«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
August Cardinal Hlond, the Primate of Poland, who was exiled in France, was similarly well informed. His report to the Vatican on the situation in occupied Poland, issued in Lyons at the beginning of 1943, contained information about the confinement of Jews in ghettos and the horrible conditions there, the deportation to Poland of Jews from other occupied countries, and the mass executions and gassings of Jews. These accounts came to him from the Polish government in London. Cardinal Hlond’s report was published in the foremost French Christian journal of resistance, Cahiers du témoignage chrétien, nos. 13–14 (1943), and played an important role in spreading the news of the fate of Polish Jewry in the West. (The report in question, “O położeniu Kościoła katolickiego w Polsce po trzech latach okupacji hitlerowskiej, 1939–1942,” was reprinted in Chrześcijanin w świecie, no. 70 [October 1978], pp.25–53; the relevant passage is found at p.33).
Finally, it should be mentioned that German-occupied Poland constitutes a ghetto to which all the Jews from Poland and Germany have been brought and Jews from other occupied countries are presently being transported. They are interned in ghettos which are found in all the larger towns. They are shot to death for escaping from the ghetto. They are exhausted and in many cases are worked or starved to death, or freeze to death. Sometimes Gestapo forces enter the ghettos and carry out massacres. Every day the Jews are shot in mass executions and killed in gas chambers. Thousands of them were killed in Przemyśl, Stanisławów and Rzeszów; some 55,000 Jews were killed in Lwów alone. In total, about 700,000 Jews were cruelly murdered on Polish territory. There can be no doubt about Hitler’s plan of total and unequivocal annihilation of the Jews on the European continent.
Jewish sources confirm that, while in exile in Lourdes, France, Cardinal Hlond had provided Catholic documents to many Jews and placed Jewish children in monasteries.38 Members of the Jewish underground would often meet at Catholic institutions on the “Aryan” side of Warsaw, as these were considered the safest meeting places. A popular venue was a kitchen run by the Sisters of the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ on Sewerynów Street. This quiet, secluded spot was a regular meeting place not only for Żegota, but for the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB). Vladka Meed (Feigele Peltel, later Miedzyrzecki), a member of the Jewish underground who had been brought out of the ghetto in December 1942 by Michał Klepfisz, provides the following description in her book On Both Sides of the Wall: Memoirs from the Warsaw Ghetto (New York: Holocaust Library, 1979), at pages 84–85.
Michal [Michał Klepfisz] informed me that Mikolai [Mikołaj] Berezowski (his original name was Dr. Leon Feiner) wanted to see me. He was the Bund representative of the coordinating committee on the “Aryan side,” and the central figure in the Jewish underground, and our liaison with the Polish underground. … I was to meet him at Sewerynow [Sewerynów] 6, between two and three in the afternoon, in a convent, which had a restaurant open to the public. It served as a rendezvous for our small circle of underground activists. Since our group had no steady meeting place, we had to use quiet public sites, and could not meet too often in the same locale.
Michal accompanied me to the convent, which was on a quiet lane where people rarely passed. Next to the kitchen were a small waiting room where one could smoke, a cloakroom, and two spacious halls. Our group usually lunched in one of these halls, which was screened by old green palms set near the window. A rare serenity prevailed here. The diners were predominantly office clerks and impoverished middle class people. Compared to other public kitchens, the prices here were very moderate.
Michal guided me to a vacant table, whispering instructions. Two men were dining at a table to the right. One of them was forty years old, with a crop of black hair, a somber face and unassuming black clothes. He looked like a minor Polish government official. (Dr. Adolf Berman, representative on the Aryan side of the Jewish National Committee, and leader of the Left Poale Zion). Beside him sat a blonde gentleman with a well-groomed moustache, calm and confident in bearing.
This was Henryk (Salo Fishgrund), who had been a Bund activist in Cracow prior to the war. Our own Celek [Jankel Celemenski] was sitting by himself at a table opposite.
38 Joseph Tenenbaum, In Search of a Lost People: The Old and New Poland (New York: Beechhurst Press, 1948), 236.
97 Shortly, a tall, elegant elderly man with silvery hair and an upturned moustache, bright eyes, and rosy cheeks—the image of a Polish country gentleman—entered. Like Henryk, he had an air of self-confidence. This was Mikolai. He took in the scene at a glance and, catching sight of Michal, joined us.
After exchanging pleasantries, we ordered our meal. Even-tempered, with a faint smile, Mikolai spoke to me with fatherly warmth. … “Our task is to get more volunteers,” he remarked. “But we must be very careful; if we make one mistake, we can get a lot of people into very bad trouble.” “What will my assignment be?” I asked.
“As you are doubtless aware, our main tasks are to establish contact with Gentiles, find living quarters for women and children, assist Jews who are in hiding, and, in particular, to find sources of arms.” Michal and I listened closely, as Mikolai continued his instructions in a low voice. … As the waitress approached, we stopped our discussion. After she had left, Mikolai asked me whether everything was clear to me. … Again, for the benefit of the waitress, we changed to comments on the weather and our delicious meal. When she had gone, we agreed that I would meet Henryk and Mikolai at this convent every day for lunch. All issues would have to be settled at this meeting-place. On special occasions, however, I was to visit Henryk at his home … This quiet conversation over lunch in a convent kitchen marked a turning-point in my life and activities. From now on I was to be an integral active part of the underground.
I started a new life. We carried on our activities in accordance with the quiet conversations we had had in the convent refectory where practically all the activists who could move about in public because of their Aryan looks converged.
Michael Zylberberg, another Jewish patron of the same kitchen run by the Sisters of the Resurrection, in his memoirs, A Warsaw Diary, 1939–1945 (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1969), at pages 120–21, notes that many Jews frequented that place and that this fact was likely no secret to the nuns.
Jews in hiding often met by chance in the streets, restaurants and churches. In Sewerynow [Sewerynów] Street you would find the Catholic Community Centre of St. Joseph, which had a well-patronised restaurant. The fact that it was in a quiet street and that the service by nuns was so pleasant attracted many Jews to that place. They came there for lunch and to meet friends, both Jews and Gentiles. It was known to nearly all Jews hidden in Warsaw, and offered an hour’s respite from the cruel outside. The atmosphere was peaceful; eveyone knew everyone else and fear was temporarily at bay. I went to the restaurant every day for more than a year. On principle I avoided those whom I suspected of being Jewish; I always tried to sit with Poles. It turned out that these so very Catholic Poles were, in fact, Jews. Among the diners I often saw previous friends and pupils of mine. We glanced at each other but conversation was out of the question.
There was one diner who always attracted particular attention; a heavily-veiled woman in black who always wore widow’s weeds. No one ever saw her face. The heavy mourning garb, which she wore in summer and winter, and the thick veil were symbols of some great tragedy—and I was certain that she was Jewish too. One day I asked a fellow diner who she was. He told me she was Mrs. Basia Berman, the wife of the active Jewish underground worker Adolf Berman. She acted well, and sometimes overacted, the part of a veiled Catholic.
The Jewish underground was known to turn to the Catholic clergy for assistance. The Carmelite convent on Wolska Street in Warsaw, near the ghetto, was one of their meeting places. It also served as a storage place for arms destined for the ghetto fighters. A cot was kept behind the screen in the locutory of the cloister for Arie Wilner (“Jurek”), a liaison officer of the Jewish Fighting Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa–ŻOB) to sleep overnight if necessary. (Bartoszewski, The Blood Shed Unites Us, pp.189–90.) … the Discalced Carmelites gave shelter to the especially endangered leaders of Jewish underground organizations.In their home at 27 Wolska Street in Warsaw, situated near the ghetto walls, help was given to refugees in various forms; this was one of the places where false documents were delivered to Jews; there, too, liaison men of the Jewish underground on the “Aryan” side—Arie Wilner, Tuwie Szejngut, and others—had their secret premises. In 1942 and 1943, the seventeen sisters lived under permanent danger of [death] but never declined their cooperation even in the most hazardous undertakings.
The spirit of those times was captured with unusual poignancy by Polish-Jewish journalist Hanna Krall who interviewed the mother superior of the convent for her book Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with
I am sitting now in the same locutory on one side of a black iron bar, with the Mother Superior in a nook on the other side, at dusk, and we are talking about those arms transports for the Ghetto that went through the convent for almost a year.
Didn’t they have any misgivings? The Mother Superior does not understand … “After all, arms in such a place?” “You mean, perhaps, that arms serve to kill people?” asks the Mother Superior. No, for some reason she had never thought about it that way. Her only thought was for the fact that Jurek would eventually be making use of these arms and that when his last hour came, it would be good if he managed to make an act of contrition and make his peace with God.
She even asked him to promise this to her, and now she asks me what I think; did he remember the promise when he shot himself in the bunker, at Miła Street?
While Jurek and his friends were making use of those arms, the sky in this part of the town became red and this glow even reached into the convent’s vestibule. That’s why precisely there, and not in the chapel, the barefoot Carmelite nuns would gather each night and read psalms (“Yea, for Thy sake are we killed all the day long, we are counted as sheep for the slaughter. Awake! Why sleepest thou, oh Lord?”), and she prayed to God that Jurek Wilner might meet his death without fear.
The Jewish underground (Jewish Fighting Organization) received military training in a Catholic church in Aryan Warsaw, in preparation for the uprising in the ghetto. (Meed, On Both Sides of the Wall, p.125.) Mikolai [Mikołaj, i.e., Leon Feiner] introduced Michal [i.e., Michał Klepfisz] to a Polish underground officer named Julian, who was an expert on explosives. Their first meeting took place at dusk in a church on Fabryczna Street. Michal soon learned the art of manufacturing grenades, bombs, and “Molotov cocktails.” Silent but pleased, he would return from the church, loaded with leaflets and formulae, to sit up all night studying the material.
The main arms depot for the right-wing Jewish underground organization, the Jewish Military Union (Żydowski Związek Walki–ŻZW), was located at St. Stanisław Hospital for Infectious Diseases located at 37 Wolska Street, a place that the Germans were reluctant to enter. The Polish underground organized a cell at that hospital comprised of medical staff, nurses—both nuns and lay personnel, and the hospital chaplain, Rev. Władysław Smyrski (nom de guerre “Jawor”), which worked closely with the Jewish underground. (Maciej Kledzik, “Białoczerwona opaska z gwiazdą Dawida,” Rzeczpospolita (Warsaw), March 12, 2005; Tatiana Berenstein and Adam Rutkowski, Assistance to the Jews in Poland 1939–1945 [Warsaw: Polonia Publishing House, 1963], p.40.) The assistance rendered by Monsignor Marceli Godlewski of All Saints parish in the Warsaw ghetto was already mentioned earlier. Chaim Lazar Litai records the following story of assistance by Catholic priests for the Jewish underground in Warsaw in his monograph Muranowska 7: The Warsaw Ghetto Rising (Tel Aviv: Massada–
P.E.C. Press, 1966), at pages 135–36 and 169–70:
A Catholic church served the Z.Z.W. [Żydowski Związek Walki—Jewish Military Union] as a highly-effective hideout.