«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Now I also began to regret having entered the monastery in the first place. Here I was, a yeshiva student, about to participate in church worship. I felt doubly hypocritical, first because I was pretending to be a Christian in the company of people who were believers and second because I was a Jew. I wondered what the law said about my actions. I racked my brain but had difficulty finding something that discussed my situation. So I did as I was asked. Yet when I carried a portrait of the Madonna, I hoped Reb Mendel was not watching. I also sought to ease my conscience by talking to the figure in the painting, “You’re a Jewish mother. You understand, don’t you?” My silent comments to an image on canvas somehow eased my mind, but I soon experienced other moments of unanticipated theological delicacy. As I stood at the altar with the other boys and heard the mass being conducted, I tried to counteract that influence by whispering Hebrew prayers under my breath. By far my greatest fear was that I would be asked to carry the crucifix. That action, I was convinced, could not be balanced by Hebrew prayers on my part.
29 Fortunately, I did not have to face the prospect of such apostasy, for after three days the ill boy returned to the monastery and I returned to scrubbing floors, lighting stoves, and feeding pigs.
At the same time I was carrying the Madonna, I was wondering how I could celebrate Hanukkah in the monastery.
Hanukkah had wonderful memories for me. … Although Hanukkah was not a major holiday in my community, it was celebrated with joy. … Again, I began to miss my family and resolved to take advantage of my special circumstances. Carefully, I began gathering wax from the drippings of the votive candles. After I had enough, I made one candle, using for a wick one of the fringes from my tallis-kattan (prayer shawl), which I had worn under my shirt since entering the monastery. Jewish custom requires that the tzitzis (fringes) have eight ends, but seven are also acceptable, so I felt it was kosher to use one as a candlewick. I also was concerned about taking wax meant for the Virgin Mary and St. Teresa and transforming it into a Hanukkah candle. Here I found justification in a talmudic law that states that when something is thrown away it is no longer owned by anyone, so the drippings from the votive candles were no longer the property of the monastery, the Virgin, or another saint. The wax, that is, no longer belonged to anyone, and thus making a Hanukkah candle from it was permissible.
Once I had made the candle, I wondered where I could celebrate the ritual of Hanukkah. A light, even from a candle, would surely be noticed, and my singing might be heard. I began to look around the monastery. Every place I considered seemed to be too public. Then I discovered that one of the smaller buildings used as a dormitory for the monks had a trap door leading to a small attic. … Entering the attic, I felt my way in the darkness along the woodwork until I reached an open space next to the chimney, a crawl space large enough for me to stand. … Lighting a match, I surveyed my domain.
For the first time since beginning to live in the monastery I felt at home. No one would bother me here. Taking my candle from my pocket, I lit a match to its bottom. As soon as the wax melted, I placed the candle on the ledge, pressing it into the brick. The light from my Hanukkah candle cast a gentle glow.
Almost delirious with joy, I began to chant the Maoz Tzur. For just a moment I was back home and younger in age. … The monastery vanished. My struggles with the Madonna and the crucifix faded.
So concentrated was I on the traditional Hanukkah song that I heard neither the creak of the trap door nor the shuffling of feet. But suddenly I saw my shadow cast on the chimney in front of me and turned to see the intense, narrow stare of Brother Peter. I knew he had heard me singing the Maoz Tzur. I wasn’t frightened as I turned to face him, although I don’t know why I wasn’t. Perhaps I had become accustomed to the intensity of Brother Peter’s dark eyes, or perhaps I sensed a bond between us. We stood and looked at each other for a long, long minute.
Just as I was about to blurt out some improbable explanation, Brother Peter said: “Let us sing together, let us sing the Maoz Tzur.” And so we did. Brother Peter knew the Hebrew words and the melody. We sang about wanting to reestablish the Temple and to rededicate the altar. … As we sang, I watched our shadows on the wall. For a moment, just a moment, they seemed to merge into one.
I did not ask Brother Peter why he knew the melody, and he did not volunteer a reason. The next morning, I did not tell Brother John about Brother Peter and the singing, but I knew I had to leave the monastery. I told Brother John that my family needed me at home and that I felt I had to return. He thanked me for my work and told me that I could return whenever I liked. I thanked him and said that my father would call him one of the righteous men. Brother John blushed and said nothing.
I left the monastery that morning through the same half-open courtyard gate through which I had entered. As I left, I was very much aware that I had received one of the rarest gifts of life in the ghetto: kindness from a gentile stranger. In December 1940 any acts of kindness toward Jews would be punished in some way; by 1941 the punishment would be much more severe and specific. By then, anyone in Poland caught aiding a Jew outside the ghetto, either by offering food or lodging or transportation, would be subject to the death penalty. … I was home for the final night of Hanukkah. As we sang the melodies, I thought of Brother John and Brother Peter and of my weeks of peace under the shadow of war and occupation. The festival now seemed deeper somehow, denser, and richer. I did not imagine that it would be the last Hanukkah I would celebrate with my family.
Jewish converts posed a peculiar challenge for the Catholic clergy. Several thousand Jews who had converted to Catholicism, some of them one or two generations previously, were classified as Jews by the Germans and forced into the ghettos.10 These converts required both spiritual care and material assistance. But the activities of the 10 The number of Jewish converts to Christianity who resided in the Warsaw ghetto is variously estimated at between 2,000 and 6,000.
According to official sources, as of January 1, 1941, just after the closing of the ghetto, there were some 1,750 Jewish Christians, but this figure is likely low. Generally, the converts were not well liked by the Jews and even suffered harassment at their hands. See Peter F.
Dembowski, Christians in the Warsaw Ghetto: An Epitaph for the Unremembered (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame 30 Polish clergy were not confined to converts. Monsignor Marceli Godlewski, the pastor of All Saints church, which was included in the Warsaw ghetto, and his vicars Rev. Antoni Czarnecki and Rev. Tadeusz Nowotko, as well as priests from other Catholic institutions, extended their help to everyone. Jewish children from Janusz Korczak’s orphanage often played in the church’s garden. Rev. Godlewski opened the church’s crypt up to Jews making their way out of the ghetto, provided false papers, and hid small Jewish children under his robe to get them away to safety. Among the Jews whom he saved was Ludwik Hirszfeld, a leading professor of medicine. (There is more on the topic of Jewish converts in the Warsaw ghetto later on.) Rev. Godlewski was recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in 2009.
The following description comes from Irene Tomaszewski and Tecia Werbowski, Żegota: The Council for Aid to Jews in Occupied Poland, 1942–1945 (Montreal: Price-Patterson, 1999), at page 36:
When the walls were erected around the Warsaw ghetto, All Saints’ church was enclosed within them. Its parish priest [pastor] was Marceli Godlewski, known quite well before the war for his anti-Jewish views. [In actual fact, Rev. Godlewski was disliked by the Jews for promoting Polish business and workers’ unions as well as credit unions, and for his association with the National Democracy.] However, once he witnessed the terrifying persecution of the Jews, Godlewski turned his energies to the task of helping as much as he could. He did so by remaining in the ghetto and ministering to the Jews who had been converted to Christianity. He also offered the shelter of his church to any others who turned to him.
Father Godlewski gave the Jews who came to him birth certificates of deceased parishioners, thus providing those ready to escape with an “authentic” document. He smuggled children out of the ghetto under his robes, and helped find shelter and provide food on the other side for those who did make it out.
Godlewski frequently had meetings with Adam Czerniaków, the chairman of the Judenrat, listening sympathetically and trying to give hope. Caritas, a Catholic welfare organization, opened a soup kitchen in the ghetto operated by a Father Michał Kliszko, [vicar at the cathedral parish of St. John the Baptist]. It was open to anyone who came. Several hundred Jews were kept hidden with Godlewski’s former parishioners on the Polish side and in a chapel at 49 Złota Street.
Father Godlewski and his young curates remained in the ghetto until they were expelled, but continued their work outside the walls.
Jewish converts to Christianity, even those with a pronounced Jewish appearance, often lived openly among Poles and survived the occupation without being denounced. The following account concerns the Herman family who lived in the Warsaw suburb of Włochy, where they had the support of the local Catholic priests. (Arnon Rubin, Against All Odds: Facing Holocaust. My Personal Recollections [Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 2005], p.151.) I had visited also the Herman family, father, mother, and a daughter Ewa, living in Włochy, a small town near Warsaw. I personally knew the family, because Ewa was a close friend of my sister, the two attended the same school and the same class during the Soviet rule in Lwów, they often met in our house. The Herman family occupied a small house in Włochy, all for themselves. They entertained me cordially. They all three had a very distinctive Semitic features each of them looked not like one Jew, but like ten Jews, together. I think that all the surrounding knew that they are Jews. It was impossible not to. They survived the war; I met them after the war in Kraków. Ewa told me that they had support of the local priest; by the way all Herman family had been converted Jews, and a very pious and devoted Christians.
All interventions on behalf of Jewish converts proved to be futile, and indeed counterproductive. In July 1942, the Episcopal Curia of Przemyśl, at the direction of Bishop Franciszek Barda, petitioned the town’s commissar Giesselmann, through Monsignor Zygmunt Męski and Rev. Jan Kwolek, not to confine Jewish converts in the ghetto. These appeals had the opposite effect: the converts were all arrested, some of them were executed immediately and the rest were sent to the ghetto. The bishop also provided false birth certificates to non-converts, among them Stanley and Lusia Igel (Igiel). (Marcin Janowski, “Polityka niemiecka władz okupacyjnych wobec ludności polskiej i żydowskiej w Przemyślu w latach 1939–1944,” in Kresy Południowo-Wschodnie: Rocznik Przemyskiego Centrum Kultury i Nauki Zamek, volume 3/4, no. 1 [Przemyśl 2005–2006]: p.215; Elżbieta Rączy, Pomoc Polaków dla ludności żydowskiej na Rzeszowszczyźnie 1939–1945 [Rzeszów: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej–Komisja Ścigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, 2008], pp.76 and 79.) Press, 2005), pp.66–68.
It is also necessary to recall the boundless devotion of the pastor of Radzymin parish, Rev. Kaszczałkiewicz, who distributed hot meals to Jewish children in the church courtyard. After receiving threats from the Germans, he had to stop providing the service of his kitchen, but nevertheless continued to distribute dry food and also gave sums of money to the Jewish self-help committee. … In the fight against the typhus epidemic [in the ghetto], the Jewish doctor Abraham Deutscher from Skerniewice [Skierniewice] distinguished himself. He managed to prepare medication from materials which he received illegally from a pharmacy located in the “Aryan” quarter. … He was also aided by several Polish doctors, such as Dr. Władysław Zasławski, and Doctors Tucharzewski, Szymkiewicz, Truchaszewicz and Karpiński from Warsaw, who entered the ghetto secretly during the night, bringing medicine and administering care to the most needy of its residents.
A village priest came to the asistance of Jews brought to a labour camp in Kampinos outside Warsaw. Rabbi Simon Huberband, who was an inmate of the camp in April and May 1941, wrote in Kiddush Hashem: Jewish Religious and Cultural Life in Poland During the Holocaust (Hoboken, New Jersey: KTAV Publishing House;
New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1987), at pages 95 and 101:
We received through some Christians the encouraging news that the priest of Kampinos had been giving fiery sermons about us in church every Sunday. He forcefully called upon the Christian population to assist us in all possible ways. And he also attacked the guards and the Christian camp administrators, referring to them as Antichrists. He harshly condemned the guards who beat and murdered the unfortunate Jewish inmates so mercilessly. … We marched through the village. We were given a warm farewell by the entire Christian population. Dr. Kon told us that when we passed the home of the Christian priest, he would greet us, and that we, in turn, should tip our hats. And that is what occurred. The honorable priest came out of his house with a bouquet of white roses in his hand. He did not say a word, because there were Germans in his home. As we passed by his house we tipped our hats. He answered by nodding his head.
We owed him, the priest of Kampinos, a great deal. Many of us owed our lives to the warm and fiery sermons of this saintly person. His unknown name will remain forever in our memory.