Monday, September 11, 2023

Polish family’s beatification highlights debate over Church’s wartime role

After Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were beatified with their children Sept. 10, eight decades after they were shot by Nazis for sheltering Jews in their farmhouse near the village of Markowa in southeastern Poland, it will continue to be a graphic reminder of the heroism shown by many Catholic Poles during the Holocaust.

"Under communism, no public discussion was allowed about what really happened here during World War II -- systematic research only started later," explained Father Piotr Mazurkiewicz, a former secretary-general of COMECE, the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Union.

"This lack of a Polish voice in post-War debates on the Holocaust generated false views about events in Poland," the priest said. "In today's secularized conditions, things are changing -- there's growing interest in why people risked their lives for others, very often in acts of religious witness."

The case of the Ulmas, who were shot and thrown in a ditch with their six small children in March 1944 for hiding local Jews in Markowa, is just one of many brought to light by recent research. Wiktoria was pregnant with the couple's seventh child, and villagers who buried the bodies report that Wiktoria had begun to give birth during the massacre. Before executing the family, the Nazis executed the eight Jewish people they were hiding.

While some experts have warned against exaggerating the extent of help given to Jews, others have welcomed the opportunity to establish a more accurate record of wartime events.

"One one side, there's been a dark vision of Poles as informers and blackmailers, who betrayed Jews on a mass scale -- one the other, an idealized vision that everyone joined in saving them," Alina Petrowa-Wasilewicz, a Catholic journalist and author, told OSV News.

"Proper work is now being done, taking Polish perspectives into account and the heavy price paid by many, including hundreds of priests and nuns who risked their lives to rescue persecuted Jews," she said.

Over 6 million Polish citizens, half of them Jewish, were killed during the country's 1939-1945 occupation by Nazi Germany, which sited many of its death camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, on Polish territory.

Besides losing a fifth of its population, the country saw much of its economy and infrastructure ruined, while its Catholic Church lost 20% of its 10,000 priests to summary executions and concentration camp deaths, in a German campaign to eradicate national culture and identity.

A total of 108 Polish wartime martyrs were beatified by the Polish-born pope, St. John Paul II, in June 1999, including three bishops and 79 priests, while the church is seeking similar recognition for up to 300 others.

Poland was the only occupied European country in which, from October 1941, assisting fugitives carried a mandatory Nazi death penalty.

Among the 1,500 Poles now believed to have suffered this fate, two Immaculate Conception nuns, Kazimiera Wolowska and Bogumila Noiszewska, who was a medical doctor, were shot by the Gestapo in December 1942 for hiding Jews at their convent in Slonim.

Although Catholic help for Jews, hushed up under communist rule, was once believed marginal, new evidence suggests it was extensive, with convents and monasteries belonging to the Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans and dozens of other orders playing major roles.

In March, a detailed study, published at Poland's John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, documented help provided to Jews by 700 diocesan priests and over 2,000 nuns at more than 500 order-run centers.

The 1,274-page book, prepared by Polish-Canadian researcher Ryszard Tyndorf, was published in cooperation with the university's Abraham J. Heschel Center for Catholic-Jewish Relations, and includes testimonies from rescuers and survivors, as well as detailing the provision of undercover IDs and baptismal certificates to Jews by Catholic priests and bishops.

The two-volume work was praised by British historian Norman Davies as "a convincing picture of self-denying compassion," counteracting "the widespread promotion of exclusively negative stereotypes."

Polish efforts have long been recognized by Israel's Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center, founded by the Knesset in 1953.

To date, out of 28,217 "Righteous among the Nations" medals awarded for saving Jewish lives, 60% of them to Christians, Yad Vashem has honored 7,232 Poles, the highest national tally, way ahead of the next largest numbers, belonging to Netherlands (5.982), France (4,206) and Ukraine (2,691).

And while the number encompasses 660 clergy from various countries and denominations, Polish priests and nuns stand out.

They include a Krakow auxiliary, Bishop Albin Malysiak (1917-2011), who arranged false papers for fugitive Jews while acting as chaplain to Ursuline nuns in the southern Poland city, and was honored with the Yad Vashem medal in 1993.

The Ursulines' mother superior, Sister Bronislawa Wilemska, who arranged the Jews' evacuation to Poland's southern Tatra mountains, also holds the medal posthumously, along with 20 other Polish nuns.

So do numerous Catholic priests, including Blessed Father Adam Sztark (1907-1942), a Jesuit priest who also helped shelter Jews in Slonim, and Father Marceli Godlewski (1865-1945), who saved hundreds from the Warsaw Ghetto at his nearby All Saints Church.

Prominent Polish lay Catholics hold the award as well, including Irena Sendler (1910-2008), a Catholic nurse and social worker who smuggled an estimated 2,500 Jewish children to convents and orphanages, narrowly escaping a Gestapo death sentence in 1943.

Sendler headed the children's unit of the Polish underground's Council for Aid to Jews, code-named Zegota, whose Catholic founders, Zofia Kossak-Szatkowska (1809-1968) and Wanda Filipowicz (1886-1968) were similarly honored by Yad Vashem.

Agnieszka Zielinska, a philosopher and historian from Lublin's Catholic University, thinks such acts of recognition have been helped by more accurate and objective research, as well as a greater appreciation of the grave risks incurred by Poles who wished to help.

Even in Lublin, which once hosted a vibrant Jewish minority, there was little public awareness, even in the 1990s, of the extent of Catholic wartime dramas, Zielinska told OSV News, or of what was lost to Polish cultural and social life through the Nazi extermination programme.

While Polish priests were often barred from helping by tight Gestapo surveillance, religious sisters' convents had greater possibilities. Awareness of the complex realities involved is calming self-defensive emotions and changing the dominant narrative, both in Poland and abroad.

Father Mazurkiewicz agrees. New data suggests as many as 1 million Poles may have helped shelter Jews, he noted, knowing the risks involved to their own lives and the safety of their families and communities.

"We should remember the German occupation of Poland and its eastern neighbors was very different than in the West -- whereas the Germans tried to show manners in Paris or Strasbourg, they showed total barbarism here," the priest, who teaches social sciences at Warsaw's Cardinal Wyszynski University, told OSV News.

"Like its Soviet-communist counterpart, the Nazi totalitarian system was avowedly atheist, and people could see how this conflicted with their religious faith. Despite this, it's clear that many very ordinary villagers heard and embraced the Gospel message," he said, referring to the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Stanislaw Krajewski, who is Jewish and the veteran co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews, advised caution.

Poland's 3.5 million Jews made up a 10th of its pre-war population, playing a leading role in professions; and though many Holocaust survivors later emigrated, some Jewish religious and cultural festivals have now been revived.

The Catholic Church has celebrated an annual Judaism Day each January since the 1990s, and has urged its parishes to help maintain the country's estimated 1,000 Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, in recognition of the nation's once-vibrant role as the world's most important center of Jewish life.

In March, President Andrzej Duda marked Poland's National Day to Remember Poles who Rescued Jews with a visit a memorial site in Markowa, the Ulmas' village.

Yet Catholic-Jewish relations are still fraught with complexities, Krajewski warns; and while heroic examples exist of help provided to Jews, tensions remain.

As Catholic researchers continue enthusiastic efforts to identify priests and nuns who helped rescue Jews, such cases must be well documented, critically assessed and cross-checked with non-Catholic experts.

"Some people clearly deserve recognition for what happened to them, and no one from the Jewish side opposes this -- but it's troubling if such stories are presented instrumentally as part of an official policy, suggesting the whole Polish nation assisted the Jews and suffered for it," Krajewski, a Warsaw University philosophy professor, told OSV News.

"Nevertheless I believe a fundamental change for the better has occurred, and I think this will continue -- as mutual understanding becomes easier with the passage of time, and issues of conflict become less real and more abstract."

Father Mazurkiewicz concedes that, for all the examples of heroic testimony, many will argue that Poles could and should have done much more for their persecuted Jewish neighbors.

Yet he hopes the Jewish presence in Poland will be remembered not just through the prism of the Holocaust, but also for its achievements of coexistence, with the interest and sympathy many Jews still feel for the country which was once their homeland.

Petrowa-Wasilewicz, the Catholic journalist, agrees.

She wrote a biography of Mother Matylda Getter (1870-1968), superior of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary, who took in 750 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto at her adjacent convent, helping them escape the gas chambers.

Although time is still needed to establish the truth, she thinks a better picture is already emerging of Poland and its inhabitants.

"The beatification of the Ulma family will be very important in showing how solidarity between people can rise above national and religious differences," Petrowa-Wasilewicz told OSV News.

"In the meantime, those of us who are fortunate to enjoy a quiet life, without any terrible, extreme experiences, should speak quietly and humbly, and be careful about judging people who, through fear for themselves and their loved ones, failed to act," Petrowa-Wasilewicz, who lost many members of her family in Warsaw during the German occupation, said.