Did you ever wish that the The Sound of Music was real? The heroes /heroines, the nuns saving lives, the incredible family? Did it inspire endless daydreams about what you would do if you’d lived in Europe during WWII?
The musical was based on the book Sound of Music written by Maria von Trapp and includes her memories of true events, and while the Holocaust took approximately 6 million Jewish lives, they weren’t the only ones attempting to rescue others or survive persecution. While obviously war is tragic and genocide is a horrible evil, countless stories – and The Sound of Music is but one – remind us that evil and tragedy present redeeming opportunities for the good, especially for the Christian.
“True worship is to work for justice and care for the poor and the oppressed.” (Isaiah 58:5-7)
Here are some scenarios and real examples of Catholics who lived them. By yourself or with others, reflect on how you would be the light in each dark situation.
The important thing to remember is that anytime you are in a seemingly hopeless situation you aren’t called just to be a victim. As a Catholic, we are martyrs and saints. We are not called to count the tragedies that happen in the world but to point to the good that was or can be made from any situation.
1. What would you do if you were in a concentration camp?
You aren’t usually taught this in school, but, yes, Catholics were among those persecuted in concentration camps along with the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and disabled. There was an entire “priestblock” in Dachau. (Read a priest’s first-hand account of it at Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau by Jean Bernard.) They continued to practice their faith, even if it meant dying for it.
Two more real-life examples of Catholics incarcerated in concentration camps were St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein. St. Maximilian Kolbe is a well-known saint who sacrificed his life to take the place of a father who was one of the ten chosen to be punished when a prisoner escaped. He died in a gas chamber next to Jews, still teaching and living Christ’s love. St. Edith Stein died in Auschwitz. She was from a Jewish family and had converted to Catholicism after studying philosophy, entering the Carmelite convent convent before Nazis arrested her.
2. What would you do if your daily life was threatened by the Nazis on account of your faith?
Martyrs didn’t just die in Roman colosseum. It’s almost impossible to live your faith without being met with opposition, no matter where you or who you are. World War II was no different. When practicing a faith that preaches love and mercy for all and following Christ before man, Catholics would not be liked by Nazis. In fact, Catholics resisted Nazis. There were many aspects of the Nazi following that were not reconcilable with Catholicism.
108 Roman Catholics, including priests, bishops, sisters, and laypersons, were killed by Nazis for various reasons. They were targeted for their resistance to Nazis and died for the love of Christ and even sacrificing themselves for others, like Marianna Biernacka who offered her life in place of her pregnant daughter-in-law.
3. What if you were a consecrated religious outside a camp?
It is a rare gem to find someone willing to risk their own life to save others.
In France, Sister Agnes Walsh answered a phone call to her convent from a Jewish family and pleaded with her superior to help them. They risked their lives sheltering the family for over a year. Sister Agnes did not simply harbor the Jews, but she also taught them. They were greeted and treated warmly during their time at the convent. In Rome, Mother Riccarda helped save 60 Jews by hiding them in her convent. She’d now under consideration for sainthood. Jews nicknamed her “Mama.” Saint Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad from Sweden and lived in New York until moving to Rome and also hiding Jews from Nazis.
Father Bruno hid over 300 Jews in Belgium. Fr. Jacques de Jesus was a priest who hid Jews in a boys’ school, but the Gestapo heard of his activity and captured him and the three schoolboys and Jewish family for whom he cared. He was imprisoned and died for his actions.
These fellow Catholics from different backgrounds all lived for Christ in various ways and places outside the concentration camps. If you saw your neighbors being rounded up based on race, appearance, nationality, religion, or any other prejudiced reason, how would you be Christ in service to them and an example to lay people?
4. What would you do if you were a simple layperson?
Oskar Schindler’s heroic actions are famously captured in a movie and novel, both named Schindler’s List. He was, if fact, raised Catholic and rose to the call to help others, humbly saving over a thousand lives. Also heroic, Giorgio Perlasca, a businessman from Italy, saved over 5,000 Jews from going to concentration camps by posing as a consul-general.
Stanislawa Lesczynska, a candidate for sainthood, gave supplies to Jews in the ghetto with her family. After being caught, she saved newborns as a Polish midwife, despite being ordered to kill them. She never killed a single child. (Read more in her work The Report of a Midwife from Auschwitz.)
It’s not just priests and religious who were called to live their lives saintly. It’s everyone, so how would you do it?
5. What would you do if you were a Church leader? How would you save people, do God’s will, and preserve the Church?
Many people accuse the Catholic church (and, more specifically, papacy) of neglecting to speak up during WWII. Think about the dangerous situation you would be in as a Church leader. As Church leader, you’d deal with Nazis and fascists wanting to control Church followers and hurt those who they don’t like but you still need to lead your people to Christ, which would mean preaching human dignity for all.
Still, church leaders discreetly lead their people as far from danger as possible while still being true followers of Christ. Faithful members of the Church never condoned Nazi actions or beliefs. In fact, Catholicism teaches quite the opposite of oppressing others.
Archbishop Giovanni Ferrofino saved approximately 10,000 Jews. The archbishop was a great witness to Pope Pius XII’s efforts on behalf of the Jews. Communicating with encrypted telegrams between the Vatican and the Dominican Republic, he and the Pope saved Jews with visas allowing them pass across the Atlantic. The archbishop would then help the Jewish refugees to America, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. They did all this secretly under the nose of Nazis.
And people say the Church didn’t help the Jews…
6. What would you do if you had a family to care for and be an example for and were surrounded by WWII?
Imagine you have a spouse and family in WWII and your Jewish neighbors are in danger. Would you risk everything and hide the family?
Jozef and Wiktoria Ulma hid their neighbors anyway and their entire family–six children and one on the way–died alongside their Jewish neighbors when the Nazis uncovered them. They had hid the family for over a year, and, unfortunately, after their murder, 24 Jews were found murdered in the fields the next day because their hiders were scared of the same fate. What would you do in that situation? How would you show your family what is right and also do your best to protect the innocent?
7. What would you do if you were a German college student during WWII?
You probably didn’t expect this question, but there were plenty of people in this situation. Particularly those who were a part of the White Rose, like Christoph Probst, Sophie Scholl, and her brother Hans Scholl. The Scholl siblings, members of the Hitler Youth against their parents’ wishes, began to lose their enthusiasm for Hitler upon understanding the Nazis goals better.
The group would read poetry and discuss politics, especially disapproval of Hitler and Nazis. Non-violent, they wanted to influence people against the harm of Nazism. They soon began to make pamphlets, which spread quickly, and some members painted anti-Nazi messages and chant in public places (though Christoph Probst warned against it). The group grew and didn’t have membership lists or rules. After leaflets were thrown at the University of Munich, a Nazi member told on the group. Sophie and her brother were caught with pamphlets and arrested. Finding a connection to Christoph Probst with a leaflet and signature, they arrested him for treason, too. They were all beheaded. (Watch the movie The White Rose for more information.)
I’d like to think that if we were in these situations we would all turn to be saintly despite the fear and confusion that surrounded us. Because of people like those mentioned above, I’m proud to be a part of this incredibly brave, strong Catholic family.
The more you learn about Catholic saints, the more there is reason to rejoice despite even the darkest times. Many people fought for peace and helped end the war, saving countless more lives. Thank God for their sacrifices. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is echoing through us all through the strength of the sacraments and the communion of saints!
What would you do in each of these situations? What can you do in your life to be closer to God and make more self-sacrificing decisions when times of persecution come? “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees one in need and refuses to help?” (1 John 3:17-18)