TEN Roman Catholic nuns who were killed resisting rape by Red Army soldiers at the end of the Second World War have been beatified as martyrs in Poland. Their beatification is the occasion of comparisons with victims of Russian brutality in Ukraine.
“As the army drew close, many civilians had to choose between escaping or staying to confront the dangers. Many witnesses have spoken of the heroic courage with which these Sisters went to their deaths,” the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, said.
“Peace is built through concrete gestures of disinterested love, devotion, and fidelity towards others. They offer the best answer we can each give, besides prayer, to the barbarism and injustice we are now again witnessing.”
The Italian cardinal was preaching in Wroclaw on Saturday at the beatification mass for the nuns of the Sisters of St Elizabeth, who were killed by some of the invading troops that swept through western Poland in 1945.
He said that the nuns had heard reports of “brutality and excess” accompanying the Red Army’s advance. Similar “scenes of violence, bitter cruelty, and unjustified hatred” were now appearing again in Europe.
The St Elizabeth order, founded in 19th-century Silesia to nurse cholera and typhus victims, was one of many subjected to harsh Red Army treatment in Poland, which had already lost one fifth of its population, including its Jewish minority, during six years of Nazi occupation.
The oldest martyr, 70-year-old Sapientia Heymann, was shot by drunken soldiers while attempting to protect other Sisters from rape. The youngest, Paschalis Jahn, 29, was shot while resisting a Russian soldier on 11 May, four days after the war’s official end.
Another nun, Wroclaw-born Rosaria Schilling, 36, formerly a Protestant, hid with others in an air-raid shelter, but was dragged out, raped, and shot.
Another Sister, Felicitas Ellmerer, sought refuge in her order’s refectory after Russian soldiers profaned the chapel and drank alcohol from its liturgical vessels, but was also shot by a trooper, who stamped on her head to ensure that she was dead.
In a pastoral letter for the beatification, which takes the nuns a step nearer to canonisation, Archbishop Jozef Kupny, of Wroclaw, said that the Pope’s approval of the move in June 2021 had proved “prophetic” for Poland, Ukraine, and the wider world, since “in their faces can be seen the faces of women and children now falling victim to similar aggression by Russian soldiers.”
Meanwhile, the nuns’ postulator, or official advocate, Sister Miriam Zajac, said that the ten martyrs had been chosen from among more than 100 St Elizabeth Sisters murdered in similar circumstances, and that the Red Army’s “bestial behaviour” had later been covered up under communist rule in Poland.
“Violence and rape were used as elements of military strategy before the eyes of the world; establishing the truth isn’t an act of revenge, but a necessity for overcoming past traumas,” Sister Miriam said.
“Criminal totalitarian systems emerge, with a collapse of morality and culture, when Christ’s commandments and values aren’t accepted — as we’re now seeing among our neighbours in Ukraine, where the Russian army is doing just the same as Red Army soldiers did then.”
A total of 108 Polish wartime martyrs were declared blessed in 1999 by Pope St John Paul II, who also beatified 11 Holy Family of Nazareth nuns shot by the Gestapo at Nowogródek, in 1943. Beatification processes are under way for more than 200 others.
In a message to the mass at Wroclaw, the President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, said that it was “hard to believe” that similar barbarism was being repeated in Ukraine, often “under the sign of the red star and flag of the Soviet Union”. He said that he hoped that “radical opposition to the evil of war” by people of good will would be “providentially helped” by the beatification.