Article 7 – Christmas in Katyn


70 Years Ago This Month

By Douglas W. Jacobson

Christmas is the most universally celebrated of all holidays in Western civilization. Through the millenniums the birth of Christ has been celebrated not only during times of peace and tranquility, but also during times of strife and war. It has been celebrated by soldiers singing hymns in trenches and foxholes. It has been celebrated by oppressed citizens of occupied countries, hiding from their oppressors in attics and cellars. It has been celebrated in concentration camps by captives as well as their captors.

The enduring spirit of Christmas is beautifully told in the following remembrance from Father Zdzislaw Peszkowski in his book, MEMOIRS OF A PRISONER OF WAR IN KOZIELSK. Father Peszkowski was a Polish officer-cadet during the September ’39 campaign, and one of the few known prisoners of that Soviet POW camp to escape the massacre at the Katyn Forest.

“The only constant in our lives was faith in God’s providence. It was strictly forbidden by our Soviet captors but in these nightmare days we prayed individually and jointly.  Holy Mass was celebrated in great secrecy with one of our people on guard outside the cell block. The chalice was a tumbler, the paten a saucer. The host was made from flour stolen from the kitchen. The wine was made from some raisins I received from a Soviet guard in exchange for a pair of trousers he had taken a liking to. Obtaining the flour wasn’t easy but I had a very moving experience because of it. One night, after the lights went out, when we weren’t allowed to leave the barracks under threat of being shot, I snuck away to the kitchen. The cook, a man named Vanka, was astonished to see me and thought I’d gone mad. I told him my colleague was sick and in need of some hot water and some flour. To my great surprise he brought me a tin of hot water and a few stale pancakes. I told him I needed flour. ‘What for?’ he asked. ‘I want to make communion wafers,’ I said in Polish because I didn’t know the Russian word for ‘communion.’ His eyes lit up and he went to get some flour. Then he took me outside and asked me to sit next to him on the steps. ‘Are you Polish?’ he asked. ‘What do you think I can be?’ I replied. ‘I can only be a Pole.’ He was silent for a moment, then in a calm voice, in a lovely eastern-accented Polish, he recited, ‘Our Father who Art in Heaven.’ Then, ‘Hail Mary full of Grace,’ and ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty.’ He finished with, ‘Our Lady of Czestochowa, Queen of Poland, pray for us.’ Then he suddenly became himself. He stood up and said in Russian, ‘Go now. This is just between the two of us. You understand.’ Then he went back inside, slammed the door and swore like a trooper. After the New Year, Vanka disappeared and we never saw him again. That’s the story of the flour for the host for a few Holy Masses and our traditional Christmas Eve wafer.”

Father Peszkowski’s simple tale reminds us that the spirit of Christ’s birth is alive in the humblest of places as well as the grandest cathedrals.
Douglas W. Jacobson is the Polish-American author of the award-winning book, NIGHT OF FLAMES: A Novel of World War Two. Mr. Jacobson has been a frequent contributor to this newspaper and has written a second historical novel set in Poland in World War Two. THE KATYN ORDER will be released in May, 2011.