The Pasterka, the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, during the German Occupation of Poland
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
12/24/2019 12:48:44 pm
An inspiring piece about the pasterka (midnight Mass) in the Zamość region, Sophie! Thank you for the beautiful tribute to the people of faith!
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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.