«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
My adoptive mother, a practicing Catholic, frequently went to church and prayed. According to her, St. Anthony inspired her one day to place me in a convent. She went to the Social Welfare Department and said that she had a niece from the Poznan [Poznań] area who she wanted to place in a boarding school. They gave her the name of the Felician Sisters in Staniarki [Staniątki] and obtained a birth certificate for me, and we left for Staniatki. This was the beginning of 1944. My adoptive mother had had me baptized with water earlier. I was accepted as a Polish girl in the convent until the end of the war.
The nuns did not know, therefore, that I was Jewish. My appearance was good, my Polish likewise. I behave properly and was a practicing Catholic.
When I was ready to take my first Communion, though, I was afraid that I would commit some sacrilege. In truth, though my adoptive mother had me baptized, it was not a real baptism. One day I approached the mother superior and asked to have a talk with her. I told her that I was a [sic] Jewish and begged her to have me baptized before I took Holy
Communion. She fixed her eyes on me and said:
“Daughter of the Chosen Race, good child, let’s try to figure this out.” The next day the mother superior made a trip to my adoptive mother and asked her by what right had she placed a Jewish child in the convent without telling her. She said she already had several Jewish children and needed more Polish children to hide the presence of the others. Meanwhile, each new child she was getting was Jewish! (There were not many children in the school, about eighteen. Taking that into 115 consideration, six Jewish girls was a lot.) My adoptive mother swore that I was not a Jew, but rather her niece. The sister replied that that was nonsense, for I had admitted it myself. When she next saw me, my adoptive mother said: “Nina, what have you done!” So I became baptized. In the meantime I befriended the other Jewish girls there, and thanks to me all six became baptized. Of course, everything happened in secret, though with much ceremony. … We then went to church and, hiding there, started to tell each other about ourselves. There were three of us [Jewish girls]. As for the rest of the Jewish girls, everyone knew that they were Jewish because of the way they looked. We tried to protect them somehow because they were constantly being bothered. The other girls bullied and frightened them, saying that if they misbehaved they would be denounced. Of course, no one betrayed them … When I organized this baptism, we were all very happy because we felt that if something happened we would go straight to heaven.
I was treated very well in the convent. … It was good in the convent. The nuns protected us. They tried to dress the girls who had an “inappropriate look” in such a way as to cover up their “Jewishness.” The nuns were very orderly and tried very hard. Particularly, the mother superior, Sister Filipa Swiech [Świech]. … There were different stages in the convent. Toward the end of the war we suffered from hunger, for there were no food supplies and nothing to eat—but love and warmth were not lacking. Sister Marcelina was an exceptional person in this regard. For me she was not only a mother, but a friend. She worried over us and cherished us. And then there were the [Latawieces], of course. Every Sunday they came to me with a toy, a blouse, sugar or something else. Through all the years of the war I did not lack love and warmth. I was fortunate.
Michael Kutz recalled the help he received from the Benedictine Sisters in Nieśwież, a town in the voivodship of Nowogródek. (Debbie Parkes, “Life must go on—it’s for the living says man who survived Holocaust.” The Gazette, Montreal, September 25, 1988.) Kutz was a young Jew of 10 in June 1941 when the German army invaded his town of Neswizh [Nieśwież] near the PolishSoviet border. … Then came Oct. 29. The German commandant ordered all Jews to assemble at the town square. … … Jews were then marched to different areas around the city where, the night before, Jews had been forced to dig pits that would be used as mass graves.,,, There, the prisoners were made to undress, to jump into the pits one-by-one, and to lie down. … The Germans threw grenades into the pits and shot at the people in them with machine-guns. Then more people were put through the same treatment.
“Many people were buried in these graves alive, wounded and unable to escape,” Kutz says. “I happened to be one of the lucky ones.” Kutz wasn’t seriously wounded, although he figures he must have been hit over the head with a rifle butt. He regained consciousness at the onset of dusk. … As small as he was, he pushed a few bodies on top of each other, stood on them and looked out. Seeing no one, he climbed out of the grave and ran some two kilometres to a convent. … At the convent, he rang the hand bell outside the building’s gates. The mother superior [Idelfonsa Jaroń] answered.
“She immediately took off her robe and threw it over me because I was naked,” Kutz says. Inside the convent, he was washed and dressed in the oversized clothes of the janitor.
But he couldn’t stay. The religious told him that would be too dangerous. If he were caught, he would be killed. So, Kutz says, the nuns packed him a bag of food and directed him to a neighboring village. … There, Kutz went to the home of a gentile farmer, a friend of his father, who kept him through the winter. … The farmer, however, collaborated with the underground resistance movement. In the spring of 1942, he made contact with Jews in that movement who took Kutz to live in the forest.
Michael Kutz expands on his story in Alvin Abram, The Light After the Dark (Scarborough, Ontario: Abbeyfield Publishers, 1997), at pages 57–60.
As he ran, he looked for shelter … In the distance, he made out the outline of a large building and recognized it as a convent. Michael ran towards it, remembering that the women in black clothes were the ones who took care of the poor and sick people on the streets of Nieswiez. Desperate for the warmth of a room, he pushed himself to the front gate, hoping they would help him escape from the Germans.
116 … When the door opened, with his last ounce of strength, Michael lunged inside and around the person blocking the door.
He turned to face a woman dressed in black. She appeared ageless, small, slightly bent in posture from the years of homage and she looked fragile. Surprise swept across her face, seeing a naked boy appear out of the night. She removed her cape and covered Michael with it. With quiet dignity, her voice soft and filled with kindness, she asked, “Who are you, my child? Where did you come from?” Michael could not speak.
“Why are you here?” Michael cried.
“I am the Mother Superior of this convent. How can I help you?” With his tears flooding down his cheeks, Michael explained what had happened in Nieswiez and begged the Mother Superior for her help. Listening intently, she nodded her head a few times as Michael related what his tired and confused mind could remember. She led him into the inner recesses of the convent, along darkened, cold and forbidding corridors into the kitchen. In a locker by the door, she found clothes belonging to the janitor and gave them to Michael. Though much too big, he put them on, and cleaned himself by the sink, while the Mother Superior prepared hot food and administered to his cuts and bruises and doctored his head wound. After he had eaten, she sat across from him.
“You cannot stay.” “Why?” “It is not safe for you here nor is it safe for those who cannot leave.” “Hide me. I will not be in anyone’s way.” “It is not that. The risk is too great. If they find you, we will all suffer. Our lives are in danger if you stay.” “I have nowhere to go.” “I can direct you to those who may help you. I can do no more.” The fear of returning to the darkness overwhelmed him, but he was given no choice. The Mother Superior prepared a bag of food, and gave him directions to a neighbouring village. Quickly the Mother Superior ushered him out the convent gate, wishing him God’s protection and locked the door after him. … … When he had almost reached his destination, Michael remembered the gentile farmer who showed his kindness when the family was in need of food. Aware he was near his farm, he decided to change directions, and seek out his help.
Upon reaching the farmer’s home, Michael knocked on the door. When the surprised farmer saw Michael, he swept him into his arms crying with joy, that he had survived the massacre and was safe. He was ushered into the house … Michael related his story, and when he was finished the farmer recounted to Michael what he knew.
“The Germans ordered several local farmers to the two sites days ago, he among them and had them dig the pits,” he said. “They would return each day, and make the hole bigger until finally ordered to stop and leave the site. Before they left, Ukrainian and Lithuanian soldiers arrived in trucks filled with gypsies and cripples and killed them all. Their bodies were thrown into the pit as one would dispose of a worthless carcass. The farmers were unprepared for what they saw and some screamed hysterically. Others went into shock, their minds unable to accept the barbarism of what they had witnessed. One went mad. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian soldiers had blood on their uniforms, and appeared indifferent to their act. It was a horrible sight that will haunt him for the rest of his life.”… The farmer offered to hide Michael in the stable until Spring. Since it was obvious he was not part of the family, it was imperative he not be discovered or all were doomed. Michael stayed hidden from October 1941 until April 1942, coming outside only at night when no one was around.
The Benedictine convent in Wilno, adjacent to St. Catherine’s Church, opened its doors to many Jews, with the blessing of Archbishop Romuald Jałbrzykowski. The superior of the convent, Sister Maria Mikulska, and the sisters are remembered for their courage and devotion to their charges. Tragedy struck in March 1942 when virtually all of the convents and monasteries in Wilno were shut down by the Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators, and hundreds of members of Polish clergy were arrested and imprisoned in camps. The Benedictine convent now housed archives which the Germans had looted in the city and surrounding areas. Under Rev. Juozas Stakauskas (of mixed Lithuanian and Polish ancestry), the director of the archives, the convent once again became a mainstay for Jews from the ghetto. Upon their release, several nuns including Sister Maria Mikulska made their way back to the convent and continued to care for the Jewish labourers, who made hiding places for themselves in the convent. Some 11 or 12 Jews were saved, among them the families of Dr. Alexander Libo, Dr. Fejgenberg, and the Baks. Sister Maria Mikulska was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile. The following account is from Gilbert, The Righteous, at pages 79–81.