A True Story From War-Time 1939
A Future Priest’s Christmas In Katyn
By Robert Strybel, Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer
My good friend and former Orchard Lake colleague, the late Monsignor Zdzisław Peszkowski, shared the following experiences both orally and in his written memoirs. A 21-year-old cavalry officer in 1939, he was among the some 22,000 Polish officers captured by the Soviets and one of a handful who survived to tell the story of what would later become known as the Katyń Forest Massacre.
The great importance those POWs attached to their Polish heritage and Catholic faith may be an eye-opener to those Polonians who have drifted away from one or both. The Poles imprisoned in an abandoned Orthodox monastery-turned-dungeon at Kozielsk, took considerable risks to secretly hear the Word of God, receive the sacraments and uphold their ancestral heritage without their Soviet captors’ knowledge. In that way they were a lot like the early Christians worshiping in catacombs.
When Christmas 1939 was approaching, the then Captain Peszkowski asked the friendly prison cook Wańka (Russian for Johnny) for some flour for opłatki. Wańka’s eyes mysteriously lit up and he asked Peszkowski him to step outside into the snow. He looked about to make sure no-one was within earshot and then whispered “Ojcze nasz, któryś jest w niebie…”, and then went on to recite the Hail Mary in strongly eastern-accented Polish. He too was a Pole whose family had been Russified, because admitting to being Polish or Catholic back then was not looked upon kindly by the Soviets.
Peszkowski got some coarse, rye flour for the opłatki and communion wafers. Amongst those imprisoned at Kozielsk was a priest, whose identity fellow-prisoners had kept a secret and referred to him only by his rank as “the captain”. (Peszkowski himself would not be ordained until a decade after the war in America). Every so often the word would go around that that “the captain is going for a walk” and prisoners would scurry to join him. That was the only way they could make their confession. That seemed to take forever, because only one person accompanied the priest at a time, and the walks were few and far between.
As Christmas approached, the Soviets twice carried out unannounced searches and roll-calls. Nevertheless, the prisoners managed to clandestinely prepare opłatki which turned out brownish, brittle and similar to Jewish matzoh.
“We sent the youngest man present to see if the evening star was shining, according to our Polish tradition,” Peszkowski recounted his Wigilia in Soviet captivity “The oldest man read an extract from the Bible which I had copied from the missal of a certain major.” Someone was always posted on watch outside. Bits of food were placed on a bed-sheet pretending to be a table-cloth, and there were even tiny gifts for everyone. But their attempt to quietly sing kolędy failed. Some of the prisoners shared their experiences of the preceding Christmas, but most wanted to be alone with their thoughts and returned to their bunks.
Midnight Mass was not even attempted. During the long months as a Soviet POW, Peszkowski was able to attend a clandestine mass only a handful of times. Such masses were sporadically attended in turn by small groups of prisoners who had to appear to be sitting around and chatting. On that Christmas Eve the Soviet guards and politruks (political-indoctrination officers) arrived at 10:30 p.m. “They only shook their heads in disgust when they saw spruce branches in the middle of the room between our bunks and the white sheet with our wafer and carved wooden crib which had taken one highland (Góral) lieutenant a month to create,” Peszkowski recalled.
Nobody seems to have been interrogated or punished for engaging in such “illegal propagation of religious superstition”, as the Stalinist penal code referred to religion. Did the Soviet POW camp officials already know what fate was in store for the Polish POWs and were under orders not to unduly torment their captives?
Peszkowski would later be among the Polish POWs who joined the army of General Władysław Anders which led thousands of Polish troops and civilians out of the Soviet Union. After leaving Stalin’s “inhuman land”. Peszkowski cared for Polish orphans in India for a time and eventually via England made his way to America where he joined the priesthood.. He taught courses in Polish and theology at the Polish Seminary in Orchard Lake, Michigan until his retirement. He then returned to Poland and served as the chaplain of the Katyń Families’ Association until his death in 2007.