By Filip Mazurczak

A new film tells the inspiring, fascinating, but largely forgotten story of a man whose life became intertwined with Poland’s dramatic twentieth century – from volunteering during the Polish-Soviet War, through helping Jews escape the Holocaust, to participating in opposition to the postwar communist regime.

Father Jan Zieja (1897-1991) was a Catholic priest, pacifist, human rights activist, philo-Semite, and ascetic. Guided by an absolutist position on the Fifth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”), he consistently defended the persecuted be they Jews hiding from the German-Nazi occupiers or workers fighting for better conditions under communist rule.

Robert Gliński’s new biopic, Zieja, to be released tomorrow, 28 August, stars Andrzej Seweryn in the titular role. As it brings Zieja back into the public eye, some priests in Poland are hoping to begin the process of his canonisation. At a time of global conflict and ethnic and religious tensions, Zieja’s example is relevant as ever.

Early years

Jan Zieja was born in 1897 to a poor peasant family in the village of Ossa in what was then Russian-ruled Poland. Although most families in Ossa expected that their children, like themselves, would work the land, Zieja’s mother, elder brother, and parish priest, Father Aleksander Aksamitowski (who was later arrested by the tsarist authorities), recognised his intellectual gifts and encouraged him to study.

Aksamitowski’s brother and sister helped to finance the gifted boy’s education in Warsaw. For two years of his schooling, however, these funds ran dry, and the adolescent Zieja instead attended private tutoring, which cost considerably less than tuition, to complete his second and third years of gymnasium.

In 1915, Jan Zieja was accepted to study at the major seminary in Sandomierz. His prodigal knowledge meant that he aced his philosophy exam and was able to skip the first two years of seminary. In 1919, aged just 22, Zieja was ordained a priest. That same year, the Polish-Soviet War broke out, resulting in a Polish victory prevented a Soviet advance into Europe.

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No killing, no borders

Zieja volunteered to be a chaplain during the war. The horrors he saw on the battlefield led him to become a pacifist and take an absolutist position on the Fifth Commandment.

The traditional Catholic position towards military conflict has been the just war theory originally espoused by St Augustine. This states that, although war is generally immoral, it can be accepted under certain conditions, but must always be defensive rather than offensive, and must minimise losses to civilians.

Zieja, however, believed that it is never morally justified to take the life of another person, even under extreme circumstances.

In 1926, Zieja went on a walking pilgrimage from Poland to Rome without a passport in order to protest against international borders. Like Ludwik Zamenhof, a Polish Jew from Bialystok who created the international language of Esperanto, Zieja believed that walls between people – political, linguistic, or otherwise – were the main source of conflict.

Thanks to the aid of Polish and Czechoslovak border guards, Zieja was able to get to Austria without travel documents. But there he was sent back to Poland.

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Clash with authority

After previously studying in Rome from 1920 to 1922, Zieja had returned to Warsaw. There, he sometimes clashed with his archbishop, Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski.

In the 1920s, Catholic priests were forbidden from granting absolution to penitents who attempted suicide and providing Catholic burials to those who had taken their own lives. Yet Zieja did both when Magdalena Rubach, a university student who had tried to take her own life, confessed her sins to him and, a week later, died from wounds caused by the botched suicide attempt.

In response, Cardinal Kakowski banned Zieja from leaving his parish, although this punishment was rescinded after the intervention of a fellow priest.

Zieja’s tense relations with his bishop made him look for other ways of practising his vocation. He wanted to go to India and join Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle against British rule, but his superiors would not let him. Inspired by the deliberate poverty of St Francis of Assisi, he considered joining the Capuchin Order, but changed his mind when he saw that the friars ate better food than what they served to the poor.

A shared vision

Although nationalism and ethnic tensions were on the rise in 1920s Poland, which had just regained its independence, there were those in the Catholic church who shared Zieja’s universalist and ascetic vision of Christianity.

In 1922-1923 he became the first chaplain to a nascent community educating blind children in Laski outside Warsaw, which had been founded by the Franciscan nun Mother Róża Czacka. At a time of increasing antisemitism, the Laski milieu was free of such chauvinism. In her biography of Mother Czacka, historian Ewa Jabłońska-Deptuła, writes that the community chaplain, Father Władysław Korniłowicz, had numerous friendly contacts with Warsaw’s intelligentsia, among whom assimilated Jews were well-represented.

Another Polish churchman who shared Zieja’s approach to Christianity was Archbishop Zygmunt Łoziński of Pinsk (in present-day Belarus). The diocese was multiethnic and religiously diverse; Łoziński, a Catholic and a Pole, was considered to be a friend of the region’s Orthodox and Jewish populations, whom he publicly addressed in Belarusian and Yiddish. Łoziński lived a modest lifestyle and encouraged priests under his authority to live ascetically, like Zieja.

In 1927, Zieja successfully petitioned to be transferred to the Diocese of Pinsk.

Wartime resistance

During World War Two, Zieja served as a chaplain to several important units of the Polish resistance: Main Command of the Home Army, the primary organisation of the Polish underground; the rural Peasant Battalions; and the Grey Ranks, Polish boy scouts who fought the German occupiers.

Despite the brutality of the occupation, Zieja encouraged the resistance fighters under his pastoral care to fight the enemy not through killing, but through sabotage, cultural resistance, and praying for the conversion of their persecutors. One of the nuns at Laski – a Jewish convert – spent the entire war praying for Hitler’s soul.

At a hospital in Legionowo, Zieja went to visit wounded German soldiers who had just days before been persecuting his compatriots and offered them the Eucharist and the possibility of confession.

Zieja later told journalist Jacek Moskwa: “When I read about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, people say that those who then fought chose death with dignity. I disagree.”

Instead, Zieja cited the example of Janusz Korczak, the famous Polish-Jewish doctor, writer, orphanage director, and pioneer of pupil-centred pedagogy, who refused numerous offers of hiding places from his legions of fans outside the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto and instead accompanied orphans to their deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka. Zieja saw this as a morally edifying response to the Holocaust.

Aiding Jews and building bridges

Zieja also collaborated with the Front for the Rebirth of Poland, a Catholic resistance group involved in aiding Jews during the war, and with Żegota, a section of Poland’s underground resistance established to assist Jews.

He helped save hundreds of fugitives from the Warsaw Ghetto by providing them with baptismal certificates he had obtained from various Warsaw parishes that had belonged to deceased parishioners and matched individual Jews’ age and sex.

Zofia Kossak-Szucka, co-founder of Żegota, said that Zieja often had nowhere to sleep, because he had let hidden Jews spend the night in his modest apartment. Zieja has, however, yet to be recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations by Isreal’s Yad Vashem.

After Władysław Bartoszewski a Home Army fighter who would decades later become a Solidarity activist and then Poland’s foreign minister had been released from imprisonment at Auschwitz in 1941, Zieja told him: “You’ve survived the camp because God wants you to oppose the evil you experienced there.”

When Bartoszewski asked how to do so, Zieja replied: “Think of those who live behind the wall” – a reference to Jews in the ghettos. This inspired Bartoszewski to become a leading activist in Żegota.

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The attitude of the Catholic Church, and Christianity more broadly, towards the Jews has throughout history been ambivalent, and has often involved episodes of persecution and violence.

Beginning with Pope John XXIII, who removed the prayer for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday liturgy, the Catholic Church radically improved its relationship with the Jews.

No Catholic leader did as much in this regard as the Polish-born John Paul II, who repeatedly condemned antisemitism as sinful, became the first pope to make an official visit to a synagogue, and established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel (although he also repeatedly stood up for the human rights of Palestinians).

John Paul II and Zieja knew and respected one another and shared a vision of Judaism. Apart from risking his life to save Jews during the German occupation, Zieja wrote prayers to Mary in Hebrew, explaining that this was because this was her language (although in reality, Jesus, Mary, and the first Christians spoke Aramaic) and, like the Polish pope, saw Christianity as organically linked to Judaism.

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In the 1920s, Zieja enrolled in Jewish studies at the University of Warsaw, one of the few Gentiles to do so at the time, in order to better understand Poland’s Jewish minority.

“Mary was Jewish, Jesus himself was Jewish, and St Paul was also Jewish,” he told Moskwa in a book-length interview when asked why he thought the documents issued by John Paul II’s Vatican condemning antisemitism and stressing the bond between Judaism and Christianity were momentous.

As a young priest, Zieja toyed with the idea of ministering to Jews – not, as he told Moskwa, through proselytism, but rather “by serving them through truth and love”.

A priest in a changing landscape

After World War Two, Poland’s borders shifted westwards, resulting in previously German lands coming under Polish rule. While Poles were expelled from eastern territories annexed by the Soviet Union, Germans were expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia, where they were often met with the vindictive violence of Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, for whom the persecutions of the Third Reich were a fresh wound.

During this period, in 1945-1949, Zieja was a priest in Słupsk (previously the German city of Stolp) in Pomerania. One of his parishes had been a Lutheran church, which a German pastor had handed over to him on good terms. Zieja asked his parishioners to not harass the German civilians who were being pushed westwards.

Despite communist propaganda about peace, the end of nationalism, and the brotherhood of the working class, Zieja never had any illusions about the evil and folly of Marxism-Leninism.

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He vocally defended Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, the Primate of Poland who was placed under house arrest from 1953 to 1956 for his criticism of the communist regime, and blasted PAX, the communist dictatorship’s collaborationist Catholic organisation (which, ironically, was led by Bolesław Piasecki, a pre-war fascist).

Standing up for workers and dissidents

In 1976, the regime announced sharp rises in the prices of food. Workers’ protests swept Poland and were especially pronounced in Radom and the tractor factory in Warsaw’s Ursus district.

In response to the regime’s crackdown on the protesting workers, the Workers’ Defence Committee, known by its Polish acronym KOR, was formed. A forerunner to Solidarity, this organisation provided legal defence for dissidents, published samizdat journals documenting human rights abuses in communist Poland, and led an underground “flying university” for workers to teach them about their rights and about democracy.

Almost eighty and in frail health, Zieja’s first thought was of the corporal works of mercy in Matthew 25, one of which is to visit the imprisoned. This inspired him to become a founding member of KOR. Communist Poland’s Security Services called him in for an interrogation, during which Zieja read them the Gospels.

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Many fellow KOR activists were secular leftist intellectuals who were far from the church. While certainly not converting them, Zieja, with his zealous defence of the weak, did lead many of them to a greater appreciation of Christianity.

Jacek Kuroń, a onetime Marxist who became a well-known dissident and co-founder of KOR, said that, although he remained an atheist, Zieja inspired him to become a daily reader of the Gospels and call himself “a Christian without God”. Meanwhile, Adam Michnik, the son of Jewish communists who also became a fierce opponent of the regime, called Zieja “empirical evidence for God’s existence.”

Father Jan Zieja died in his modest Warsaw apartment in 1991 at the age of ninety-four. Despite his fascinating and inspiring life, he has become somewhat forgotten in Poland. The newly released biographical film is likely to bring him back to greater public consciousness, while the attempts by some Warsaw priests to open a cause for his canonisation may help sustain such interest.

In a world where armed conflict, ethnic and religious tensions, and political repression remain widespread, Zieja’s story is as relevant as ever.

Main image credit: press materials

Filip Mazurczak is a translator, historian, and journalist. His popular and academic writing has appeared in First Things, the National Catholic Register, the Oral History Review, Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, and many others.

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