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February 20: The Angel of Stutthof Concentration Camp

Bl. Julia Rodzińska, OP, martyr
Memorial: February 20

Today is the memorial of Julia Rodzińska, OP, a Polish Dominican martyred by the Nazis.

Born on March 16, 1899, Bl. Julias’ name at her christening was Stanisława Maria Józefa, and she was one of five children born roughly 50 miles southeast of Kraków in the village of Nawojowa, Poland, to organist Michael Rodzińska and his homemaker wife Marianna (née Sekuły). When this couple married in November 1894, he was 28, she was 15. Their first child, a boy, came in September 1895. Stanisława was their second born.

Michael came from a long line of church organists, and apparently he was so adept at playing, the local bishop once said that for him to pray peacefully at Mass, “[I] just listen to the beautiful music [played by the Nawojowa] church organist.” He also led the parish choir, and his reputation was such that people would come from other parishes to serve under him.

Despite these two jobs and another at the local bank, Michael could never make ends meet. Marianna’s parents were wealthy, but her father was a miser and wouldn’t lift a finger to help his daughter. Living under the financial strain and struggles of poverty, she grew weaker and susceptible to illness over the years. She died at age 28, leaving her husband with four school aged children (one child had died), the youngest less than 2.

The strain on Michael was too much, especially because he was often afflicted with rheumatism. As a result, the children were ill-fed, malnourished, and poorly dressed. Other townsfolk picked up the slack and helped provide basic needs. Even so, the stress weakened Michael, who died after contracting pneumonia while helping lead the choir at Christmas 1909, two years after his wife’s passing.

His family couldn’t take the children. Her family wouldn’t. So the girls were sent to live in a Dominican orphanage for girls (the superior was herself an orphan), while the two boys went to live with a local family named Nowakowskich.

This is how in 1916 at age 17, Stanisława entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Dominic in Tarnobrzegu-Wielowsi, becoming Sr. Maria Julia. She had become so impressed with the sisters and fallen so in love with them and their way of life, that she wanted this herself. More importantly, she believed it is what God wanted for her. Several years later, on August 5, 1924, it was also here that she took her final vows.

As a qualified (and by all accounts great) teacher, she pursued her ministry in Mielżyn, Rawa Ruska, and Vilnius, Lithuania, for 22 years. Starting in 1934, she served as the superior of the house in Vilnius and ran the convent’s orphanage. Indeed she was called, “the mother of orphans,” as well as “the apostle of the Rosary.”

However despite the excellent job she did and having received the highest civilian medal the city of Vilnius awards, despite being loved by all of Vilnius’ society for her kindness, goodness, and charity, the government forcibly took over both the school and the orphanage. The government also dissolved the monastery.

1941_seglar

Last known picture taken of Sr. Julia. It was 1941, and because of governmental pressure,
she and the other sisters had to go around in secular clothing.

Sister and some others had to go live with some local Vincentian Sisters (their order was founded by St. Vincent de Paul). Furthermore she was now effectively unemployed. She sought out odd jobs with local Polish families, but this coincided with the Nazi occupation, and many of these homes were destitute.

Making matters worse, the Nazis largely forced the Church underground. Gaining access to the sacraments became increasingly difficult. Monks, bishops, priests, and Sisters were arrested. Many were either executed outright or sent to a slow death in concentration camps. Retired priests found their pension from the local diocese cut off.

Furthermore, after conquering Poland, the Nazis had made teaching Polish culture illegal, so the community’s traditions and foundation were in jeopardy.

Thus it was with great courage and using the skills she had learned over the years, Sister went around secretly teaching children and youth the Polish language, history, and religion. She also conducted humanitarian activities by getting food for destitute retired priests and arranging for lay families to take in these men.

In July 1943, however, on charges of political activities and aiding Polish partisans, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned her in Lukiškės Prison in central Vilnius, the site of many mass executions of Poles during WWII. There she was placed in solitary confinement in what amounted to a pitch black, cold, damp, cement closet. The air supply was insufficient, and she got cramps because she had no room to fully stretch her limbs. This went on for a year, and she received much harsher treatment than others in her cell block.

One form of psychological torture meted out by the Gestapo was making the prisoners clean the floors of the torture chambers, which were routinely coated with several inches of blood. Despite this type of treatment, she did not collapse either mentally or physically. One prisoner who met Sr. Julia at this time said a calm and unexpected focus radiated from her face. There were no visible signs of the collapse of her inner resignation. Her secret was her spiritual exercises. She turned her prison cell into a monastic cell. 

In July 1944, she was shoved into a packed cattle car and sent to the Stutthof concentration camp, which was primarily “used for the imprisonment of Polish intelligentsia,” although it also housed Norwegians and others from around Europe.

According to Wikipedia, Stutthof was located in “Sztutowo (German: Stutthof) … a village in Nowy Dwór Gdański County, part of the Pomeranian Voivodeship of Poland. It is located about 38 km (24 mi) east of Gdańsk on the northeastern edge of the Vistula Delta, at the base of the Vistula Spit on the Baltic coast.”

She was registered as number 40992 (see the image below). Sister and her fellow prisoners were made the butt of ridicule and jokes, often in a brutal manner. For instance, to humiliate the dignity of the women prisoners, particularly the women religious, they were made to undergo gynecological exams in front of German soldiers and male prisoners. 

The guards at Stutthof – many of whom were executed on the camp grounds following the war – subjected her to torture and starvation. After all, there were always new cars of trains pulling up to deliver ever more prisoners. The more who died each day, the more room available to house the new arrivals. Despite this Sr. Julia remained strong and gave spiritual and material help to her fellow prisoners, regardless of their religion and nationality.

For instance, in the barracks, which mainly housed Jewish women of different nationalities, Sister organized and led the community in prayer. (She knew the Psalms quite well given her daily praying the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours for three decades. Click here.) She constantly reminded her suffering companions that religious values would allow them to crush the reigning system, in their minds and souls if nowhere else. This gave them a measure of freedom. So therefore a prayer of faith would help them defend against that which would otherwise destroy and constantly degrade their humanity. Furthermore religious practice was banned in the camp and severely punished. Thus for the prisoners, faith became their rebellion against the flooding tide of evil.

Additionally Sr. Julia shared her starvation level food and clothes so others would not be as hungry or could be a little more warm.

The result was she gained an authority that helped suppress other prisoners’ animalistic, crude reactions triggered by camp life. She had a high reputation among her fellow inmates, and they looked to her as an arbitrator in conflict situations. Even the camp kapos backed down in the face of Sr. Julia’s confidence.

According to one witness:

“She was an angel of goodness. In the midst of human degradation, she could direct us to another dimension of life…. For us she was a saint [because] she gave others life.”

Bl. Julia died on February 20, 1945, after contracting typhus (a lice born illness). This disease had swept through the camp in November of the previous year because it lacked basic hygienic conditions and because the prisoners’ immune systems were weakened by the debilitating hunger and work. She contracted the disease while giving comfort and support to Jewish prisoners who were already infected and isolated.

Indeed helping the victims of the epidemic was tantamount to accepting death and dying in conditions where the bodies were devoured by lice and decomposed in their filth. Barrack No. 30 was the death house, and no one wanted to approach it. Only sister Julia would enter to wet the dying women’s lips with difficult to acquire water. One of the Polish prisoners, so wasted by typhus that she was considered dead, was at the last minute pulled out by Sister from the stack or corpses destined for the crematorium. The woman survived the camp and later served as a witness to Sr. Julia’s dedication.

Sister may also have been weakened by the great death march Nazi authorities inflicted on camp prisoners the previous month.

In January 1945, some 5,000 were marched to the Baltic Sea and machine gunned there in the water. The US Holocaust Museum’s website reports other prisoners were marched to Lauenburg in eastern Germany, where Soviet forces cut them off. “The Germans [then forced] the prisoners back to Stutthof. Marching in severe winter conditions and treated brutally by SS guards, thousands [died] during the death march.” Whether she was a marcher is not known.

What is known is that during a cold winter when every bit of cloth and clothing was needed to keep warm and have a chance of surviving, someone did something remarkable for Sister’s corpse.

As it lay in the pile of naked bodies being stacked for cremation, someone placed some cloth over hers so that going into death she would have a hint of the dignity she helped give so many others.

Soviet troops liberated the camp roughly two months later. In total, since it opened in 1939, roughly 85,000 out of a conservative estimate of 110,000 prisoners died at Stutthof. (Many prisoners were not counted because they went straight from the cattle cars to the gas chambers and then the crematorium.)

In 1999 Pope St. John Paul II beatified Bl. Julia amongst a group of 108 Polish martyrs of World War II. She was the only Dominican woman religious included in this choir.

To obtain prayer cards or to report favors received because of Bl. Julia’s intercession, please contact:

Zgromadzenie Sióstr św. Dominika
Al. Kasztanowa 36
30-227 Kraków
tel. 011-48-12-425-2405
e-mail: domgen@dominikanki.pl

julia

The prayer card for Sister’s canonization cause.

wilno_-_z_dziecmi-352

Sr. Julia with some of her orphans.

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10 thoughts on “February 20: The Angel of Stutthof Concentration Camp

  1. Pingback: {bits & pieces} and yes we're doing MuTu ~ Like Mother Like Daughter

  2. Pingback: CatholicSaints.Info » Blog Archive » Blessed Stanislawa Rodzinska

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