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Good shepherds in a time of war: Catholic priests of the Warsaw Uprising

Eugeniusz Lokajski | Wikipedia
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Mentioning but a few of them should be a tribute to all priests who shared the same fate as both the fighting soldiers and the civilian population.

The Warsaw Uprising, the largest single anti-Nazi resistance effort of World War II, broke out in the Polish capital 73 years ago this month. Part of a nationwide effort, it was timed to coincide with the approach of the Soviet Red Army (at that time an ally against Germany). The Polish people — both soldiers and civilians — fought for 63 days, but the Soviets stopped short of entering the city and ignored radio calls for assistance. In the end, the Nazis regrouped, put down the resistance, and destroyed the city. Although real casualty numbers cannot be verified, it is estimated that some 16,000 members of the resistance were killed, and 6,000 injured. The far greater toll was paid by Polish civilians, 150,000 to 200,000 of whom died, many as victims of mass executions — including Jews and the Poles who had sheltered them.

Among those who rose up against the Nazis in Warsaw were approximately 150 Catholic priests who served as chaplains of insurgent troops. Uncounted other priests carried out their mission to the civilian population, in churches that had survived, in Warsaw backyards, basements or hospitals, bringing spiritual relief to those suffering, accompanying the dying, hearing confessions, performing the sacraments of marriage and Baptism.

The presence of a priest elevated the spirit enormously both along the battle lines and among the civilians. Many brave priests risked their lives offering the priestly ministry. Often it was necessary to bring them to places of greatest need that they did not know about, and sometimes to draw out a more timid servant of God from a more or less secure hiding place and urge him to act. Although filled with fear, they agreed to go … and went to save souls. (Memoir of a participant in the uprising, Andrzej Janicki)

On August 1, 1944, at 11 a.m., a briefing took place in the building of the military ordinariate in Długa Street before the W-hour. It was a briefing of chaplains of the insurgent troops. Some of them had their chaplains already at the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising, and others were given their chaplains during the fights, when priests joined them, often spontaneously as volunteers.

Norman Davies, a British historian and author of the book Uprising 44, states that it is impossible to understand the heroic attitude of Warsaw insurgents without a spiritual factor. He also writes that “the Home Army Command was well aware of the connection between religious practices and military morale.”

Mentioning but a few of these good shepherds should serve as a tribute to all priests who shared the same fate as both the fighting soldiers and the civilian population.

Blessed Michał Czartoryski, Dominican

Fr. Michał Czartoryski, a Dominican friar, happened to have an appointment with an eye specialist on August 1, 1944. The outbreak of the uprising made it impossible for him to return to his monastery at Służew, and because the Home Army battalion operating in this part of the city did not have a chaplain, he volunteered. Father Czartoryski offered spiritual aid to the wounded in the field hospital in Powiśle. Although he had opportunities to save himself, he remained in place and died alongside those he served to the very end. He was beatified by John Paul II in 1999 among the 108 martyrs of World War II.

Blessed Józef Stanek, Pallotine

Fr. Stanek, a member of the Pallotine order, is another beatified priest. When the uprising began, he was a chaplain at the Institute of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary in Koszyki in Hoża Street, Warsaw. There he spent the first half of August, devoting himself to pastoral care, especially in insurgent hospitals.

Then he was sent to work in the Home Army “Kryska” unit, fighting in Powiśle. He assumed the pseudonym “Rudy” (“Ginger”). In addition to pastoral duties, celebrating Masses, hearing confessions, talking to insurgents, and frequent visits to field hospitals, he also reached the farthest insurgent outposts. He carried the wounded, helped dig up those buried under debris and saved many people from death.

When faced with a chance of saving his own life in view of the specter of disaster, he did not take advantage of crossing the Vistula River to the other side in a dinghy. He gave his place to a wounded soldier, and stayed with the fighting soldiers and civilians. As an insurgent delegate, he participated in negotiations with Germans regarding the surrender. He was detained as a hostage. The Germans decided to hang Fr. Stanek at the back of a warehouse on Solec Street. It is said that as a noose they used his own stole. Waiting under the gallows for his execution, he blessed civilians and insurgents who marched  that way into German captivity.

Father Tadeusz Burzyński

Fr. Tadeusz Burzyński was the first chaplain who died in the Warsaw Uprising, just half an hour after the W-hour. In July 1944 he had replaced Fr. Jan Zieja (the legendary chaplain of the Gray Ranks and the insurgent “Baszta” regiment) as chaplain of the Sisters of the Ursuline of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at 2 Wiślana Street in Warsaw.

In that area on August 1 the fighting started before 5 p.m. Fr. Burzyński had just begun with the nuns a prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, when the shooting in the street began. Someone rushed in with the information that there was someone wounded lying in Gęsta Street. Fr. Burzyński took the oil of the sick from the sacristy and ran into the street in his surplice and stole. A moment later a grenade exploded. After some time someone found the injured priest lying in the neighboring yard.

He was carried to a field hospital in his bloodstained surplice. The wound was so serious that he did not have a chance to survive. Fr. Burzynski asked for a confession, even though he had made one the very same morning. And when he was brought the Viaticum, he repeated, “Jesus, I love you; Jesus, I adore you.” He also remembered 8 memorial Masses he had not been able to celebrate and asked that the commitments be fulfilled by another priest. He died consciously and peacefully; he was 30 years old. In the yard where he was shot, a small bottle of the oil of the sick was found with a bullet inside which pierced the priest’s back. His beatification process is in progress.

Fr. Antoni Czajkowski

One case is also known of a priest who for some time fought with a gun in his hand. Fr. Antoni Czajkowski, after the outbreak of the uprising, was moving to his designated position but was stopped by a small group of insurgents from the unit commanded by Second Lieutenant “Lek.” They asked him to join them. One of the soldiers, “Rola,” demonstrated his gun to the priest, which backfired and wounded the owner badly.

This incident shocked the priest so much that he joined the squad and decided to replace the wounded, assuming the pseudonym “Rola II” to honour him. Fr. Czajkowski participated in the fights in Aleje Jerozolimskie (Jerusalem Avenue); he was brave and inventive and even became a deputy commander of the unit. After two weeks, however, he abandoned the armed struggle and devoted himself only to pastoral care. He moved to the “Chrobry II” batallion, where as a chaplain he accompanied the insurgents until the capitulation.

Fr. Józef Warszawski, Jesuit

When the troops of the Radosław Group were defending themselves in Czerniaków, they were accompanied by Fr. Józef Warszawski, a Jesuit known as “Father Paul.” On September 16 he was summoned to the commander who turned to him with a dramatic appeal:

Father, we need an injection of courage. My boys are breaking off. They need to be given something spiritual. Man is not just a body. Think of something, Father. Otherwise, we cannot cope.

Father Paul understood that it was necessary to celebrate the Holy Mass the following day, because, as he stressed himself, he was aware of the great significance it had for the insurgents. But there was a serious problem: they ran out of hosts. There was not a piece of bread at hand. Father Paul considered the possibility of getting into the ruins of the Holy Trinity Church under the cover of darkness in order to find the hosts. At that time, he was called to a severely wounded soldier in whose cloak a prayer book was found with a piece of Christmas wafer [oplatek, a large wafer made from the same mixture as communion hosts, with symbols embossed into it and shared, sometimes even saved, at holidays – Ed.] in it. The following morning Father Paul, using this wafer, celebrated the Eucharist for the insurgents. It was the last Mass in the Czerniaków district during the uprising.

Good shepherds

There are still many more names of priests who took part in the Warsaw Uprising whose stories are worth telling. It’s impossible to fit them all in one article. Many of them gave their lives, others survived until the end of the uprising and often accompanied their units into German captivity, some others were with the civilians fleeing from Warsaw. They turned out to be shepherds faithful to the words of Jesus (cf. J 10: 11-15):

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. (…) I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me. (…) I lay down my life for the sheep.

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