For Joanna Matlak, circulation desk evening supervisor in Messiah’s Murray Library, each night spent working among the towering rows of books offers a quiet reminder of the first 33 years of her life spent behind the Iron Curtain in Communist-run Poland, where the free exchange of ideas and expression were mere words on a page.
“Everyday in my work at Messiah, I check out books to College students that were forbidden by the Communist regime in Poland,” she says. “These books, such as those written by George Orwell and Vaclav Havel, for example, would have had to be printed and distributed in the underground press. Under the totalitarian communist dictatorship we endured, you would have suffered terribly for possessing these books.”
Her long years under totalitarian Communism have fostered in Matlak a passion against injustice which informs her daily vocation within the Messiah community.
Born in 1956, Matlak was raised in Poland during the height of the Cold War era which began in 1945 when the U.S.S.R. claimed the country and lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From 1939 to 1945, her parents were children in Poland during the German and Soviet occupation, and her grandfather was a prisoner in a Soviet concentration camp, who later fought with the Allies against Germany.
Despite her family’s oppression and hardship at the hands of the Nazis, and later, the Soviet Communists, she says her childhood was a happy one and, indicative of her future vocation, rich with literature and learning. “I love books. Our home was always full of books. Literature and language carry the nation’s culture,” she says.
She entered the U.S. in the late 1980s with a temporary visa, attained permanent residency in 1995 and started her job with the College in 1999 (she gained U.S. citizenship in 2000). She recalls an incident which occurred on the day she accepted her job as her “most moving moment in coming to Messiah.”
“I remember sitting in the beautiful Murray Library after a three-hour interview and I just needed to sign a job acceptance form. It had the ‘Apostles’ Creed’ printed on it. Before, under Communist dictatorship, you could never announce you were a Christian believer. And, here I am signing the Apostles’ Creed, which I had been saying my whole life only in Polish and English Catholic masses!” she says. “This represented everything that had been denied to me in Poland under the Communists.”
In 2006, Matlak was key in bringing Anne Applebaum, author of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Gulag: A History”, to speak at the campus. She continually seeks to expand the College library’s collection of Polish historical works, poetry and media materials.
“American youth have a lot to be proud of in this country. I myself am very proud to be an American,” she says. “During my life in Poland, we called President Reagan ‘Uncle Reagan’ because he was such a beacon of hope for us in our struggle. And while it is always good to admit your country’s mistakes, if you lose your history, you lose your identity and your lifeline.”
-Peggy K. Koach
Posted on March 25th, 2011