Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reflections on The Catholic Holocaust in Poland

A recent  issue of the New York Times carried a story about  the Jews who were killed by the Nazis in Eastern Europe outside the infamous concentration camps--Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, etc. . The article points out that about one third of the 6 million Jews who were killed by the Nazis during World War II did not die in the mass execution factories. Rather they died at so -called "killing sites"--in forests, villages and open fields; and in quarries, homes, and streets.

11 Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth
Image credit: Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth

This is true of course, but it would be a mistake to believe that the Nazi mass killings in Eastern Europe were aimed solely at the Jews. According to Robert Royal's The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century, about 3 million Polish Catholics were exterminated by the Nazis.  St. Maximilian Kolbe is probably the most famous Polish Catholic to die at the hands of the Nazis. He gave himself up to the starvation bunkers at Auschwitz to save the life of a young father who had been selected for execution.  Kolbe is one of 108 Catholic Poles from the World War II era who have been officially recognized as Catholic saints and martyrs by the Vatican.

Not so famous are the Blessed Martyrs of Nowogrodek, eleven Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth who were executed by the Nazis on July 31, 1943. The sisters complied with an order to report to a Nazi command post, and they were taken to a field and shot on the evening of that same day.

In addition to the Polish martyrs we know about, thousands and thousands of Polish Catholics were killed by the Nazis whose names have been forgotten. Others were killed by the Soviets, including 20,000 Polish Catholics who were executed by the Russians in the Katyn Forest in the spring of 1940.

American children are commonly taught the Jewish Holocaust in the nation's public schools, but it takes nothing away from the Jewish experience to acknowledge that millions of Catholics were also exterminated during World War II--killed because of their faith. Certainly Catholic children should know that millions of their co-believers suffered persecution and death during World War II, just as the Jews did.

Today, American Catholics experience petty indignities that are nothing compared to what the Polish Catholics suffered during the Second World War.  In Colorado, for example, the Little Sisters of the Poor are being harassed by the Obama administration. In Illinois, Catholic Charities is forced to give up adoption services because it refuses to place children with same-sex couples.  In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo, himself a Catholic, stated publicly that people who oppose abortion have no place in the state of New York.

All of this is part of a growing hostility in the United States toward Christianity and Catholicism in particular. Increasingly, Americans believe that religion has no place in public life, that religion is something that should be practiced only in private.

Perhaps Catholics think these little irritations will pass.  But I don't think so. As American Catholics, I think we should prepare ourselves for the day when we will be called to suffer for our faith.

And as we prepare ourselves, I highly recommend Robert Royal's excellent book on the 20th century Catholic martyrs.  One element that returns again and again in these martyrs' stories, Royal tells us, "is how people undergoing unjust suffering and degradation frequently found their faith and their very lives becoming purer, more meaningful, more ardent" (p. 3).

Some day soon some American Catholics will have the opportunity to find out if Robert Royal was right.


Robert Royal. The Catholic Martyrs of the 20th Century. New York: Crossroads Books, 2000.

Alison Smale. Shedding Light on a Vast Toll of Jews Killed Away from the Death Camps. New York Times, January 28, 2014, p. A10.

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