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Joseph Kowalski by Victor Rodrigues

Joseph (Józef) Kowalski
Priest and Martyr
On Sunday morning, 13 June 1999 in Warsaw's Józef Piłsudski Square, the Holy Father
celebrated a solemn Mass at which he beatified 108 Polish Martyrs from Second World War.
Among them a Salesian Priest, Joseph Kowalski, 31 years of age.
Joseph (Józef) Kowalski was a pupil in the Salesian house of
Oświęcim. In the beautiful church dedicated to Mary, Help of
Christians, Joseph found Our Lady welcoming him. He felt his
devotion to her grow and it was at her feet that he laid his letter
requesting to be admitted into the Salesian Congregation, before
handling it to the superior.
From that early stage he was looked upon as promising. His
private note-books are full of exuberant outpours of love toward
Jesus and Mary. He repeatedly renewed in writing his desire to be
a saint "as my Father Don Bosco was." His love for youth, his
dedication to the priestly ministry and fervour in preaching the
word of God, were clear signs of a gifted soul. "Mary, my
mother," he wrote, "I must be a saint; this is my call, my destiny."
What happened later is clear proof that these were not empty
words. On May 23, 1941, the eve of the Feast of Mary, Help of
Christians, Fr. Joseph Kowalski and eleven other Salesians were
brutally arrested by the SS, and taken to the infamous Auschwitz camp (German for Oświęcim).
He was given the number 17950. Just one month before, another future saint, Maximillian Kolbe,
was branded with number 16670 in the same camp. From there Fr. Kowalski could see the spire
of his Salesian Church through the barbed-wire fence. The sight was a company to him. It gave
him courage. He smuggled out comforting words to his parents. "Do not worry about me. I feel
God's help at every step I take. Whatever happens to me is the work of God's Providence, I am
convinced of that."
During the year he spent in the camp he worked tirelessly. – Absolutions given to the dying;
confession heard on the sly; Masses celebrated as heroic priests celebrate them during persecution
at the risk of their own lifes. Communion taken to the sick and rosaries in whispers whenever
The Kapos were laughing at him: "There's no God in the Lager," they jeered. But Fr. Joseph
knew that it was not true, and never gave up. What happened to him was related under oath by an
eye witness, another priest, Konrad Sweda, who testified for the cause of beatification of Fr.
There were 60 of them, priest and friars, standing naked in the bath-hall of the camp.
The officer, Palitzsch, comes in and shouts: "Attention!" He walks among them
inspecting and notices that Fr. Kowalski has something in his hand. "What's that?" he
barks. Fr. Kowalski does not answer. The officer strikes him on the hand with his
whip. The hand opens and a rosary falls to the ground. "Stamp on that!" yells the
officer. Fr. Kowalski, at attention, looks straight ahead without moving. The officer
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realizes that his authority is at stake before the whole camp. He orders the priest
taken out and sent to the "hard labour company".
From that moment on any thing had been used to humiliate the Priest, break his resistance and
discredit him. Fr. Kowalski lived up to the words he had written in one of his notes years before:
"To suffer and be humiliated for your sake, my God. Conscious of what I am feeling, and ready to
accept all consequences, I want to follow your sweet call, Jesus, and be faithful to it till the end,
till I die." It happened on April 3, 1942, during a brief respite from grueling work.
The guards did not resist the temptation to make fun of Kowalski: "Priest, souls are escaping you.
They need a passport to go up there. Come on, give them a sermon." – They made him climb a
barrel, and ordered all the other prisoners to lay face down on the ground. Kowalski did not
preach a sermon but slowly with an undisturbed even voice, he intoned the Our Father, the Hail
Mary, the antiphon Under Your Patronage, and the Hail Holy Queen. The witness who related the
episode said: "With great caution, and knowing the risk, I twisted my head to have a glimpse
around. That we prisoners were impressed, I knew. I looked I saw the guards and officers too,
silent and solemn. The order to get up came and the spell was broken."
On the evening of July 3, Kowalski and another companion were sleeping in the empty barrack.
All the other priests had already been taken away, not to return. Joseph suggested: "Let's pray for
people who are killing us." Just about then Mitas, the guard, shouted: "Comrade Kowalski, out."
Father Joseph understood what it meant, got down from the cot, gave his portion of bread to his
companion saying; "It's yours if I don't come back soon."
Fr. Kowalski did not come back. He was tortured but did not die under torture. As a last insult to
his priesthood, he was thrown still alive into the main sewer. The body was recovered on the
following day, July 4, disfigured beyond description.
Pope John Paul II, while speaking with Salesians about the time he spent at the Salesian Parish in
Oświęcim in his own youth said he had felt his priestly vocation there in that Parish, and that he
had known Fr. Kowalski and could still remember him.
Among the 108 Polish martyrs declared Blessed by Pope John Paul II in Warsaw, on June 13,
beside the Salesian Priest Joseph Kowalski (31 years) killed at the infamous death camp of
Auschwitz, there were also five university students of the Salesian Youth Center in Poznań. They
were: Edward Kazmierski, (23) Francis (Franciszek) Kesy, (22); Jarosław Wojciechowski, (20)
Czesław Jóźwiak, (23) and Edward Klinik, (20). They were killed at Dresden on August 24,
1942. They were arrested because they were Catholics, faithful to their religious duties and active
in helping others, especially those in danger. Thrown into prison, declared guilty and condemned,
they never lost their optimism.
Five friends, they continued to say their prayers and the rosary at the Oratory. They were a cause
of surprise and comfort to all the other prisoners who nicknamed them, "The Jolly Five". When
the death sentence was read to them, they did not hesitate to look at the sentence as at their way to
'liberation' the true, final liberation, not the one in which, for some time, they had hoped.
How true sound the words of the Pope who, in his Bulla introducing the Holy Year, exclaimed:
"In the abundance of grace of the imminent Holy Year, we shall, with greater reason, raise our
hymn of thanksgiving to the Father singing ... "the white-robed army who shed their blood for
Christ, all sing your praise."
Victor Rodrigues
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