During times of social upheaval, such as war, a priest must learn to take many risks. But even during more peaceful times, unless a priest takes the initiative with courage, he cannot shepherd the people of God well. The Good Lord allowed me, a Polish priest, to witness and survive the Holocaust - perhaps the greatest upheaval of the 20th century.
I am now 90 years old, a great age, and I am glad to have reached it. But having just finished three month's hospitalization for congestive heart failure, I do not hesitate to share my story, not for my own glory, but to help my brother priests meet the challenges of the years ahead, good or bad.
Last year, on the anniversary of our liberation from Dachau, April 29, I concelebrated with 28 other priest-survivors at a Mass presided over by Pope John Paul II in Poland. I also celebrated the 60th anniversary of my ordination. But on the whole, the last 50 years of my priestly life have been unremarkable.
After I arrived in the United States in 1947, having become a member of the Franciscan province headquartered in Pulaski, Wisconsin, my priestly ministries matched the more ordinary social conditions in which I found myself. I settled down to a life of preaching Polish-language missions and retreats, editing Miesiecznik Franciszkanski (Franciscan Monthly) and serving as a chaplain in hospitals and for Catholic boy scouts and girl guides in their summer camps. I have lived in the friary of St Anthony of Padua in Pittsburgh since 1964. A few years back, I began serving the indult Latin Mass community in Pittsburgh, celebrating the Tridentine Mass and hearing confessions.
But I have never forgotten the lessons I learned in my sufferings: to never hide my priesthood, to never lose hope in the Good Lord, and to trust always in God's mercy.
I was ordained a Franciscan priest in Krakow, Poland, in July 1937. When war broke out on September 1, 1939, I stayed to serve the people - for better or for worse. The occupation authorities forbade priests doing anything except priestly work in the church and parish office. They closed all the Catholic seminaries, universities and organisations. Soon, our monastery became packed to the rafters with refugees.
While I continued performing my normal duties, I also added some new ones to meet the radically changed conditions. The moral theology I had studied in the seminary had given me solid principles and a way to apply them in normal times. But extraordinary cases of conscience now regularly confronted me. I had to decide whether to pursue pastoral initiatives which would be punished by the Nazis with prison, concentration camp or summary execution.
I became the philosophy instructor for our secret seminary, and travelled to a town outside Krakow to teach the seminarians there. There was nobody else available to give retreats in our other monasteries, so our major superior assigned me that ministry too. I tried to help Jews who had intended to become Catholics, but soon they had to leave Krakow to avoid being sent to the ghetto. The Nazis did not recognize Baptism - "once a Jew, always a Jew" was their motto. I baptised one elderly Jewish lady who was well protected by her Irish-looking face. But others were not so lucky.
I also helped the wives of soldiers in the Polish Army, some of whom had been killed and some of whom had gone into exile, when they came to me in anguish and distress. In 1939, I fulfilled a second vocation to which I had felt called all my life - to be a soldier. I became chaplain for the underground Polish army. While my Franciscan superiors had never officially prohibited this, I did not inform them about it. It would be safer for them to say that they did not know anything about it, if I got caught. While I never wielded a weapon, I was now a soldier in a war waged with all caution and ingenuity.
I was not arrested until 1944. One thing I have learned is that God sometimes intervenes at the very last moment. Polish underground army members were often shot, but just before execution, I was sent to Flossenburg concentration camp. I was very grateful to the Good Lord that he sent me there, since there I would still have some chance to survive; but if you are dead, you are dead.
But no one was expected to survive more than three months in that particular death camp. It combined 12 hours a day of hard labour with 1,000 calories of food a day. I remember a husky man in good physical condition when we arrived. But he became depressed and absent-minded - literally a fatal flaw where inhuman rules were enforced with cruelty. He died just a few weeks later - because he lost hope.
But very few of my colleagues, as I still call my fellow concentration camp prisoners (and I still pray for them every day, and for our captors too), committed suicide. Generally speaking, they kept their faith and hope unshaken until death. So I learned first-hand the power of divine faith and hope.
I also learned that with those virtues, you can endure much more than you think you can. In two months I lost 50 pounds, but I was still able work on the chain gangs. I would hear the confessions of those with whom I was working side-by-side. I would hear the confession of my dying colleagues who were taken to the camp "infirmary" - lacking a doctor or medicines, really just a place to die. I never gave so many conditional absolutions in my life as in that concentration camp. When colleagues were publicly killed by being hanged on a gibbet, I would absolve them from a distance. When colleagues were dying or perhaps already dead at the meeting place for the work gangs returning to camp, I would absolve them secretly as I passed.
But I never hid my priesthood. For example, when a new guard assigned to our chain gang asked each of us, "Who are you and why are you here?" Finding that I was a priest, one guard, risking punishment to himself, shared his lunch with me. But another guard separated me and a Jew from the rest of the work gang. "You accursed priest," he said, hitting us with a stick, "you accursed Jew, you never worked before ... well, you're going to work now! Faster, Faster!" That night, I prayed to the Good Lord, that he spare me from that guard, or else I would be dead. And he did.
The difference between guards, I found, was the difference between their educations. Since I spoke German fluently, I sometimes had extended conversations with the guards. The older guards, who were usually fallen-away Catholics or Protestants, were more merciful. They enforced the severe laws of the concentration camp, but only just enough to avoid being accused of disobedience - for which they would be sent to the front, or even a concentration camp themselves. But I found a totally different attitude in the young guards educated in the Hitler Youth schools. They hated all non-Germans, and especially Jews and priests.
If anyone doubts the profound importance of truly educating young people to be Christians, let him consider my concentration camp experience.
I should have died at Flossenburg, but God had other plans. Once again, he intervened at the last moment, and I was transferred to the Dachau concentration camp. Strange as it may sound, Dachau saved my life.
Priests were imprisoned under relatively less rigorous conditions at Dachau - this was one of the few concessions which the Holy See had been able to wrest from Nazi Germany. God's merciful providence sent me on my way with a package from a local pastor, a German Catholic priest. It contained bread, apples and a Latin edition of The Imitation of Christ. After the war I was able to thank him personally, and that's when I determined that he had arranged my life-saving transfer.
When I arrived in Dachau, my death was further forestalled thanks to the good graces of the other Polish priests there and the American Red Cross, which sent us care packages. I was made a tailor, which meant light work done indoors. There were 800 priests in one barrack, all Poles, and 400 priests from Germany and all over Europe, in the other. There were 28 barracks in Dachau in total. The authorities permitted the German priests to say Mass daily in the chapel in their barracks. They in turn smuggled bread and wine to the Polish priests for them to say Mass as well. I participated every morning in this secret Mass and received Holy Communion. And three times I celebrated Mass for my colleagues before our liberation. I even made visits to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the German priests' chapel, but you had to tell one of them the watchword. One time I remember it was "Lux de luce," light from light.
I received a care package from Poland, which contained bread, stockings, a cap and the "Novena to God's Mercy," revealed to Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska. This last was a miracle because the package must have passed through Nazi hands. Pope John Paul Il has elevated Sister Faustina to "Blessed" in recent years.
God's mercy has always been the keystone of my priestly ministry. So I asked our secret priestly superior if I could conduct a novena to God's mercy in the barracks. The Divine Mercy novena begins on Good Friday and ends on the Sunday after Easter, formerly "Low Sunday," (and now indeed some are beginning to call it "Divine Mercy Sunday"). On that Sunday in April 1945, I preached at the Mass in the chapel. The gospel was the institution of the sacrament of Penance and the Apostle Thomas's conversion to belief in Our Lord's resurrection. Both were gifts of God's mercy, I told my colleagues. Explaining God's mercy as best I could, I ended my sermon by asking them to trust in God's mercy. For us Christians, I said, there is never a "death-end" in any situation. There is always hope. That was the second Sunday of April. On the last Sunday of the month, we were liberated by the Third American Army under General George Patton.
Once again, the Good Lord had spared my life at the last moment. The Nazis, retreating from the American army, had planned to blow up the camp with all the inmates in it. But American soldiers, having seized the train depot in the city of Dachau, saw all the boxcars filled with corpses which had never made it. So they took the initiative and came to liberate us, something which had not been part of the original battle plan. The Nazis fled.
If the Americans had come three hours later, we would have all been dead. Instead, we were celebrating our miraculous liberation by singing the Te Deum freely in the German barracks chapel: Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos, quemadmodum spera vimus in te ...
I never abandoned my priesthood, and the Good Lord in his mercy never abandoned me - though sometimes he kept me hoping right up to the last moment. In te, Domine, speravi; non confundar in aeternum.
Reprinted with permission from 'Homiletic and Pastoral Review'. Subscriptions at $40.00 per annum are available through Ignatius Press, tel +61 (07) 3375 9146.