The Amazing, Little-Known Story of 11 Nuns of Nowogródek, Martyred by Nazis 76 Years Ago Today
“Together and unanimously they offered their lives to God, asking in exchange that the lives of the mothers and fathers of families and that of the local pastor be spared. The Lord graciously accepted their sacrifice and, we believe, abundantly rewarded them in his glory.” —Pope St. John Paul II
Nuns have often been called “brides of Christ,” referring to their mystical espousal of the Lord, often symbolized by their receiving wedding rings (think St. Catherine of Siena) at their final profession of vows. Today, I want to share the account of a particular “bride of Christ,” Sister Józefa Chrobot of the Congregation of Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. This essay, ideally, should have been written a year ago, on the 75th anniversary of her martyrdom but, as the saying goes, “better late than never.”
Sister Kanuta (born Józefa Chrobot) came into the world in 1896 in what is now central Poland, then a country 22 years away from returning to Europe’s maps after its 18th century dismemberment by Russia, Prussia and Austria. She had not planned on a religious vocation, but on getting married, and was even engaged. In a dream, however, she heard a voice telling her: “Do not marry Stanisław! Your beloved is waiting for you in Grodno, and he will give you a red dress for a wedding present.”
Grodno (today, Hrodna) now lies outside of Poland, just across its border in Belarus. When Chrobot entered the novitiate in 1921, the city lay in Poland.
Józefa then felt a calling to the religious life and was sent by the Holy Family Sisters to Grodno. In 1931, she went to Nowogródek (today, Navahrudak), a town near Grodno. There, along with her superior Sister Mary Stella and nine other companions, she would experience martyrdom.
The Sisters were in Nowogródek when World War II broke out in 1939. First occupied by the Soviets, the people of Nowogródek exchanged Russian for German occupation in 1941. The Polish Underground Home Army—Europe’s largest underground resistance during World War II — remained active in the region, sabotaged Nazi efforts. Many locals were also being expatriated to Germany for forced labor.
Seeing the suffering of the locals, especially families whose men were sent to Germany, the Sisters offered themselves in prayer: if a sacrifice be needed, they offered themselves. Their prayer would soon be answered.
The sisters worked in hospital and child care. On July 31, 1943, the sisters were summoned by the local Nazis to their headquarters. Ten sisters went; one, who was not with the group, managed to hide in a local church and survived. She would remain, as a catechist, until from what I remember the 1990s.
At Nazi headquarters, the Sisters were subjected to brutal and forceful interrogation for the entire Saturday night. Early at dawn Sunday morning, they were driven about 6 miles outside of town into a pine forest, where a mass grave awaited them. Each was shot and fell into the pit in which they were buried.
News of the brutality began filtering out, and a penitent went to the Nowogródek church, where Father Alexander Zienkiewicz (1910-1995) was hearing confessions. Thanks to the warning, Zienkiewicz was able to escape the Germans, who were also after him, and remained active underground in the Nowogródek and Vilnius areas until 1946. Zienkiewicz knew of the Sisters’ prayer, and it was he who made efforts to have the Sisters’ bodies exhumed March 19, 1945, and buried in the Nowogródek church.
(Zienkiewicz was finally expelled from what was now Soviet territory in 1946, and spent the next 49 years in pastoral and academic work in western Poland. He was also instrumental in promoting the Sisters’ cause. They were beatified in 2000. The process seeking Zienkiewicz’s beatification began in 2010.)
When their remains were exhumed it was noted that, as the Sisters were shot, their bodies fell into the grave atop each other. Sr. Kanuta’s habit had been bathed in the blood of her fellow sisters. God is faithful; his bride received her red dress in Grodno.
I visited Nowogródek/Navahrudak, the site where the Sisters were killed, their tomb in the local church, and the current sisters’ home in 2003. Earlier Soviet repression being what it was, as well as current religious tensions in Belarus, have combined perhaps to make the story of the Sisters far less known than it deserves to be. Also, the mystical element proves more elusive: their offering in prayer was not as visible as the self-sacrifice of their fellow Pole, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who almost two years earlier was murdered at German hands in the Auschwitz starvation bunker, offering his life in substitution for a fellow prisoner with a wife and children.
The message of love of fellow man, however, is the same, even if everything is known but to God. How many other countless acts of solidarity and love occurred in the prisons, concentration camps, Gulags, and streets of the bloody 20th century — a century that began with bold proclamations of enlightened protection of rights and actually witnessed the naïve signing a treaty banning war (11 years before World War II) — awaits revelation, along with the sons and daughters of God, on the Last Day (Romans 8:19).
(For a prayer for the sisters’ cause and litany, see here.)