Christian Spirituality in Auschwitz – Part II: Spiritual Camp Life

In the previous text, we described the situation of the clergy in the Auschwitz concentration camp. We want to dedicate this to the question of how the clergy imprisoned in the camp took care of their fellow prisoners and fellow Christians.

Religious Practices in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp

The masses
It is worth noting at the outset that any religious practise was forbidden in the camp. Participation in religious services, prayer, and even possession of any religious objects was severely punished. Despite this, some prisoners tried to participate in secret religious practices, and some determined priests managed to celebrate mass in secret. Any items needed to celebrate Mass were obtained from the outside. They were usually smuggled into the camp by civilian workers.
Father Władysław Puczka recalled the camp masses as follows:
In the camp, masses were also secretly celebrated. I know that they began to be celebrated in the late autumn of 1941. – in November and early December 1941. […] I also had the opportunity to celebrate the mass, and it happened at 4 p.m. on the first day of Christmas 1941. I had hosts and wine, and instead of a chalice, an ordinary glass had to suffice. Those present at the Mass took Holy Communion.

Sacraments

Because of the total ban on practicing any form of spirituality in Auschwitz, the clergy had to adapt their ministry to these difficult conditions. As in the case of the mass, they chose to work in secret, usually addressed only to a small circle of trusted fellow prisoners.

One of the prisoners, Karol Świętorzecki, recalled his camp confession in this way:
In the late fall of 1940, I went to confession to a priest. It happened after I was transferred to block 2. I learned then that there was a Jesuit priest in the neighboring block 3 (or 3a, I do not remember). I sought him out and asked him to hear my confession. He fulfilled my request. This happened after the evening roll-call, by the wall of block number 3.

Similar requests were made to the clergy in matters of baptism or marriage. We have already described the hardships faced by pregnant prisoners, so now we will focus only on the baptism itself. This extremely solemn and for many people extremely important act was usually carried out immediately after birth, and the ritual itself had a rather symbolic form and was performed on-site by those directly involved in delivering the baby. Due to the separate camps for men and women, in the vast majority of cases, these were midwives.

When the front was approaching, a midwife, Mrs Leszczyńska, suddenly came and said that she was taking all the children who hadn’t been baptized to her home, to baptize them. At my request, one of my fellow prisoners, Władysława Broniszewska, as far as I remember, became the godmother of my daughter Ewa. She was very moved by this fact. After some time, I found out that Ms Leszczyńska chose some Orthodox prisoner as a godfather for all those children, who happened to be there at that time. – One of the women prisoners was recalled years later.

Weddings between women prisoners and male prisoners also occurred, though very rarely, mainly because of the separation of the male and female camps. Among the happy and extremely determined marriages are Danuta Kwiatkowska and Alojzy Drzazga or Irena Brzeziuk and Mieczysław Pronobis.

Objects of worship

Prisoners were not allowed to possess any personal belongings. The camp authorities only permitted the possession of a belt and handkerchief. Religious objects, such as rosaries, medallions, and prayer books, were kept by the prisoners despite the prohibitions. Another way of obtaining them was to smuggle them in from outside by people employed in the camp as so-called civilian workers or through members of the resistance movement. Alternatively, prisoners made their devotional articles.

The bitter fruits of suffering

For many believers, their stay in Auschwitz was a true test of their faith. Some came out of it strengthened in their convictions, others lost faith in any form of spirituality. The Catholic Church has beatified some of the prisoners of Auschwitz. Among them are Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe and Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). Their lives, often full of contradictions and difficult decisions, can be the basis for many analyses and articles.

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