When a convent of nuns suffered horrific brutalities during World War II, a young woman doctor brought comfort and help.
[Content warning: The following is a story about rape and murder during war time. Reader discretion is advised.]
Wars are black holes of pain. They bring out the most undesirable instincts of human nature, but also produce the purest and bravest souls. This is a dramatic story, but also one of human greatness and feminine solidarity. It is also a story of healing of bodies and souls.
Women are often the main civilian victims in armed conflicts, and rape is one of the most humiliating acts of violence they suffer. Soldiers capable of committing such atrocities against innocent people do not care about who these women are, whether they are wives, young students, or nuns.
In the spring of 1945, as World War II was drawing to a close, the soldiers of the Red Army were retreating from Berlin and heading for home.
On the way, in Poland, far from bringing the peace so desired in those lands, they sowed terror among the civilian population, including women religious.
Rape and murder
A convent of Polish nuns was attacked by a group of Soviet soldiers who systematically raped them for days. Some of them were killed after suffering countless humiliations. Of those who survived, some became pregnant. All of them were forever marked by pain, trauma, and humiliation.
While this was going on, a young French doctor had arrived in Poland. Her name was Madeleine Pauliac. Born in Villeneuve-sur-Lot on September 16, 1912, it was not the first time she had joined the war effort.
For months Pauliac had worked tirelessly at a Paris hospital while participating in various Resistance operations. She helped Allied paratroopers, hid Jews in her home, and even took part in two hundred missions of the Blue Squadron of Red Cross ambulances. At the beginning of 1945 she was one of the most renowned doctors in the French Army, promoted to lieutenant and even received by General Charles de Gaulle.
Pauliac was sent to Moscow on a mission to repatriate French prisoners of war. In May of the same year she was transferred to Warsaw, to a hospital of the French Red Cross.
While she worked tirelessly treating the soldiers before returning to her native France, Pauliac witnessed the chaos that ravaged the Polish capital, where the soldiers of the Russian army were running amok and committing all kinds of outrages.
In the face of such terrible pain
Even so, the doctor couldn’t have imagined these soldiers would be capable of what they did to some Benedictine nuns in the area, who contacted her. She was one of the few female medical doctors they could turn to. Pauliac wrote in her diary these terse but harsh words after visiting her convent:
There were 25 of them, 15 were raped and killed by the Russians. The 10 survivors were raped, some 42 times, some 35 or 50 times each … and five of them were pregnant.
Humiliated and brutally abused, the nuns had an unbearable pain in their bodies and souls. Some felt terrible despair.
Those who had become pregnant suffered a terrible cross. Some of them, out of fear or desperation, were even tempted with thoughts of abortion. Dr. Pauliac was much more than a doctor to those wounded women. She listened to them, comforted them, and tried to share their pain in a beautiful act of neighborly love. She did not judge them; she simply stood by them when they needed a glimmer of light in the terrible darkness that had engulfed their home. She also helped to deliver several of their babies.
In addition to attending the sisters whenever she could, Pauliac continued her work at the French hospital in Warsaw and traveled throughout Poland in search of wounded soldiers.
Her heroic work came to an abrupt end on February 13, 1946 when she died in a traffic accident. She was only 34 years old. Her body was repatriated and rests in her hometown. She was posthumously decorated with the Legion of Honor and the French Croix de Guerre.
In 2016, film director Anne Fontaine brought the story of Dr. Madeleine Pauliac and the Polish nuns to the big screen in a moving film called The Innocents.