As the world commemorates Yom HaShoah Day, remembering the Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, a Polish priest recounts the heroic rescues of Polish Jews by Catholic nuns.

Poland was attacked from two sides in 1939. Nazi Germany attacked her Sept. 1; Soviet Russia followed on Sept. 17. The Soviets occupied one-third of Poland, all the way up to the River Bug (now Poland's eastern boundary). Nazi Germany seized the rest of Poland, dividing its lands into two parts. Part of Poland was directly annexed to the Third Reich (the seacoast together with Bydgoszcz and Torun, Great Poland with cities like Poznan and Lodz, Silesia together with Katowice). The other part formed an entity called the “General Gouvernement” (which included Warsaw and Krakow).

In those areas which the Nazis and Soviets annexed directly, the occupiers had two goals: the permanent acquisition of those territories and the elimination of any local leadership and intelligentsia including (except in Silesia) the clergy. The General Gouvernement was supposed to serve as a reservoir of Polish labor until Germany's final victory. It was wholly under German administration. Poles were allowed to receive only an elementary or basic vocational education. All other schools were closed. Underground teaching was treated as a crime.

Jews, who made up 10% (3.5 million people) of Poland's prewar population, were concentrated in the General Gouvernement. Jews living in those areas directly annexed to the Reich were either deported or summarily killed at the start of the war. The large Jewish population of eastern Poland, which first found itself under the Soviet flag, came under German rule with the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941.

The Germans first imprisoned Jews in ghettoes. Later, they either transported them to concentration camps or killed them on the spot.

The Lot of Poland's Nuns

In those areas the Germans annexed (except Silesia), convents of women religious were almost completely wiped out. They continued to exist, however, in the General Gouvernement and, to some degree, in the territories under Soviet occupation.

The existence of convents provided an opportunity to help the Jews. Amid a total population of 16,820 Latin-rite nuns (this article will only consider the Roman rite), about 14,000 had any possibility of aiding Jews. It should be remembered that these numbers come from 1937, prior to the war, and undoubtedly declined during the war years.

In 1937, there were 1,686 houses of women religious. About 1,400 were located in areas where they were reasonably able to function during the war years. Of the 63 female Latin-rite religious communities existing in 1937 Poland, about 55 gave assistance to Jews. Nuns ran the more than 300 institutions which sheltered Jews. These included 118 convents, 60 nursery schools, 51 schools, 40 orphanages, 16 poorhouses, eight pediatric hospitals and six adult medical centers.

One can say that almost 1,000 sisters helped Jews. It is hard to say exactly how many Jews were rescued by nuns, but the number certainly exceeds 1,200. Because adult Jews often received advice from convents about where to find hiding places and other types of assistance, it becomes even harder to fix an exact number of beneficiaries. Among the 70 persons killed for having helped Jews, several dozen were nuns. To date, 14,704 people have received the “Righteous Among the Gentiles” medal from Israel for saving Jews. Of that number, there are 4,954 Poles, including 16 nuns and five priests.

Crushing Conditions

In remembering these times, one should keep in mind the conditions created by the Nazi occupation of Poland. Poland was the only place where German law rendered any assistance to Jews punishable by death. That punishment was severe and collective: It was meted out not only to the rescuer but also to his entire family and to anyone else who knew about such activities but did not report them. Almost 1,000 Poles were killed this way, including entire families whose children were not spared. Homes that sheltered Jews were burned.

Every sister in a convent sheltering a Jew was deemed personally responsible. It should be remembered that, at that time, there were often several dozen Jewish children who might be in schools or other institutions run by nuns. In order to keep secret any effort to hide a Jew, it was the sister superior who made the rescue decision. Oftentimes, a Jew captured by the Germans, hoping to save himself, would reveal where he had been hidden. The nuns knew of this risk; nevertheless, they not only hid Jews, but they often transported them to safe havens, concealing Semitic-looking faces under bandages along the way.

Boys were particularly at risk because of circumcision and, therefore, required special hiding places. Nuns obtained false papers for children, including baptismal certificates. Instances of the baptism of Jewish children were frequent so as to facilitate their concealment among Christian children. Although there were some charges of proselytism by the parents of children rescued in this way, those children had total freedom after the war to return to their own faith.

The manner in which Jews were rescued was often unconventional. Daniel Rufeisen, who recently died as a Carmelite, was rescued by the Resurrectionist Sisters in Belarus who, at one time, hid him by dressing him up in the order's habit.

It was easiest to help assimilated Jews who spoke Polish and knew Polish customs. Many, despite a Jewish presence in Poland that dated back centuries, knew neither. Furthermore, someone pretending to be a Christian had to know some prayers, the basic truths of faith, and had to go to church. Nuns thus had a difficult task before them, making sure that a Jew could hide not only from the Germans but also from gossips and szmalcownici. The latter blackmailed Jews, sometimes exposing them, in the hope of material gain.

Today one often hears in some Jewish circles the epithet of “Polish death camp.” That phrase is unjust. It is especially unjust in the case of Poland's religious. There was no group in occupied Poland who, proportionately, did as much to help Jews as Polish priests and nuns.

The quest for exact numbers, however, is illusory: The facts cited here are necessarily incomplete and will always remain so. That's because the rescue of Jews had to take place under strictest secrecy, without any records. Those cases we can document represent but the tip of the iceberg.

Father Zielinski is professor of Church history at Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.