June 21, 2024
Polish/Jewish Relations

A Polish “Anti-Semite” Who Saved Jews

Many find it puzzling to learn that some Polish people, who were labeled anti-Semites due to their criticism of the Jews for their anti-Polish sentiments and actions in the Second Polish Republic, risked or lost their lives saving Jews during WWII and the German occupation of Poland.

Part of the explanation might be that the accusation of anti-Semitism was inappropriate. Being critical of certain negative behaviors of some members of the large Jewish community in Poland did not prevent the “anti-Semites” from acting heroically and courageously, risking their lives trying to save their Jewish compatriots, when the punishment for aiding a Jewish person in any way was death. They were motivated by love of a neighbor, the tenets of their Christian faith, the Catholic Church’s teachings, a civic duty, or ordinary human decency.

Marcel Godlewski was a priest and a Polish nationalist who, like many other Polish nationalists, was critical of Jews and their anti-Polish sentiments and activities in the Second Polish Republic, yet risked his life during World War II, saving from a thousand up to as many as three thousand Jews from death at the hands of the Germans, when it mattered most.

Father Marcel Godlewski, born in 1865, an avid pastor, social activist and publisher, planned to spend his retirement in the town of Anin, on the outskirts of Warsaw. His house in this beautiful neighborhood had nearly been completed and everything seemed to go according to plan, when the Second World War broke out in 1939. At that time Father Godlewski was pastor of the large parish of All Saints in Warsaw. He was arrested by the Germans for two months in October 1939. Inhuman conditions of isolation led the priest, who was almost 80 years old, to pneumonia.

In 1940, when the Germans decided to set up a ghetto within the limits of Poland’s capital, the largest Jewish quarter in Nazi-occupied Europe, All Saints Church was located within its perimeter. Father Godlewski decided to remain in his parish and lived on the premises of the ghetto until its complete destruction in July 1942.

An estimated 450,000 Jews are said to have lived in the Warsaw Ghetto (the Arians had to move out of this area). A few thousand of the Jews converted to Christianity. Their position was extremely fragile, as on the one hand their Catholic faith did not prevent them from persecution at the hands of the Nazis, and on the other hand they were seen as renegades by the Jews practicing Judaism and often violently attacked by them. Yet Fr. Godlewski provided assistance to all: shelter and help was offered to everyone in need, those that converted and those that did not.

Around a hundred people were hiding on parish premises. The parish priest, along with the curate, Fr. Antoni Czarnecki, would issue forged baptism certificates, indispensable for survival on the Arian side of the Ghetto wall. Father Godlewski and many other priests would search for the dead of the right age in the Book of Baptism. Germans knew about the existence of baptism registers but did not realize that the parishes recorded the deaths. The records were falsified based on the baptism entry.

In addition to smuggling information to assist the Jews living in the ghetto,  he set up a kitchen which served about a hundred meals a day, and converted his house in Anin into an orphanage, run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary (their mother superior, Sr. Matylda Getter, is named among the Righteous Among the Nations). Fr. Godlewski moreover helped many people to escape from the Warsaw Ghetto.
One of those owing their lives to father Godlewski include Prof. Ludwik Hirszfeld, an eminent physician and immunologist, later nominated to the Nobel Prize for medicine, who discovered ABO blood types and was the first to point out the cause of the serological conflict between mother and child.

In 2009, many years after his death (in 1945), Fr. Marcel Godlewski was awarded the Righteous Among the Nations Medal from the Yad Vashem Institute. On 7 June 2017, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) awarded the Church of all Saints in Warsaw the honorary title of “House of Life. A plaque was unveiled on a wall of the church, with an inscription in English: “This building served as a hiding place to innocent people, persecuted by the Nazis.”

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