by Ewa Kurek
(Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1997, 255 pp., $24.95)
Since the election of Karol Wojtyla to the papa-cy, Polish Catholics have been under fire for ignoring, abusing, or betraying Jews during World War II. This abuse of the people of Poland has tapered off since the fall of the Soviet Empire, but echoes remain. The truth is that Polish defense of the Jewish population was so strong that only in Poland were entire families executed for helping Jews, and only Poles were put under an automatic sentence of death for assisting in the rescue of their Jewish brothers and sisters.
Ewa Kurek, a warm motherly scholar and historian dedicated to the study of World War II and its aftermath, has written a moving and powerful documentary of rescues of Jewish children by nuns in Poland — rescues impossible without the broad support of local civilians. Your Life is Worth Mine documents the hundreds of convents and religious orders in Poland that sheltered Jewish children from the Nazi genocide machine. Strategies were simple but dangerous. Jewish children were taught Catholic prayers and ritual in order to provide cover, and often issued with fake baptismal certificates, but seldom baptized without the consent of a parent or the adult “child.”
Maria Klein from Israel, saved by the Sacred Heart Sisters in Presemysl together with 12 other Jewish children wrote: “I did not get baptized in the convent, even though I wished to. During the bombardment of Presemysl, I asked a priest who was with us in the shelter to baptize me but he refused.
“When I came to the convent I did not even know how to cross myself. I took Sister Ligoria's advice and knelt at the very back of the chapel and mimicked praying. Sister Ligoria said I should do it in order not to differ from the others, but she also said that each of us had our own faith; the war would end some day, and if my parents survived I would remain Jewish, but one's faith is not a pendulum and one cannot change it. So when I became 21, I would have the right to do what I wanted.
The nuns in no way tried to influence me to receive baptism. Somehow a Hebrew prayerbook found its way to the convent. Keeping something like that jeopardized one's life, just like hiding us did. I could even differentiate and read some letters when Sister Bernarda asked what they were. So she locked me in her room every other day so that I would not forget how to read those letters that I knew. She said, “Pray to the Jewish God, and we will pray to Lord Jesus. If we all pray, then perhaps we will survive the war.”
Boys were sometimes dressed as girls in order to protect them from intrusive and dangerous “examinations":
“As for all the Jews in Poland, the most important key to survival for the children was assimilation into the surrounding world. The nuns, trying to conceal a child's Semitic features, used various methods. For girls sometimes it was enough to cut or bleach the hair, or change the hairdo. Boys usually were in a terrible position. They had short hair and it was difficult to do anything with it, apart from a change in its color. So the nuns used bandages and various caps. As a last resort they gave the boys skirts to wear, or they isolated them altogether from the outside world.”
Accounts of Jewish mothers handing their children to strangers of another faith are heartrending. It is impossible to measure the courage and sacrifice of that act:
“My mother decided to commit suicide with the help of the farmer. Suicide by drowning. Together with my little sister. She was three-years-old ... the farmer came back and said that everything was over and that we should be on our way.... I was a child so terribly damaged psychologically and so shook up that anything that would bring me back to my other, Jewish life, was frightening.... In the convent I felt safe....”
Help did come from surprising places. In one poignant story, a Nazi officer collaborated in a rescue. When a tormented mother attempted to drown her child, a crippled inn-keeper rescued them both, left the village for some months and returned with “her” baby, for whom her lover, the Nazi officer, claimed paternity. Collaborator or rescuer? Who is to judge?
Other accounts are less morally complex, and charming even in the context of the war, Nazis would arrive unannounced at the convents, seizing food and scrutinizing the children for signs of Semitic heritage. These raids required quick thinking and smooth interventions on the part of the nuns.
“The Germans came in so suddenly that I was left inside the room and could not be taken out through any door. Sister Helen — she was tall and slim, her face was like that of the Madonna; she was beautiful — took those eggs out so quickly! She put me inside the basket and covered me with the eggs and straw. A German came in, kicked the basket and asked what was in it. She calmly answered that there were eggs in the basket. The German said he was taking the eggs. The sister started begging him saying that there was a seriously ill nun in the convent who had to have those eggs. The German persisted but then started paying her compliments, for she was very beautiful. Finally he left the basket where it was and went away.”
I am deeply grateful to Kurek for this book. It is a work of hope, and acknowledgment of the human heart's ability to rise above its own immediate desires. Above all it is a work of great scholarship, going beyond anecdote to a deep insight into the Jewish communities, profound religious and personal conflicts regarding the propriety of accepting Christian help and exposing their children to the influence of a powerful “alien” religion, and the ethical challenges faced by simple sisters willingly but perfunctorily thrust into a “resistance” movement.
It is, above all, a tribute to motherhood — spiritual and biological. Kurek traces the tradition of spiritual motherhood of consecrated, celibate women back through the Middle Ages to the most noble mother of all, Mary of Nazareth, at the same time honoring the Jewish mothers who sacrificed their own maternity so that their children could live. Put it on the list. It is light out of darkness. An important document and great read.
Deirdre McNamara writes from New York.