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With Christ we are always victorious


On the evening of 24 August 1942, the guillotine in the grim prison yard in Dresden worked continuously, fulfilling its cruel quota. It was a time of triumph for the bestiality of Hitlerism, fighting against God, the ideology which led to the horrific murder of tens of millions of people.

With Christ we are always victorious

Severed heads, one after another, fell into the collecting bucket. Witnessing this shocking event was Father Franz Bänsch OMI; he was standing aside, raising his Oblate cross, which in his Order was normally worn tucked into the belt. That was the last request of these five young Poles: they wanted to look at the cross in the last moment of their earthly lives. Therefore, Father Bänsch was trying with all his might to raise the crucifix as high as possible to fulfil their unique request. Earlier, he had heard their confessions and given them Holy Communion. As the parish priest in whose area the prison was located, he attended all the executions which were carried out there, but it was the first time that he had heard such an incredible request. The young Poles, before dying, wanted to look at Jesus nailed to the cross and unite their suffering and death with His suffering and death. Father Franz had heard the confessions of many of those sentenced to death just before their execution, but he had never met such a desire, such peace and such acceptance of the will of God. It shook him. All the more so in that these five convicts were very young people. The youngest was only nineteen. It became clear to Father Bänsch that he had to preserve the memory of these extraordinary young people, whom he had met in such tragic circumstances, whose last confessions he had heard, preparing them for death, and with whom he had spent the last moments of their lives. However, he was very well aware that he was bound to confidentiality and forbidden, on the pain of death, to talk about anything that he saw behind the prison walls, and especially to write any records about it. He could easily have shared the fate of those whom he had just accompanied in their passage from this life to eternity. Yet his conscience urged him that sometimes there were things far more important than concern for one’s own life. That is why, having returned to the rectory, he wrote on the back of his summons to prison the following words: “Today holy people went to eternity.” That is why he recorded the names of the five young Poles in the parish book of deaths (at the same time identifying the number of the collective grave where they were buried): Czeslaw Jozwiak, Edward Kazmierski, Franciszek Kesy, Edward Klinik, Jarogniew Wojciechowski. That is why, finally, in the 1960s, he erected a monument to them in St Paul’s church in Dresden, where he was the parish priest. He was convinced that they were saints. The church officially confirmed their sanctity on 13 June 1999, when John Paul II announced them blessed among 108 martyrs of the Second World War, on the Castle Square in Warsaw.

They wanted to look at the cross in the last moment of their earthly lives

Childhood

They were born during the interwar period, when Poland was reborn after more than 123 years of slavery. In those times, in the vast majority of Polish families, Christian values, the spirit of the Gospel and the joy of faith in Jesus Christ permeated all areas of life, and sacrifice for the common good and the homeland were a matter of course. Most families said daily prayers, parents regularly went to the sacrament of penance and partook of the Eucharist, and so their children grew up in an atmosphere of caring love, warmth and cordiality. They learned to believe and trust in God and to commit themselves to high standards. When the boys (the five future martyrs) were about ten years old, they were taken to the Salesian oratory on Wroniecka Street in Poznan. Franek (Franciszek) was the last to join, when he turned thirteen. It was there that they became friends and a well-knit group. It was there, in the Salesian oratory, run according to the educational standards of St John Bosco, that their characters were formed. They spent every free moment in the oratory; they played football there, sang in the choir, performed in plays, helped the poor, the sick and the needy, but above all they prayed, learned the truths of faith and matured spiritually. “Actually, I have two homes – Edek (Edward) Kazmierski wrote in his diary – one on Łąkowa Street, and the other at Wroniecka 9. It is even hard to say where I spend more time. Today, for example, I was on Wroniecka three times: in the morning, in the afternoon at confession, and in the evening at the meeting of the Society of St John Bosco.”

In one of his letters, a tutor on Wroniecka Street, Father Augustine Piechura SDB, wrote: “What attracted these boys to us was love. We showed them a lot of affection.”

For them, prison was a time of great suffering, which they rendered up to Jesus in the intention for the conversion of their persecutors and unrepentant sinners

Indeed, the Salesian style of education was an invaluable help for parents in shaping the boys’ characters, but the boys themselves also appreciated their educators’ friendship and reciprocated with love and attachment. They looked after the younger boys, engaged in helping the needy and served at Mass. Their characters were only developing, so they had to overcome their selfishness, laziness and other faults. Edek wrote frankly about this in his diary: “I also have my own faults. On 7 March, I skipped a lesson, and today I didn’t go to school at all. I dread to think what will happen tomorrow! My mother won’t give me any excuse. I hardly ever get anything better than a ‘C’. Better grades are harder to find than raisins in a festive cake. But I’m not stupid. Perhaps just a little too lazy. John Bosco was different”.

A living faith, lived in a personal relationship with Christ and expressed in concrete love for their neighbour, allowed them to be constantly accompanied by joy and a sense of humour, whilst at the oratory, at home and at school. For only a living faith is the source of true joy and lasting optimism.

War and prison

When the Second World War broke out, on 1 September 1939, with the attack by Nazi Germany on Poland, our five heroes were still teenagers. They tried to enlist in the army. Only Czesio (Czesław), succeeded, and only he fought in the September campaign. After the capitulation, he entered the underground National Fighting Organisation. When he was given the task of creating his own unit, he enlisted his colleagues from the oratory, as he had full confidence in them. Unfortunately, after less than a year of underground activities, they were denounced and arrested by the Gestapo – the murderous German police. “On 29 May 1939, when I was on my tiptoes reaching up to pick bunches of lilacs, I never thought that three years later I would be finishing my diary in a prison cell”, wrote Edek Kazmierski. “To describe everything that happened on that day, you would have to write a book, but I must be brief, because prison is not the same as home on Łąkowa Street. I was arrested – along with my friends from the oratory, Czesio Jozwiak, Frasio (Franciszek) Kesy, Edek Klinik and Jarosz (Jarogniew) Wojciechowski – in September 1940 on charges of conspiracy to high treason, that is, of belonging to a secret organisation. At the Soldier’s House in Poznan, which housed the Gestapo’s headquarters, I had my first taste of torture. We stayed there less than twenty-four hours, but it was the hardest time of my life. The next place of torture was the notorious Fort VII in Poznan, where we spent nearly four weeks. Four weeks of constant abuse and not knowing if we would survive. No one entering that grim edifice knew whether they would leave it alive. We left it to go to prison on Mlynska Street. We drew consolation to survive in Fort VII from prayer together, softly chanted hymns, and rosaries, removed from us at the first inspection and thrown into the bin, but which we managed to retrieve thanks to the Gestapo’s inattention. For us, they became the most precious keepsakes from our time of freedom. On Mlynska Street, after a short stay with my friends, I was thrown into a cell where there were several common criminals. When I knelt to prayer and reached for the rosary, they looked at me in surprise. However, I sang them something funny a few times and they even got to like me. The next place in our prison wanderings was Wronki. We arrived there on 16 November 1940. Here we became ‘true’ prisoners. They shaved our heads and gave us striped prison uniforms.”

“I am prepared for anything, because I know that God directs everything, so I can see the incomprehensible thoughts of God in everything”

The boys’ stay in prison, although extremely difficult, became a time of accelerated maturing, of discovering the unique closeness of the loving God. Despite the gruesome experiences of torture and interrogation, they did not lose heart, or even humour. Franek wrote in one of his secret letters to Edek: “I have not lost my humour yet: I still play pranks”. Although they were not always kept together, whenever possible they tried to help each other. Henryk Gabriel, who was imprisoned with the five young men from Poznan, writes in his book My Friends were Saints: “Once I cried involuntarily: ‘When will we eat our fill for once, when will this hunger of ours be over?’ At lunch, Czesio gave me his portion and asked me to eat it for him, because his stomach was hurting. I didn’t want to accept it, because I knew it wasn’t true, but he insisted, and I had to eat his portion.”

For them, prison was a time of great suffering, which they rendered up to Jesus in the intention for the conversion of their persecutors and unrepentant sinners. As a result, they discovered the particular closeness of the infinite love of Jesus, who took upon himself, from the history of every human being, all sin and suffering, in order to achieve the final victory in His resurrection, to forgive us all our sins and finally conquer death and Satan. For them, the time spent in prison was an exceptional period of maturing in their faith and fascination with the love of Christ, discovering the truth about the ultimate meaning of life, suffering and death. Their attitude of total surrender to God and His will allowed their personalities to mature at an accelerated pace. “At Wronki, I reflected a lot on myself” – we can read in Edek’s diary. “I realised all my flaws, and I promised myself to change a lot in my life when I was freed. I asked God to help me in this. And God and Mary the Helper of the Faithful watched over us. During one of the prison walks, we agreed that immediately after supper we would recite the novena to the Immaculate Heart of Mary before her feast day, and then to St John Bosco.” Edek Klinik wrote in a letter to his sister: “When will God let me see you again? But how different I am. Today, having already gone through a large period of the school of life, I look at the world differently, because prison changes a man. For some, it becomes harmful; for others, it is redeeming. My friends and I can say that for us it is and it will be the latter.” The period in prison was a special time for the boys to deepen their bonds of love with God and also to deepen their mutual friendship. “The prison in Berlin’s Neukölln district turned out to be quite humane – Edek wrote in his diary – if that can be said about a prison. I was in the same cell with Frasio. We started each day with a prayer, while working (gluing bags) we sang Hours and before bedtime the hymn ‘All our daily concerns’.” In a secret letter to his family from prison in Neukölln, he added: “Although I don’t have a brother, the feeling which unites me with Frasio cannot be lesser than the feeling two loving brothers have for each other. We used to just like each other, but now we share friendship […]. There is no one like him. In moments of grief, he steadfastly comforts me and makes me laugh, as only he can. In other words, we are brothers to each other.” Such a sense of brotherhood and pure mutual friendship comes from deep faith, from total trust in Christ and union with Him.

What strength, this faith of ours

In one letter to his family, Edek wrote: “What strength, this faith of ours. There are those here who don’t believe in anything. How terrible that slavery is for them. You can only hear curses and evil speaking there. And those with strong faith have peace and joy instead of cursing. My spirit is strong and getting stronger. Nothing will break it now, because God has strengthened it. I am prepared for anything, because I know that God directs everything, so I can see the incomprehensible thoughts of God in everything.”

This unshakable faith enabled them to remain absolutely peaceful when they were sentenced to death. In the letters that they wrote moments before their death, there is not even a shadow of doubt that there, on the other side, a loving God is awaiting them. They knew they were going to heaven. And they were ready for it. Czeslaw Jozwiak wrote in his last letter: “It is 7:45 in the evening. At 8:30, that is, half past eight, I will leave this world. I am asking you, just do not cry, do not despair, do not worry. This is God’s will. In particular, I turn to you, dear Mummy, please offer your pain to Our Lady of Sorrows, and she will calm your aching heart. I beg of you all, if I offended you in anything, please forgive my soul.” Edward Kazmierski wrote: “O give thanks to the Gracious Saviour, that He did not take us unprepared from this world, but after repentance, having received the body of Jesus on the day of Mary. O give thanks to God for His unfathomable mercy. He gave me peace. Resigned to His Most Holy Will, in a moment I will leave this world. After all, He is so good. He will forgive us […]. Looking forward to seeing you in heaven.” And Franciszek Kesy clearly wondered whether, if he were to die later, he would still have been faithful to God: “The good God is taking me. I do not regret that at such a young age I am leaving this world. Now I am in a state of grace, but I do not know if later I would be faithful to the promises I’ve given to God. Dear Parents and Siblings, I apologise wholeheartedly to you once again for all the bad things and regret everything with all my heart. Please forgive me. I’m going to Heaven – see you there in Heaven.” In his last letter before his execution, Edward Klinik wrote: “With strong faith in my heart, until the last moment, I am going peacefully into eternity, because who knows what would await me here on earth. I ask you, my dear ones, please pray for my sinful soul. I ask you to forgive me the sins of my youth. With hugs and kisses with all my heart and with all my soul, your ever loving son and brother.” Jarogniew was the only one to write a farewell letter to his sister, not his parents, because while he was in prison, his mother died: “I have learned and been scrupulously over the life of Mother and Father, yours and mine, and therefore I am sure that you will rather rejoice with me, and not despair, because I am receiving the extraordinary grace of God and I am leaving, having comprehended my past, without the slightest regret.” Immediately after writing these letters, one after another they were beheaded on the guillotine. They died looking at Christ dying on the cross, the symbol of the greatest love and ultimate victory over all evil. Their martyrdom and the heroic faith which united them with Christ characterised the ultimate victory over evil. In his book Memory and Identity, St John Paul II writes that God alone determines the ultimate measure of evil: “He is the essence of justice, because it is he who rewards good and punishes evil in a manner perfectly befitting the objective situation. I am speaking here of moral evil, of sin” (Paul II, Pope John (2012- 12-20). Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections (Kindle Locations 235- 236). Orion. Kindle Edition.) “It can seem that the evil of concentration camps, of gas chambers, of police cruelty, of total war and of oppressive regimes – evil which, among other things, systematically contradicts the message of the Cross – it can seem, I say, that such evil is more powerful than any good. Yet if we look more closely at the history of those peoples and nations who have endured the trial of totalitarian systems and persecutions on account of the faith, we discover that this is precisely where the victorious presence of Christ’s Cross is most clearly revealed. Against such a dramatic background, that presence may be even more striking. To those who are subjected to systematic evil, there remains only Christ and his Cross as a source of spiritual self-defence, as a promise of victory. Did not the sacrifice of Maximilian Kolbe in the extermination camp at Auschwitz become a sign of victory over evil? And could not the same be said of Edith Stein – that great thinker from the school of Husserl – who perished in the gas chamber of Birkenau, thus sharing the destiny of many other sons and daughters of Israel?” (Paul II, Pope John (2012-12- 20). Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections (Kindle Locations 259-266). Orion. Kindle Edition.) The martyrdom of Czesio, Frasio, the two Edeks and Jarosz in a Dresden prison is also such a sign of victory over evil.

“With strong faith in my heart, until the last moment, I am going peacefully into eternity”

Let us remember that the passion, death and resurrection of Christ is a “divine limit placed upon evil.” In this mystery of our salvation, “evil is radically overcome by good, hate by love, death by resurrection” (Paul II, Pope John (2012-12- 20). Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections (Kindle Locations 289-290). Orion. Kindle Edition.) United with Christ, we are always victorious.

After the war

Today, a university stands on the site of the Dresden prison, bustling with cheerful young people. A lot has changed. Only on the ground floor were a few cells kept in which convicts wrote their last letters. The guillotine has been replaced by a monument, commemorating the victims murdered here. It’s not much. The dark courtyard, where the sun still does not shine at any time of day, has remained unchanged, as if it was afraid of light, as if the evil that reigned here for years was still lurking in the shadows.

Those who knew the blessed Czesio, Frasio, the two Edeks and Jarosz remember them as “so ordinary, normal”, and at the same time unusual, because that is what holiness is. People clung to them, because they felt loved and accepted by them. They had the gift of winning people over, bringing out their best qualities. One of their colleagues recalled that after a meeting with them one felt joy and peace and wanted to be better.

Could the boys alone have had such an influence on everyone around them, even in life-threatening situations and when they heard the death sentence? What was the source of such a heroic attitude, like giving one’s last piece of bread to a fellow prisoner when one was also starving? It seems incredible, beyond human capabilities, unbelievable! But that’s the way they were, right up to the moment of their death. What was the secret of their holiness? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Thus writes St Paul in his Letter to the Galatians (5:22–23). God gives everything to those who want to learn in his school of love, those who give Him their lives, their will. Because only He is love and only He can teach love. The five blessed young men from Poznan let Jesus teach them to love. So they took up the joyful adventure and endeavour of a daily life of faith, establishing a personal relationship with Jesus, giving themselves to Him alone. The boys let Jesus work in their lives through daily, constant prayer, regular confession, the Eucharist, and a genuine love of their fellow men. That is why they triumphed! Because with Christ, man always triumphs! Christ, whom they had invited into their lives as young boys, defeated all their weaknesses and sins. Through Christ, with whom they were united, they were capable of heroism and absolute peace in the face of death. “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9), Jesus promised. It was sufficient! The evil in the courtyard of the Dresden prison was utterly defeated. The boys were killed, but in dying with Christ, they were victorious. Their death manifested the love that is stronger than death, the love that continues to bear fruit in the hearts of those who knew them personally and those who grew close to them having read their letters written from prison and just before their death – those who, thanks to them, understood that we all have the possibility and obligation to be holy, if only we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit and cooperate with His grace. Blessed Czeslaw, Edward, Jarogniew, Franciszek and Edward, please pray for us! Entreat for us the gift of a pure heart, completely dedicated to Christ.





Source: https://loamagazine.org/archive/2016/2016-34/with-christ-we-are-always-victorious



The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in September 2020.




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