Many of us today don’t realize the fate that awaited Poland at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1939. The Germans intended the complete destruction of Polish culture, with the ancient city of Warsaw razed to the ground and replaced by a new prototype Nazi city. In fact, the historic portion of Warsaw that exists today was rebuilt after the war from 19th-century paintings. Poland was largely a Catholic country, and the dissolution of the church and persecution of priests and nuns was an immediate priority after the Nazi invasion. By 1941, more than half of priests in larger dioceses had been arrested, sent to concentration camps, or murdered outright.
It is in this environment that we find 12 Polish women in the small town of Nowogródek. They were nuns in the order of Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and beacons of hope in the dark days of occupation. In 1942, 95% of Jews in Nowogrodek were murdered, and mass executions of townspeople, including priests, took place. By 1943, one priest and these 12 nuns remained to serve the population.
Another roundup occurred on July 18, with 120 men slated for execution. Almost unbelievably, the nuns offered their own lives to the commander if he would spare the lives of these men and the suffering of their families. Twelve days passed and then with no warning on July 31, the SS appeared and arrested 11 of the Sisters, one of them being absent from the convent when the raid occurred. They were taken to headquarters, beaten and interrogated, and then in the early morning hours of July 31, 1943 were driven three miles outside of town. There they were murdered one by one, falling into a single grave on top of one another, as the others were forced to watch.
These 11 women are now known as the Blessed Martyrs of Nowogródek. After the war, the surviving Sister guarded their common grave until her death in 1966, but because of Soviet occupation, little was known of their story until the year 2000. And what of the 120 men for whom the nuns gave their lives? All of them survived to see the end of the war in 1945.
“No greater love hath any man than he lay down his life for his friends.”
“The Eleven Nuns of Nowogródek” by Adam Styka, 1948
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