Eastern Europe Correspondent
WARSAW, Poland — When Sister Maria Teresa Czerwinska turns 90 in March, the occasion will have a special poignancy.After graduating in history at Warsaw University, Maria was just 24 when she joined the Resurrection order at the start of the troubled decade leading up to World War II.
The order recognized her talents.And when the Germans and Russians invaded Poland in 1939, Sister Maria was already directing its main school in the capital's Mokotowska Street. To outsiders, the school functioned normally through the terrible years of occupation.Few people ever knew that the shy nun who ran it was also risking her life daily hiding Jewish children from the Nazis.
Three years ago, Warsaw's Jewish Historical Institute nominated Maria for a prestigious “Righteous among Nations” award, and sent documents about her case to Jerusalem.Friends hope the nun's courageous work will be formally recognized before she dies.If it is, Sister Maria will become the 18th Polish nun to be honored by Israel's Yad Vashem National Memorial Institute for saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
That's only a tiny proportion of the total list of award-holders.But it also confirms, after decades of controversy over the Church's wartime stance, that there were Catholic clergy and Religious who put their lives on the line to rescue Jews.
“Of course, no Christian can expect a reward for merely doing what was right and natural,” said Bishop Stanislaw Gadecki, who heads the Polish Church's Commission for Dialogue with Judaism. “But every medal is another step towards knowing the full truth.It reminds us that even under the greatest pressure, in conditions of captivity and pain, people were still able to maintain their humanity.”
By Jan.1, 1995, a total of 12,681 “Righteous among Nations” medals had been handed out by Yad Vashem, which was specially established to commemorate Holocaust victims by the Israeli Knesset in 1953.Of the 33 nationalities listed among recipients, Poles were by far the most common — with 4478 medals, compared to 3774 held by Dutchmen, 1249 by French citizens and 685 by Belgians.Since then, the worldwide list has extended beyond 13,500.In the latest ceremonies, 35 Poles were awarded the medal by Israeli ambassador Gershon Zohar Oct.23, 1996 and a further 13 from the eastern city of Bialystok Dec.18.
Yad Vashem Institute officials stress that these are proven cases only: They don't in any way reflect the actual number who rescued Jews.Six times as many medals, for example, are held in the Netherlands as in neighboring Belgium.But more Jews were actually saved from the Holocaust in the latter country than in the former.
Meanwhile, Norwegians and Danes hold just 18 medals between them.However, resistance movements in both countries played a major role in saving Jews, but requested that no individual names be divulged after World War II.
Some historians believe more Catholic clergy could be honored too, if their wartime efforts were only better known and documented. In February 1996, that hope came a step closer to realization when Father Klemens Sheptycky (1869-1950), a Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest, was posthumously awarded the medal at a ceremony in Lviv.
Born into a Polish-Ukrainian aristocratic family, Sheptycky studied law at Krakow's Jagiellonian University before joining the Greek Catholic Studyte order in 1911.In 1947, while acting as the order's superior, he was one of 800 Ukrainian priests deported to Siberia after their Church's forced merger with Russian Orthodoxy.
He died and was buried in the Soviet Union's Vladimir prison in 1950.But Jews who owed their lives to him never forgot Sheptycky.Documents recording his wartime role were collected by a Yad Vashem commission and released in Ukraine a year ago.
Sheptycky's medal is the first bestowed by Israel on a Greek Catholic priest.But Father Jozefat Romanyk, a senior Ukrainian Catholic priest, thinks others deserve acknowledgment as well. Romanyk believes the priest's elder brother, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptycky, who hid Jews in his Lviv residence before his death in 1944, should top the list.
The Metropolitan, who worked closely with his younger brother and spoke Hebrew to local Jews during parish visits, was 80 years old at the time of Ukraine's joint German and Soviet occupation in 1940.But he publicly protested the mistreatment of the Jews and organized a chain of safe houses.Both Sheptyckys are also candidates for beatification by the Catholic Church. Metropolitan Andrei's process began in 1957 and is believed close to completion.
“Under Soviet rule, when all religious activities were rigidly controlled, it was impossible to research cases like this,” Romanyk told the Register. “But thanks to such examples, we now know that, even in those dark times, there were people who were ready to sacrifice their lives for others, rising above national and confessional divisions.”
In neighboring Poland, as many as a dozen Catholic priests have been considered for “Righteous among Nations” medals. They include famous names like Father Marceli Godlewski, who hid Jews at his parish house close to the Warsaw Ghetto, and Father Julian Chroscicki, who died helping Jews obtain Aryan IDs.
Virtually all recommendations have failed because no living witnesses were found — a key Yad Vashem stipulation.But in 1990, the award was given to two priests: Father Adam Stalmark, now living in Austria, and Father Aleksander Osiecki, who was honored posthumously for saving Jews in his Debica parish.
In 1994, the list was extended to include the first Catholic bishop, retired Polish auxiliary Albin Malysiak.In 1943, while serving as chaplain at a home for the disabled run by Ursuline nuns in Nazioccupied Krakow, the then-Father Malysiak obtained fake birth certificates that enabled five fugitive Jews to be admitted.
Their identities were known to patients and staff.But all five survived the war, thanks to the priest and to Sister Bronislawa Wilemska, the home's Ursuline director. “Neither of us believed we were doing anything heroic or courageous.Our only concern was that we should be efficient,” the bishop said. “In hiding the Jews, we were simply following the voice of our consciences.All we wanted was to fulfill Christ's evangelical command to love your neighbor.”
That was also the attitude of the prelate's colleague, Sister Wilemska, who was given the “Righteous among Nations” medal posthumously with 15 other Polish citizens in January 1996.
Though male orders such as the Redemptorists, Salesians, Marians, Capuchins, Franciscans and Dominicans also sheltered Jewish fugitives, the role played by nuns like her has been best remembered.Some historians attribute this to circumstances.Male communities were generally smaller and more closely watched by the Gestapo.Hiding there was more difficult than in convents, which often had schools and children's homes attached to them.
Whatever the truth, the testimony of nuns during the Holocaust has helped transform the Polish Church's image away from the anti-Semitism that was rife in the 1930s, when Poland's 3 millionstrong Jewish minority made up a tenth of its population.
The first survey by the Polish Primate's office in 1962 concluded that virtually every convent in the country had at some time sheltered fugitive Jews, mostly women and children.The cases of at least 189 religious houses have been documented.Besides the Ursulines, particular help was given by Sisters from the Franciscan, Discalced Carmelite and Resurrection orders.But in May 1995, two Sisters from another order, the non-habited Immaculate Heart of Mary, were also posthumously awarded “Righteous among Nations” medals.
Sisters Bronislawa Hryniewicz and Stanislawa Jozwikowska were nominated by Batia and Ester Fakor, two Jewish sisters they saved in the eastern town of Siedlce.In a special message for the occasion, the Pope recalled the unique wartime fate of the Jewish people, and praised those who had the courage to stand alongside them.
Stanislaw Krajewski, a consultant for the American Jewish Congress, who co-chairs Poland's Christian-Jewish Council, doubts whether stories like this can have much impact on inter-faith dialogue.But they should at least be discussed internationally, Krajewski thinks. “Jews are well aware that every kind of attitude was shown towards them,” Krajewski told the Register. “But there are interesting questions to consider where Church assistance for Jews is concerned.Did the priests and nuns who offered shelter do so purely to help the Jews survive, or also with the aim of converting them? What were the motives, and how did they vary from place to place?”
Bishop Gadecki, the Polish Church commission chairman, is more upbeat.Examples of the heroism shown by the few have something to teach today's disillusioned generation, the bishop thinks, since they show that the Christian responsibility to help others can't be set aside by any pretexts.
But they're also important for the Church, which is still grappling with accusations and counter-accusations about its wartime role. “These medals remind us that dialogue doesn't just mean deliberating about doctrines and perceptions,” the bishop told the Register. “Atrue Christian-Jewish dialogue must also concern itself with life, humanity and basic values.”
When the first international conference of “Righteous among Nations” medal holders was staged in Warsaw in July 1993, participants recalled the dangers involved in helping Jews — at a time when German notices expressly warned that anyone doing so would be shot dead.Data on 872 Poles who were executed by the Nazis for sheltering Jews was shown in a Warsaw exhibition four years ago.
But Sister Maria Teresa Czerwinska's fellow Sisters from the Resurrection order say she's rarely talked about her dangerous wartime exploits, and was taken aback when she was nominated for a Yad Vashem award.
In 1993, two Sisters from Poland's St.Vincent de Paul order, Janina Poplawska and Julia Sosnowska, were also put up for medals for hiding Jewish children during the Holocaust. Documentation on a fourth, Kinga Strzelecka, a leading theologian, has also been sent to Israel, suggesting the story of how Catholics helped Jews is still far from over.
“But I didn't do anything special — just what was natural and normal,” the 89-year-old Maria insisted in a faint voice. “I was just working in a school, looking after children.I did what anyone in my position with similar possibilities would probably have done as well.”
Jonathan Luxmoore is based in Warsaw, Poland.