Sunday, January 30, 2011

Et Papa tacet: The Genocide of Polish Catholics. By Michael Phayer.

Nazi shooting Father Piotr Sosnowski

'Et Papa tacet': The Genocide of Polish Catholics
Commonweal April 8, 2005

Much has been written about Pope Pius XII and the Jews. His unwillingness to speak out explicitly against the murder of Jews in occupied Poland during World War II is well known. Less well known is that before the killing of Jews in death camps began, Pius had to deal with the genocide of Polish Catholics. Until recently, no one understood how the destiny of these two people intersected in the middle of World War II, an intersection that led tragically to the genocide of Jews and to a respite for Catholics.

To Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, it didn't appear that the Germans intended a genocide of ethnic Poles. For one thing, Jews were rounded up by Germans, while the ordinary people of Poland were not. But this fact leads to a mistaken conclusion. The Germans did intend genocide for ethnic Poles. This plan was two-tiered: first, the Nazis would take out the intelligentsia and church leaders; second, after the common people's labor potential had been used up, they'd be eliminated. It is generally known that the Nazis murdered between 5 and 6 million Jews during the war, mostly in gas chambers in occupied Poland. It is less widely understood that if Germany had won, Polish Catholics would have been slowly (or not so slowly) used as slave labor and then murdered.

As far as the Nazis were concerned, Poland itself was to be eliminated. "We shall push the borders of our German race," SS leader Heinrich Himmler said, "five hundred kilometers to the east. All Poles will disappear from the world." In the fall of 1939--soon after the war began--the western, German-occupied half of Poland was divided in two. The northwest area was annexed to Germany, and the rest, called the General Government, was used as a dumping ground for dispossessed Poles from the northwest and as a ghetto for Jews. Hitler then ordered the killing of the Catholic intelligentsia. Later, others, called "primitive Poles," were used as a migrant work force and starved to death.

The Vatican knew of German atrocities against the Poles practically from the war's start. Pope Pius XII reacted swiftly. In December 1939, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano decried both the closing of many Polish schools and churches, and the fact that many priests and nuns were being sent to concentration camps or into exile. In January 1940, Vatican Radio reported that Jews and Poles were "being herded into separate ghettos, hermetically sealed, where they face starvation while Polish grain is shipped to Germany." Vatican Radio's accusations were remarkable. Germans were not singled out as the perpetrators, but this was hardly necessary. (Who else could have committed the atrocities in western Poland?) The broadcast went so far as to identify victims by name--Jews and Poles alike. The reference to genocide by starvation was made powerfully clear.

This statement by Vatican Radio turned out to be the strongest, most specific one that the papacy would make about wartime atrocities. Soon after, the Vatican plunged into silence. No more pointed broadcasts. No more damning coverage in L'Osservatore Romano.

Polish Catholics and their church were left to suffer in isolation, and their suffering intensified until 1942. The Germans, knowing Catholicism to be a sacramental and hierarchical religion, attacked the church at these levels. Thirty-nine of western Poland's forty-six bishops were deported, imprisoned, or otherwise put down. Priests were jailed or sent to concentration camps--2,800 to Dachau alone, of whom all but 816 died. In one diocese, 291 of 646 priests were killed. By mid-1942, only 10 priests remained in the diocese of Gnesen to administer the sacraments to 359,000 Catholics. A staggering 20 percent of Poland's clergy failed to survive the war.

Because he believed the war effort required internal unity, Hitler did not allow high-ranking subordinates such as Himmler and Martin Bormann to persecute the church to this extent in Germany. But no such restriction inhibited them in Poland, where the hierarchy were suppressed through deportation and arrest, and where religious communities were suppressed. The Nazis closed innumerable churches and used many as barracks, garages, or warehouses. They shut down seminaries, forbade ordinations, and banned Catholic organizations. Administering the sacraments was strictly limited, especially Sunday Eucharist and confession. Or, if confession was allowed, the penitent was not allowed to receive Communion (at the time, the two sacraments were usually taken together). Thus did the Nazis attempt to disrupt religious life entirely in occupied Poland.

Killing was widespread as well. Gauleiter Arthur Greiser, the Nazi administrator of the Wartheland, killed thousands of Catholics in northwestern Poland. Throughout the war, hundreds of thousands of Poles were shipped to Germany as forced laborers. The bodies of those who died in transit were thrown into roadside ditches. The Germans also sterilized young Polish men and women by using x-rays on their reproductive organs. And as they had done earlier in Germany, they killed patients in Polish mental hospitals. At a facility in Chelm, 428 children were given morphine, then shot. Many patients in medical hospitals were simply thrown out. Initially, most of those imprisoned or murdered by the Nazis were Catholic leaders in the business, political, academic, and religious realms. Until 1942, for example, there were more Catholic prisoners in Auschwitz than Jews.

The persecution of the Polish church during the first years of the war ranks among the bloodiest persecutions in Catholic history. In their despair, church leaders turned to Pope Pius, begging him to condemn the atrocities. He refused. In 1942, Bishop Adam Sapieha of Cracow wrote to the pope saying that the situation was "tragic in the extreme. We are robbed of all human rights. We are exposed to atrocities at the hands of people who lack any notion of human feeling. We live in constant, terrible fear." Sapieha warned the pope that the faithful were losing confidence and respect for Pius because he hadn't condemned the horrors. Another Polish church leader wrote to Pius that some of the faithful were now asking "whether there was a God," and whether the pope "had completely forgotten about the Poles." Hardly a month passed without the pope's receiving an appeal to speak out. Some Poles thought the pope's silence meant he was in league with Hitler. Apostolic Administrator Hilarius Breitinger of Wartheland told the pope that Poles were asking "if the pope could not help and why he keeps silent." Pius responded that he was afraid that if he condemned the atrocities, they would only worsen. Polish church leaders answered that matters could not get any worse. Pius in turn replied that it was Poland's lot to suffer for the greater glory of God.

Pius XII's severest critic was Bishop Karol Radonski (exiled from his diocese of Wloclawek). In September 1942, Radonski wrote two letters to the pope that the editors of the Vatican's World War II documents have described as "violent." After running through a laundry list of atrocities and deprivations, Radonski pointed an accusatory finger at Pope Pius, "et Papa tacet" (and the pope keeps silent). From these documents, we see that the first accusations of Pius's silence during World War II came not from outside the church, or in reference to Jews, but from inside the church, in reference to Catholics.

The highly critical letters of Bishop Radonski were the last criticism the Vatican received from Polish clergy. Beginning in late 1942, the tone of correspondence from Poland to Rome shifted dramatically. Bishop Adamski of Katowice wrote that Catholics were remaining faithful. Apostolic Administrator Breitinger wrote that Poles now understood that the pope's silence had been a "heroic silence." Sensing the mood swing, Pius responded with a letter praising the Poles for their "heroic silence." Of course they had not been silent at all, but the pope's letter was a great success. Bishop Sapieha wrote that his countrymen would never forget the pope's noble and saintly words.

What accounts for this abrupt turnaround in Vatican-Polish relations in early 1943? The answer can be found not in papal dealings with the Polish church, but in the events of the war and Hitler's evil designs. The German army's blitzkrieg into Russia in 1941 foundered with its soldiers in sight of Moscow and Leningrad. Ill prepared for winter, the army was forced to fall back. All efforts then turned to preparing for a second assault in 1942. From the beginning of the war until mid-1942, ghettoized Jews had been forced into labor on starvation diets. The Nazis called it death through attrition, and, it worked. But in contemplating a renewed confrontation with Soviet forces, the army realized that it badly needed the warm clothing and military gear the Jews were producing. At that point, the German military command wanted less attrition and more production.

But that wasn't Hitler's agenda. In July 1942, he gave Himmler the order to kill all ghettoized Jews. By then, there were six death camps in occupied Poland (excluding the later facilities at Auschwitz-Birkenau). In the second half of 1942, nearly a half-million Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were mercilessly liquidated, a process that befell all other ghettos. As eminent Holocaust scholar Christopher Browning has said, death through labor gave way to death of labor. The only work force that could now replace the Jews were Poland's Catholics, and in September 1942, the army high command ordered "that Jewish workers were now to be replaced with Poles." By the end of the year, the substitution of Catholic for Jewish workers had been completed. At the same time, criticism of the pope by Polish churchmen ended.

Carrying out the Holocaust after 1942 meant a temporary suspension of the genocidal agenda intended against Polish Catholics--their labor was too valuable. This is how the destinies of Polish Jews and Polish Catholics crossed paths. When the Germans lost at Stalingrad in the spring of 1943 and Hitler was forced to retreat, the planned genocide of Polish Catholics never resumed in earnest.

Pius XII remained unmoved by the pleas of the Polish hierarchy before 1943 to denounce German atrocities in Poland. But the bishops themselves did no better when it came to the murder of Poland's Jews. It was not until 1995, fifty years after their deafening silence, that the Polish Catholic hierarchy apologized. Pius XII never did.

Michael Phayer is professor of history emeritus at Marquette University.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Commonweal Foundation
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group


  1. Michal Szostalo, thank you for your post. I don't know what advice you seek. I don't think you need to be an historian to explore your grandfather's story, and his diary is an excellent place to start. I hope you will provide more details and updates as they become available.

    Years ago I was given the diary of a Polish exile to Siberia. I read it, and gave it back to her relative, who gave it to me. What will you do with this, I asked? Nothing, she replied. I may be the only person outside the family who reads it. This is a shame.

  2. You need to publish the diaries of your grandfather Michael. The word needs to get out about how Poles and Catholics were treated in WWII>

  3. i agree that the diaries should be published. how else will the world know? these events were never taught to us in school...and i went to a polish catholic school for 8 years in detroit, michigan....


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