«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Eventually all the Poles arrested that night were gassed in special trucks in the Kołdyczewo concentration camp. … It was Sunday, August 16, 1942, five o’clock in the morning. Except for an occasional animal sound, the stillness in Mir was complete, a stillness soon interrupted by the pounding of wooden clogs against cobblestones and by a dangling of keys. The shoes and the keys belonged to Sister Nepomucena Kościuszek, who, still absorbed in her morning prayers, had come to open the convent’s gate.
Suddenly through the half-opened space a man jumped into the courtyard. “Jesus Christ” escaped from the nun’s lips, as her hand made the sign of the cross. She barely recaptured her composure when she recognized Oswald. She knew the authorities were looking for him. Oswald was guilty of two crimes: he was a Jew and he had betrayed the Germans. Each required a death sentence.
Confronted with this dangerous runaway, the nun quickly relocked the gate and then asked him to follow her into the house. Inside, Oswald met the Mother Superior, Euzebia Bartkowiak, and the only two other inhabitants of the convent, Andrea Głowacka and Laurencja Domysłowska. Of the four Laurencja Domysłowska, in her thirties, had as yet not taken her final vows.
Except for the Mother Superior, the rest of the women seemed frightened by the sudden appearance of this dirty, somewhat confused youth. They knew that his mere presence was endangering their lives. Speechless, they looked at their leader. The unspoken question each seemed to be raising was: “What are we going to do with him?” “… After all, the [German] gendarmerie was right next to the convent! The threat was obvious. … I had come to the convent with a request that they help me contact the Balicki family. … I thought that the Balicki sisters would know about other places for me to stay at … When I explained this to the Mother Superior she said ‘no’. For the time being she forbade any outside communications, stressing that these young girls may not be able to keep a secret and thus others could learn about my whereabouts. She insisted, ‘No one should know that you are here. We must pray to God to tell us what to do with you!’ Then she explained that because it was a difficult and complicated situation only God can settle it.
Instead of deciding by themselves they must wait for a sign from God.” But Euzebia Bartkowiak’s reliance on God in no way interfered with her activities. She was enterprising, full of energy and determination. She concluded, “Until we know how to resolve this problem, we cannot send you away. You must wash, 218 eat, and rest. After that we shall see.”… Every Sunday during Mass the priest reads a special message from the Gospel. On that particular day he read about the good Samaritan. This is a story about a Jew who was robbed and wounded and left on the side of the road by his attackers. A priest passed next to the suffering man but did not bother to help him. Neither did a Levite. Only a traveling Samaritan took an interest in the helpless Jew. The Samaritan first attended to the man’s wounds and then moved him to a nearby inn where he generously paid the innkeeper for keeping this stranger. Before the Samaritan left he assured the innkeeper that he will be coming back to check the condition of the patient. The story finishes with Jesus saying, “Go and do as he has done.” Listening to this sermon and particularly the last sentence, the two women felt that God had spoken to them. Euzebia Bartkowiak was especially convinced that God wanted them to save Oswald. Of the four nuns, two were less than enthusiastic about keeping him. They objected. But the Mother Superior would not be dissuaded. When it came to moral issues she followed her own conscience. Firmly, she overruled their opposition. … Conversion also led to other more concrete changes. “The two nuns, who initially opposed my stay in the convent, accepted me completely. Their approval coincided with my baptism. … Soon not only did these nuns tolerate me but they were happy to have me there.”… Grateful, Oswald was not surprised by the nuns’ decision to shelter him. For him to shelter another human being was not extraordinary. Used to rescuing people, he had expected the nuns to do the same. Still, when he speaks about his four companions, he is full of admiration. He has a great deal of respect for their courage and is convinced that they were not concerned about the risk they were taking in sheltering him. Invariably, when referring to them he says that “they were wonderful women, they looked upon my stay there as a duty. There were no fears in that house, except during certain moments. They were definitely not scared, if they were they could not have allowed me to take my meals with them. … They were like soldiers, for whom saving me was a duty … they also had open tolerant attitudes toward Jews.” Actually Oswald’s constant presence in the convent broke many of the house rules. When it was all over, in 1946, the Mother Superior went to the head of their order to discuss these transgressions. She wanted to know whether it was right for them to have disregarded so many established regulations. The head of the order, an old woman, said, “If we had created the Mir convent only to save this one man, we would have something to thank God for. Be assured that human life is much more important than all the rules.”… Because the nuns were respected both by the civilians and the authorities, visits to their place were quite common. … The presence of outsiders, however, was not always as uneventful. Among the frequent convent callers was a peasant woman, a Catholic and a Nazi-collaborator. Everyone knew that part of her income came from spying on civilians and denouncing them to the authorities. Still, they encouraged her visits, hoping that in the end they might lead her away from her sinful path.
One day, unaware that the woman was in the convent, Oswald, carrying a batch of wood, entered the living room to start a fire. When this guest noticed him, startled she stood up. She had recognized him—most local people would. It mattered little that Oswald disappeared quickly. The damage was done. In a split second, impulsively, she ran out of the house. In no time she returned, threw herself on her knees in front of the Mother Superior, and swore she would tell no one about this dangerous encounter. Oswald feels that because of the possible peril, “right away the nuns should have asked me to leave. They did not. The Mother Superior chose to believe this untrustworthy person. She proved to be right. Although a Nazi collaborator, the woman told no one that she had seen me.” … In Mir the authorities were concerned with the safety of their official buildings. To them one obvious solution was to surround these structures with barbed wire. If done, this would transform the heart of the town into a police area. But before this plan could be put into effect the Germans had to decide what to do with the convent located in the middle of their official buildings. This decision, in turn, called for an inspection of the place.
The formal visit to the convent occurred on a Sunday, when three of the nuns, among them the Mother Superior, were away in church in Iszkoldź [Iszkołdź]. Only one nun stayed home to protect Oswald. For him, indeed, the event was memorable. “Two policemen knocked. The nun opened the door but forgot to warn me. The men began to enter into the different rooms. Soon I could hear their heavy military boots quite close to me. … My room had the usual wash basin. In front of it was a screen that was supposed to hide anyone who was washing.
At this wash basin was a shawl, a big, black shawl. The nuns gave it to me to keep warm. When I heard the heavy boots and the loud voices, practically in my room, I quickly jumped behind the screen and threw the shawl over it. This suggested that one of the nuns might be behind it. The men came in. They stopped not far from the screen. Amused, they commented that a nun must be behind it. They chuckled. Then I heard them leave the room. When they were out of the house, the nun appeared, pale and shaking all over. All I could do was pray.” After this official visit the Nazis ordered the convent to move to Stara Miranka, a few miles away from Mir. The transfer had to take place by March 1943.
219 The new house consisted of four rooms and a barn attached to the main building. Because Oswald was well known in the area, he could not show his face. The actual move, therefore, had to take place in a number of steps. “As the nuns emptied the different rooms they locked me into one of them. On the last day, one of the nuns left for the new place very early in the morning, before anyone was up. That same evening, I, dressed as a nun, walked with the other three nuns to our new home.” The new convent was not only smaller but also more exposed, without a garden, without a fence. At this time the Germans were becoming more and more nervous. Night searches for partisans were common. It would have been too dangerous for Oswald to sleep in such an exposed place. The barn became Oswald’s sleeping quarters. This barn, although attached to the new convent, was used by the Germans as a storage place for food confiscated from the peasants.
To avert partisan attacks, at night it was guarded by policemen. Each evening another group of policemen would come and watch the barn till dawn. Because of this watch, no Germans would dream of searching inside the barn.
In principle, those buildings belonged to the parish-church of Mir, but were being used by the authorities. In a small hall opposite the entrance a ladder served as the way to the attic of the barn. Every evening the Mother Superior, Oswald dressed as a nun, and a cat would climb up this ladder behind the standing guard. As they climbed the nun spoke to the cat, pretending that she was bringing it there to keep away the mice. Since the attic contained all kinds of food, the presence of a cat protected the food from mice. And so the guard never considered interfering with this nightly pastime.
Each morning after the policeman had left, Oswald still dressed as a nun, would sneak down and into the house.
… But peace was becoming progressively more elusive. In fact, the Germans were becoming more cruel and more violent. It was as if the loss of battles created a special need for victories against vulnerable civilians. The smallest crimes, often imaginary ones, were met with severe punishment.
Thus, for example, in a nearby town [Nowogródek], twelve nuns, suspected of feeding partisans, were executed. Raids into private homes became more frequent. As the terror grew, more natives joined the partisans. Escapes into forests, in turn, led to more violent Nazi retaliations. As usual, the losers were the innocent people who had little to do with such moves.
With this increasingly threatening situation, Oswald became concerned about the nuns’ safety. He was convinced that he could avert disaster by leaving the convent. But he had no place to go. … And so, on December 3, 1943, in the evening, dressed as a nun, Oswald left the convent in the company of the Mother Superior. In a nearby forest he took off his robe. As he handed it to the nun, she cried, saying, “Come back in case of difficulties. Be sure to come back.” Too upset to speak, Oswald nodded, knowing full well that this time he wouldn’t be returning.
Still crying softly the nun blessed him and left.
Unexpected assistance came from an unknown priest and the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary in Izabelin near Warsaw, after Esther Bas-Melcer was apprehended by the Germans. Occasionally priests were seized by the Germans to question persons suspected of being Jewish about their knowledge of the Catholic faith. However, priests were not needed for this task as basic testing of knowledge of prayers and the like could be carried out by anyone (e.g., Germans who knew Polish or used interpreters, policemen, etc.), far more effectively than by priests, who were not known to cooperate in exposing Jews.74 Esther Bas-Melcer’s story is related in her memoirs, In the 74 There are numerous recorded cases of interrogations of Jews passing as Catholics by German officials, and not one of them mention the involvement of Polish priests. See, for example, the account of Elzbieta [Elżbieta] Szandorowska from Warsaw: “In May 1943, the Germans arrested seventeen people in our boarding house, including my mother and the rest of our family. They took us to the Gestapo headquarters on Szucha Avenue. Throughout the entire night, I taught Christian prayers to one of the Jewish girls who [had] been arrested.
The next day the Germans were in a very good mood because they had found diamonds sewn into the trousers of one of the Jewish men.
So they allowed my family to go free the next day. They freed a couple of Jewish people, too, because they had extremely convincing documents and they had passed the so-called religion examination, which consisted of reciting Catholic prayers.” See Richard C. Lukas, ed., Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989), p.161. Lidia Kott was interrogated by two Gestapo officers on Szucha Street: “They told her to say her prayers, asked her to tell them the shape of the host, and tried to get her to say that it was square.” See Jan Kott, Still Alive: An Autobiograpgical Essay (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994), p.77. Braunia Szul, then a 14-year-old girl, and her mother were also brought to the Gestapo headquarters on Szucha Street and interrogated by Germans: “When we arrived there, they started to ask us about religion, if I know the religion prayers, so I knew the [Catholic] prayers by heart. We were prepared for that, you know.” See the interview with Braunia Sztul, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, May 19, 1995. The testimony of Wanda Ziemska, who was interrogated by the Germans in Warsaw and made to
recite prayers, but released after Poles vouched for her, is found in Jakub Gutenbaum and Agnieszaka Latała, eds., The Last Eyewitnesses:
Children of the Holocaust Speak, vol. 2 (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2005), p.348. For another account from Warsaw mentioning interrogation by the German authorities about Christian prayers and customs (and release after a Pole vouched for the
220Claws of Destruction (Montreal: Aron Horowitz, 1986), at pages 40–46.