Monday, June 27, 2011

The Pastor of Majdanek

For those unfamiliar with the name, Majdanek was a German Nazi concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, established during the Nazi occupation of Poland. "Majdanek", derived from the nearby Majdan Tatarski area of Lublin, was unusual in being situated near a major city, rather than hidden away at a remote rural site. Local people, aware of its existence, began using the name. Nazi documents referred to Majdanek initially as the "Prisoner of War Camp of the Waffen-SS in Lublin". In 1943 it was renamed "Konzentrationslager Lublin" (Concentration Camp Lublin). Majdanek operated from the fall of 1941 until mid-July of 1944. The advancing Russian Army captured it nearly intact, before the Nazis had time to destroy any evidence.  It was established as a forced labor camp, rather than as an extermination camp, yet over 79,000 people perished there, over 59,000 of them being Polish Jews. It was here that Blessed Emilian Kowcz died on March 25, 1944, a little over three months before the camp was liberated. 

Emilian Kowcz was born August 20, 1884, in the Galician region of the Ukraine. His family belonged to the Greek Catholic Church. Son of Father Gregory Kowcz, a local Greek Catholic Church pastor, other married priests in his family include his father-in-law, three brothers-in-law, two of his three sons and a grandson now living in Canada. The tradition of a married priesthood has deep roots in the Ukrainian community

After completing his early studies in Lviv, Emilian studied theology at the Collegium Ruthenum in Rome from 1905-11. In 1910 he married Maria Anna Dobranska. Maria bore him six children, and together they cared for many orphans during a very turbulent. The following year he was ordained a Catholic priest. As an assistant priest, he did pastoral work in Przemyślany,  a small town 30 miles from Lviv until 1919. Between 1919-1921 he served as chaplain of the Halych Army, fighting for Ukraine's independence. He promoted the peaceful coexistence of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. As a military chaplain, Emilian ministered to dying men in the heat of battle. He once wrote: “I know that the soldier on the front line feels better when he sees both the doctor and the priest there.” 

After the First World War the region where Kowcz lived was ceded to Poland. That country attempted to integrate the Ukrainian people into Polish society, and Ukrainian church members into the Roman Catholic Church. The Free Ukraine Movement advocated for Ukrainian independence, as well as for the education and welfare of Ukrainian children. Because he supported this, Emilian ran aground of the Polish authorities. He came under suspicion and his house was searched more than 40 times. He was fined and imprisoned for a short at a local monastery, but upon his release he was appointed as a pastor, eventually serving the parish near Przemyślany. After the outbreak of World War II, the Soviets exiled thousands of Polish people in the region to Siberia. Emilian took up their cause, especially that of orphans and widows. He rebuked his own people for looting the homes of those who had been sent away, and demanded that they make restitution.

Ukrainians were hopeful when the Nazis arrived in 1941, and anticipated being liberated from the Soviets. On the contrary, they were soon treated as bad, or worse, and many were deported to Nazi factories and labor camps. The Jews, particularly, who at that time constituted a majority in Przemyślany, bore the brunt of Nazi cruelty, and Emilian urged his own followers not to have any part in the Nazi's crimes.

Witnessing the firebombing of a synagogue by SS troops, Emilian and a group of parishioners rushed in, blocked the doors, and assisted people caught in the burning building. Some Jews even came to Kowcz, asking him to  baptize them. He not only did so, but even wrote a letter to Adolf Hitler denouncing Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Predictably, in December, 1942, Emilian Kowcz was arrested. Having admitted to baptizing Jews and refusing to sign a letter promising not to repeat such action, the Nazis sent him to Majdanek, near Lublin. 

At Majdanek Emilian continued his pastoral ministry of comforting and seeing to the needs of prisoners, regardless of race or religion. His daughters tried to gain his release, but he wrote to them: I thank God for His goodness to me. Apart from heaven, this is the one place where I wish to remain. Here we are all equal: Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Latvians and Estonians. Of all these, I am the only priest. I can’t even imagine what it would be like here without me. Here I see God, who is the same for us all, regardless of our religious distinctions. Perhaps our churches are different, but the same great and almighty God rules over us all. When I celebrate the Divine Liturgy, they all join in prayer...He came to be called "the pastor of Majdanek".

Emilian developed serious stomach problems around Christmas of 1943. The Nazis sent him to the infirmary, where doctors would often accelerate death, either by injection or starvation. Officially, the records indicate that Kowcz died of infection and inflammation to his right leg. It's been suggested that a more likely scenario is that he was gassed and cremated in the ovens at Majdanek. 

The night before he died, Emilian wrote to his wife and six children: I understand that you are trying to get me released. But I beg you not to do this. Yesterday they killed fifty people. If I am not here, who will help them get through their sufferings? They would go on their way with all their sins and in the depths of unbelief, which would take them to hell. But now they go to death with their heads held aloft, leaving all their sins behind them. And so they pass over to the eternal city.” Emilian Kowcz's date of death is listed as March 25, 1944. 

On June 27, 2001, Emilian Kowcz was declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II, along with other martyrs of the Greek Catholic Church. The ceremony was held at the Hippodrome in Lviv. Emilian had previously been declared a “righteous Ukrainian” by the Jewish Council of the Ukraine.

65 years later, on March 26, 2009, the anniversary of Blessed Emilian's death was celebrated at the Majdanek Museum in Lublin, Poland. Students of the Ukrainian Catholic University in western Ukrainian Lviv were among  those present for the event. A memorial tablet honoring Blessed Emilian was unveiled during the ceremonies. It contains words which Blessed Emilian had written in a letter to his relatives: "...Here I see God, God who is the same for us all, independent of our religious differences.” The obelisk with the tablet was unveiled jointly by the Ukrainian Vice-Premier Minister and the Polish Vice-Minister of Culture and National Heritage. In a letter of greeting sent to those participating in the event, the president of Poland compared Blessed Emilian with 
contemporary martyrs Edith Stein [Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross, OCD] and Father Maximilian Kolbe. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just watched a program about Fr Kowcz on EWTN... I had not heard of him before today but I hope to remember his example from today. God bless Fr Kowcz and his family.