Death And War
In March 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified 11 Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth in Rome. They were martyrs from Nowogrodek and included Sr. Maria Stella and 10 nuns. However, one might ask, who were these women?
They were nuns of the Holy Family of Nazareth who arrived in Nowogrodek in September 1929. Nowogrodek was a small town in the eastern lands of the Republic of Poland (now Belarus). Its population was very diversified because it included Poles, Jews, Muslims, Belarusians and Russians and others.
PHOTO: Painting – Author: Adam Styka, Title: Martyrdom of Sisters of Nazareth (1946)
From the beginning, the nuns tried to discern the needs of the community. The nuns planned to run a school for girls – one of their first students was a Muslim girl. The nuns were not only examples of deep faith, hope and love for the locals, but at same time they were hard workers.
Their help and overall assistance to Nowogrodek’s community gradually gained them the respect of the locals. But in September 1939, the Germans attacked Poland from the West. Soviet Russia did the same from the East, which marked the beginning of the Second World War. During the Soviet occupation, the nuns could not run the school, but instead became much closer to local people.
They were expelled from their house; forbidden to wear their uniforms. They saw thousands of innocent people arrested and transported to the steppes of Kazakhstan and to Siberia. A few years later, the Russians withdrew and then came the German occupation.
The Germans started their terror by gathering dozens of local Jewish people in the market square and killing them, while their orchestra played a waltz. Daily, the Fara Church was filled with believers, but the executions continued nonetheless. In July 1942, a mass execution took place in the forest near Nowogrodek, 60 people, including two priests – Fr. Jozef Kuczynski and Fr. Michal Dalecki – were shot.
The citizens of Nowogrodek, tormented by the regime, looked for comfort in the church where Fr. Aleksander Zienkiewicz, the only priest in the area, celebrated daily mass.
Meanwhile, the Gestapo was still arresting and killing people. The next year, on the night of July 17 and 18, 120 people were arrested and to be executed. Sister Superior Maria Stella was meeting with Fr. Zienkiewicz and said: “My God, if sacrifice of life is needed let them kill us and not those who have families. We are even praying for that.”
And suddenly, for an unknown reason, the execution of 120 people was stopped. Those who were supposed to be killed were transported to compulsory work in Germany. Some were even released. All those who were transported survived the war! However, the Gestapo did not forget about murdering. On July 31, 1943, Sister Maria Stella and her nuns were ordered to report to the Gestapo headquarters at 7:30 p.m. After the rosary, 11 nuns of the Family of Nazareth went into the building.
The sisters’ names were: Stella, Imelda, Rajmunda, Daniela, Kanuta, Sergia, Gwidona, Felicyta, Heliodora, Kanizja and Boromea. But there was one more nun. The 12th, Malgorzata, was wearing civilian clothes because she was helping out every day in the hospital and the Mother Superior had told her to stay at home. That evening the nuns thought that the worst thing that could happen to them was transportation to Germany for slave work.
Then things happened very quickly. The nuns did not hear any accusations, there was no investigation. On Sunday, Aug. 1, 1943, at dawn, the nuns were transported and executed in a birch-pine tree wooded area, not far from the town. Love was killed by hate.
In 1945, the Second World War ended. Fr. Zienkiewicz, Sister Malgorzata and all those 120 for whom 11 nuns had sacrificed their lives, survived the war.
“No one has greater love than this – that one lays down his life for his friends,” said the late John Paul II on the day of nuns beatification in March 2000, which reflects these women’s greatest deeds.
By Arleta Sziler
The Windsor Star
Arleta Sziler is president of the Polish-Canadian Women’s Federation, Windsor Branch 20.