live courageously in this time of state-sponsored terror, and we are called higher by those who took such a stand. For every crackdown, there were those courageous prisoners who dared to speak. For every boast and threat by the “Evil Empire,” there was an Alexander Solzhenitsyn. For every compromising politician, there was a Lech Walesa, the leader of the Solidarity labor movement in Poland. For every Western editor urging greater compromise, appeasement, and rapprochement with the Soviets, there stood Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — and Pope St. John Paul II.
In “Ania: Behind the Iron Curtain,” we don’t get a complete picture of the global evils of communism during the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, or any insight into the geopolitical conflict between nations during that age. Instead, we have the personal memoir of a young Polish girl named Ania (now Anna Kowal, who emigrated to Phoenix), written by Lois Gayle Chance. We love to highlight the contributions of local Catholic authors, and this book is Chance’s second biography. She and her husband are members of Sacred Heart Parish in the Diocese of Colorado Springs. She also taught at St. Mary’s High School for 15 years.
A mix of point-of-view history and historical memoir, “Ania: Behind the Iron Curtain” tells the deeply moving story of a young girl coming of age in Communist-controlled Poland, her family having to hide their Catholic faith because of her father’s medical career and what would happen to their lives if they criticized or even questioned the state.
When she was young, Ania’s parents never contradicted what her teachers taught in the communist government-controlled schools in Poland. It wasn’t safe to do that. But as she grew up, the contradictions between what Ania had learned and what she heard and experienced mounted. She promised herself she’d someday live in the West where she would be free to choose her own destiny. Her cleverness, her industriousness, and her faith had brought her far more opportunities than she would have even imagined. Then an opportunity she never dreamed of was offered. Maybe things were changing. But maybe they weren’t.
While we see the fall of communism through the eyes of a young girl in Poland, we get a glimpse of larger actors on a world stage. Ania ditches her finals in school in order to see Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass — a special opportunity that the pope dedicated to all university students in Poland. It changed her life.
These matters seem almost quaint with the passage of time. Surely, we are told today, the communists were not all that malevolent. We just needed to “accompany” them, or “welcome” or “journey” with them, to use more current terminology. What we often forget is the sheer relentlessness of evil in human affairs, and the failure of any compromise to assuage its endless hunger for domination. Evil needed to be confronted courageously, with prayer and principle. There could be no compromise with restless hatred, yet we are daily surprised with today’s punditry that apologizes for the Chinese communist government’s throttling of the Catholic Church, and the breaking of many promises of fair treatment if they would but surrender to the national control of their church. We are told that the Marxist government in Venezuela — a country that has some of the largest energy resources in the world but is bankrupt — is simply misunderstood and needs to be accepted, and all will be well.
We see evil through the eyes of a child in this book, and perhaps a little child can lead us into understanding the freedoms we have as American Christians. We wonder if we would have the courage, the cleverness, the sheer determination to escape from such control like Ania did. Reading her story, told through the insightful eyes of Chance, makes us pray to be worthy of the graces and freedoms given to each of us.
I had an opportunity to interview Chance about this fascinating story. Following is a transcript of part of the interview:
DRB: Lois, why did you write this story?
LC: I am honored to have been trusted by this family to use their experiences for my inspiration, and I am blessed to have been able to use my words to tell this story and give a window into what it was like to grow up and be a young adult in country ruled by communists behind the Iron Curtain.
What can we learn from Ania’s story?
The freedoms that we have, especially freedom of religion, are precious gifts and can be lost before we realize that the choices we’ve made have led to their loss. Faith is the basis of strength. A people’s strong faith is feared by dictators. Also, we are impressed with a young woman’s courage to give up everything to live where she can choose her own destiny and be free to pursue her dreams is remarkable.
How was your life as a young woman different from Ania’s?
Young people’s lives behind the Iron Curtain at that time were so much more difficult than that of young people growing up in America with the freedoms we so often take for granted. What if my parents had to be careful to not say anything that might contradict what my teachers were teaching, knowing that doing so could result in their loss of a job or even arrest? What if the government didn’t allow Christmas decorations in public places and wanted to disband all Catholic churches? What would it be like to be required to attend a college not where I wanted but where the government told me I could? What if I could only leave the country if I had permission from a suspicious government? Writing a story about a young woman who had lived that restricted life and had the courage and tenacity to do well was the inspiration for writing the novel Ania. I was also inspired by her discovering the world on the other side of the Iron Curtain and awakening to what life could be in a society that valued freedom.