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Ahead of Armistice Day let us remember the inspiring martyrs of the Second World War

A member of the public lays flowers at the Armed Forces Memorial during Armistice Day commemorations at the National Memorial Arboretum, Alrewas (Photo: PA)

As we approach Armistice Day it is right that we remember all those who lost their lives in war. The sacrifice of others for our liberty is something that should never be forgotten. As we give thanks for our freedom, it is also a good time to remember those who witnessed to their faith during times of war and oppression. During the Second World War there were countless Catholics who suffered greatly for their faith and in the defence of truth. In 1999 Pope St John Paul II beatified the 108 Martyrs of the Second World War. Here are some of the most inspiring men and women from among their number.

Blessed Bronislaw Koskowski

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Bronislaw Koskowski had a promising future as a bright and erudite priest. Despite being born into a humble family, he gained entry into the grammar school in Bydgoszcz. In 1936 he entered Wloclawek Seminary in central Poland. His proud family witnessed his ordination to the priesthood in 1939.

After ordination Koskowski continued his studies at seminary and was seen as a potential theologian. He was a bright and well-liked student among his fellow seminarians and tutors. His further studies progressed well, although outside the seminary walls the Nazi oppression was raging against his fellow citizens.

The world outside abruptly interrupted when the Gestapo arrived at Wloclawek. A number of students and teachers were arrested and taken away to an unspecified location. During interrogation the young Koskowski remained steadfast and did not share any information with his questioners. In exchange for renouncing his priesthood he was offered his freedom yet he stood firm. He died on November 27 1942 in the concentration camp at Dachau. Faced with impending death he never lost his faith and his courage was a witness to his strong view of priesthood and love of Jesus. He is someone who all priests and seminarians should invoke in times of doubt.

Blessed Antoni Julian Nowowiejski

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In the cathedral of Blessed Virgin Mary of Masovia in Plock, there is a tablet to Bishop Nowowiejski, which has become a place of devotion to this heroic martyr. He was a faithful bishop who sought to reform his diocese and was especially devoted to education. Fostering vocations to the priesthood was also important to Nowowiejski and he was instrumental in the development of a junior seminary. He was the first secretary to the Polish bishops’ conference and initiated many programmes of social welfare among his people.

Nowowiejsk was a well-respected bishop and, following the German invasion of Poland, his people looked to him for guidance and spiritual relief. It was because of this and as part of a clampdown on the intelligentsia that Bishop Nowowiejsk and his auxiliary, Bishop Wetmanski, were arrested and imprisoned.

When an opportunity to escape became available, Bishop Nowowiejsk refused. He said that he could not abandon the other prisoners who looked to him as their shepherd. His captors tortured him for three months following his refusal to stamp on his pectoral cross. Hunger and the barbaric torture techniques were eventually too much for the 83-year-old to bear and he died on May 28 1941. This inspirational bishop reminds us that in life we are never too old to witness to the love of Jesus. He is an example to all those in the “third age” of life who seek to be faithful and bold.

Blessed Marianna Biernacka

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Marianna Biernacka was one of only nine lay people who were beatified as martyrs of the Second World War. She was born in Lipsk in 1888 but spent her whole adult life in the Diocese of Lomza, located 80 miles northeast of Warsaw. Unlike most of the other martyrs she was a convert to Catholicism and was raised in the Orthodox Church. Marianna Biernacka was certainly not part of the intelligentsia. She could only read a little and it is thought that she was unable to write. She married a local farmer when she was 20 years only and they had six children together. Sadly only two of her children lived to reach adulthood. When her son Stanislaw was widowed, Marianna moved in with him to help look after the children whil he worked hard to keep the family.

Marianna’s town was divided between the Soviets and Germans after the invasion of Poland. The portion where the Biernacka family lived was occupied by the Germans who were very harsh in dealings with the population. Resistance was strong among the townspeople and this resulted in random citizens being executed in the German reprisals. During one such purge, Marianna’s son and pregnant daughter-in-law were arrested. Marianna could not bear the thought of the pregnant Anna and her baby being murdered and she pleaded to take her place. As she was taken away she is said to have asked for her Rosary. Following transportation to Belarus, Marianna and Stanislaw were imprisoned and then shot by firing squad on June 13 1943. Blessed Marianna Biernacka is a sadly rare example of an ordinary person who has been beatified. So many of those who gain recognition were influential people with significant and wealthy supporters. Marianna is a model for ordinary Catholics who live quiet and yet faithful lives.

Blessed Katarzyna Faron

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Katarzyna Faron’s early life was filled with sadness and loss as she was orphaned at the age of just five years old. She was brought up by an aunt who was unable to have children. As a teenage girl she developed a vocation to the religious life. It was in 1930 that she entered the Congregation of the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate and made her final profession eight years later. Her name in religion was Celstyna. She was encouraged to train as a teacher and developed a particular heart for the younger children. Because of her own difficult and traumatic experiences in early life, Katarzyna cared greatly for those who had lost her parents. During the occupation of Poland she was the local superior of a religious house and oversaw the running of an orphanage.

As with Blessed Bronislaw Koskowski, the Gestapo arrived one day and searched the orphanage. Katarzyna was arrested and charged with conspiracy. After imprisonment in two camps she was transported to Auschwitz where she was given hard manual work to complete which included ditch digging. Weakened by this back breaking labour, she developed tuberculosis and typhoid. She died on Easter Sunday in 1944. Katarzyna provides a wonderful model for those who have experienced a traumatic childhood. Despite a difficult start in life she achieved a great deal and cared for the most vulnerable. Her invincible faith brought her through her early life and sustained her throughout her final suffering.

Five Salesian martyrs

salesianCzeslaw Jozwiak

Czeslaw Jozwiak, Edward Klinik, Edward Kazmierski, Jarowgniew Wojciechowski and Franciszek Kesy were all young men when they were brutally killed by the Nazis. Aged between 19 and 21, they belonged to the Salesian Youth Association. Their membership of this group was seen as subversive by the Nazi authorities and they were rounded up and imprisoned.

Jozwiak was the president of the association and it is reported that he had a strong faith. Before execution all the men were unusually allowed to write to their loved ones. Jozwiak wrote to his mother defiantly: “Say thank you to God for his inscrutable mercy. He has given me peace.”

During their imprisonment the rosary became an important form of sustenance and other prisoners recognised the strong faith that these men shared. As we approach World Youth Day in Krakov in 2016, these young men of faith will provide a good model and inspiration for all those who will participate. Their youthful courage and determination are qualities that need to be emulated within youth culture today.

These men and woman are representative of the many faithful Catholics who suffered because of the tyranny of war. Along with the more well-known saints, St Maximilian Kolbe and St Edith Stein, they remind us of the many sacrifices that Catholics of different walks of life and background made. The 108 Martyrs deserve to be more widely known as their example and courage speak heroically of a faith that often we take for granted. Their witness also points us to the overwhelming mercy of God. Please remember these faithful men and woman this Armistice Day and invoke them in the cause of peace.