Marceli Godlewski — the priest on the other side of the wall

Wide layout 2 marceli godlewski gr b 01
fot. AldraW / Wikimedia Commons / lic. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Father Marceli Godlewski became the parish priest at the All Saints’ Church in Warsaw in 1915. He held the position for 30 years. He did not abandon his parish even when the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto was raised around it. When I remember his name- writes professor Ludwik Hirszfeld- I get chocked up. Passion and love in one soul. Once a militant anti-Semite, the priest waged war in his writings and from his pulpit. But when fate confronted him with the depth of human misery he flung away his previous attitude and dedicated his passionate heart to Jews.Today is the 68th anniversary of his death.

Long before Poland regained its independence Father Godlewski made himself known as a passionate social activist. His work was mainly directed at the working class, which grew at a rapid pace due to the spreading industrialization. The desire for as much profit as possible- he wrote years later- drowns out all compassion.Laborers were seen as manpower, machines to be used to their fullest capacity. The ministry Father Godlewski provided for the workers as well as the lectures on social issues he organized in the parish hall led to the creation of the Christian Laborers’ Association in 1905. CLA very quickly became a countrywide effort, organizing self-help and food cooperatives among the working class, providing legal advice and childcare as well as other services. 

The socially sensitive priest started a war against the socialists for the souls of the laborers. But there was another war being waged at the same time — against the Jews who, according to Father Godlewski, were exploiting Polish people. Using the press he helped publish, including the weekly “Rightwing Poland” which was aimed at a female audience, he vocally supported the idea of “everyone to their own for their own”. The cooperatives and loan schemes he promoted were also in a way anti-Jewish. They allowed people to avoid “others” — not just Jews but also Germans — and build up a national trade which Father Godlewski believed to be beneficial. 

After 1918 Father Godlweski’s work visibly changed. He focused on his parish and more rarely took part in wider social movements. He got involved in politics instead and in 1930 joined the leadership of the Polish National Party. During the inter-war period he dedicated more and more of his writings to the subject of Jews. He became widely known — as Hirszfeld mentions — as “militant anti-Semite” in a cassock. 

When the Second World War began Father Godlewski was just finishing his preparations for retirement. The house he was building in Anin, where he planned to live out his days, was almost done. The war changed his plans. Father Godlewski decided not to leave the Church of All Saints which was now located in the ghetto. It is estimated that in November 1940, when the ghetto was closed, there were around 2 thousand Jewish Catholics living there. Father Godlewski managed to receive official permission from the bishop to continue ministry in the ghetto. This mission was given to father Godlewski and the curate of the All Saints’ Church Father Antoni Czarnecki.

Father Godlewski’s activities in the ghetto were not however limited to spiritual ministry. He organized a soup kitchen in the parish, which gave out around 100 meals a day. Another 100 people or so started living in the presbytery and its outbuildings. The kitchen and shelter were open to all Jews, Christian or not. 

There are legends circulating about the help Father Godlewski gave the Jews. Some claim he would smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto in the folds of his cassock or that he was present during the transport of weaponry for the fighting ghetto. But these would be impossible feats for a 78 year old, sickly man. Father Godlewski’s actual achievements were less spectacular but had a more widespread impact. His parish would give out hundreds of fake baptismal certificates, which gave the Jews who decided to flee to the “Aryan side” a chance for survival. Since both priest had passes allowing them to freely cross the ghetto’s gate they constantly smuggled through correspondence and information necessary for organizing escapes. Certificates forged by Father Godlewski allowed for a number of Jewish children to be transported out of the ghetto. This was organized mainly by the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary who, in cooperation with Father Godlewski, started an orphanage in his house. They left only one room for the Father’s use. Around 20 Jewish children lived in the orphanage in Anin during the war. 

On the 22nd of July 1942 the operation of mass extermination of Jews from the ghetto began, an operation during which over 300 thousand Jews were transported to the gas chambers in Treblinka. During the first days of the operation the Germans demanded that the priests leave the ghetto. Father Godlewski went to Anin where he helped the sisters in the running of the orphanage. It was not a much calmer time then the time in the ghetto. The orphanage was frequently searched by Germans, looking for any Jews who might be hiding there. The elderly priest had to also defend against szmalcownicy (blackmailers) who correctly suspected the presence of Jewish orphans among the Father’s wards. All the Jewish children who hid in the Anin orphanage survived the war. 

Father Marceli Godlewski died in his house near Warsaw in December 1945 at the age of 80. In 2009 he was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations. 

Father Godlewski is still a very controversial figure. It is hard to understand why someone so hostile towards Jews would choose to first stay in the ghetto and then risk his life by actively helping Jews. The priest did not leave behind any “confessions of a converted anti-Semite”. We don’t actually know he changed his hostile attitude towards Jews. Maybe he saw the creation of the ghetto in his parish as a “sign from God” and decided to carry out his work as well as he could? What won against his prejudice was probably his ever-present need to help the weakest. 

The fact that the priests would administer baptisms in the ghetto is viewed ambiguously. According to some sources a couple thousand Jews locked in behind the wall decided to accept the sacrament. However, the reports which mention a couple hundred baptized seem more realistic. Some of the neophytes probably treated the conversion from one religion to another as a significant spiritual event. Others, possibly the majority, had probably a more pragmatic approach. They hoped that as Christians the Germans would treat them better than the other Jews. Maybe they also hoped to receive help from the Poles. 

When leaving the ghetto Father Czarnecki took with him the figure of Mary next to which the teachings in preparation for baptism were given. This figure survived the war. It stands today on the ground of St. Catharine’s church in Sluzew and is known as “Mary from the Ghetto”. The words on its plinth read: “ In front of this figure thousands of Jews in the ghetto professed their Catholic faith”. Is it only an overly sensitive ear that hears a note of triumph in these words? There is definitely information missing here: that not unspecified “thousands” but 300 thousand Jews from the ghetto — baptized or not — were killed. 

Quote in first paragraph from L. Hirszfeld “In the shadow of the All Saints’”, inRighteous Among Nations: How Poles Helped the Jews 1939–1945, ed. W. Bartoszewski with Z. Lewin, Cracow 1969, pg. 817

 (Text edited by Cyryl Skibiński) 

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