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Five Heroic Catholics of the Holocaust**
[Click down for Other Heroic Nuns]
 --  Rev. Vincent A Lapomarda, S.J.

Few people realize what Pope John Paul II has done to demonstrate that the Catholic Church was not silent during the Nazi persecutions. By canonizing one victim and by beatifying four others, the pope has focused on the sufferings of Catholics at the time of the Third Reich. Perhaps the papal actions more than the work of historians will help to dispel the false notions about the role of the Catholics in that period of history when the Holocaust encompassed both Jews and Gentiles.

Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) was the first of the heroes raised to the altar. Baptized Raymond, a native of ZdunskaWola in Poland, he took the name Maximilian on receiving the Franciscan habit in 1911. A student at the Gregorian University in Rome, he was ordained a priest 18 April 1918 and received his doctorate the following year. Back in Poland, where he was a seminary professor and religious publicist, he was arrested shortly after the invasion of Poland in 1939 and released after three months. Arrested again on February 17th, 1941, he was taken to Pawiak Prison in Warsaw and then moved to Auschwitz on May 28th.

At Auschwitz, Father Kolbe heroically offered his life in place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, a fellow prisoner, who survived to witness the Franciscan's canonization. Condemned to starvation at Auschwitz, he died in a cell there on August 14th after the Nazis hastened his demise by injecting him with carbolic acid.

Father Kolbe's heroism was formally recognized thirty years after his death when, on 17 October 1971, he was beatified by Pope Paul VI. Eleven years later, when I was on sabbatical leave from teaching, I was fortunate to witness his canonization by Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square on 10 October 1982. Later, on 19 August 1986, 1 visited the cell in Auschwitz where this great hero of the Holocaust had died.

The canonization of Maximilian as a saint did not please some members of the Jewish community who considered him to be anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, these critics were wrong because Father Kolbe had helped hundreds of Jews escape the terror of the Nazis. Although he had been critical of certain Jewish practices in economic affairs, the priest had not discriminated against the Jews on the basis of race or religion. Actually, he had cared for 1,500 Jewish refugees at Niepokalanow, a city established by him in 1927 in honor of Mary Immaculate and located not far from Warsaw.

Another hero of the Holocaust was the Carmelite Titus Brandsma (1881-1942), a priest and a journalist, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 3 November 1985. A native of Friesland, Anno Sjoerd Brandsma was regarded as "the dangerous little Friar" by the Nazis because he was the spokesman of the Dutch Bishops for the freedom of the Catholic press. Having entered the Carmelite Order in 1898, he took the name Titus, his father's name, and was ordained a priest on 17 June 1905. Like Father Kolbe, he had obtained a doctorate at the Gregorian University, had lectured as a seminary professor and had engaged in publication. His fame spread in the 1930s as the rector of the Catholic University of Nijmegen and as the chaplain of the Catholic journalists.

When the Nazis occupied Holland in 1940, they wanted Father Brandsma to dismiss the Jewish children from Catholic schools. Having protested as far back as 1935 against the Nazi policy towards the Jews in Germany, he now refused to yield to the pressure of the Gestapo in Holland. At the same time, he urged the editors of Catholic newspapers to refuse to publish the propaganda of the Nazis. Consequently, he was taken prisoner to Scheveningen, a seaside suburb, on 20 January 1942, and used the time to prepare himself for the trying days that faced him. Then he was transferred to the dreaded prison at Amersfoort, Holland, on March 12th, where he showed particular concern for the Jews.

Interrogated by the Gestapo, Father Brandsma stood firm and refused to change his views to suit the Nazis. "You will be transferred to Dachau," the Gestapo threatened. "You will stay there until the end of the war." Worn out by torture, he arrived there on June 19th. Though he did not survive the medical experiments conducted on the prisoners in the camp, Brandsma did exhibit a heroic degree of virtue in caring for those around him despite his own sufferings. On July 26th, he was injected with a deadly drug and died ten minutes later.

On 3 May 1987 at Munich, Pope John Paul II beatified the Jesuit Rupert Mayer (1876-1945), a third hero of the Nazi era . Having been ordained a priest on 2 May 1899, he entered the Society of Jesus on 1 October 1900. A courageous chaplain in World War I, he had earned the Iron Cross in 1915.

Early in his career as director of seven thousand sodalists in Munich, Father Mayer pointed out that one could not be a Catholic and a Nazi. His preaching irked the Nazis so much that they sought to silence him by ordering him, on 16 May 1937, to cease speaking in public. However, this was not enough since the priest continued to preach in St. Michael's, his church in downtown Munich. Like Father Kolbe and Father Brandsma, Father Mayer was so powerful a voice for the Catholic church in its resistance to the Nazis that the latter had to move against him. He was arrested on June 5th and given a suspended sentence until 5 January 1938. But he was forced to serve this sentence after he had spoken out against the Nazis attempts to defame his character. Out of prison the following May, he was accused of cooperating with opponents of the regime and deported to a camp near Berlin later that year.

By August of 1940, it was clear to the Nazis that Father Mayer's stay at the Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen camp had affected his health considerably. Rather than let him die a martyr, they decided to confine him to a monastery in the Bavarian Alps. Such isolation in the Benedictine Abbey at Ettal took its toll on the priest. Following his release at the end of the war, the Jesuit was stricken with a fatal heart attack on November 1st of that year.

Although Pope John II, by raising Brandsma, Kolbe and Mayer to the altar, has focused on the Catholic priests who suffered during the Nazi persecutions, he had not neglected the Catholic nuns who were victims of the Nazis. The story of at least 400 of these victims is told by Benedicta Maria Kempner in her work Nonnen unter dem Hakenkreuz (Wuerzburg, 1979). And the present pope honored them when, on I May 1987 at Cologne, he beatified Edith Stein (1891-1942), a Carmelite nun who had taken the name of Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  In an article in 1998, Alessandra Stanley spoke of  "the tens of
 thousands of Catholic priests and nuns killed by the Nazis."

"The Nazis rightly recognized," writes (p. 162) John M. Lenz, author of Christ in Dachau (Vienna, 1960), "from the start that the convents of women religious were dangerous 'cells of resistance' against their own godless ideology. " Though they sought to win over the nuns by all sorts of means, they failed to do so with the contemplative nuns, the nursing nuns and teaching nuns. Like the many priests who perished under the Nazi terror, there were nuns who distinguished themselves by resisting the attempts to destroy the church.

For example, how many people know that Edith Stein was one of a number of nuns who were executed on the same day at Auschwitz? They were among the many who were deported shortly after the Dutch bishops had protested, on 26 July 1942, against the Nazi treatment of the Jews. Their protest was read in the Catholic churches of Holland and resulted in harsh reprisals against Jews, like Edith Stein and her companions.

Edith Stein was the youngest of eleven children of an Orthodox Jewish family in what is now Wroclaw, Poland. Having won her doctorate in 1916 under Edmund Hursserl, the renowned phenomenologist of the University of Goettingen and of the University of Freiburg, she had resolved her doubts about religion and converted to Catholicism, with her baptism on I January 1922. Later, after teaching in a school at Speyer operated by the Dominican nuns (1922-31), she entered the Carmelite Order on 15 October 1933 and took her final vows on 21 April 1938. By December of that year, the Nazis had been in power for more than five years when it was decided to transfer Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross from the Carmelite convent in Cologne, Germany, to the safety of the Carmel in Echt, Holland. There Edith remained in prayer and study until the afternoon of her arrest by the Nazis on 2 August 1942.

Among the others arrested that same day were Edith's sister, Rosa Stein (1883-1942), the porter at the Carmelite convent in Echt. "Come Rosa," declared Edith as they were being taken away from the convent to the prison at Westerbork. "We're going for our people. " Such courage distinguished Edith as a philosopher and as a feminist at least since 1925 when the Jesuit Erich Przywara began advising her in the study of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Stein sisters were not the only blood relatives who were victims of the Holocaust since there were three Trappist nuns from the Loeb family. One was Luise Loeb (1911-1942) and her twin sister Theodora Loeb (1911-1942). Their older sister, Lina Loeb (1908-1942), Sister M. Hedwig, was gassed the same day as were their three Trappist brothers: Father Nivardus (Ernst) and Father Ignatius (Georg) and Brother Linus (Robert). All were the children of a Jewish father and a Dutch Catholic mother [according to Willem de Bakker, 10/27/01, both Jenney van Gelder and Ludwig Loeb were Jews who converted to Catholicism before they were married in October 1906: "Loeb later became a mining engineer and emigrated to the Dutch East Indies where five of the eight children were born."].

That same 9 August 1942, moreover, there were other Catholic nuns of Jewish descent who were sent to the gas chambers. Dr. Ruth Kantorowicz (1901-1942), a friend of Edith Stein, was with the Ursulines at Venelo, Holland when she was arrested. Annemarie Louise Goldschmidt (1922-1942) and Elfriede Karoline Goldschmidt (1923-1942), two other blood sisters, suffered the same fate. So too did Luise Loewenfels (1915-1942), Sister Maria Aloysia, who had been taken from St. Joseph's Convent in Geleen, Holland, and imprisoned at Westerbork. Among the others were Lisamarie Meirowsky (1904-1942), a Dominican who was known as Sister Magdalena, and Elsa Sara Michaelis (1889-1942), a native of Berlin who had taken the name of Sister Mirjam. **

Father Kolbe, who had arrived at Auschwitz before the first Jews were imprisoned there, was only one of a number of priests who was killed there and the story of Edith Stein and her companions underscores even further the Catholic identity of the concentration camp. Though Auschwitz appears in the popular mind as an exclusively Jewish memorial, reason tells us that Auschwitz is also significant for Christians because, of the four million who died there, there were not only 2.25 million Jews but 1.50 million Christians. Thus, one understands why the Carmelites wanted a convent near Auschwitz in 1984 to pray for all the victims of the Holocaust just as they had established one at Dachau by 1964.

Back on 12 Febraury 1986, a letter of mine appeared in The New York Times defending the convent that the Carmelites had established at Auschwitz against the criticism raised by those who felt that it would destroy the Jewish character of the place. The critics have prevailed because the convent will be moved and replaced by an ecumenical center a mile from the camp. While such a move might be judged advisable for the preservation of harmony between Christians and Jews, it must not be regarded as stripping the camp of its Christian significance. In any case, the idea of the Carmelite convent has served, like the actions of the pope, as a healthy corrective to the distortions of history.

Edith Stein and her companions at Auschwitz were but a fraction of those who perished during the Nazi terror. Although some of the nuns came from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany and Holland, most of them were natives of Poland. They came from all orders and congregations, including Benedictines, Franciscans and Ursulines from Warsaw who died as victims of the bombings or of tuberculosis.

Then there were other examples of heroic suffering. One can mention some seventeen Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw who were arrested on 9 August 1944 during the city's uprising against the Nazis and imprisoned at Buchenwald before they were sent to Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbruck. During my visit to Krakow last summer [August 1986], I learned from the Mother Superior of the Felician Sisters that at least twenty-four nuns from her own congregation had been imprisoned at Auschwitz during the war.

But the courage of the nuns who were victims of the Nazis is only part of the heroic role that the nuns played during the war. Though they were active in all countries under Nazi rule, what they did to help the Jews in Poland cannot be overlooked. For example, the edition by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Zofia Lewin, Righteous among Nations (London, 1969), indicates that the Benedictines, the Carmelites, the Felicians, the Franciscans, Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, the Resurrection Sisters, the Sacred Heart Nuns, and the Ursulines saved many Jews, particularly the children, from the Nazi persecutions in Poland at the time when all Polish people, Christians as well as Jews, were the object of mass exterminations by the Nazis. Such a record of religious women may even surpass what religious like the Capuchins, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Marists, Pallotines, Redemptorists and Salesians did for the Jews of Poland.

A fifth hero of the Holocaust is Dr. Michael Kozal (1893-1943), the saintly bishop whom Pope John II beatified during his visit to Poland in June [14, 1987]. Born of a peasant family in Nowy Folwark, near Posen, Kozal was ordained a priest in 1918 and appointed by Pope Pius XII auxilary bishop of Wloclawek in August prior to the outbreak of World War II. He was arrested by the Gestapo on November 7th of that year, a few days after celebrating his only solemn Mass as a bishop. Thus, he was a victim in the Nazi drive against the Catholic Church.

During his confinement at Wloclawek, Lad, Szczeglin and Berlin, Bishop Kozal was treated brutally by the Gestapo before he was sent to Dachau where he arrived on 25 April 1941. Clothed in the garb of a convict, he exhibited such calmness and fortitude in the face of adversity that he was an inspiration to his fellow prisoners. "I'm no better than anyone else," he declared in refusing preferential consideration. "I'm only a number, too, here, and I'm determined to carry my cross along with the rest of you."

The cross which the bishop bore came not only from the bad food and the hard labor of the camp but also from the indignities to which he was subjected by the SS. Realizing his condition in those circumstances, he forsaw that he would not survive Dachau. "It is as though God had demanded my life as a sacrifice for the Church in Poland," he said. He died at Dachau on 26 January 1943.

Therefore, in focusing on three priests, one nun and a bishop whom Pope John II has held up for honor by the present generation, it is clear that the Catholic Church has written a marvelous chapter of heroism at the time of the Holocaust. This is true because of the courage of all those who suffered for their opposition to Nazism and in defense of others, especially those who joined the ranks of the martyrs.

** This article was later published in Hungarian, A Holokauszt Katolikus Hösei, pp. 277-281, in the edition by Máté Hidvégi,  Boldog Salkaházi Sára (2006).

"Five Heroic Catholics of the Holocaust" was originally published in the Annals of St. Anthony's Shrine, 16: 1 (1987), 47-55.

Catholic Heroes of the Holocaust. has the stories of others like Dr. Gertrude Luckner (1900-1995), a Catholic who helped Jews and ended up at Ravensbruck. Among other Catholic women confined in that concentration camp were Nanda Herbermann (1903-1979), a German Catholic writer, who was there from 1941 to 1943, as portrayed in the edition, The Blessed Abyss (2000), and Romana Nawrocky (1921-1999), an Ukrainian Catholic lay leader.