To Save a Life

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939, it did not wage a conventional war against the Polish government and its armed forces. Instead, it conducted a campaign of terror that was intended to destroy the Polish nation.

A vital part of Nazi plan for Poland was weakening and controlling the Roman Catholic Church. One Polish observer at the time described religious life as being restricted “to what it had been during the time of the catacombs.”

Despite the enormous challenges imposed on the church, most priests and nuns behaved with dignity and played an important role in charitable and humanitarian work on behalf of Christians and Jews. Many members of the clergy participated in the Polish Underground, a sophisticated organization that webbed the entire country and was probably the most effective resistance movement in German-occupied Europe.

The Work of Priests and Nuns

One of the most important activities of priests and nuns during World War II was their assistance to Jews, whom the Nazis initially confined to ghettos and later transported to death camps. The Germans imposed an automatic death sentence on anyone — clergy or laity — who helped a Jew in any way.

Despite the risk of death, the ranking Polish leader, Archbishop Adam Sapieha of Krakow, supported aid to Jews. Bishop Karol Niemira and Canon Roman Archutowski set the tone for the clergy in Warsaw in assisting Jews. Various priests offered to hide rabbis during the German occupation. Most rabbis opted to remain with their people, but one rabbi hid in the library of the diocese of Warsaw. Under the leadership of the Catholic metropolitan of Vilna, Romuald Jalbrzykowski, the clergy hid Jews in churchs and convents.

Emmanuel Ringelblum, the Jewish chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto, observed how parish priests in Warsaw urged their parishioners to help Jews. Thousands of Poles responded by hiding Jewish families or by finding safe houses for them. Priests, who were always under the watchful eyes of the Gestapo, were very resourceful in helping Jews.

Father Marceli Godlewski on one occasion hid several Jewish children under his cassock until a Gestapo search party left the area. He later found safe houses for the children. Others, like Father Sylvester Paluch, provided Jews with false baptismal certificates, which enabled them to move about freely as Christians. Thousands of these documents were produced by the clergy. Little known was the work of a seminarian, Karol Wojtyla, the future Saint John Paul II, who worked with Jewish leaders to help Jews.

Dragged from the Altar

Not all aid to Jews by the clergy was limited to villages, towns and cities. Father Jan Januszewski, a tall young priest in western Poland, was arrested while he celebrated Mass. To the horror of the congregation, black uniformed thugs seized Father Jan from the altar and dragged him to a car that took him to Dachau, the principal concentration camp for clergy.

“I recall a Jewish man worn down by difficult work and a meager diet,” Father Jan told me during an interview. “He often stumbled and was unable to fulfill his work quota (at the quarry). I knew it would be only a matter of time before he would die from overwork and malnutrition or one of the guards would kill him. I helped him fulfill his quota. He survived.” Father Jan also survived. After the war, he emigrated to the United States and served in several parishes in the diocese of Miami, Florida. Before he died of cancer in 1987, he was the beloved pastor of St. Justin the Martyr church in Key Largo.

Niepokolanow Monastery

Monks, too, did what they could to help the persecuted Jews. Niepokolanow, a monastery known as “the city of Mary Immaculate,” had been founded by the most famous Polish Franciscan, Maximilian Kolbe. It became a safe haven for 1,000 to 2,000 Jewish families until the Germans seized the facility and desecrated it by turning it into a prison.

In 1941, the Germans arrested Father Kolbe and sent him to Auschwitz, where hundreds of Polish prisoners were incarcerated. Father Kolbe gave his life so that another prisoner, Francis Gajowniczek, could live. Gajowniczek survived the war and attended the canonization ceremony of St. Maximilian Kolbe in 1982.

Polish nuns believed that it was their special mission to help Jewish children, the most helpless and vulnerable victims of the war. One historian identified 189 convents that hid Jewish children. As many as two-thirds of the religious communities in Poland during the war were involved in hiding Jewish adults and children.

Often parish priests could give only temporary shelter to a Jewish child because rectories were almost always under Gestapo surveillance. Priests found ways to escort children to remote convents that were the safest places in Poland to hide.

In many cases, as the Germans escalated deportations of Jews to the death camps, distraught parents brought their children to convents. One Jewish dentist told a mother superior, “I will live for as long as I am useful to the Germans, but I will surely not survive. I have brought my son. If you can, I ask you to take him.” When his ghetto was being liquidated, another Jewish father ran up to the window of a convent and tossed his infant son , called Antos, to a nun and said: “Hide him! He’s yours now!”

There were many orders of nuns who sheltered Jewish adults and children during the German occupation of Poland. Some of the most prominent included the Sisters of Charity, the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the Franciscans of the Family of Mary and the Order of Saint Elizabeth.

Sister Matylda Getter, mother superior of the Warsaw branch of the Franciscans, was a legend in her own time and hoodwinked many Gestapo agents in her mission to save innocent lives. She never refused any Jewish child who came to her door.

Mother Stanislawa Polechajllo, a Pole of Tatar heritage, was Mother Getter’s counterpart in the convent of the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception. Among the children sheltered by nuns was a young Jewish girl who wrote from Israel after the war: “The gift of life belongs to you.”

The most remarkable underground organization in Europe during World War II was Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews), whose sole mission was to help Jews. Organized in 1942 by Polish social activists, Zegota succeeded in hiding, clothing, feeding, giving medical care, and providing false documents to large numbers of Jews.

The legendary Irena Sendler headed the children’s bureau of the organization. With the help of many individuals, including priests and nuns, Sendler saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. Stanislaw Gajewski, a Polish Jew who received false documents from Zegota to save his family and friends, admiringly observed: “About Zegota . . . it took large numbers of people — priests, forgers, couriers and so on. We’ll never know the number (of people involved).”

Assistance of Poles

No Jew survived in German-occupied Poland without the direct or indirect assistance of Poles. It is estimated that it took at least 10 to 12 Poles to save one Jew. There will never be an accurate reckoning of the precise number of Poles who helped Jews survive in wartime Poland. After all, before the end of the German occupation large numbers of Poles went to their deaths along with the Jews they sheltered.

A reasonable estimate is that at least one million Poles were involved in helping Jews, and it is quite probable that the number is even higher. Among those courageous Poles were priests, monks and nuns who met the defining challenges of that day by risking their lives to save others. Their accomplishments give special meaning to the Talmudic injunction: “He who saves one life saves the world.”

These heroic people are among the true moral giants of our time.

MR. LUKAS is a freelance writer who lives in Jensen Beach, Florida.