Leader Reporter Wins Poland's "Cross of Freedom & Solidarity"
By Niall Fitzgerald
President Andrzej Duda of Poland last week awarded North Shore Leader reporter Chris O’Neill one of Poland’s highest honors - The Cross of Freedom and Solidarity.
Chris O’Neill first came to communist-occupied Poland in the fall 1981 as an exchange student to the Jagellonian University in Krakow. “I couldn't even speak good Polish then, but I felt a special bond with Poland and the Poles. The well-being of Poland has been on my heart ever since I first came," noted O'Neill.
Then the Soviet Union sent in its army - and declared martial law:
"On the night of Martial Law - Dec 13, 1981 - I remember how one blind student, who sometimes played the guitar in our dormitory, recognized by sound the types of military equipment that passed by our dormitory, including, Soviet T-34 tanks," recalled O'Neill. "Students barricaded themselves in the neighboring dormitory. I saw from my window how the special riot police troops, in a night action, stormed this dormitory, brutally beating students, smashing windows and, arrested some of the protesting students. My dormitory, which the Polish students were forced to evacuate, was then used as a barracks by these military forces."
"One morning I walked into the bathroom and in front of the mirror a riot policeman was shaving," recalled O'Neill. "I passed him to go to the toilet and discovered that the entire porcelain toilet was broken into hundreds of pieces. I asked him "what's this all about?" and he told me to talk to an officer. I did so. The officer said that "the students did it." Of course, a response worthy of laughter because there were only handful of us left, a few people from third-world countries and me from the US. I placed a handmade poster on the door of my room. I made it from pieces cut out of Time or Newsweek. On this collage I had pasted nuclear missiles and a photo of President Reagan against the background of a cloud after a nuclear explosion with the caption "IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT?"
"My continued stay in the dormitory became untenable," added O'Neill. "And I was finally able to negotiate safe transport to Warsaw, and a flight out."
Safe back in the United States - as a senior at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, O'Neill could think of nothing so important as returning to Poland to help its fight for freedom. He applied for and was named a Fulbright Scholar to continue graduate studies at the University of Lublin - a Catholic university in eastern Poland - and the only private university behind the Iran Curtain.
"My colleague Hubert Pietras was politically aware and active in the opposition," noted O'Neill. "He shared uncensored underground materials with me. He had to run through the ‘beating gauntlet’ of riot policeman after they 'pacified' the striking Lublin Car Repair Plant on December 17, 1981. It was he who in later years brought me into Lublin branch of the underground."
As a graduate student in Lublin in the mid-1980's, Oneill joined the pro-democratic underground, particularly the LDP-N.
"I believe that, considering its level of publishing, technical prowness (printing), contacts (scope and quality), logistics and organization of distribution of the uncensored materials it produced, LDP-N surpassed all other underground organizations at that time in Lublin. It maintained a very high level of self-discipline in adhering to the rules of participating in the underground (secrecy, discreteness), and prepared, printed and distributed two books and 14 magazines (with numerous issues). Some publications were printed in more than 5,000 copies. In addition, they prepared and distributed more than 500,000 pieces of leaflets in six "leaflet actions" in the period 1984-1988."
"My involvement with the underground occurred in a variety of areas," added O'Neill. "Including material support in terms of the use of my car and apartment, and also translation, and in preparing the publication of a publication entitled ‘Notatnik Polityczny’ [Political Notebook]. I took an active part in organizing and conducting interviews for this publication both in the US and Poland, including with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the father of the current US ambassador to Poland.
"In the 1980s, I also delivered religious materials from the Pontifical Slovak College of St. Cyril and Methodius in Rome to the underground Catholic Church in what is now Slovakia. I also had the opportunity to support the anti-communist opposition in Cuba by directly providing its opposition activists with medicine, laptops and satellite phones in the early 2000s," concluded O'Neill.
The Cross of Freedom and Solidarity is Poland's highest honor for service to the nation, and recognizes exceptional self-sacrifice and dedication to the cause of Freedom in Poland.
In 2007, the government of Poland recognized O'Neill as a person who had been targeted by the Polish communist secret police, as a person wronged by the communist system. In 2020 the Polish government granted O'Neill the honored status of "Anti-communist Activist," the only non-Pole to be thus recognized.
"I am very moved by this award, but I am also aware of how many people did much more and how small my merits are compared to what they did," stated O'Neill. "Nevertheless, these honors are very important to me because they reflect the state of my soul, the state of my devotion to Poland. Poland has given me so much in my life and I don't think I will ever be able to repay this debt."
"What I treasure most is a small pin I received from "Irek" - an activist of the underground organization ‘Fighting Solidarity’. As a young man he was beaten so badly by thugs from the communist police that he was diagnosed with traumatic epilepsy. He became an invalid and remains one to this day. Despite this experience, he still took part in demonstrations and was arrested 4 or 5 more times. Each time, out of stress, he would get an epileptic seizure on the floor of the police station house."
"I asked him if he was not afraid? His response was 'Of course I was afraid, but it was the right thing to do. I believe in God, Honor and in my country.' After our conversation, he took off his pin from his jacket lapel and pinned it on mine," recalled O'Neill. "These are the people that enabled Poland to regain its independence.
The North Shore Leader congratulates Chris on his outstanding achievement.