Marceli Godlewski. Priest on that side of the wall

He did not leave the parish even when the church was surrounded by the wall marking the boundaries of the ghetto.

Wide marceli godlewski
Marceli Godlewski  /

The Reverend Marceli Godlewski became a parish priest in All Saints’ Church in Warsaw in 1915. He served there for 30 years. He did not leave the parish even when the church was surrounded by the wall marking the boundaries of the ghetto. When I’m thinking about him, wrote Prof Ludwik Hirszfeld, I am overcome with emotion.Passion and love in one soul. In days of yore an aggressive anti-Semite, a priest waging in writing and speaking. But when the fate made him meet dire poverty, he got rid of his attitude and devoted the whole of his priest heart to the Jews. Today marks the 70th anniversary of his death.

A long time before Poland regained independence, Rev. Godlewski proved himself to be an exceptionally active community worker. His actions were targeted mainly at the working circles growing along with industrial development. The will to gain as much profit as possible, he wrote later, stifles all emotions. A worker was looked at only as work force, as a machine purely mechanical, out of which they wanted to squeeze as much benefit as possible. Ministry for workers run by Rev Godlewski and chit-chats on social subjects taking place in the parish room in 1905 transmuted into Stowarzyszenie Robotników Chrześcijańskich (SRCh) [Association of Christian Workers]. SRCh very quickly spread countrywide, organizing workers’ self-help, law counselling, food associations and day-care rooms.

The Catholic priest, socially sensitive, took up fight with socialists over the working souls. However, simultaneously, a fight with other enemy was taking place — the Jews, who in his opinion were exploiting the Polish. In the press published by him, including a weekly „Pracownica Polska” targeted at women, Rev Godlewski very strongly supported the motto „swój do swojego po swoje” [*most generally, a motto used to encourage the Polish to buy products from shops run by Polish merchants rather than Jewish ones; especially popular a few years just before the World War II]. To some extent, of anti-Jewish character were also cooperative movement and loans schemes also promoted by him. They allowed to omit „foreign” middle men, not only the Jews but also the Germans, and make trade national, what Rev Godlewski regarded as chief asset.

After 1918 Rev Godlewski’s way of operating clearly changed. He focused on his parish, more and more rarely taking part in bigger social actions. He engaged himself in politics and in 1930 he was a member of leaders of the National Party. In the interwar period, more and more of his journalistic writing was devoted to the Jews. He became recognised, of which mentions Hirszfelt, as „an aggressive anti-Semite” in a cassock.

When the World War II broke out, Rev Godlewski was finishing his preparations to retire. A house which he had been building in Anin, wishing to spend his old age in, was almost ready. However, the war thwarted his plans. Rev. Godlewski decided not to leave the All Saints’s Church even though it was now on the territory of the ghetto. It is estimated that in November 1940, when the ghetto was closed, about 2 thousand Jews-Catholics were living there. Rev. Godlewski managed to get an official agreement from the bishop to do his pastoral work in the ghetto. This mission was given to Rev Godlewski and a vicar in All Saints’ Church, Rev. Antoni Czarnecki.

Rev. Godlewski’s activities in the ghetto did not limit only to ministering to a parish. At the parish, he organized a social kitchen which gave meals to about 100 people daily. Similar amount of people lived in presbytery and a few separate outbuildings. The kitchen as well as the shelter in the parish could be used by both Christian Jews and people not baptised.

There are legends about the aid given by Rev Godlewski to the Jews. Some say that he used to smuggle Jewish children though the ghetto wall, hiding them in his cassock or that he personally took part in smuggle of weapon into the fighting ghetto. However, these activities were impossible for a 78-year-old, sick man. The actual merits of Rev Godlewski were a bit less spectacular but they were associated with a wider scope of activity. His parish office issued hundreds of forged birth certificates which gave chance of survival to the Jews who decided to escape to the „Aryan side”. As both priests had passes allowing them to cross the ghetto gates, they regularly smuggled to the other side of the wall letters and information necessary for organizing escapes. 

Forged birth certificates issued by Rev. Godlewski allowed to take some number of Jewish children to the other side. Mainly, Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary took care of it; with Rev Godlewski’s approval, they established an orphanage in his house, leaving only one room for his use. In the orphanage in Anin, in total about 20 Jewish children were staying during the war.

On 22nd July, 1942 the great liquidation action of the ghetto began, which resulted in more than 300 thousand Jews being taken to the gas chambers in Treblinka. During first days of the action, the Germans ordered the priests to leave the ghetto. Rev. Godlewski went to Anin where later he helped the sisters with running the orphanage. However, this time was not calmer than the one spent in the ghetto. A few times, the orphanage was pestered by the Germans looking for hiding Jews. The aged priest also had to resist szmalcowniks, rightly suspecting that among his charges there were also Jewish orphans. All Jewish children hiding in the orphanage in Anin survived the war.

Rev Marceli Godlewski died in his house in December in 1945 at the age of 80. In 2009, Rev Marceli Godlewski was awarded Righteous Among the Nations medal for his merits. 

The figure of Rev Godlewski still causes controversies. It is hard to find the reason why a person of negative attitude towards the Jews would decide, firstly, to serve in the ghetto and secondly to be so much involved in helping the Jews, which was extremely dangerous. The parson of the ghetto did not leave any „declarations of a reformed anti-Semite”. As a matter of fact, we do not even know whether he changed his negative attitude towards the Jews. Maybe, in the fact that the ghetto was created on the area of his parish, he saw the hand of God and decided to fulfil this mission the best as he could? A typical-for-him habit of sympathising with the weakest must have got the upper hand over prejudices.

Also, ambiguous is the fact that the priests conducted baptism in the ghetto. According to some sources, only a few thousand Jews locked up in the ghetto decided to receive the sacrament. However, estimates of a few hundred seem more realistic. Some neophytes must have treated conversion of the religion as an important spiritual experience. The others, perhaps the majority, had a more pragmatic attitude. They thought that as Christians they would be treated by the Germans better than the Jews. Maybe, they also hoped for help from the Polish.

Leaving the ghetto at the Germans’ behest, Rev. Czarnecki took with him a statue of Theotokos, at which catechism of those preparing for baptism took place. The statue survived the war. It stands today on the territory belonging to St. Catherine’s Church in Warsaw in Służew district and is called „Theotokos from the Ghetto”. A plaque on the pedestal says „Before this statue of Theotokos in the Warsaw Ghetto thousands of Jews adopted Catholic faith.” Is it only a touchy ear that can hear in these words an echo of triumph? Certainly, it lacks information that not vague „thousands”, but more precisely three hundred thousand Jews from this ghetto, baptised or not — died.

Quote from the first paragraph of the article from: L. Hirszfeld, „W cieniu kościoła Wszystkich Świętych” [in:] „Ten jest z ojczyzny mojej. Polacy z pomocą Żydom 1939–1945”, ed. W. Bartoszewski, Z. Lewinówna, Kraków 1969, p. 817.

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