Five Martyred Capuchin Brothers among Countless Victims of the Nazi Holocaust
The Final Solution
Untermenschen (German for sub-humans) was the term used by Nazi ideologues to classify and ultimately exterminate Jews, Gypsies, Poles along with other Slavic people like the Russians, Belarussians and Ukrainians. Nazi propaganda vilified anyone belonging to such races, claiming that “although it has features similar to a human, the subhuman is lower on the spiritual and psychological scale than any animal. Inside of this creature lies wild and unrestrained passions: an incessant need to destroy, filled with the most primitive desires, chaos and coldhearted villainy. A subhuman and nothing more! Not all of those who appear human are in fact so. Woe to him who forgets it!”
Tragically these were not just words but the expression of an evil plan implemented with a ferocity and coldblooded efficiency never before or since witnessed in human history! The result was the Shoah – or Holocaust – in which more than 11 million people were deprived of human rights and human dignity, interned, enslaved, experiments on and exterminated en masse in concentration camps and extermination camps dotted throughout Nazi occupied territory, but especially in German occupied Poland. The possessions, clothes, gold teeth-fillings, organs and ashes were recycled and reused as commodities. The Nazis were unsparing in their efforts wipe even their memory of their names from the face of the earth. Jewish people were especially targeted and almost six million were exterminated in less than ten years. Plans were already drawn up to hunt down and exterminate Europe‘s remaining Jews, even those beyond the reach of the Third Reich. For the Nazis, Jews were vermin and nothing more.
At the Auschwitz Elimination Camp, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the unspeakable horrors of the ‘Final Solution’ and surmised that the actions of the Nazis can be seen as having been motivated by a hatred of God and a desire to exalt human power, with the Holocaust serving as a means by which to erase witness to God and His Law of which above all the Jewish people are living witnesses. Jews were the main so-called ‘Untermenschen’ or ‘sub-humans’ targeted for elimination. But they were not the only ones. In fact, like the Jews, Gypsies also were not even considered subhuman, and millions of Gypsies from all over Europe were rounded up, tortured, used as guinea pigs in deadly and meaningless so-called ‘scientific and medical experiments’ and then annihilated. Furthermore, the Poles and other Slavic peoples were to be wiped out in the long term but in the short term they were destined to become the slaves of the German master race(Herrenvolk), thus ensuring the new German Empire would have a sufficient labor force. Only enough Poles to ensure a continued slave-labour were to be allowed to have children and the remainder were to be worked to death, bereft of even the slightest trace of their Polish identity and human dignity.
Above all Catholic clergy and religious were targeted for elimination, since the Germans knew that it was the Church that kept alive the religious and national spirit of the Polish nation in the midst of every hardship and oppression. Churches, seminaries, monasteries and religious houses were closed and thousands of priests, Religious Brothers and Religious Sisters were either killed, imprisoned, or deported. Over 18% of the Polish clergy were murdered between 1939 and 1945. Among these victims, 101 Polish clergy, religious and laity were beatified as Martyrs on the 13th of June 1999 by their fellow Pole, Blessed Pope John Paul II, who had, as a seminarian, himself witnessed first hand the full horrors of godless Nazism. Five of those beatified Martyrs were Capuchin Brothers – Blessed Anicetus of Preußisch-Friedland, Blessed Florian of Zdzary, Blessed Henry of Zachorzów, Blessed Fidelis of Łódź and Blessed Symphorian of Warsaw.
Warsaw’s Father of the Poor:
Blessed Anicetus of Preußisch-Friedland
Muscleman Turned Martyr
Either before or after the customary Midnight Office of Matins (now called Vigils or the Office of Readings), the Capuchin novice, Brother Anicetus of Preußisch-Friedland (a. k. a Brother Anicetus of Debrzno) would devote some time to weight lifting in his room. An exercise buff since his youth, Brother Anicetus kept his body in good shape and, in fact, became somewhat of a muscleman, often using his body-building prowess to impress his confreres or raise money for charity. And it was not only heavy furniture that he lifted above his head, but also, at least on one occasion, a fully grown man! A wife-beating policeman made little effort to improve his abusive treatment of his family despite repeatedly confessing this sin over and over again to Brother Anicetus. One day, the exacerbated Capuchin took the penitent into the sarcristy, caught him by the belt of his trousers and lifted him above his head saying, “Do you see what I can do to you? And what will God do to you if you continue to be so violent?” Needless to say, the terrified policeman soon learned to amend his ways. later, with the outbreak of the Second World War and the Nazi invasion of Poland, this half-German half-Polish weight-lifting Capuchin Brother directed all his physical, emotional and spiritual strength to enduring the cross of martyrdom at the German Nazi regime’s Auschwitz Concentration Camp situated in the Polish town of Oświęcim.
The Product of an Ethnic Melting Pot
Brother Anicetus of Preußisch-Friedland, whose German surname was Koplin and whose Polish surname was Kopliński, was born on the 30th of July 1875 in the town of Preußisch-Friedland (present day Debrzno) in what was then Western Prussia (Westpreußen) part of the German Empire but now Polish territory. He was the youngest of twelve children born to Laurence Koplin, a German national of Polish origin, and his German wife, Berta Molhausen. At baptism he was given the name Adalbert, the German form of the Polish name Wojciech. German Polish biculturalism was part and parcel of Adalbert Koplin’s homeland as well as his family background, it was also to be part and aprcel of his future ministry, persecution and death. During his youth relations between the minority Germans and majority Poles in his homeland were relatively good, mainly due to their common Catholic faith. Adalbert who was usually called Albert grew up in difficult economic circumstances and his family found it hard to live off his father Laurence’s pay packet since he was a low paid labourer.
His Early Days as a Capuchin
As he was growing up Adalbert Koplin came to know from experience the social work the Capuchin Friars in the area and especially their ministry to young people. He himself joined the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor on the 23rd of November in 1893 at the Order’s Rhine-Westphalian Province(now part of a unified german Province)’s novitiate at Sigolsheim in Alsace. He was given the religious name Brother Anicetus of Preußisch-Friedland. Brother Anicetus made temporary profession on the 24th of November 1894 and perpetual prifession three years later, on the 24th of November 1897. He was ordained a priest on August the 15th,, 1900.
Alleviating Material and Spiritual Poverty
Brother Anicetus’s first apostolate was to the workers in Dieburg in Southwestern Germany and later in the Ruhr region in the north west. Many of those he worked with were Polish emigrant workers and Brother Anicetus’s part-Polish ancestry and working class family background helped make him popular among them. His willing but somewhat unsuccessful efforts to learn Polish also helped. In fact, his command of Polish always remained so elementary that he was seldom asked to preach in that language. In 1918 he was transferred to Warsaw to help the Capuchin Brothers of the newly independent Polish nation to rebuild peoples’ lives after the devastation of World War One. Every day he crisscrossed the streets of Warsaw begging for food and other necessities for the poor. He urged the rich to share their surplus goods with the poor and, in turn, urged the poor to pray for the rich and for himself. He was often seen on the streets carrying heavy parcels on his back or dragging along suitcases full of foodstuffs such as bread, sausage, fruit, vegetables, and sweets for the children. He also conducted many funerals, especially helping out families who could not afford to bury their dead. His other main ministry was the confessional and every day he heard confession for some three hours or more. He was a popular confessor and people from all strata of society lined up before his confessional. Priests and bishops, including the Cardinal Archbishop and the the Apostolic Nucio, Archbishop Achilles Ratti who later became Pope Pius XI went to him for confession. The penances he imposed often involved an act of charity towards the poor. For instance, he told the Cardinal to supply a poor family with a load of coal for the winter as his penance!
“After what Hitler has done in Poland I am ashamed to be a German.”
His love for the people of Poland and their simple Catholic faith never diminished in any way his German patriotism. During World War One he wrote poetry extolling Germany’s war efforts. He never made any attempt to conceal his German nationality even when Hitler’s policies were making Germans in general very unpopular. Yet he despised Nazism and made it quite clear that the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the consequences that followed were inexcusable. “After what Hitler has done in Poland I am ashamed to be a German.” he said. By then the people of Poland had adopted Brother Anicetus as one of their own and even changed his surname from Koplin to Koplinski. He soon came to the attention fo the Nazi occupiers of Warsaw who saw his indiscriminate assistance to the occupied Poles and especially to Jews as unacceptable treachery. He and twenty fellow Capuchins was arrested in June 1941 and locked up in the Pawiak Prison where their heads and beards were shaven and their habits replaced by prison uniforms. They were allowed keep their breviaries for the time being. The reason given for their arrest was their having read anti-Nazi socialist pamphlets. Brother Anicetus could possibly have saved his own life by appealing to his German citizenship. However, as far as we can tell, he did not try this way out. He and the Fraternity’s Guardian were tortured to obtain forced confessions but the interrogators’ efforts to implicate them in plots were all in vain.
“We must drink this chalice to the bottom.”
In early September they were loaded on a cattle truck and transported to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp where they were branded with prison numbers and issued with the infamous striped uniforms of all the Camp inmates. Sixty-six year old Brother Anicetus was deemed too weak to work and assigned to the invalids’ block. In the five weeks that followed, he endured unspeakable tortures and affronts to human dignity but devoted himself entirely to silent prayer. Before being executed, he said to a friend, “We must drink this chalice to the bottom.” and in truth he drank the cup of the Lord’s passion to the very end. On the 16th of October 1941, after a staged trial by his jailers, he was thrown into a pit with other prisoners and covered with quicklime which acts as a corrosive acid on live flesh. It was his faith in Christ’s Resurrection and his own that gave meaning to the otherwise senseless death of Blessed Anicetus of Preußisch-Friedland. His self-giving love which was crowned by martyrdom was an expression of his long-cherished hope to reconcile divisions between Germans and Poles, between Jews and Christians, between Catholics and Protestants, between the rich and the poor!
“I am a priest and wherever there are people I will exercise that priesthood: be those people Jews or Poles – especially if they are suffering or poor.”- Blessed Anicetus of Preußisch-Friedland
“The Sunshine of the Camp”
Blessed Florian of Zdzary
The Spiritual Father of Death Row
“We are ready to give you not only the Gospel but our very lives.” (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2,8) These were the scripture-based sentiments that Blessed Florian of Zdzary wrote with his own hand to his ordination card in 1938. Less than two years later on the 25th of January 1940 these words came to take on a dramatically new and personal meaning. For on that date the Gestapo of the German occupation forces arrested him and his confreres at the Lublin Capuchin Friary and imprisoned them in the city’s castle. His arrest was a shock to Brother Florian, but his innate optimism and cheerfulness could not be so easily repressed. Even when he was taken to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen near Berlin on the 18th of June 1940, he did not lose his sense of humour, despite the terrible conditions he encountered there. On 14th of December 1940 he was transferred to the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich. Here too, his pastoral concern and cheeriness led his fellow prisoners to call him the “spiritual father” of death row, the “sunshine of the camp.” Through his being exterminated in the gas chamber in the late Summer or early Autumn of 1942, all the while constantly comforting his fellow inmates, Brother Florian came to realise the full implications of the pledge he had made at the time of his priestly ordination.
A Polish Farmer’s Son who Donned the Capuchin Habit
The same Brother Florian of Zdzary had been born Joseph Stepniak some 30 years earlier on the 3rd of January 1912 in Zdzary near Nowe Miasto, Poland. His parents, Paul Stepniak and Anne Misztal were farmers. They saw that their newborn baby was baptized the day after his birth. While Joseph was still a toddler he lost his mother and his father remarried. After completing his primary schooling at Zdzary he expressed a desire to join the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor and was enrolled at the Capuchin secondary school in Nowe Miasto after which he entered the Capuchin College of Saint Fidelis at Lomza in 1927.Though of average ability, he made up for this by studying hard. One of his fellow students described the impression he made on his school friends in these words. “A holy soul, he was solid, frank and joyful, and already a little different from the rest of us who were always playing with our heads in the clouds.” During his time in school he joined the Third Order Secular of Saint Francis (today’s Secular Franciscan Order), something that was then a common practice for aspiring Capuchins. On the 14th of August 1931 he was entered the Capuchin order at Nowe Miasto Novitiate Friary where, together with the religious habit, he also received the name ‘Florian.’ As a novice, he was noted for his zeal, generosity and devotion. He professed temporary vows on the 15th of August 1932 and made Perpetual Profession 15th of August 1935 after he had completed philosophy. In Lublin he continued to study theology and was ordained a priest on the 24th of June 1938.
A Brief Period of Intense Priestly Activity
After ordination he was sent to the Theology Faculty of the Catholic University of Lublin to study Sacred Scripture. In those critical months and days that followed the outbreak of the Second World War on 1 September 1939 he did not abandon the friary like some others but remained in Lublin. Because of the persecutions, many priests went into hiding and there was no one to bury the dead. With great courage and generosity, Brother Florian took up this task himself.
Arrest, Imprisonment, Martyrdom
On the 25th of January 1940 the Gestapo arrested Brother Florian and many of his confreres and imprisoned them in the Lublin castle. His arrest was a shock, but his innate optimism and cheerfulness was not so easily overcome. easy to keep down. In the Summer of that same year he was transferred to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in eastern Germany. Six months later on the 18th of December 1940 he was transferred to Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich in southern Germany. There he was given the prison number 22,738. Although he had a strong robust build and therefore a bigger appetite than most, the cold affected him and badly undermined his physical condition. In the end, even the strongest of inmates tended to succumb to the inhumanity of the camp regimen and in the summer of 1942 Brother Florian, in turn, fell ill and was moved to the camp hospital – the so called “fast lane”. At that time those unable to work and the sick were set aside to be transferred to a place with “better conditions” and Brother Florian was among them. After some weeks, despite the hunger rations and confinement in the hospital, he recovered enough to be discharged. However he was not returned to his block. As a convalescent, on the 12th of August 1942, he was removed from the camp into the ‘Division of the Invalids’ – Block Number 29, where, along with countless others whose names, for the most part, are known to God alone, he was exterminated in the camp’s notorious gas chamber.
Cheerful and Charitable to the End
A prison camp companion, Brother Cajetan, recalls Brother Florian’s manner in those last days of his earthly life. “Some priest friends who managed to get out of the invalid block say that Brother Florian Stepniak brightened up that unhappy barracks. The people confined there were destined for death. The hardship killed them by the dozens, and countless others were led away in groups to who knows where. Only later did it become known that they had been eliminated in the gas chambers near Munich. Anyone who has not experienced the camp has no idea of what a humble word of comfort would mean to those people of the invalid block who were just skin and bone, immersed in a sea of death; or what the smile of a Capuchin reduced to the same extreme would mean as they do.” After his killing him, the Camp authorities sent his habit back to his parents with a note falsely claiming their son had died of angina.
“We are ready to give you not only the Gospel but our very lives.” – Blessed Florian of Zdzary
A Martyred Capuchin Intellectual
Blessed Henry of Zachorzów
Studies at Home and Abroad
Blessed Henry of Zachorzów whose secular name was Joseph Krzystofik was born on the 22nd March, 1908 and baptized on the 18th of April 1908. At the conclusion of the his primary school education, he attended to the Capuchin College of Saint Fidelis in Lomza for two years before going on to join the Warsaw Capuchins. He was clothed in the Capuchin habit on the 14th of August 1927 in the Nowe Miasto Capuchin Novitiate Friary, and was given the religious name Brother Henry of Zachorzów. One year later, on the 15th of August 1928, he made temporary vows. He was then sent to Holland, to the Capuchin Friary of the Paris Province in Breust-Eysden. After two years of philosophy he was sent to Rome to study theology. While in Rome, he took perpetual vows on the 15th of August 1931 and was ordained to the priesthood on the 30th of July 1933. He was tasked to continue his studies at the Gregorian University while living at the Capuchin International College of Saint Lawrence of Brindisi. He completed his licence in theology in 1935.
Theology Professor, Formator and Acting Guardian of Lublin’s Capuchin Seminary
On his return to Poland, he was assigned to the friary of Lublin, charged with teaching dogmatic theology at the local Capuchin Seminary and, afterwards, appointed Rector of the Seminary and Vicar of the Friary. In the friary church he often preached with passion and fervour. It was at this time that war broke out on the 1st of September 1939. The Guardian of the Lublin Friary was a Dutch friar, Brother Gesuald Wilem. (At this time friars from Holland were assisting the Polish friars.) Brother Gesuald had to resign the service of Guardian and was compelled to leave Poland. Brother Gesuald had to resign the service of Guardian and was compelled to leave Poland. Brother Henry was appointed Guardian in succession to him but, as Guardian and Rector, he found himself in a very delicate situation. Because of the war, the seminary classes for the 1939-1940 academic year began later than usual and, furthermore, the atmosphere remained extremely restless and filled with tension. The German troops were ferocious in the extreme, and people round about were being arrested one after another without any let-up. In this difficult climate, Brother Henry would do his best to cheer up his seminarian Brothers. But eventually, on the 25th of January 1940, the German Gestapo turned up at the Lublin Capuchin Friary and arrested the twenty Capuchin Brothers who were living there at the time. Among these was their Guardian, Brother Henry of Zachorzów. Their first internment was Lublin Castle and it was expected that they would be imprisoned there for quite some time. Brother Henry said, “Brothers, while we still have our faculties, let us formulate this goal: Whatever will befall us in the future, whatever happens, let each of us make it a propitiatory offering to God.”
The Breaking of Bread at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp
During the time spent in prison, Brother Henry was caringly attentive to everyone. He made sure that Mass be celebrated at dawn. On the 18th of June 1940, together with his confreres, he was transported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. There “he took care of each of us, even though conditions were much worse,” wrote his fellow inmate, the late Brother Ambrose Jastrzebski. In autumn 1940, when he first received some money, be bought two loaves of bread in the camp store. He divided them into twenty five portions, according to the number of Capuchins. He said, “Come brothers, let’s eat God’s gifts. Help yourselves while there is still some …” The aforementioned Brother Ambrose described that brotherly gesture, “His was a very noble act. Only someone who has been in a concentration camp can appreciate how much self-denial – or rather, heroism – is needed to distribute two loaves of bread while starving himself, and without having devoured them straight away on his own!” On the 14th of December 1940 Brother Henry and his Capuchin confreres were transferred to the concentration camp at Dachau where he received the prison number 22.637. He did not spare himself at all in the extreme conditions of camp life. Although he weak himself and unsteady on his feet, he helped the others who were weaker, especially the older Friars.
By July 1941, Brother henry was so weak from exhaustion and unable to walk that he was transferred to the camp hospital. Such a ‘hospitalisation’ was the equivalent of a death sentence. From the hospital he got a secret message out to his seminarian Brothers, There he died on the 4th of August 1942 and was cremated in ovens of Camp 12. Before his death he managed to get a secret message to his former Capuchin seminarians, telling them not only of the ill treatment to which he was being subjected but also of his offering all his prayers and sufferings for them. By the manner of his holy death, Brother Henry witnessed that he too, like other martyrs before and since, had endured ill-treatment and death out of love for others and, in union with Christ, had transformed his own cruel martyrdom into truly ‘redemptive suffering’.
“Dear Brothers! I am in the ‘fast lane’ of Block Seven. I am terribly thin because I am dehydrated. I weigh thirty five kilograms. All my bones hurt. I am stretched out on the bed like on the Cross together with Jesus. I am glad to be with him and suffer with him. I am praying for you and offer my sufferings to God for you.” – Blessed Henry of Zachorzów
Lively Capuchin Student Campaigner Who Made His Peace With Sister Death
Blessed Fidelis of Łódź
Capuchin Formation Interrupted by War
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the formation of the Capuchin Seminarian Brother Fidelis of Łódź came to an abrupt halt. A letter to his uncle Father Stanislav Sprusinski, dated the 18th of December 1939, he wrote of the disappointment he felt at no being able to continue Seminary studies. A month later on the 25th of January 1940 he was arrested by the German occupiers and imprisoned with his confreres in Lublin Castle. At first he reacted calmly and maintained his sense of humour despite being locked up in an unventilated cell with no room to move. However, when he and his fellow prisoners were transferred to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp near Berlin on the 18th of June 1940 and later to the Dachau Concentration camp in Bavaria, he soon became downcast at seeing the inhumanity and brutality that was meted out to the camp inmates. It was only on the eve of his cruel martyrdom that he managed to recover some of his innate serenity. This was because he came to cherish the sure hope that whatever the cruel fate which lay in store for him might be, the Risen Lord would prevail and reward his faithful one with a dwelling place in Heaven.
A Late Vocation
Born at Lodz on the Feast of All Saints, the 1st of November 1906, Blessed Fidelis was born at Łódź and baptised Jerome on 4 November 1906. He was the youngest of seven children born to Wenceslaus Chojnacki and Leokadia Sprusinska and, from them, he received an excellent religious education at home, while attending the parish of Holy Cross. After graduating high school he enrolled in the military academy but on completing studies he was unemployed for a while. Somewhat later, he managed to find work for a year at the Department of Social Security in the Polish occupied city of Belarusian Ščučyn Navahrudak. He then worked at the Warsaw’s central post office. As an employee, he was renowned for his reliability. All the while he was an active member of the Catholic Action Movement and was engaged also in an anti-alcohol campaign. Jerome also joined the Third Order Secular of Saint Francis (today’s Secular Franciscan Order) at the Capuchin Friars’ church in Warsaw where he became friends with Blessed Anicet of Preußisch-Friedland. He himself applied to enter the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor and was received as a novice on the 27th of August 1933 at the Nowe Miasto Novitiate Friary. From then on Jerome Chojnacki was known as Brother Fidelis of Łódź. During the Novitiate, despite the age gap, he got on well with his fellow novices who were for the most part some ten years younger and he concentrated on spiritual growth as a Capuchin religious. Having made Temporary Vows on the 28th of August 1934, he began his philosophical studies at Zakroczym. Here too he was actively engaged in various apostolates especially ministering to the Third Order Secular of Saint Francis. With the consent of his Director of Formation, he founded two university circles – the Circle for Intellectual Collaboration and the Circle for Non-drinkers. At the beginning of 1937, he passed the final philosophy exam with flying colours and, on the 28th of August 1937, he made Perpetual Profession. By the time World War Two began, he was already a third year Theology Student at Lublin.
Blessed are Those Who Mourn!
Imprisoned with fellow religious at Lublin Castle in January 1940, he was moved to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in June of that same year. That Camp was considered a model camp, well disciplined and efficiently organised for the destruction of the individual. There he began to lose his innate spirit of optimism. The inhuman treatment of the prisoners stunned him and reduced him to pessimism. On 14 December 1940 he was transferred once more, this time to the Dachau Concentration Camp where his arm was tattooed with the prison number 22,473. Hunger, work, persecution and the continuous propaganda news reports of German victories depressed Brother Fidelis who, like his other fellow inmates gradually lost the will to live. Day by day, his mental depression became more severe and was soon exacerbated even more by a severe physical illness brought on by the harsh and oppressive prison regime. One morning in Winter 1942 while he and another prisoner were carrying a heavy pot of coffee from the kitchen when he slipped. He, who had already been severely scalded by the boiling coffee, was so bruised by the punishment the Block Warden meted out to him, that, in the end, he was moved to the Invalid Block. Very few, in fact, were the prisoners that returned alive from that Invalid Block! Somewhat later he was moved to the Camp Hospital. Brother Cajetan Ambrozkiewica, a fellow inmate in the camp, describes the last time he saw Brother Fidelis alive. “I will never forget that Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1942 when Brother Fidelis left our barracks …. He was strangely quiet and absorbed. His eyes even displayed glimmers of serenity. Already they were reflections of another world.” A short time later, on the 9th of July 1942, he died in the Camp Hospital and his body was burned in the Camp Crematorium.
“Praised be Jesus Christ! (Farewell) until we see each other again in heaven!” – Blessed Fidelis of Łódź
The Lay Brother Who Blessed Those who Persecuted Him!
Blessed Symphorian of Warsaw
A Lifesaving Gesture of Blessing
Towards evening on the 11th April 1942, at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp near Oświęcim in Poland, the Germans had begun another ghastly slaughter of the prisoners, cracking their skulls with clubs. A 54 year old Polish Capuchin, Brother Symfronian of Warsaw, stood up and faced the murderous band, making the Sign of the Cross over them. Czeslaw Ostankowicz, a fellow inmate who witnessed this first hand, stated that the mob was taken aback for a brief moment, and that he heard the mob leader’s order to “beat him” immediately ensue. Brother Symphorian was struck on the head by a club and he crashed to the ground at the feet of the Germans, between them and the prisoners. The Nazis murdered him there and then but his dramatic death brought an abrupt end to that evening’s terrifying execution and the lives of about fifteen prisoners from his block were saved thanks to his intervention.
Simple and Friendly Capuchin Questor
The same Brother Symphorian of Warsaw had been born on the 10th of May 1888 in Warsaw. At his baptism seventeen days later he was given the baptismal name Felix by his parents, Julian Ducki and Marian Lenardt, After completing his primary schooling in Warsaw, he lived with the Capuchins in the Friary of Warsaw as a long-term candidate or inquirer. We know little of his early life or how he first came into contact with the Capuchins. In 1912, after being for many years suppressed by the Russians, the Capuchins had been able to return to Warsaw and take up residence near Felix Ducki’s family home. Twenty year old Felix Ducki became a postulant in June 1918 and two years later was received into the Novitiate at Nowe Miasto Friary. From then on Felix would be known as Brother Symphorian of Warsaw. One year later, on the 20th of May 1921, he made Temporary Profession and professed perpetual solemn vows on the 25th of May 1925. His final Profession had already been delayed for a year because it was said that he lacked the religious spirit, This young Capuchin Lay Brother was assigned to the Warsaw Friary as questor whose task it was to collect donations for the building of the Friars’ new Seraphic School or Capuchin Minor Seminary. Brother Symphorian was tall, robust and masculine in appearance. Although intelligent by nature, he tended to be direct, simple and friendly in his relations with people. Thanks to his outgoing friendliness and sociability, he easily won new friends for the Order and the citizens of Warsaw soon came to esteem him highly. Then for a number of years he was appointed socius or companion of the Provincial minister, a role which entailed duties similar to that of a valet or personal assistant. Despite his very active and busy life, he never lost the spirit of prayer and devotion. In fact he distinguished himself for his devout and fervent prayer. Yet it was noted that while he prayed fervently and devotedly he also prayed briefly. His busy work schedule meant that he did not have time to say long prayers. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he made sure that the brothers and the needy would not be in want of the necessities of life by going about the city begging.
Heroic Bravery in the Midst of Depraved Inhumanity
He was faithful to this ministry of questing right up until he and the other Brothers of the Warsaw Capuchin Fraternity were arrested by Gestapo on the 27th of June 1941. They and Brother Symphorian was first interned at Pawiak prison, and then transferred to Auschwitz Concentration Camp on the 3rd of September 1941. Brother Symphorian was physically robust, but due to the Nazi’s Policy of exhausting and starving Polish prisoners to death, he had to therefore endure even greater hardships than the other camp inmates. He bore all this maltreatment silently but the paltry rations supplied by the Germans were not enough to meet the physical requirements of an average person and thus after only seven months, a weakened Brother Symphorian was condemned to a slow death. It was while he was languishing in one of Auschwitz’s infamous extermination blocks ,that the indiscriminate and cruel slaughter of April the 11th, 1942, began and with the screams of prisoners in neighbouring blocks being clubbed to death all his cell mates were overcome with horror. When the murderous Nazis came to the Block where Brother Symphorian lay, he rose to his feet to block their entrance and raising his hand he made the sign of the Cross towards his murders in an audacious gesture of defiance and forgiveness. He invoked the name of the Blessed Trinity while assuring his cell mates that those who repented of their sins would be totally pardoned by God and enter heaven immediately. His stunned murderers hesitated for a moment taken aback by this rare gesture of human and divine dignity in the midst of the spirit-crushing inhumanity of Auschwitz’s cruel regime. But then the preceded to club Brother Symphorian to death. By the time they had finished killing the old Brother their blood-thirst had so abated that his fellow inmates’ lives were spared. These fellow prisoners with the deepest veneration and respect they could muster, these prisoners in turn loaded Brother Symphorian’s body in a cart and escorted it, along with other bodies, to the crematorium. Blessed Symphorian of Warsaw, by his martyrdom, showed great heroism, professed his faith in the Holy Trinity and saved from misfortune the lives of many of his companions.
“In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!”, “To all the dying, to all of you, who here repent and are sorry for your sins, Almighty God grants absolution.” – Brother Symphorian of Warsaw
Their Deaths Reveal God’s Power Shining Through Our Human Weakness
These five Capuchin Martyrs of World War Two are, in fact, a representative sample of Capuchins in Warsaw during the first half of the 20th Century. Aside from the extraordinary heroism of their martyrdom they were in every respect just ordinary Capuchin Brothers whose lives more or less followed the ordinary pattern of the Capuchin life as it was lived in most European nations at that time. They went about their everyday lives and all fulfilled the tasks assigned to them, whether it was studying or teaching, consoling or begging, celebrating the sacraments or just praying. But they also had their weaknesses. One liked to impress his confreres and had a temper he sometimes could not control. Another was too busy to pray for long periods and was said to lack the religious spirit. Another became totally depressed and may well for a time have fallen victim to dispair. Two of them had hardly any opportunity to exercise their priestly ministry. Yet in spite of their weakness, the Lord bestowed on them the strength to endure the trials of martyrdom and bear witness to the Catholic faith. They were faithful to the end when faith is really needed. To paraphrase the Preface for Holy Martyrs the blood of God’s blessed Martyrs, poured out like Christ’s to glorify His name, shows forth His marvellous works, by which in our weakness He perfects His power and bestows on the feeble strength to bear witness to Him through Christ our Lord.
“Brothers, while we still have our faculties, let us formulate this goal: Whatever will befall us in the future, whatever happens, let each of us make it a propitiatory offering to God.” – Blessed Henry of Zachorzów
Uploaded by: Br. Noe Roxas, OFMCap.