«Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy The Testimony of Survivors Edited and compiled by Mark Paul Polish Educational Foundation in ...»
Kolbe himself mentions in a letter the following services to refugees sheltered at Niepokalanow in May 1940: the infirmary was caring for sixty to seventy daily, the pharmacy was dispensing medicine to twenty daily, the little hospital for lay people was housing thirty daily, and the friary kitchen was feeding 1,500. … Even after the Germans began allotting rations to the displaced persons from the Poznan area, Kolbe, knowing firsthand the inadequacy of these official amounts, added to them. … At Father Kolbe’s request, a second, non-Christian celebration was put on for the touched and grateful Jewish families on New Year’s Day.
Brother Mansuetus Marczewski had noticed that Father Maximilian had an especially tender love for the Jews. This love was reciprocated. Early in the new year (1940), the Poznan deportees were resettled away from the monastery. Before leaving, the Jewish leaders sought out Father Maximilian. According to Brother Juventyn, a spokesperson (Mrs.
Zajac [Zając]) said:
“Tomorrow we leave Niepokalanow. We’ve been treated here with much loving concern. … We’ve always felt someone close to us was sympathetic with us. For the blessing of this all-around kindness, in the name of all the Jews present here, we want to express our warm and sincere thanks to you, Father Maximilian, and to all the Brothers. But words are inadequate for what our hearts desire to say. …” In a loving gesture to Kolbe and his Franciscans, she concluded by asking that a Mass of thanksgiving be celebrated to thank God for his protection of the Jews and the friary. Another Polish Jew added, “If God permits us to live through this war, we will repay Niepokalanow a hundredfold. And, as for the benevolence shown here to the Jewish refugees from Poznan, we shall never forget it. We will praise it everywhere in the foreign press.” It is interesting to note that the Jews of Poznań, Poland’s first historic capital, had largely favoured Germany over Poland, the region’s occupying power, when Poland regained its independence after World War I. Father Kolbe continued his support of the Jews until he was arrested again in February 1941, among other reasons, for the extensive and open assistance he gave to Jews at the monastery.
A woman living in the neighborhood of Niepokalanow has also left her testimony of Father Maximilian in this period [i.e., 1940–1941]. She reports how she came to the friary to ask him … whether it was “all right” to give handouts to warimpoverished Jews who were begging at her door. Patiently Father Maximilian Kolbe urged her, she reports, to help the Jews. She quotes the reason he gave her: “We must do it because every man is our brother.” (Ibid., p.104.) He is nonetheless often vilified in Jewish literature as an avowed anti-Semite. But among the hundreds of testimonials of gratitude for the assistance carried out by Father Kolbe in Niepokalanów, there are several from the survivors of the Polish Jewish community. (Antonio Ricciardi, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Apostle of Our Difficult Age [Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1982], p.248.) Father Kolbe was eventually deported to Auschwitz, where he died on August 14, 1941, by lethal injection, after a prolonged period of starvation. He had volunteered his life for that of a married man who happened to be a Catholic. While imprisoned in Auschwitz Father Kolbe befriended Sigmund Gerson, then a 13-year-old Jewish boy. Sigmund Gerson recalled their relationship many years later. (Treece, A Man for Others, pp.152–53.) 9 According to a report of the order’s provincial from October 1940 found in the Niepokalanów archives: “During the course of the year 1940, Niepokalanów housed and fed many refugees. Among the first group of 3,500 refugees were 2,000 Jews. After the departure of the first group of refugees in the spring of 1940, a second group of exiles from Pomerania was housed in the friary. This group now also has departed. At the writing of this report, the monastery awaits the arrival of another 2,000 displaced persons. See Claude R. Foster, Mary’s Knight: The Mission and Martyrdom of Saint Maksymilian Maria Kolbe (West Chester, Pennsylvania: West Chester University Press, 2002), p.630.
24 I was from a beautiful home where love was the key word. My parents were well-off and well-educated. But my three beautiful sisters, my mother—an attorney educated at the University of Paris—my father, grandparents—all perished. I am the sole survivor. To be a child from such a wonderful home and then suddenly find oneself utterly alone, as I did at age thirteen, in this hell, Auschwitz, has an effect on one others can hardly comprehend. Many of us youngsters lost hope, especially when the Nazis showed us pictures of what they said was the bombing of New York City. Without hope, there was no chance to survive, and many boys my age ran onto the electric fences. I was always looking for some link with my murdered parents, trying to find a friend of my father’s, a neighbor—someone in that mass of humanity who had known them so I would not feel so alone.
And this is how Kolbe found me wandering around, so to speak, looking for someone to connect with. He was like an angel to me. Like a mother hen, he took me in his arms. He used to wipe away my tears. I believe in God more since that time. Because of the deaths of my parents I had been asking, “Where is God?” and had lost faith. Kolbe gave me that faith back.
He knew I was a Jewish boy. That made no difference. His heart was bigger than persons—that is, whether they were Jewish, Catholic, or whatever. He loved everyone. He dispensed love and nothing but love. For one thing, he gave away so much of his meager rations that to me it was a miracle he could live. Now it is easy to be nice, to be charitable, to be humble, when times are good and peace prevails. For someone to be as Father Kolbe was in that time and place—I can only say the way he was is beyond words.
I am a Jew by my heritage as the son of a Jewish mother, and I am of the Jewish faith and very proud of it. And not only did I love Maximilian Kolbe very, very much in Auschwitz, where he befriended me, but I will love him until the last moments of my life.
Another Jewish survivor, Eddie Gastfriend, confirmed this same impression of Polish priests in Auschwitz, who were targeted by the Germans for particularly brutal and degrading treatment. (Ibid., p.138.) There were many priests in Auschwitz. They wore no collars, but you knew they were priests by their manner and their attitude, especially toward Jews. They were so gentle, so loving.
Those of us Jews who came into contact with priests, such as Father Kolbe (I didn’t know him personally, but I heard stories about him), felt it was a moving time—a time when a covenant in blood was written between Christians and Jews.
… Both Jews and priests were singled out for particularly brutal and humiliating treatment in concentration camps.
(Ibid., p.137.) Right after my arrival at Auschwitz, a young priest was murdered. His body, in a cassock, was laid out on a wheelbarrow.
A mock funeral was staged by the SS men, who forced several priests and a few Jews to sing funeral hymns as they followed another cassock-dressed priest. He wore a hat turned upside down, a straw rope was tied about his neck, and they made him carry a broom as his cross. We were forced to stand there looking at this mockery while the SS men jeered at us hoping to arouse fear, to subjugate us: “Your god and your ruler; that’s us, the SS and the capos and the camp commander. There is no other god!” To some extent, Catholic priests and Jews were lumped together. The following incidents explain the connection in Nazi minds. Father Józef Kowalski was doomed because he would not step on a rosary crucifix. Father Piotr Dankowski, from Zakopane, was tortured and killed on Good Friday by a capo who sneered, “Jesus Christ was killed today and you also will perish this day.” In May 1941 we were working in a torn-down house when one of the prisoners found a crucifix. SS Storch got ahold of it and he called Father Nieweglewski.
“What is this?” he asks the priest. Father remains silent, but the guard insists until he says, “Christ on the cross.” Then Storch jeers: “Why you fool, that’s the Jew who, thanks to the silly ideals which he preached and you fell for, got you into this camp. Don’t you understand? He’s one of the Jewish ringleaders! A Jew is a Jew and will always be a Jew!
How can you believe in such an enemy?” Father Nieweglewski is silent.
Then Storch says, “You know, if you’ll trample this Jew”—and he throws the crucifix on the sand—“I’ll get you transferred to a better job.” When the priest refused, the SS man and the capo threw him a couple of times on the crucifix; then they beat him so
25badly that, shortly after, he died.
When, for some unkown reason, an anti-Jewish disturbance broke out in Głowno near Łódź in January 1940, the local priest and some other Poles interceded and condemned the violence. (“Glowno,” in Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities in Poland, Internet: http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/pinkas_poland/pol1_00081.html translated from Pinkas ha-kehillot Polin, volume 1 [Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976], pp.81–84.) In the spring of 1940, the Germans assembled gangs of unemployed young ruffians to attack Jews, and sometimes Poles, in the streets. These hoodlums, often intoxicated, were paid by the Germans for their orchestrated and closely watched activity. One Jewish eyewitness described the scene in Warsaw during the Passover pogrom in 1940. (Based on Jacob Apenszlak, ed., The Black Book of Polish Jewry [New York: Roy Publishers, 1943], pp.30–31.) The Passover pogrom continued about eight days. It began suddenly and stopped as suddenly. The pogrom was carried out by a crowd of youths, about 1,000 of them, who arrived suddenly in the Warsaw streets. Such types have never before been seen in the Warsaw streets. Clearly these were young ruffians specially brought in from the suburbs. From the characteristic scenes of the pogrom I mention here a few: On the second day of Passover, at the corner of Wspólna and Marszałkowska Streets, about 30 or 40 broke into and looted Jewish hat shops. German soldiers stood in the streets and filmed the scenes. … The Polish youngsters acted alone, but there have been instances when such bands attacked the Jews with the assistance of German military. The attitude of the Polish intellectuals toward the Jews was clearly a friendly one, and against the pogrom. It is a known fact that at the corner of Nowogrodzka and Marszałkowska a Catholic priest attacked the youngsters participating in the pogrom, beat them and disappeared. These younsters received two złotys daily from the Germans.
Public interventions by the clergy on behalf of Jews, though invariably futile and often suicidal, occurred from time to time. The following example is recalled by Zofia Kossak, co-founder of the wartime Council for Aid to
Jews. (Teresa Prekerowa, Konspiracyjna Rada Pomocy Żydom w Warszawie 1942–1945 [Warszawa:
Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1982], p.200.) On Nowy Świat Street a German officer grabbed an emaciated Jewish boy, no more than six years old. Holding him by the scruff of the neck like a pup, he raised the cover of a sewer with his other hand and pushed the child in. The passers-by looked with horror. A priest who had witnessed this started to beg for mercy for the child. The officer glared at him in wonder and stated officiously, “Jude.” He slammed down the hatch and calmly walked away.
In the summer of 1940, the Main Welfare Council (Rada Główna Opiekuńca—RGO, a legally functioning Polish relief agency), together with Monsignor Adam Sapieha, the archbishop of Kraków, appealed to Hans Frank, the Governor of the Generalgouvernement, to suspend the mass resettlement of Jews from Kraków. Not only did this not bring about the desired effect, but also the three rabbis who had requested the Council and Archbishop Sapieha to intervene, including the chief rabbi of Kraków, Smelkes Kornitzer, were arrested and deported to Auschwitz where they were killed. The Jewish community did not approach Catholic Church leaders again to intervene on their behalf with the German authorities. This courageous but ultimately disastrous intervention is described by a Jewish community leader, in his chronicle of the wartime fate of the Jews of Kraków: Aleksander Bieberstein, Zagłada Żydów w Krakowie (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1985), at pages 38–39, 223.
Nonetheless, Archbishop Sapieha continued his relief work for Jews clandestinely. Through the intermediary of Rev. Ferdynand Machay, he furnished false baptismal certificates to Jews. Among the recipients were eleven members of the Kleinmann family hiding in Prądnik Czerwony. Archbishop Sapieha allowed his priests to baptize Jews secretly and forge baptismal certiciates. (Tatiana Berenstein and Adam Rutkowski, Assistance to the Jews in Poland 1939–1945 [Warsaw: Polonia Publishing House, 1963], p.40; Bartoszewski and Lewinówna, Ten jest z ojcyzny mojej, 2nd ed., p.824; Tomasz Pawlikowski, Adam Stefan Kardynał Sapieha [Lublin: Test and Towarzystwo im. Stanisława ze Skarbimierza, 2004], pp.82‒86.) Early in the war, Archbishop Sapieha, who headed the Catholic Church within Poland after the Primate’s
As always, Msgr. Sapieha’s welcome was most affectionate. … However, he didn’t waste much time in conventionalities.
He opened the packets [from Pius XII, with statements condemning Nazi German], read them, and commented on them in his pleasant voice. Then he opened the door or the large stove against the wall, started a fire, and threw the papers on to it. All the rest of the material shared the same fate. On seeing my astonished face, he said in explanation: “I’m most grateful to the Holy Father … no one is more grateful than we Poles for the Pope’s interest in us … but we have no need of any outward show of the Pope’s loving concern for our misfortunes, when it only serves to augment them. … But he doesn’t know that if I give publicity to these things, and if they are found in my house, the head of every Pole wouldn’t be enough for the reprisals Gauleiter Frank will order.