In Władysław Reymont’s Noble Prize-winning book Chłopi(The Peasants: Summer)one of the central female characters named Hanka says “I have vowed to go to Częstochowa for Our Lady of the Angels.”
The gospel gives several connections between angels and the Blessed Virgin Mary such as the Annunciation when Mary is told she would become the mother of Jesus; the appearance of angels to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus; the angel informing Joseph that he is to flee with God’s child into Egypt. Reference is also made in the much-loved Litany of Loreto (Litania Loretanska, in Polish) which intones “Queen of Angels, pray for us.” (Królowa Aniołow, modł sie za nami) but as a feast day, I was unfamiliar with Our Lady of the Angels. Hanka (or rather her creator, Władysław Reymont) was referring to The Feast Day of Our Lady of the Angels also known as the Portiuncula (Porcjunkuli, in Polish), observed on August 2nd.
The story begins in Assisi, Italy and with St. Francis of Assisi.
During the first centuries of the Christian era, pilgrims returning from the Holy Land built a small chapel at the foot of the mountain on which Assisi, Italy is situated. This chapel together with a small plot of land was later given to St Benedict in the 6th century and given the name Portiuncula, meaning, Little Portion.
In 1209, St. Francis obtained from the Benedictines the use of the Portiuncula, for which he apparently paid the sum total of a basket of fish. He set about restoring what had become a dilapidated chapel, was joined by others, gave it the name Our Lady of the Angels and is considered to be the cradle, the beginning of the Franciscan order: the Order of Friars Minor (O.F.M).
One night, while praying in the chapel, St. Francis saw our Lord and His holy mother surrounded by angels and heard the voice of the Lord saying He would grant St. Francis some special request. After a few moments of reflection, St. Francis asked that anyone visiting his little sanctuary, who were contrite and having confessed their sins, receive a plenary indulgence, that is, a pardon, a forgiveness of their sins.
(The Miracle of the Porziuncola. Painting by Antonio de Oliveria Bernardes(1698) Cathedral of Evora, Portugal)
St. Francis petitioned the pope to be able to offer this spiritual boon to the faithful. It was granted with the restriction that the indulgence could be gained on that one day of the year, on 2nd of August, that being the anniversary of the little chapel's dedication. It became a holiday celebrated by all Franciscans around the world as the patronal feast day of the Franciscan church and monasteries.
The conditions for forgiveness included: confession of sins, attending mass, receiving holy communion, the recitation of the Lord's Prayer or some reaffirmation of one’s Christian beliefs. From that time on, the Portiuncula, the little chapel also called Our Lady of the Angels, became the site of numerous pilgrimages by devout individuals seeking pardon for their sins. It became known as the Pardon of Assisi and was later extended throughout the universal Church and not limited just to the pilgrimage site in Assisi. Anyone participating in a pilgrimage or attending their parish church on this day could unburden their sins and receive forgiveness.
Władysław Reymont lived, observed and wrote in the little village of Lipce where the setting for Chłopi (The Peasants) take place. He began writing in 1897. The fourth and last book in the sequence, “Summer”, was first published in the Polish language in 1909 making it clear that over a hundred years ago, the feast day of Our Lady of the Angels was an important part of the spiritual practices of the Łowicz region in Poland.
Struggling to manage the house and farm singlehandedly while her husband was in jail, fears of her losing her husband’s affection, and troubled by her feelings of hurt and anger and inadequacy, the character Hanka sought refuge, solace and forgiveness, by taking a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey to a sacred space on that special feast day. In Poland, that most sacred space was (and still is) Częstochowa. She sought comfort for what ailed her heart and soul… in her faith… on the feast day of Our Lady of the Angels on August 2nd.
On June 25, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. The act assisted in the resettlement of thousands of European refugees at the end of World War II. This included people like my mother and father who had been forced by the Nazi’s to leave Poland and work for the Third Reich as forced laborers in an ammunition factory. The millions of people who found themselves outside their home countries as a result of the war were called “displaced people (DP)” The law authorized the entry of 200,000 displaced persons over the next two years. In 1950 it increased displaced-person admissions to 415,000. It also gave preference to relatives of American citizens and insisted that all applicants must present guarantees by sponsors that housing was waiting for them and they would not displace American workers.
On October 21,1948, the first group of displaced people sailed to the U.S. from Bremerhaven, Germany on the General Black, a U.S. Army transport. The largest group of individuals were Poles, followed by Lithuanians, Czechs, Latvians and Ukrainians, Hungarians and others listed as stateless. Tens of thousands of refugees poured into the U.S. My parents waited three years after their application to obtain the necessary visas for all of us. We arrived on U.S. soil on April 28, 1954, supported financially by the National Catholic Welfare Council. We wore buttons on our coats with the letters N.C.W.C. which I have kept to this day. We lived with my mother’s uncle and his wife for a short time. When my father got a job working in a radiator factory, we moved into a Polish American neighborhood in rooms over an abandoned bakery where the pipes froze in winter and bees made nests between the walls in summer. It lacked a proper bathtub. Saturday night baths were in a round zinc tub, which I’ve also kept to this day. We were enrolled in school. We learned English. We lived with the stigma of being called DP’s or “dipisi” in a derogatory way. We became legal, naturalized citizens of the United States of America. We worked and contributed to this American society.
It was President Truman who called upon and urged Congress to enact legislation to allow some of the refugees of World War II to enter the United States. The year he signed the Displaced Person’s Act I was born in a refugee camp in Hanover, Germany. It was a total of nine years of refugee camps for my parents and their children but the Displaced Person’s Act gave them their final home, their refuge, their place of shelter and safety.
Pentecost is the Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus. It occurs in May or early June since it is, like Easter, a mobile holy day on the church calendar. The official church name in Polish is Zesłania Ducha Swiętego, the Descent of the Holy Ghost.
There were many aspects to the celebration of Pentecost in Poland's agricultural past that date to ancient pre-Christian times and the pagan cult of trees, water and fire.
The illustration above from 1901 is called a maidło (most likely from the Polish word majenia, that is, to decorate with greenery) that was made by weaving together small, newly budding birch branches around the horns of the cows and tying it together at the top. The newly budded branches, symbolized the revival of life, fertility and the promise of a harvest. It was believed that the green branches also protected from spells, plagues and all evil and accounts for their widespread use in the festivities that centered around the home, barnyard, and fences. The branches of the birch tree also had the power to protect against witchcraft and the evil eye. Shepherds, wanting to include animals in the holiday (and thereby protecting them as well) decorated their cows as part of the celebration.
Depicting this particular custom of making a wreath for the heads of her flock is the painting by Polish artist Józef Chełmonski (1849-1914) and titled Pasterka (Shepherdess).
You’re most likely to see a statue of him near rivers and bridges. He is known as the patron saint of water, bridges, and of farmers who have fields they want to protect against floods. He is often found near wells and springs, watching that they not dry out. He is also considered the patron saint of the drowning with his statue erected at sites of a drowning. Today, May 16, is the feast day of St. Jan Nepomucen. (Święty Jan Nepomucen).
Born in Nepomuc, Bohemia near Prague, St. John was and ardent minister who was murdered by King Wenceslaus IV when he refused to reveal what he had been told in confession. The king ordered that his hands and feet be bound and weighed down with rocks and thrown into from a bridge into the Vlatva River in Prague in the middle of the night. The year of his death was 1393. The cult of St. John Nepomucen began to spread in Prague soon after his tragic death.
In 1638, even before his beatification, a statue of St. John Nepomucen was erected on the Charles Bridge in Prague. The figure depicts the saint standing in priest’s clothes consisting of a cassock, surplice and stole, his head covered with a traditional priest’s biret and a nimbus of five stars surrounding the head. In one arm he cradles a crucifix and in the other holds a palm, the traditional symbol of martyrdom. It is this image that is the most widely reproduced of St. John Nepomucen throughout all of Poland .
The Jesuits promoted St. John Nepomucen throughout the known continents as the patron saint of a good confession. He is patron saint of confessors and those who wish to control their tongue from excessive talking so he is sometimes depicted with a finger against his lips in the traditional symbol of silence or sometimes holding a padlock. Sometimes he holds an open prayer book in both hands.
Considering the great number of shrines dedicated to this saint, it is clear he is much loved and venerated in Poland.
Top photo: Wikipedia. Lower photo: by author in Baranow Sandomierski, Poland
Although there are many various shapes symbolizing the cross, the most familiar to many of us is the Latin cross, the form on which Christ was crucified. When we look at the numerous roadside shrines and crosses across Poland’s landscape, we can sometimes see a cross with two horizontal cross pieces. Typically, the upper cross beam is shorter than the lower one but in Poland sometimes the two beams are the same length. This is called a Caravaca cross, called karawaka, in Polish.
These crosses, chiefly made of wood, but in later years, of metal, were usually erected at the beginning and end of the village or town with the faith that they would prevent the entrance of the “bad air” into the town and thus protect the inhabitants from contracting communicable diseases. The two-armed (sometimes, three armed) were also called krzyż choleryczny, or cholera crosses, referring to the cholera epidemics that raged through Poland, often decimating entire populations.
From the time of the Middle Ages, here were all kinds of epidemics such as typhoid, typhus, and the bubonic plague that swept through various regions of Europe, including Poland. There was very little knowledge of what carried diseases at the time. Much of it was attributed to "bad air" and everyone turned to God with prayers to contain or reverse the epidemics and also by erecting crosses, the strongest symbol of the Christian faith, to protect them. Written on the crosses were written the words " Od powietrza, głodu, ognia i wojna zachowaj nas Panie." (From air, hunger, fire and war, save us Lord.) Help was also sought through prayer to other saints such as St. Roch or St. Rozalia who, according to folk tradition, were given special powers to negate pestilential air.
The first crosses with two horizontal cross arms as a means to protect against epidemics began in a Spain town by the name Caravaca de la Cruz and it is from this Spanish town that the Polish word karawaka is derived. The city contained a relic, splinters of the Holy Cross in the shape of a cross with two horizontal cross beams. The relic was credited with miraculous powers protecting the town from pestilence. News of this spread quickly throughout all of Spain and Europe. It reached Poland by the second half of the 17th century through the efforts of the Jesuits. Karawaki began to be erected all over the country. For that reason, it is also often called krzyż hispanski, the Spanish cross.
Besides being found at various crossroads, entrances and exits to towns and villages, the karawaki were also placed near cemeteries or often located far from the rest of the town at the site where epidemic victims had to be buried in mass graves. Such a cross at a burial site was both a protective measure to keep the disease away, but also acted as a reminder of the loss of souls and the need to remember them in prayer.
Photo from Wikipedia. Cross from Łomza(Kurpie region)
In this time of the corona virus, for the good of humanity, Pope Francis, the bishops and every local dioceses of America have been forced to close their doors to their congregations. In this crisis, both physically and spiritually, many faithful acutely feel the loss of Mass and the comfort of Holy Communion. This closing of doors is a first for me, as it is for the people of this country, but in the history of Poland we see that it is not.
From the times of the Middle Ages, epidemics such the plague, cholera and, dysentery raged throughout Poland wiping out entire villages, killing young and old. People stayed in their homes, afraid of venturing out further than the confines of their village. During the German occupation of Poland, churches were closed, often converted into warehouses or stables. Sacred liturgical vestments, chalices, etc., were pillaged. Priests sent to their deaths and nuns sent to concentration camps and forced labor. Many centuries-old roadside shrines and crucifix’s, such a predominant fixture of the Polish countryside, were destroyed. But the German’s didn’t manage to destroy them all and it was here, at the foot of a roadside shrine, that the people said their prayers and found comfort.
In addition, churches in Poland in centuries were not as numerous as they are today. Small villages often lacked their own church and the faithful had to travel many miles to hear Mass, either by foot or horse and wagon. If that was the case, the faithful visited the nearest shrine to pray alone or together.
It is no accident that when we look at all the little chapels, statues and crosses that dot Poland’s cities and countryside, we often see it surrounded by a fence. Very often there is a bench. The fence is to remind us, if the statue itself does not, that this is a sacred place. The bench is an invitation to sit down and pray. Every cross, every shrine of a saint, every small chapel was blessed by the church, and provides a sacred space in which to pray.
I t is no different in today’s world. Any cross, anywhere, can serve as a place to say the stations of the cross during Lent. Any figure on church grounds or at a cemetery is a place to say the rosary, to chant a litany to our favorite saint, to seek intercession in this time of crisis. We know that Poland has been doing it for centuries. And it has endured.
Photo by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Next posting: Karawaki: The Roadside Cross against Epidemics
On April 20th, 1941, during the occupation of Poland, the German authorities ruined all the roadside crosses in Sieradz and the surrounding region on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday.
The photo on the left depicts the cross lying on the ground surrounded by people and a woman in plaid bowing down to kiss the fallen cross.
From the first moment of the occupation of Poland in 1939, the leaders of the Third Reich and the National Socialist Party began a ruthless campaign to eradicate the Polish nation. The Roman Catholic Church was suppressed throughout Poland because of its previous history in leading nationalist forces to fight for Poland’s independence. Churches were closed and converted to warehouses. Religious services forbidden. Catholic clergy were killed or imprisoned. Convent properties and lands were requisitioned, the nuns shipped to Germany for forced labor. Those nuns who managed to avoid deportation kept secret chronicles of their day to day, year to year struggle to survive and to keep the faith.
In her Chronicle of the Occupation of the Convent of the Ursulines in Sieradz 1939-1945 (Kronika Okupacyjna Klasztoru Sióstr Urszulanek w Sieradzu), Sister Paulina Jaskulanka writes:
"Early this morning Sister Emma Dropiewska returning from night shift at the hospital noticed that the cross in front of our church was knocked down and leaning on the fence near the bell tower! She ran into the back yard knowing that the sisters working in the gardens are up early, even on Sunday and told Sister Pankracja Łukasiak what happened. Immediately, with Sisters Michała Krakowiak and Sisters Emmanuela and Walercia Marsz, they ran to the front of the church and with much difficulty lifted the heavy cross and brought it inside the convent to the cloister.
Another entry for that day by Sister Ludwika Miedźwiecka at the convent:
"On this night the crosses and roadside shrines in town, in the surrounding countryside and in the cemeteries, the crosses were broken, the monuments shot at -in this way the Hitlerites celebrated the birthday of the Führer, the sacrilegious acts offered as a gift."
Holy Week in Poland has always been a busy time of refreshing the interior of the house in preparation for Resurrection Sunday. The walls of country cottages were freshly whitewashed, windows cleaned and simple paper curtains hung. One of the items that received special attention during this time was the home altar.
At one time, home altars could be seen in almost every cottage in Poland. In its earliest form it was a small shelf hung in the corner of the room, on the east side of the house between two windows. Below it was a table. It was considered the holy corner, the swięty kąt. It was here that a crucifix was placed as were holy images of the Blessed Virgin Maty and patron saints. The table below it was covered with a white tablecloth and, according to Polish ethnographers, where the woman of the house kept a loaf of bread wrapped in a linen cloth. Bread and salt were kept here. For Christmas, a bowl of kutia, a dish of honey and wheat berries, was placed here. It was also under this shelf, in this corner, that a sheaf of wheat or rye was placed on Christmas Eve and kept until the Feast of Three Kings. It was here that priests and special guests were seated when they visited
Over time, the corner shelf began to disappear. The holy pictures were still hung in the corner but the table became the repository of the crucifix, Blessed Virgin Mary, or special souvenirs brought back from pilgrimages. As a rule, the rosary was hung on the cross, in such a way that it entwined the upper arm of the cross, while the cross from the rosary hung freely in front of the standing cross. A pair of candles flanked the cross or sometimes just one. In spring and summer, bouquets of fresh flowers were placed on either side of the cross. In the winter when they were unavailable, bouquets of flowers were made from the small feathers of domestic poultry.
In the first decades of the 20th century, crepe paper came to the villages through traveling traders and small-town shopkeepers. Polish housewives began using the colorful paper to make flowers to decorate the home altar. It was this work, among all the others, that kept the housewives and their daughters so busy in the days leading up to Holy Week. They dusted holy pictures, washed and starched the tablecloth and made crepe paper flowers so that during Holy week all would be in readiness. Not everyone was able to afford such an altar, so neighbors came together with those who could, to pray and praise God together.
Photo by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab in the Kurpie region of Poland
National Day of Remembrance of Poles Rescuing Jews under German Occupation-Sister Bogumiła (Zofia) Makowska
March 24th is recognized by Poland as the National Day of Remembrance of Poles Rescuing Jews under German Occupation
Testimony of Tamy Lavee** on February 12, 1988 in Haifa, Isreal.
"…All I remember from my childhood is that in the convent there were these very long corridors. I remember the nuns who were good and always smiling. I also remember that one day some people came to the convent to take me. It happened that it was the Szymankski’s who adopted me …then came two men to take me away. Mrs. Szymanski didn’t want to let me go and cried and when they told her she could get another child she said that a child is not a glove that is removed from the hand and given away. In spite of it they took me away and then I learned I was a Jewish child."
Testimony of Sister Bogumiła Makowska, FMM July 16,1985
"During the war I was a formation tutor (at the orphange) in Zamość. In the 1940’s, a two or three-year-old child was left at our convent on Żdanowski Street. She was nicely dressed and around her neck she had a small bag with a note: Wanda, baptized.
Sometime toward the end of the 70’s I received a telephone call from Israel asking if there was in the convent index a record of a foundling by the name of Wanda. I replied that, for sure, such a girl child was left with us and in the archive there is still the piece of paper that had hung around her neck when she was left on our doorstep. According to the notes in the archives, shortly after Wanda was left with us, a woman came to work for us peeling potatoes and took an interest in the child and the sisters suspected she was the mother. However, Wanda was taken by a family from Izbica for raising. [After the war] in 1947 a Jewish man claimed that she was his granddaughter. A sister went with him to Izbica and he took Wanda away from her adoptive family. The matter ended up in the courts. In the later notes is a comment that Wanda was taken to the Jewish center in Łodź.
After a while I received a letter from Israel in which the author wrote: “It is me, I’m the Wanda but my name is now Tamara. I was adopted by a Jewish woman but I want to know my history and I’m asking your help. It was difficult for me with my mother. That I wasn’t her daughter I learned only after I married and gave birth to my children…where did I come from, what is my background and who were my parents."
[A nun from the convent recalls that she ran into the woman who had peeled potatoes at the convent during the war at the bus stop and that the woman was going to Skierbieszów]
Sister Bogumiła continues:
"I wrote to the priest in Skierbieszów to announce from the pulpit that I’m seeking the woman who during the war left a child by the name of Wanda with the sisters. After a while, Maria Pawelec came to see me and told me Wanda’s story."
I’m not her mother. I met Wanda’s mother at the market. She was selling something. I was selling something. We got friendly and she told me her situation. She came from Bydgoscz. The Germans killed her husband in Włocławek and she and her son were fleeing east. Wanda was just on the way. She was pregnant. She gave birth to her on the train. That was 1939. She arrived in Zamość and tried to make a living buying and selling. At this moment I don’t remember her last name.
There was an incident when the Germans caught her children and took them to the children’s camp in Zamość. She managed in some way to get them back but then she was afraid because it was apparent that she was Jewish and these were Jewish children. She asked me to take Wanda in the hope that at least she would survive. She decided to stay with her son. After a while they were taken to Izbica and shot. I stayed with Wanda in Zamość and took care of her. One day the Germans came to see me asking who is this child. I told them it was my niece and Wanda, when questioned, confirmed that I was her aunt. But from that time on I was afraid for the child and for myself. I came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to leave Wanda with the sisters. I opened the gate to the convent front yard, gave the child a push and in that way, no one knew who or what…a foundling. Wanting to know what was happening with the child I came to the sisters offering to peel potatoes.
[Sister Bogumiła sent all this information to Tamy Lavee and a correspondence began. Tamy Lavee visited Poland to thank her and the congregation for saving her life]
According to YadVashem: The nun, Zofia-Bogumiła Makowska, who knew the child was Jewish, never revealed her true identity to anyone, and looked after her until the end of the war.
On September 21, 1993, through the efforts of Tamar Lavi, Yad Vashem recognized the Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and Zofia-Bogumiła Makowska as Righteous Among the Nations.
The link can be found here https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?searchType=all&language=en&itemId=4044030&ind=27
More stories of rescue in Poland can be found on the website of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews at https://sprawiedliwi.org.pl/en/stories-of-rescue/list/A?role=90
*Please note that there are inconsistencies as to the spelling of the name. This spelling from Yad Vashem.
**From the book: Medytacje Nad Życiem a Świetle Doświadczeń II Wojny Światowej[Meditation on Life in Light of World War II Experiences] by S. Irena Murawska FMM 2019
Sincerest thanks to the Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary for permission to use photo of S. Makowska.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.