«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
3 By comparison, in France, in 1929, there were almost 46,500 diocesan priests, 7,000 priests who were members of religious orders, and 117,000 nuns. The number of clergy in Italy was even greater, with 129,000 nuns in 1936. There were some 40,000 nuns in Belgium, a country with a much smaller Catholic population than Poland.
4 Andrew Turchyn, “The Ukrainian Catholic Church During WWII,” The Ukrainian Quarterly, vol. XLI, no. 1–2 (Summer/Spring 1985), pp.57–67. Out of some 2,800 priests and male religious, 25 were arrested and several were sent to concentration camps, where all but one survived. Rev. Omelian Kovch, of Przemyślany, who was arrested for providing false baptismal certificates to Jews, perished in the Majdanek concentration camp.
12 The Early Years of the German Occupation, 1939–1941
The Germans perpetrated atrocities against both Poles and Jews from the very first days of the subjugation of Poland. On September 4, 1939, the Germans killed several hundred Jews in Częstochowa. Hundreds more Jews and Poles were rounded up and driven into the Cathedral of the Holy Family where they were shut up without food for two days and two nights. Appeals to the German authorities were fruitless. Priests tried to comfort and
help the captives as much as they could. Avraham Bomba, one of the interned Jews, recalled:
You come into the house. Imagine yourself. … Somebody comes in without anything, without any reason. Out from the house. Not allowed to take water, not allowed to take bread … bread, not allowed to take anything. And in the street. In the street with guns, they start running after you until … until you got to the place. … they took me into a church. The church … was the Holy Family Church. … the people they couldn’t get so fast in in the back of the church. The got killed in the front going in through the door. And they killed a lot of people that way. We were there. There was no food. There was no water. There was no places, you know, for the human being … We were over there, a priest. … His name was (not deciphered). He was one of the finest gentlemen of the Catholic priest I have ever met. He said to us, “Children, never mind you’re without any church. You do whatever you can. …” He tried to bring in water for us. And really, I admired him as a gentleman. He knew that we are Jews … We’re there for three days … (Interview with Avraham Bomba, September 18, 1990, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) In the southern town of Będzin, not far from the German border, on the evening of September 8, 1939, the invading German army set fire to the synagogue and adjoining houses on Plebańska and Boczna Streets. Jews fleeing from their burning homes were fired at by the Germans. They converged on the street leading to the nearby rectory of the Church of the Blessed Trinity. Their screams alarmed the pastor, Rev. Mieczysław Zawadzki, who immediately ran to open the gate to the churchyard over the protest of German sentries. He led the Jews to safety on Castle Hill. Those Jews were spared the fate of scores of Jews and Poles whom the Germans executed that night. Later during the war Rev. Zawadzki also sheltered a Jewish family. (Stanisław Wroński and Maria Zwolakowa, Polacy Żydzi 1939–1945 [Warszawa: Książka i Wiedza, 1971], p.321.) In 1960 a delegation of
Jews presented him with the memorial book of the Jewish community of Będzin with the following inscription:
To the Most Reverend and Distinguished Dean Mieczysław Zawadzki. We present you with this book which embodies the soul of the Jewish community in Będzin, in gratitude and full appreciation for your humanitarian and courageous dedication in rescuing human lives from sure annihilation. The Jewish community of Będzin, living in Israel, will never forget your remarkable person, who risked his own life to tear away many of our brothers from the hands of the Nazi assassins.
Rev. Mieczysław Zawadzki was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile. Another eyewitness, Helen Stone recalled (Lyn Smith, ed., Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust [London: Ebury Press/Random House, 2005],
They burned our synagogue with the people inside. Opposite the synagogue was a church, and about two o’clock in the morning the priest heard that the synagogue was burning and he ran to the church, opened the door in case somebody ran out of the inferno, and quite a few people did; he saved their lives. I was moved about nine or ten times in Bedzin [Będzin] as they were making streets Judenrein—cleansed of Jews.
The German invaders repeated this pattern throughout Poland. As the German Army rolled through Poland, Jews were systematically rounded up, abused and executed. Scores of synagogues were torched. The following eyewitness report, which was published in The Inter-Allied Review, no. 3 (March 1941), describes the daring but futile intervention of a priest in Szczucin, a small town near Dąbrowa Tarnowska, and the reaction of the
It happened in Szczucin on the day of the Great Pardon [Day of Atonement, September 13, 1939], the most solemn of Jewish religious holidays. In spite of the German occupation, all Jews, old men, women and children, had assembled in the four or five houses of prayer. At 11 A.M., four lorries stopped before the synagogue near the Market Place and about a hundred SS. Men alighted armed with revolvers and machine guns.
Half of the surrounded the synagogue while the other half entered it and evicted the faithful. They tore their prayer vestments from their bodies, and stripped them naked to the belt. Then they threw out the sacred scrolls, the prayer books and the embroidered vestments which they tossed upon a pile of straw. Silver and gold vessels were placed in the lorries.
Whipped and hit with butt-ends, the Jews were compelled to dance around the pile, and the oldest among them were ordered to set fire to the straw. When the victims would not consent, they were beaten, kicked, slapped, and spat upon. The Germans pulled their beards and peyses [payes—a long beard], tore the wigs off the women, and jeered at their shaved heads. They pulled the hair of the young girls, tore off their dresses, and forced them to run naked around the Market Place. Now and then, the Nazis fired volleys into the air to scare the already panicky crowd.
At noon time, the vicar of the local Roman Catholic Church appeared on the scene in his sacerdotal vestments and implored the German officers to release the Jews and to permit them to continue their prayers. The SS. Men laughed at him and the officer told the priest that his turn would come. A few minutes later the Germans set fire to the straw pile and the synagogue which was totally destroyed within one hour … Often, as in the small town of Poddębice near Łódź, priests were treated on par with rabbis, so there was question of the former being in a position to come to the defence of the latter. (“Poddebice,” in Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Internet: http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/pinkas_poland/pol1_00184a.htm translated from Pinkas ha-kehillot Polin, volume 1 [Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976], pp.184–86.) Shortly after the Nazi armies conquered the town, (on September 14, 1939, the Jewish New Year), the Germans arranged a “show.” They ordered the people to organize two procession—a group of Jews with Rabbi Rothfield in front, and Poles with the local Priest. Later, they imprisoned all those who marched for three days. Finally, they forced the Rabbi and Priest to collect with their hands the excrement which had accumulated.
Large numbers of Jews as well as Poles fled eastward before the advancing German army. Refugees, regardless of their origin, met with widespread sympathy and support on the part of Poles. As we shall see, they were well received at convents and monasteries too. A Jewish refuge from Aleksandrów wrote in 1940 (Yad Vashem
archives, no. M.10/AR.1–789):
I want to raise here one more issue how the [local] population through which we passed treated us, the refugees. One must admit that regardless of our Jewishness they did whatever they could—and sometimes even more—to ease our distress. … People we didn’t even know literally dragged us to their home [saying] that they could not allow Jews to be left in the streets in those days.
Jews often fled from their homes is search of safety and refuge in surrounding towns, as was the case for a teenage girl from Różan (nad Narwią), a small town near Pułtusk, northeast of Warsaw. Many Poles, among them priests—like the one in Maków Mazowiecki, came to their assistance. (Rachel Weiser-Nahel, “I Was Just Thirteen,” in Bejamin Halevy, ed., Sefer zikaron le-kehilat Rozan (al ha-Narew) [Tel Aviv: Rozhan Societies in
Israel and the USA, 1977), p.40 (English section); translated as Rozhan Memorial Book, Internet:
http:www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/rozan/Rozan.html.) When the war broke out we fled to the village of Bagatella [Bagatele] where we had many friends—the village-head among the rest. A few days later he told us to leave explaining that such were the orders he had received from the Germans, who had threatened to [take] revenge on anybody would contravene—and that included his family, too. It was on Sabbath-Eve. Everything was ready to receive the holy day and the table was laid. We had to leave all this behind and went back to Rozhan [Różan], where we stayed for another few weeks. Those were dark days. Jews were walking about sullenly and downcast. Everyday the men had to go out to forced labor and you could never be sure of coming home safely. … 14 At the same time another group was made to build fortifications. The murderers killed Shmuel from the oil-mill while he was working. We were bewildered and felt helpless. One of the “good” Germans advised us to try to get away: “There'll be no life for you here.” So we moved to Makov [Maków Mazowiecki], but couldn’t stay there either. The priest, one of the honest Gentiles, bribed the Nazis in order to make them let the Jews alone. They agreed on the condition that strangers who had arrived as refugees leave the town. So we had to clear out in all haste and come back to Rozhan. We stayed overnight with a Gentile woman, called Brengoshova … where we also found the Greenwalds and my aunt Rebecca and her children.
Interventions on behalf of Poles and Jews, seized by the Germans Sandomierz in September 1939, were made by clerics at the behest of Rev. Jan Kanty Lorek, Bishop of Sandomierz. Rev. Jan Stępień, a professor in the diocesan seminary, recalls Bishop Lorek’s and his own role in his memoirs. (Julian Humeński, ed., Udział kapelanów wojskowych w Drugiej wojnie światowej [Warszawa: Akademia Teologii Katolickiej, 1984], p.282.) All the men of military age, including Jews, numbering around 2,000, were taken from Sandomierz and interned in an open-air camp in Zochcinek near Opatów. With the authorization of Bishop Jan Kanty Lorek, I attended there and pleaded with the commander of the camp to release them. After lengthy negotiations he agreed to their release on the payment of 20 złotys per person. I collected contributions with Mr. Goldberg, a shoemaker from Sandomierz. After collecting half the sum we went to Zochcinek. The commander refused to release the Jews. I stated that the Jews too were citizens of the town and that I had come in the name of the town council and would not leave without our Jewish citizens. We were successful. I remember that autumn evening as long columns of men passed by me. Although it was dark, the eyes of those men glowed with sincere appreciation. Prayers in my intention, and in that of Bishop Lorek’s, took place in the Sandomierz synagogue for a week.
Rev. Jan Stępień’s efforts on behalf of Jews are described in Marian S. Mazgaj, In the Polish Secret War:
Memoir of a World War II Freedom Fighter (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland, 2009), at pages 36–37.
In organizing Jewish work brigades in Sandomierz, the Nazis requested that Father Jan Stepien [Stępień] serve as an intermediary between themselves and the Jewish community. As a professor of biblical studies in the diocesan seminary of Sandomierz, Father Stepien knew the Hebrew language and spoke German. He did all in his power to persuade the Nazis to exclude from the work brigades Jews who were old and disabled. At times, he was successful in his persuasions. The Jews of Sandomierz respected him.
One time, Father Stepien went to a watchmaker in the city who happened to be an elderly Jewish man and asked him to repair his watch. The watchmaker took the watch and asked the priest to pick it up the following day. When the priest came back the next day, the watch was repaired. The priest asked the watchmaker how much he owed him. “One singly zloty [złoty],” was the answer. The priest looked at the Jewish man with disbelief because one zloty represented very little monetary value. The watchmaker noticed his customer’s surprise and said, in a way of explanation, something to this effect.
A long time ago there was a very famous monarch. One of his ministers was a Jew. On the occasion of the king’s birthday, he invited his friends to his palace for a banquet. A Jewish minister was one of the invited friends. When the dinner was over, the king went around the tables and offered each guest a cigar. Men lit their cigars and began to smoke but the Jew did not. He held his cigar respectfully in his hand and waited. The king noticed this and asked as to why he did not smoke the cigar. The minister replied, “This cigar, which came from your majesty, is too valuable for me to smoke. When I return home, I will frame this cigar and inscribe underneath, This cigar was given to me by His Majesty, the King. My children and grandchildren will read it with a great respect and admiration.” You understand what I am trying to tell you, Father? I will not spend this single zloty I asked of you. I will frame it and write under it that it came from a priest who knows our sacred language and who saved me and many other Jews from the Nazi forced labor and possible death. My children and grandchildren will view it with a great reverence.