«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
(David G. Roskies, “Jewish Cultural Life in the Vilna Ghetto,” in Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Lithuania and the Jews: The Holocaust Chapter. Symposium Presentations [Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004], pp.36–38.) Similar views were expressed by Rabbi Hirsh Melekh Talmud of Lublin in endeavouring to comprehend how God could allow His “Chosen People” to be punished to the point of destruction. (Gershon Greenberg, “The Theological Letters of Rabbi Talmud of Lublin (Summer–Fall 1942,” in Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Ghettos 1939–1945: New Research and Perspectives on Definition,
Such views are still held by some Jewish religious leaders today:
Many Haredi rabbis, for example, assert that the Holocaust, including most particularly the deaths of one-and-a-half million Jewish children, was a well-deserved divine punishment, not only for all the sins of modernity and faith renunciation by many Jews, but also for the decline of Talmudic study in Europe. The Haredim and their traditional Jewish followers attribute the death of every Jew, including each innocent child, not to natural causes but to direct action of God. The Haredim believe that God punishes each Jew for his or her sins and sometimes punishes the entire Jewish community, including many who are innocent, because of the sins committed by other Jews.
(Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, New edition [London and Ann Arbor, Michigan: Pluto Press, 2004], 31.) Some religious Jews also continue to share those views, as attested to by the following account of a woman who was rescued by Poles in Volhynia. (Testimony of Peppy Rosenthal, July 1, 2009, Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, University of Michigan at Dearborn, Internet:
http://holocaust.umd.umich.edu/rosenthal/.) I have two boys. One lives in New York, he’s a religious Jew, very religious. … their idea about the Holocaust is enough to … upset you. … My grandson in New York called and asked me if it would be too hard for him to tell him some things. He had to write it for one of his yeshiva classes. And I was really surprised that … they believe the Holocaust … happened because we didn’t follow God.
Religious Poles, who witnessed this cataclysm, also endeavoured to find an explanation for the horrific and unimaginable events occuring around them. As historian Andrzej Bryk explains, their “rationalization” had little, if anything, to do with actual malice toward the Jewish victims. (Andrzej Bryk, “The Struggles for Poland,” Polin: A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies [Oxford: Basil Blackwell for the Institute for Polish-Jewish Studies, 1989], volume 4, p.378.) For the average Polish peasant, Jews were an integral part of the landscape, like the things of nature, the sky above, and himself. He might not have liked them, might have maintained only the most superficial trading relations with them, but their disappearance was unimaginable. They were part of God’s universe, even if an inferior part, viewed with suspicion.
[This was, essentially, the mirror image of traditional Jewish attitudes toward Christian Poles—Ed.] The complete extermination of his neighbours in a small town or village was for that peasant not only a crime in human terms but a fundamental violation of the universal order, of God’s order. It was such a monstrous and absurd deed, that it could have been possible only through the will of God himself. Had he not, after all, been taught that Jews were guilty for the death of Jesus, the death of God? So, perhaps, this was the sentence for that deed? Hence the fatalism in perceiving the Holocaust, a certain self-defence through rationalisation against the madness of a deed equal only to the anger of God. Of a deed which must have been inspired by some hidden logic. The extermination was so terrible, surpassing human imagination to such an extent, that there had to be some hidden meaning in it.
Some Poles embraced the same sort of theological explanations to rationalize their own fate. In the final days or hours before their execution condemned priests often spoke of their acceptance of the will of God. The conservative Catholic author Zofia Kossak, a co-founder of Żegota, the wartime Council for Aid to Jews, wrote in her postwar diary that the suffering and humiliation of Polish women she witnessed as a prisoner in Auschwitz was God’s punishment for enjoying themselves before the war, for wearing lipstick or silk stockings. (Władysław T. Bartoszewski, The Convent in Auschwitz [London: The Bowerdean Press, 1990], p.19.) Occasionally one encounters charges that priests urged the faithful not to provide assistance to Jews or even incited the populace against them. Almost all of these charges are based on second or third-hand accounts. Priests in rural areas were required to read, at the conclusion of Sunday services, official German decrees such as notices about the delivery of mandatory foodstuff quotas imposed on farmers and warnings not to assist partisans and Jews under penalty of death. Not to do so not only put the delinquent priest personally at risk, but also subjected 195 him to the moral dilemma of withholding from faithful information about the serious risks that such activities entailed for their families. Hearsay accounts of these announcements have led uninformed observers, including Holocaust historians, to accuse the clergy of preaching against the Jews. It is telling that no first-hand accounts of such alleged sermons are known even though thousands of Jews passed as Christians and regularly attended church services throughout occupied Poland. In some accounts, readings from the New Testament during Holy Week (especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday), which were part of the universal Catholic liturgy mandated by Rome, are represented as sermons delivered by priests to incite Poles against Jews. (Sermons were traditionally not part of the Good Friday liturgy.) An example of such a notice is the circular issued to the local pastors by the reeve of the village of Zakrzówek near Kraśnik, pursuant to instructions from the Kreishauptmann (German county head), dated December 4, 1942, which is reproduced in Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Polacy i Żydzi 1918–1955: Współistnienie, Zagłada, komunizm (Warszawa: Fronda, 2000), at page 185. The circular reads: “In accordance with the orders of the Kreishauptmann of October 10, 1942, … all residents and their neighbours will be punished by death for sheltering Jews, providing them with food or assisting them in escaping, in particular anyone who allows Jews to use their carts.” In some regions of Poland, however, there was widespread resistance on the part of priests to reading any German notices in church. See, for example, Marian Matysik, Małgorzata Rudnicka, Zdzisław Świstak, Kościół katolicki w Jasielskiem 1939–1945 (Przemyśl, Brzozów and Stalowa Wola: Biblioteczka Przemyska, Muzeum Regionalne PTTK [Polskiego Towarzystwa Turystyczno-Krajoznawczego] im. Adama Fastnachta, and Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski—Filia, 1991), pp.19, 88, 103, 211–12; Jerzy Adamski, Mieczysław Ligonowski, Franciszek Oberc, and Tadeusz Śliwa, Kościół katolicki w Brzozowskiem i Sanockiem 1939–1945 (Brzozów and Przemyśl, 1992), p.202; Witold Jemielity, “Diecezja łomżyńska,” in Zygmunt Zieliński, ed., Życie religijne w Polsce pod okupacją 1939–1945: Metropolie wileńska i lwowska, zakony (Katowice: Unia, 1992), p.74.
The attitude of Rev. Józef Michałowski, a priest in Olsztyn near Częstochowa where several Jewish families survived the war passing as Poles, was described by Frank Morgens, whose family the villagers suspected of
being Jewish, in his memoirs Years at the Edge of Existence: War Memoirs, 1939–1945 (Lanham, Maryland:
University Press of America, 1996), at pages 97 and 99.
Mrs. Michalska, a young woman with a boy of about seven. … He had a light complexion, his features were Semitic and our suspicion that they were Jews in hiding proved later to be correct. … When the war ended, we learned through the grapevine that Mrs. Michalska’s husband had also survived in Olsztyn and that the entire family had emigrated to America. … The name of Judge Horski was uttered with respect, but always with a sort of knowing look which we did not comprehend at first. … It was obvious he, too, was Jewish. His wife and daughter were Semitic-looking as well. The Horskis had moved to Olsztyn from Cracow at the beginning of 1941, a fact that was vastly reassuring to us. That a man with such a face could pass for a Pole and not be denounced to the Germans by those who suspected him of being Jewish, made us feel much safer.
The village of Olsztyn, only 8 miles from Czestochowa, and having a population of under 2,000, could not possibly sustain a dentist, and yet there was one. The minute we opened the door of Dr. Nawrot’s office on Villa Row, we knew that we were with one of our own. Dr. Nawrot was of medium height, his hair was dark, his face though not typically Jewish, was not Slavic either. His short, plump, dark-complexioned wife would never have survived a confrontation with the Gestapo, and neither would their young son. Yet Dr. Nawrot had been practicing in town for about two years without incident. This, too, reinforced our belief that we had settled in the right place. So far, I could count four Jewish families casting their lot with the Poles of Olsztyn.
But the greatest influence on the people and the tranquility of the village was exerted by the parish priest, Father Jozef Michalowski. About 60 years old, of medium height, slim and bespectacled, he evoked reverence when walking in the street and gently greeting his parishioners. His sermons preached love and humaneness, and during the crucial period of 1942– 1944 his urging to save lives and not to betray fellow citizens gave us fortitude and courage to go on with our fight for survival. A denunciation to the Gestapo about this kind of sermon would have meant deportation, at least, for Father Michalowski, but he was fearless and steadfast in his activities, as dictated by his conscience and his faith.
I went to see the priest, who had known me as a small child, when I used to go into the church with our Christian maid. I wept and begged the priest to save me. I told him what had happened to my parents. He calmed me and promised me that he would give me as much help as he could. He hid me in his cellar. Every day I went to church with him, and I became one of the best singers in the church choir. After a time he gave me false papers, with my name listed as Kristina Pavlovna [sic]. I began to feel like a genuine, born Christian.
That didn’t last long, however. One day, when I was walking to church, a Christian stopped me on the street and said, “What are you doing here?” I ran away in terror. When I told the priest, he calmed me, telling me to go back into the cellar and be as quiet as possible.
The same day two Germans went to the priest, demanding that he surrender the Jewish girl whom he had hidden. He denied that there was anyone in his house. They threatened to shoot him, but he continued to insist that he was hiding no one.
The Germans tortured him in various ways, but he continued to refuse to give me up until he fell to the ground covered with blood. His body was pierced in several places, and his face was unrecognizable. Then the Germans left him as he was and went away. Before he died, the priest asked his housekeeper to take me out of my hiding place and bring me to him because he wanted to bless me.
When she led me to him, all I saw was a pool of blood and the priest’s body, torn into pieces. I fainted. When I came to, he raised his crushed and broken hand and caressed me. Finally he told his housekeeper to give me over to trustworthy people, to behave toward me like a mother so that no one would suspect I was Jewish. Thus, leaning against him, I felt his body grow cold.
Once again he asked that I be hidden in a safe place, and then he died. I can’t remember the priest’s name. He was a parish priest in Novy-Dvor.
The housekeeper led me away from the priest and cleansed me of his blood. She changed my clothes, and at five in the morning she led me to Modlin. She left me there and disappeared.