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Blessed Caroline Kozka: the “Maria Goretti” of Poland

Many of our English-speaking readers have expressed interest in the “Blessed Caroline” mentioned in the MPH prayer of consecration. The following is an account of her martyrdom and the special meaning that she holds for us today.

Mystery in the forest

Sorrow, anguish, and uncertainty gripped the sprawling village of Wal Ruda. The reason for this was not just the war that had been progress for several months — the war that would later be called World War I. Having seen first the Austrian then the Russian armies march through their district, the people had suffered all the calamities attendant upon living so close to the fluctuating front. But adding to these calamities had been yet another horror, which struck at the very heart of this rural community.

On November 18, 1914, in broad daylight, a Russian soldier entered the Kozka cottage and forcefully abducted the father of the family and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Caroline. After marching them into the field, he drove away the father at gunpoint and dragged the girl into the forest. Except for two village boys, no one ever saw Caroline alive again.

Two weeks passed. The parents bore their affliction prayerfully, but also with a good measure of guilt. That tragic day Caroline had begged her mother to take her with her to Holy Mass at the parish church in neighboring Zabawa. Her mother told her that the roads were crawling with soldiers and that she would be safer at home. Caroline insisted tearfully, “I would rather go to church. I am afraid something bad will happen today.” But her mother would not hear of it and went alone. On returning home and learning from her husband what had happened, she fainted on the spot. Jan Kozka, who was a good and caring father, could not forgive himself either. He felt he had not tried hard enough to save his daughter. His fear of the enraged armed soldier had got the better of him.

In his thoughts he went back over every moment of the incident. It began at nine o’clock in the morning. He was at home with his two daughters, Caroline and Rozalia, and young son, Wladek. A Russian soldier entered the house and brusquely asked where the Austrian troops were. Jan told him they had withdrawn a week ago and that he had no idea where they were now. This displeased the soldier. He was clearly in an aggressive frame of mind. The father tried to appease him by offering him bread, eggs, butter, and cream. The soldier brushed all these things away and told him and Caroline to come with him, allegedly to see the commanding officer. Caroline put on her shoes, but had no time to lace them. She also threw on her brother’s jacket. On leaving the house, the father turned toward the village, so as to be closer to people, but the abductor told them to go into the field. The Kozka homestead stood on the outskirts of the village. Behind it were fields and, not far off, a dense forest. They crossed the field. When they reached the edge of the trees, the soldier pointed his bayonet at the father’s chest and told him to go back, after which he forced Caroline down a path that led deep into the forest. The father remained standing there a while longer, staring vacantly at the forest where his dear child had disappeared from view. He wanted to run to the village and seek help, but his legs refused to move. A neighbor ran up, but all Jan could say to him was, “The forest… Caroline… Russian soldier…” He fell into a fit of trembling and could say nothing more. A while later, he returned home like a zombie. From that moment on, he never knew a moment’s peace.

News traveled through the village like wildfire. Neighbors and relatives came to see the distraught parents. They conferred with one another, then went to the edge of the forest, but were afraid to go in.

That same day more news came to light. Two boys from the village, Franek Zalesny and Franek Broda, had hidden their horses in the forest for fear of their being requisitioned by the Russian army. After finding a safe hiding place in the thicket and tying up their horses, they were returning home by a little-used path, when they saw, about sixty meters off, an armed soldier wrestling with a girl who was trying to break free. For some ten minutes they watched the struggle. The girl (they did not recognize her as Caroline) defended herself courageously. Breaking free from her assailant, she tried to escape in the direction of the village. But after a chase of some eighty meters, the soldier caught up with her and dragged her deeper into the forest. At that point the boys ran back to the village to report what they had seen. By now all the village was astir. On hearing the boys’ account, they gathered around the panic-stricken parents and discussed a course of action. They sent word to the parish priest in Zabawa, Fr. Wladyslaw Mendral, who immediately prevailed on the Russian military authorities to find the abductor and the girl. The matter touched everyone deeply, for Caroline Kozka had won a special place in every villager’s heart.

Victim or hero?

Everyone in the village knew this modest, redheaded girl, who, while not particularly good-looking, had a robust attractiveness about her. Her large deep-set eyes and the resolute and focused expression of her face always struck people. A good student, she attended the local school two kilometers from her home. She was energetic and industrious, worked hard on her parents’ farm, and was uncommonly obliging to her fellow villagers. Kind and considerate, she was always ready to bear a helping hand. Though serious-minded and somewhat phlegmatic, she had a cheerful disposition — as her friends readily testified. She was also loyal in her friendships. Everyone considered her deeply religious. She was the first to pray at home and at church, and would gather together her friends and the village children for catechism lessons, the reading of religious books, and talks about God. She belonged to various church groups and everywhere led the way in pious fervor and mental concentration. “When women,” recalls a male witness, “told her that she was a redhead and that redheads were not suited to carrying banners, she neither took offence nor was put off, but carried the banner anyway. Village boys would take a fancy to this cheerful and friendly girl. If they tried to proposition her, she would neither moralize nor take offence, but only smile and reply politely, but so intelligently and wittily, that we would be left speechless.” It was the pastor and the priests working in the parish who were best acquainted with the depth of her religiosity. That is why, stricken by the tragic event, they wanted so much to understand the mysterious designs of God, who allowed this pure and pious girl to fall into the hands of a violent assailant. Indeed, everyone who knew Caroline asked this question to a greater or lesser degree. Why did this fate have to befall precisely her — a girl so good and innocent?

The weeks passed and the battlefront moved away. After the initial shock, the village returned to its farming duties. The grief-stricken Kozkas had no choice but to resume their daily routine. By now it was December and the ground was frozen hard.

On December 4, Franek Szwiec — a neighbor — burst into the Kozka house. Through his tears he could barely make himself understood: “Your daughter… the forest… Caroline… I found her.” Later, he would describe his discovery to the parish priest: “On Friday, December 4, I went into the forest to gather firewood. In a ditch in the thicket I noticed a white object. On approaching it, I clearly recognized the body of the abducted girl — Caroline Kozka. I hurried to inform her father, Jan Kozka, and together with Matthias Glowa, the farmer, and young Franek Zalesny, we went to the spot to pick up the body….A few of the neighbors had arrived there before us. They had come straight across the field. Caroline’s body lay face up, frozen into the ground. Her kerchief, torn from her head, was still in her hand. Under her head and shoulders were traces of blood, which must have soaked into the ground.” Evidently, while she still had the strength, she had been running to the edge of the forest in the hope of finding people who might save her. Her body lay about a kilometer from where her father had last seen her. Such was the distance she covered in the course of her desperate struggle for her life and honor.

Love is stronger than death

They wrapped her body in a white sheet and set off for home. More people joined them on the way, for news had traveled quickly. Like a funeral procession they marched home in tearful silence. At the house they began to perform the last offices on the brutalized body. Three people performed these offices: the midwife Rozalia Zazarz, a neighbor Maria Pajak, and, since there was no doctor, the local inspector, Jan Baran, who was licensed to issue death certificates. These were the first reliable witnesses to determine the cause and circumstances of Caroline Kozka’s brutal death.

In the process of washing the body, they were able to reconstruct, step by step, the entire course of that horrific event. Caroline was barefooted, for her unlaced shoes had come off during her flight. Later the villagers found them in the forest, along with her brother’s jacket some distance farther off. Evidently she had shed it herself or the assailant had torn it from her shoulders. Her legs, badly scratched by blackberry thorns and thistles, were encrusted in mud up to the knees. Clearly she had run deliberately — “despite the pain” — through the thick forest undergrowth toward the boggy parts of the forest in the hope that she, being light and nimble, would manage to skip from clump to clump, while the pursuing soldier, weighed down by his long heavy greatcoat, would get mired in the bog. When this hope proved in vain, she directed her steps toward the edge of the forest, where the fields began. The entire dramatic chase covered about one kilometer. Now the assailant would fall behind his victim, now he would be right on her heels. The girl’s determination turned his lust into blind rage. At one point he drew his long Cossack’s saber from his scabbard and dealt her a cutting blow on the back of the head. When the Caroline realized that this was a battle for her life, she resolved to sell it dearly. She turned to face her executioner and, just as he raised his saber for another blow, in a bid to protect her head, she seized the blade with her hand. The soldier wrenched it from her grasp, severing her fingers in the process. Despite the pain and the blood, the girl fought on. Now blow followed on blow. The last — the sixth — severed her windpipe and jugular vein. The girl fell to the ground and died within a few minutes.

So did those who solemnly and reverently attended to the washing of the body reconstruct every detail of this brutal incident. Meanwhile, in the yard outside, the rest of the assembled villagers, family, and neighbors had knelt down with lighted candles and were praying the rosary. All felt that they were participating in a great mystery that they were incapable of fathoming.

When the body had been washed and laid out in the coffin, the midwife Rozalia Zazarz went to the door and called out to the assembled throng: “She’s untouched. You can see she defended herself against the soldier. The girl’s untouched!” To Caroline’s parents it was an enormous load off their minds, for though they knew that nothing would bring their daughter back to life, the news that she had preserved her maidenly honor acted on them like a balm. After summoning those who had performed the last office to attest to Caroline’s innocence (her mother and her uncle, Franek Borzecki, were also called in), the parish priest proceeded to take down their testimonies concerning the life and death of his young parishioner. He felt convinced that he was dealing with a matter of supreme significance: sanctity and martyrdom.

But it was not just the pastor’s feeling. When the news got out that their dear little Caroline had preferred death to the loss of her purity, the entire village began to ascribe signs of sanctity to her. A girl, whom until then they had seen as one of them, a member of their own rural community, had now risen to the heights of heroism and love of God and His laws. It was astonishing that in the course of barely sixteen years of life, one of their own kind should have walked the earth on her busy, hardworking feet while reaching for heaven with her head and heart.

Such were the reflections of that two-thousand-strong crowd that accompanied Caroline’s fresh pinewood coffin to the churchyard on December 6, 1914. The fact that many Russian soldiers joined the funeral procession also made a strong impression. The murderer was never found. People prayed for and to Caroline, begging for her intercession before God, Whom she must now be seeing face to face, since Christ promised this very blessing to the pure of heart. Not only had she placed a pure heart before God’s throne, but also a martyr’s crown.

Long afterwards, the people continued to speak about her, recalling the various events of her life, her deeds and words. They saw in her life a signpost pointing to the future, a message to the world, a way of life — an extraordinary life. And so may we today, for the saints remain young to the end of time. By her life and death young Caroline speaks to us now.

She was a shy and modest girl who disliked idle talk and indecent jokes. Everyone called her “an angel in a human body.” “No one ever considered [Caroline] a crank,” recalls a friend. “Rather, everyone loved and respected her. She never wanted to marry, for — as she put it — she wanted to be in heaven with Our Blessed Mother. She thought of having an addition built to the family house, where she could live, devote herself to prayer and service to God and neighbor.” Today the Church recognizes this form of consecrated lay ministry.

For Caroline purity was a value above all others. Through chastity she felt a special bond, a kinship, as it were, with Jesus Christ and His Virgin Mother. It never entered her head to give her heart to anyone else. This love of purity she drew from the Eucharist.

Caroline also teaches us to make use of our time, so as to do the greatest amount of good. She took her responsibilities seriously and was full of initiative. She could be seen everywhere: taking part in religious groups, preparing for feasts, observing pious customs. She tended the roadside chapels, cleaned and decorated the church. She was the first to help others and pray. Always she   was willing, joyful, and practical. Her cherished prayer was the rosary. “Wherever you go,” she told a friend, “always carry the rosary with you.”

What an intense interior life she must have had, and how hard she must have cooperated with grace, in order to achieve such spiritual maturity and holiness in such a short time! God chose Caroline and “clothed her in the garment of salvation” so as to make of her a sign for our times, when all of us must struggle for a pure heart with the same degree of determination that she was able to show us.

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!"

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