Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Joanna Barcik – Ex-prisoners testimonies of faith

Joanna Barcik

Ex-prisoners’ testimonies of faith

I would like to make an important preliminary remark. My text is based on testimonies presented by religious prisoners, Poles and Catholics, who survived Auschwitz (or other Nazi concentration camps, Dachau in particular, where priests were imprisoned). The perspective of those survivors is essential here. Many of them would probably have agreed with Fr Franciszek Blachnicki, who described Auschwitz as “a sequence of miracles of divine providence” rescuing him “like Daniel from the lions’ den or like the youths from the fiery furnace”.[1] “In that nest of the most sophisticated brutality, sadism, hypocrisy and baseness, amid terror, misery and death, you could nevertheless sense a deeply hidden religious current. All you needed was being a believer yourself and knowing how to watch others,” Marian Baran wrote in a questionnaire sent to ex-prisoners of concentration camps by Prof. Antoni Kępiński’s team.[2]

Polish research into the camp experience and its psychological impact was initiated by Dr Stanisław Kłodziński, an ex-prisoner himself, fourteen years after the war. Kłodziński treated his fellow inmates (my grandfather Tadeusz Szymański among them) as part of his activity within the Oświęcim Society of Kraków. The researchers regularly compiled questionnaires on various topics, and their results were published in the Przegląd Lekarski Oświęcim. The questionnaire on religious beliefs, under a somewhat misleading heading Ideological attitudes of prisoners in Auschwitz, was sent to respondents in 1974, but its results were released only in 1989, as the subject did not win favour with the communist government in Poland. For the same reason, the infrequent religious testimonies given by ex-prisoners in the post-war period came primarily from priests’ memoirs published by small publishing houses, often abroad.

Love for God and the country

The ex-prisoners perceive their wartime experience within their overall conception of history. Instead of breaching this historical continuity, Auschwitz is placed in the general context of evil that has befallen Poland throughout the centuries. Their attitude to Auschwitz, then, seems to form part of the interpretation in which nations of the world, especially the “pagan” ones, ally themselves against the nation particularly chosen by God and the Virgin Mary. There is nothing new in this, it happened many times before with varying intensity. Moreover, the sufferings in Auschwitz are associated with the survival of the Polish nation and the state. Prof. Marek Kucia, a sociologist from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, who has studied the Polish approach to the Auschwitz phenomenon for many years, concludes:

From the beginning to the very end, KL Auschwitz was the place of deportation, imprisonment and extermination of Poles, persons of Polish nationality, sent there mainly for political reasons. Those facts soon became known to people in Poland under German occupation and then to public opinion in the free world. This provided the basis for the concept of Auschwitz as a Polish national symbol, a  symbol of martyrdom of the Polish nation. (…) “The martyrdom in Oświęcim (Auschwitz)” was viewed as suffering and death at the enemy’s hands to defend such higher values as the nation, the country and the state, freedom and faith, in keeping with the long tradition of Poland and the even longer tradition of Christianity.[3]
The words love for God and the country are spoken by the ex-prisoners in one breath. Fr Adam Ziemba writes in his testimony:

What kept them going was not only their will to live, but also their love for God and the country: for God, because without their faith they would have ended their misery by throwing themselves against the wires long ago; for the country, because they believed they might still be useful to Poland. They went calmly now, emaciated and maltreated, but with the defiance always seething inside them; time and again, it sent sparks to their seemingly lifeless eyes and kindled fires of inexhaustible spiritual strength that no-one and nothing could stifle.[4]

The Nazis were aware of this combination of national and religious identity. Hans Frank noted:

The Church has always been the ultimate centre of Polish nationalism. For Polish minds, the Church is the main rallying point that keeps radiating silently and thereby performs a function as an eternal light. If all lights went out for Poland, there would still remain the saint from Częstochowa and the Church. (…) Catholicism in that country is not a denomination, but an absolute necessity.[5]

The two faces of Auschwitz

The contemporary reader of these testimonies finds it particularly striking that the ex-prisoners see Auschwitz both as the experience of ultimate evil and as a challenge for them to remain human. It is significant that apart from using the metaphor of hell, the inmates often describe the place with the words grace, national retreat, university or victory. The imprisonment was a task, an opportunity to adhere to one’s values, to develop spiritually.

Fr Franciszek Blachnicki, a prisoner of Auschwitz, refers to his incarceration in Katowice, where he awaited his execution, with the phrase prison retreat. He regards it primarily as the time of purification, of surrendering his own will, his notions of God and God’s presence in his life. With the help of the Virgin Mary, he gradually renounced there his views and expectations, even those he considered good, so that the will of God could be accomplished through him.[6]

When describing the concentration camp in his memoirs, Fr Adam Ziemba bears witness not only to cruelty, but also to good engendered by that cruelty. Almost every page is a testimony to humanity and solidarity sustained by the prisoners against their fear and desire to survive at all costs.

In the introduction to his book Kwiaty na Golgocie (Flowers on Golgotha), Fr Konrad Szweda comments:

The more weeds of evil were sowed by the enemy, the more powerfully God sowed wheat seeds of good through His chosen prisoners, and thus love conquered hate. (…) God tried His servants in the fire of oppression and hardship. He wanted to test the ore of their hearts, the measure of their love, the extent of their dedication. Many strived to keep faith with their Lord to the last, not unlike miserable Job: “Lord, Thou gave, and Thou hast taken away, blessed be Thy name” (Job 1:21–22). Amidst this sea of cruelty, there evolved indomitable fortitude, the tremendous heroism of serving one’s neighbour, the renouncing of things once treated as important, the desire for a new world of love and kindness to arise from the sacrifice. Where there was no order based on love, terror spread, chaos of human urges reigned, animal instincts broke out. Where thought and mind were deprived of the reviving power of love, the all-consuming impulse to pull through prevailed. The blind force overwhelmed everything and blocked all reason.[7]

In his attitude to Auschwitz, Fr Szweda is influenced by the philosophical reflection of Fr Prof. Konstanty Michalski, an ex-prisoner of Sachsenhausen and the author of the monograph Między heroizmem a bestialstwem (Between heroism and savagery), written soon after the war.[8] Both priests view the Auschwitz experience from the anthropological perspective, posing the question about the responsibility of the human person – capable both of the greatest evil and of the greatest good – more frequently than the question, for example, about the responsibility of God.

Christ and the sacrifice of Fr Maximilian

After the liberation of KL Auschwitz, prisoners’ bodies were laid in mass graves. During the accompanying Mass for the dead, Fr Jan Skarbek, a priest of the Oświęcim parish who had helped the inmates during the war, said: “Jesus Christ was present in Auschwitz, too, as He was present in every German death camp. He, too, was killed by the German murderers with a poisonous injection or with gas, and was burned in the crematorium.”[9] To every Christian, Jesus Christ is the foundation of their faith. Christian prisoners of the camps understood this even more clearly. It was Jesus who sustained their life, who gave hope to the dying and was close to all who suffered. His words, remembered or repeated by fellow inmates, lifted their spirit. No wonder that the ex-prisoners refer to Him time and again. Mentions of Jesus who shares their plight, who gets through the wire fence or hangs on the gallows are not mere metaphors. They reflect the conviction that God is present in the hells of the world (in Christian theology, Christ descended into Hell after his death to lead out those awaiting salvation), and He never forsakes his children, but stays with them even in the worst trials.

This reference to Jesus Christ is absolutely relevant in the context of suffering as perceived by Catholics. All suffering becomes meaningful when experienced consciously as joining in the sacrifice of Christ. The sacrifice, however, is always seen in the light of the final victory, resurrection. In his Easter sermon, Fr Emil Seroka told his fellow prisoners in Dachau:

When everyone thought Christ had been entombed, He came to life through resurrection. When the Catacomb Church was persecuted, she grew the most splendidly and soon triumphed. So we ought to have no doubt either, despite the deprivation, oppression and propaganda, because we, too, are on our way to victory and resurrection, following the example of Christ.[10]

The hope of resurrection has had its religious and national dimensions in Polish thought at least since the 19th century, when the bondage of the partitioned nation was interpreted by Romantic poets as a prerequisite for the rebirth of the Polish state. The plight of the Poles was considered beneficial to other countries as well: the historical ordeal made Poland a “messiah of the nations” whose sacrifice would inaugurate freedom and new life throughout Europe.

It is this universal value of the suffering of the Poles that is viewed by the priests from Dachau as the context of the decision made by Fr Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan friar, who volunteered to die instead of a fellow Auschwitz prisoner. In July 1941, Karl Fritsch, the camp commandant, sentenced ten men to be starved to death in retaliation for a successful escape of an inmate. Fr Kolbe volunteered to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, a married man and a father, picked out by Fritsch. He died on 14 August 1941 after an injection of carbonate acid as the last of the men shut in an underground bunker in block 11.

According to the priests, Fr Kolbe’s ashes, scattered by wind, are a powerful testimony to the ultimate victory of good and love over evil. Fr Kolbe also symbolizes every Häftling: “He represents the thousands of tortured Polish priests, the thousands of Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Czechs, Russians, Italians, Yugoslavians, Germans, Gypsies – the thousands of victims of various nationality.”[11]

The ethical dimension of religious experience

Religious observances: liturgy, prayer or even possession of devotional objects, were strictly forbidden in the camps. Where faith could not be expressed openly, longing itself had to suffice:

Fr Piotr gazes at the first window of the chapel [the chapel in Dachau, inaccessible to Polish priests] and whispers an impromptu prayer: “Lord Jesus, I cannot come to You, I cannot receive You in Holy Communion. You have died for everyone and You want to save everyone; come to me, please, come to me in Holy Communion!” He remembered the book The Living Flame of Love by St John of the Cross, where he had found the words (3.28) that moved him deeply, a wise lesson for a faithful soul. He cherished them, pondered and repeated them, as they always comforted him and brought him light in the darkness: if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more. (…) On their way to the Supper of the Lord, those holy men encountered numerous obstacles that seemed unsurmountable. There was no chalice, no vestments, no appropriate bread or wine. But there was love, smartness and the unquenchable desire to come nearer to the Beloved. (…) They carved a chalice out of wood and put the upper part of a wine glass inside it.[12]

Each devotional object procured in the camp was of immense value. Fr Ziemba writes:

When I look back at the Oświęcim period from the perspective of freedom, when I remember my friends who departed for ever and those who have survived like me, the thin string with ten small knots becomes to me a lifeline thrown to people drowning in the stormy sea of life: our daily rosary in the camp.[13]

Zofia Posmysz comments on a small medallion with an image of Christ, a gift from a fellow prisoner:

I was happy. There. In Auschwitz. In the evenings after the whistle for Lagerruhe [Curfew] I took my treasure from the gap under the  rafters and, running my fingers like a blind women over the small silver plague, I called up the face of the One who was crucified before my mind’s eye in order to pray to it , not to plead for anything, but in gratitude. Gratitude for that feeling of being related, extraordinary, close to the ecstasy (God forgive) felt by saints. It was only years later when I was a student , that I encountered the notion of illumination , containing the idea of spiritual experience, enlightenment coming from another, non-earthly dimension. Yes, that’s what it was. [14]

The key development in the camps, however, was that Christianity was largely reduced to interpersonal relationships – reduced, but not diminished. The faith could only be put into practice by the simplest means: a word of encouragement, a kind gesture or a helping hand, while sharing one’s modest meal with a fellow prisoner amounted to an act of heroism. Marian Główka thus begins his answer to the questionnaire Why did I survive the camp? sent by Dr Kłodziński’s team: “I found friends there, I met good people.”[15] The relationship with another human person was of the utmost importance, it literally saved lives.

Subjected to this process of reduction which revealed the very essence of biblical religion, the prisoners’ faith was changed, cleansed and reinforced. Jadwiga Apostoł-Staniszewska writes:

The God I knew from altars, his face radiating justice and mercy, was there no more. The well-worn words of prayer were there no more. What remained was belief in the powerful Creator watching over the balance in his universe, where human beings are so small that they cannot claim special rights for themselves. They must govern their affairs on their own, according to ethical principles they have adopted. (…) It was there that my philosophy of life matured. Since then, I was to adhere to one commandment (…): “You shall love your neighbour like yourself”.[16]

Indeed, the ex-prisoners are quite often critical of pre-war culture, morality, education and moral theology taught at seminaries. One of the priests notes: “We knew the Gospels, we knew the encyclicals Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno, we had them on our library shelves, but what did we do to put them into action?”[17] The testimonies seem to suggest that the love for one’s neighbour encouraged by the Church found its true test only in the concentration camp.

Surviving to bear witness

The camp, therefore, was seen as the place to turn one’s professed values into action. The ex-prisoners often mention the “Auschwitz commandments”.[18] Fr Adam Ziemba writes:
The penal company was coming!
The columns of death were coming!
And the monotonous clatter of clogs resounded in the hearts of the prisoners, giving a single yet categorical order:
Endure!
Survive![19]

“Persevere!” “Survive to bear witness!” – yes, but never at the expense of someone else. Survive, too, to speak on behalf of those who died.

The ex-prisoners’ testimonies have two dimensions at least. Firstly, prisoners, priests in particular, viewed their task in the camps as being a sign of God’s love and forgiveness. Secondly, they wanted to give testimony of what they witnessed there. Kazimierz Smoleń, a former director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, confirms that political prisoners analysed possible ways of recording the events already while being in the camp.

John Paul II phrased a similar moral commandment in 1987: the knowledge about the Shoah should be passed to future generations “so that never again will such a horror be possible. Never again!”

Forgiveness

When discussing the role of religion, especially religion based on the Bible, in the camps, we cannot pass over the question of forgiveness, if our discussion is intended to promote reconciliation and peace. J.Z. Sochocki writes:

To their amusement, a German functionary from Silesia dragged a barrel, climbed on top, turned toward the front of the wretched group and, using a thick piece of wood, started to conduct them in chanting the Our Father. Frenzied screams Vorwarts! Schnell! Vorwarts! came from all sides, while heavy blows of clubs rained on the bare heads and swollen backs. The Lord’s Prayer, hesitant and weak at first, interrupted by wild shouts of the oppressors, gathered strength, grew louder and louder, drowning out the sneers and mockery. It sounded like a bell echoed by the hill, rising imploringly to heaven, falling down mournfully onto the valleys. Hour after hour, ceaselessly, without respite, they said the most beautiful prayer of worship, supplication and forgiveness.[20]

Not everyone was capable of such forgiveness, not always: “Forgive… forgive them too? No, never! I will not forgive! I cannot! Must not!… The lips formed the words as we forgive them that trespass against us, but the heart protested, asking for vengeance, for punishment deserved by those that trespass against us and cannot be forgiven…”. A little further we read, though: “Forgive us our trespasses, for who is without them?… and forgive them that trespass against us… You shall be their judge – theirs and ours. Your justice is upon all.”[21]

Some prisoners managed to pray for those who had turned into murderers, or even tried to find empathy with them. “The Scrouging of Jesus. The Lord’s body suffered so much for our sake. Let us offer our hardships as atonement for our trespasses and for those who persecute us.”[22]

In order to be able to perceive others, including our torturers, as God’s children, we need an excess of good in ourselves. This is what Krzysztof Michalski, a contemporary Polish philosopher (d. 2013), calls the divine perspective – a perspective that stems solely from deep religious experience:

The ability to meet evil with good is at odds with other human abilities. To activate it, we need to deny ourselves, to disrupt the life we have led so far. It requires an effort, then – an effort whose chances of success cannot be estimated, or rather an effort that must be in vain, if such estimation is based on our knowledge of ourselves. I can only hope I am able to answer evil with good; I cannot expect it on any rational grounds. (…) Would it possible to understand these biblical texts, would it be possible, despite everything, to discover the “divine perspective” in us and thus the goodness of all that is, if we did not encounter, from time to time, someone who can live like this, someone from another world?[23]

On the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of KL Ravensbrück, Wanda Półtawska, an ex-prisoner of the camp, read out another prisoner’s prayer in German. I would like to conclude my lecture with her words:

Peace to people of ill will.

And no more vengeance,
no more talking of punishment and lashing.
Cruelty mocks everything that has come into being.
It knows no bounds of reason,
and martyrs are many.
Therefore, God,
do not weigh their sufferings
on the scales of your justice.
Do not demand
that the merciless score be settled,
but square the accounts in a different way.
Let the sufferings prove beneficial
to every oppressor,
every traitor and spy,
and to all wicked people.
Forgive them
because of the fortitude of the others…
… what is good should matter,
and not what is evil.
We need not continue
in our enemies’ memory
as their victims, nightmares, ghastly spectres;
rather, we should help them
to distance themselves from their obsession.
Nothing more should be demanded of them,
only this – and one more thing:
when all is over,
let us live like people among people,
in peace restored on this poor earth
to people of good will and, through them, to others.
“I have read this prayer in German with no difficulty,” Półtawska says. “Let God forgive them!”[24]
 
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Notes:
 

[1] As cited in Adam Wodarczyk, Prorok Żywego Kościoła, Katowice 2008, p. 70.
[2] In: S. Kłodziński, J. Masłowski, “Postawy ideowe więźniów w Oświęcimiu”, Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, vol. 46, 1 (1989), p. 29.
[3] Marek Kucia, Auschwitz jako fakt społeczny, Kraków 2005, p. 232.
[4] Adam Ziemba, A Piece of Bread, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum 2017 (tu w przekładzie własnym tłumaczki).
[5] Hans Frank, Dziennik, ed. S. Piotrowski, Warszawa 1956, p. 147.
[6] Cf. Franciszek Blachnicki, Spojrzenia w świetle łaski. Kartki wyrwane z pamiętnika dla dusz na drodze oczyszczenia, Krościenko 2001.
[7] K. Szweda, Kwiaty na Golgocie, Poznań – Warszawa 1982, pp. 7–9.
[8] Kraków 2010.
[9] As cited in S. Nowak, Lekarz z Auschwitz, Warszawa 2020.
[10] Cudem ocaleni. Wspomnienia z kacetów, London 1981, p. 239.
[11] Ibidem, memoirs of Fr Chowaniec, p. 10.
[12] Ibidem, p. 309.
[13] A. Ziemba, A Piece of Bread (tu w przekładzie własnym tłumaczki).
[14] Z. Posmysz, The Christ from Auschwitz, Oświęcim 2014 (tu w przekładzie własnym tłumaczki).
[15] Z.. Główka, Marian Główka: wspomnienia 7 obozów, 1841 dni i nocy, Bielsko-Biała 2019, p. 191.
[16] In: S. Kłodziński, J. Masłowski, „Postawy ideowe więźniów w Oświęcimiu”, Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, vol. 46, 1 (1989), p. 31.
[17] Cudem ocaleni, p. 212.
[18] Cf. M. Horoszewicz, „Symbolika Auschwitz dla Żydów i chrześcijan”, Collectanea Theologica 62/2 (1992), p. 86; http://bazhum.muzhp.pl/media//files/Collectanea_Theologica/Collectanea_Theologica-r1992-t62-n2/Collectanea_Theologica-r1992-t62-n2-s37-88/Collectanea_Theologica-r1992-t62-n2-s37-88.pdf (accessed on February 10, 2021).
[19] A. Ziemba, A Piece of Bread (tu w przekładzie własnym tłumaczki).
[20] Cudem ocaleni, pp. 198.
[21] Ibidem, p. 198–199.
[22] Ibidem, p. 179.
[23] K. Michalski, Eseje o Bogu i śmierci, Warszawa 2014, pp. 170–171.
[24] W. Półtawska, And I Am Afraid of My Dreams, Hippocrene Books 2013 (tu w przekładzie własnym tłumaczki).

Przełożyła Anna Skucińska

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Lecture at the Webinar: FAITH IN AUSCHWITZ – THE VICTIM EXPERIENCE and INTERFAITH DIALOGUE TODAY. November 5th 2020, organized by The Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, Poland, in collaboration with the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, in Brooklyn, NY, USA.

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Dr. Joanna Barcik
Philosopher of religion, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy of Religion at the Faculty of Philosophy, the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow, founding member of the Polish Society of Philosophy of Religion, member of the Club of Christians and Jews CONVENANT. Her academic interests include French philosophy of reflection, feminist theology, and the possibility of thinking about God after Auschwitz. She has learnt dialogue in practice from her grandfather Tadeusz Szymański (20034), an inmate of the Auschwitz concentration camp and a co-originator of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, who considered reconciliation between the Poles and the Germans as his mission in life. She would like to follow his example, if only on a small scale, in the context of relationships between the Poles and the Jews. In the recent years, she has based her work on the guidelines set by Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
 

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