Lent and the Modern Martyrs

Published March 21, 2007

Last September, on a lovely afternoon during what Poles call “Golden September,” a friend took my wife and me to Jamna, in the forests of southern Poland between the Beskidy Mountains and Cracow. You won’t find Jamna on many maps — it’s that small. Despite its obscurity, though, Jamna is indelibly imprinted on the spiritual map of the twentieth century.

The men of Jamna were active in the Polish anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. On September 25, 1944, the Germans wreaked a terrible revenge. While the men of the village were hiding in the woods so as not to endanger their wives and children, German troops rounded up the women, children, and old people of Jamna and murdered some forty of them in cold blood, in and near their church. One mother held up an icon of Our Lady, to shield the three children clutching her breast and her skirt; all were killed. The villagers’ wooden huts were then burnt. Jamna, the Germans thought, was no more.

Father Jan Gora, a Polish Dominican, was determined that Jamna’s sacrifice and the faith that sustained the villagers in their trial by fire not be forgotten. With great persistence, he rebuilt the church in Jamna and surrounded it with a retreat-and-conference center; on a hill above the center is a two-storey wooden hermitage for those who wish to make a silent retreat.

Near the original church, Father Gora erected starkly modern, locally carved wooden statues, one for each of the victims of Nazi barbarism: small statues for the children, bent statues for the elderly, the mother and her three children together in memoriam, all where they fell. Father Gora also commissioned a set of four panoramic paintings for the old church’s interior: in the first, a local priest says Mass for the resistance fighters in the forest; in the second, bullets strike the icon-shield being held in front of the children; in a third, Pope John Paul II (who supported Father Gora’s passion for Jamna), blesses a re-creation of the icon once shattered by bullets; in the fourth, Our Lady looks over the now-peaceful clearing in the forest where embodied evil once thought itself triumphant.

I remembered my afternoon at Jamna recently while watching two films: The Ninth Day and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

The Ninth Day tells the true story of a priest from Luxembourg who is temporarily released from the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp and sent home on “leave” — so that the SS can tempt him to become a turncoat, who will pronounce Nazism and Catholicism compatible. Cunningly enough, the moral and spiritual fulcrum of the film doesn’t have so much to do with the priest’s wily SS tempter (a former seminarian with a gift for argument), but with the priest’s sense of his own imperfections and faults, which have been magnified under the brutal conditions of Dachau.

Sophie Scholl (which is distributed by Ignatius Press) is set in Munch in 1943, where the young students of the White Rose resistance movement are trying to alert their university colleagues to the catastrophe that the Nazis are bringing upon Germany. The scenes of the interrogation of 21 year old Sophie Scholl offer some brilliant acting, based on the actual interrogation transcripts. Even though one knows that this is going to end grimly, with Sophie and her friends beheaded after a mock trial, the moral drama of a young soul trying to wrestle with the demands of conscience in a world gone mad is nonetheless riveting. The film is not without flaws: it underplays the Christian dimension of the White Rose resistance; Sophie’s last cellmate is morphed from the evangelical Christian she was into a kindly German communist who avers that, “You have to believe in something.” But by the end, it is clear what Sophie Scholl believed in: the truth of God in Christ, which reveals the truth about human dignity — truths that made resistance to neo-pagan tyranny imperative.

Jamna, The Ninth Day, Sophie Scholl: three reminders of the modern martyrs who walk the way of the cross with us, this Lent and every Lent.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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