The custom of the midnight mass on Christmas Eve is so deeply rooted in Poland that even during the occupation of Poland by the Nazi's during World War II, when churches were closed, when priests were being sent to die in the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz and curfews forbade the Polish people to leave their homes in the evening, the pasterka, the midnight mass, prevailed. The Zamość region is one such example.
In the last days of November 1942, the villages and inhabitants of this region were being completely emptied by force by the Germans with the purpose of bringing in German settlers from other parts of Europe. With only the goods that they could carry and held hostage at the point of a gun, the Poles were being sent to transit camps from which they were sent to Germany for forced labor, or shipped to Auschwitz or Majdanek, either to work until dead or sent directly to the gas chamber. It was a time of acute terror and loss of hope with many fleeing and hiding in the forests to avoid the Germans.
In the midst of this chaos, and as Christmas approached, one man named Feliks Petryka, a member of the underground army known as the Batalion Chłopski, took action. To raise the morale of his men and the villagers who were to be evacuated permanently from their homes, he decided to organize a midnight mass. He took into his confidence one of the remaining priests still living in Zamość. The priest, a Reverend Kostrzewa, shared the secret only with the nuns of the Sisters of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who prepared the liturgical items. The morning of Christmas Eve, the priest was transported from Zamość by horse and wagon by the underground partisans to the home of Marii Turczyn who lived not far from where the mass was to be held.
Referring to himself simply as “the priest,” the Reverend Kostrzewa gave the following account:
"At 11PM we started for the forest; we went in the dark, in the mud. From a distance we could hear the barking of German dogs...the forest was filled with people; one could hear murmurings, sometimes the sobs of the women. There were men, women, children and teens, who the most numerous. At the edge of the forest, the soldiers stood guard so that the Germans would not catch us unaware. In the middle of a clearing, under the fir trees, a small altar was erected. A table, a portable altar, a tablecloth, a cross and two candles. In the introductory rite to the mass the priest compared the expulsion of the parishioners from their homes to that of the fate of the Christ Child who was born without a home. The sermon was brief, both because of the sobs of those listening and the priest’s tremendous emotion. During the mass they sang carols and at the end sang "Boże coś Polskę." In his concluding words, the priest encouraged the faithful to hope and to persevere. He assured them that the enemy would be defeated and there would come a time when the parishioners would return to their home and to his parish."
Besides the underground partisans, there were almost 500 faithful who attended this Midnight Mass, this Pasterka, from the villages of Łabuniek, Mocówki, and Wielki Łabuniek. The Sisters of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary spent the entire night before the Blessed Sacrament praying for the safety of all those participating in the midnight mass. In the morning the priest was returned by horse and wagon back to Zamość. That midnight mass was an unforgettable experience for those who participated.
It was a bright light in the darkness of the German occupation.
Google image. Painting by Wojciech Betley 1915
This is a photo of Czesława Kwoka, a Polish Catholic girl who was murdered in Auschwitz by phenol injection. She was one of the children of Zamość. This is a small tribute to her and what happened to her and many other Polish children and families during World War II.
In the winter of 1942, the Germans, who had been occupying Poland since 1939, began expelling Polish Catholic families in the Zamość region in southeastern Poland from their homes to make way for new German settlers. The region was to be free of all Poles. The families were taken to a transit camp in the city of Zamość where they lived in unspeakable conditions and died from exposure, disease and starvation. Those who were deemed capable were sent to work as forced laborers to Germany. Children who met certain racial characteristics were forcibly separated from their families and sent to Germany to become Germans, losing their Polish identity forever. Some elderly and children were sent to live among strangers in the General Government, many dying along the way in freezing cattle cars. Many were also sent to the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz.
From the collection of German documents gathered by Poland after the war we read the following:
Report on the transport of 644 Poles to the work camp in Auschwitz on December 10, 1942.
The transport was dispatched from Zamość on December 10th at 1600 hours. The arrival in Auschwitz took place December 12 at 2300 hours. From among the 644 Poles, three escaped on route during the stop near the distribution station in Kraków with the help of Polish railway workers who opened the locked door of the wagon. The escape was made possible by the darkness and occurred at a time when the guards were at the other end of the train. An immediate search produced no results. Another 11 people — the number accounted for in Zamość during the loading was accurate — apparently jumped out the top window of the freight car. It would be directed that in the future the unsealed top window be secured with barbed wire.
Admittance to Auschwitz took place on December 13, 1942; the list of names was not read.
The transport arrived as planned with the exception of the 14 individuals who skipped out and (the transport) was definitely late.
In the matter of capability to work SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Haumeir made it clear that arrivals to the camp should be Poles capable of work in order to avoid unnecessary overloading of the camp as well as modes of transportation. A certain number of individuals, idiots, cripples and sick people must be in the quickest manner be removed from the camp by liquidation to prevent overload. (Document #80 Zamojszczyzna-Sonderlaboratorium ss. Zbior Documentow Polskich i Niemieckich w okresu okupacji Hitlerowski Tom 1)
The men were sent to Birkenau (section B 1b) and the women to B 1a) Over the next few days they underwent selection, were registered and tattooed. During the selection, the older, disabled and younger men and boys were separated out. It is known that in January 1943 some of the boys from Zamość were included in the group of young prisoners who underwent pseudo-medical experiments. They were injected with typhus germs, and most of them died. In February and in March 1943 two groups of boys from the Zamość region were murdered through cardiac phenol injections.
All the women were quarantined, during which mothers and daughters were separated. Women who were visibly pregnant were also isolated from the others. Birthing mothers and their children faced a particularly tragic fate in the camp. Until June 1943 the infants were killed with phenol injections. After quarantine, women were placed in work commandos.
Also murdered through phenol injection, one of the most efficient killing methods devised by the Germans, was Czesława Kwoka.(Google image)
Cześć ich pamięci. Honor their memory.
If you are interested in reading more about what happened in the Zamość region of Poland during WWII click here www.polamjournal.com/Library/Sophie_Knab_Index/sophie_knab_index.html and click on Zamość under German Occupation 1939-1945
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.