Father Jan Franciszek Macha, a Polish priest who was executed by the Gestapo for his charitable work during the dark night of World War II at the age of just twenty-eight, will be beatified in Katowice’s huge neo-classical Archcathedral of Christ the King. Father Macha is one of many Polish martyrs – who include priests, bishops, nuns, and laypeople – who bore witness to Christian martyrs amidst the horrors of German-occupied Poland.
An early vocation in Upper Silesia
Jan Franciszek Macha was born in Chorzów Stary in Upper Silesia on January 18, 1914, the first child of ironworker Paweł and his wife Anna; in total, they would have six children, two of whom would not survive until adulthood.
As a young man, Macha had numerous passions. He was active in the scouting movement and Poland’s Catholic Youth Association, played violin and piano, and acted in amateur theater productions. Above all, however, Macha was an accomplished handball player: his team, Azoty Chorzów, participated in Poland’s National Championship twice, winning a silver medal once and bronze another time.
Upon completing high school, Jan revealed to his family that he above all dreamed of becoming a priest. He applied to the Silesian Major Seminary, then in Krakow (presently, it is located in Katowice; following his beatification, Blessed Jan will be its patron), but was rejected because there were more applicants than the seminary could house. Thus, he studied law at Krakow’s time-honored Jagiellonian University. One year later, Macha was admitted to study for the priesthood.
Jan Macha was ordained a priest on June 25, 1939. The Second World War would break out just a couple months later with the German invasion of Poland; however, the specter of war was already causing widespread anxiety as Hitler, who had annexed Czechoslovakia and Austria the previous year, was becoming increasingly aggressive in his demands towards Poland.
During the ordination Mass upon which Macha received the sacrament of holy orders, Bishop Stanisław Adamski expressed this growing sense of doom: “Dark clouds are gathering in the sky of our lives. Priests must be ready to give their lives for their sheep, just like their Master. A stole bearing the likeness of the cross should remind you that you have decided to be ready to completely sacrifice yourselves in the service of God and neighbor.”
Upper Silesia: A particular target of Hitler’s terror
Industrial Upper Silesia is a historical borderland between Poland and Germany. Its inhabitants, many of whom are of mixed Polish and German ancestry, speak a unique dialect with many German loanwords. Attesting to the confluence of these two cultures, Jan Macha was known to his family and friends as Hanik, a Polonized diminutive form of his German name (Johann).
When Macha was four years old, Polish independence was restored after the conclusion of the Great War. The status of Upper Silesia was a major point of contention. Pursuant to the Treaty of Versailles, a plebiscite on whether the region should belong to Poland or Germany was held in 1919. A majority voted for Germany, largely due to the fact that 200,000 Germans from outside the region traveled to participate in the plebiscite.
Yet Silesia’s Poles remained undeterred, and in 1921 the Third Silesian Uprising, led by Wojciech Korfanty, one of Poland’s greatest national heroes of the twentieth century, broke out. Ultimately, the League of Nations decided to split Silesia among ethnic lines; Katowice, Chorzów, and Ruda Śląska, the parish where the young Father Macha would later work, were given to Poland.
Hitler’s disdain for the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles is well-known. As a German nationalist, he was furious at the weakening of Germany, which came in large part at the expense of a resurrected Polish state.
Thus, one of the pretexts for the 1939 German invasion of Poland was the alleged mistreatment of the German minority in such border regions as Upper Silesia and Pomerania. After the invasion, Upper Silesia was directly annexed by the Third Reich; consequently, its Polish and Jewish populations were persecuted. Among the annexed territories was the town of Oświęcim, which would soon become better known by its German name: Auschwitz.
Illegal charity work
Around the time of the outbreak of the war, the recent ordinand Jan Macha was assigned to St. Joseph’s parish in Ruda Śląska. There is an old Polish tradition that has persisted until the present of priests visiting their parishioners’ homes around Christmastime. For the young priest, visits to his flock during the 1939-1940 winter season were a transformative experience. He saw that the breadwinner was absent in many families (many Silesian men were deported to concentration camps, imprisoned, or compelled to perform slave labor), which made them destitute.
Already as a law student, Macha was active in charitable organizations. After the first Christmas of the war, Macha organized a network of volunteers to bring material assistance above all to widows and orphans in his parish. He recruited Catholic Action activists, older altar boys, and scouts. The Polish underground was impressed by Macha’s vibrant charitable activity; in a report, Zygmunt Walter Janke, the commandant of the Homy Army, the main branch of Poland’s armed resistance, estimated his network as consisting of four thousand volunteers.
Because many German men in Silesia were conscripted into the army, their families likewise suffered. Father Macha did not think twice about helping them. As Agnieszka Huf, the author of a Polish language biography of the martyr, writes: “Could he have declined helping someone only because somewhere far away, in Berlin, other Germans decided to start a war that would permanently alter the fate of the world? Polish and German stomachs need the same portion of food; Polish and German children are equally cold when their mothers lack a few groszy to buy coal; a Pole and a German are equally devastated by the death of a loved one. Hanik always saw a fellow human being; his or her country of origin, religion, or views did not matter.”
“A Saint or an Idiot”
Apart from some initiatives carefully overseen by the Germans, charitable work was strictly forbidden in occupied Poland. Furthermore, Father Macha cooperated with the Polish boy scouts, who had been incorporated into the illegal armed resistance. Thus, beginning in early 1941, the Gestapo kept an eye on the young priest.
Father Macha was arrested on September 5, 1941. First, he was sent to the police prison in Mysłowice, a place so infamous for its cruelty that it was dubbed “Auschwitz’s hell-like antechamber” (przedpiekło Oświęcimia), where he was the victim of brutal beatings. After one such beating, Macha wrote a prayer in which he asked God that he may stand by the gates of heaven along with his persecutor. “He’s either a saint or an idiot,” an SS-man who intercepted the prayer allegedly remarked.
After more than a year of interrogations and sadistic beatings, Father Jan Macha was guillotined in a prison in Katowice on December 3, 1942. In his last letter to his family, he wrote: “My life was brief, but I am convinced that I have achieved my aim.”
A wartime Church of martyrs
Father Jan Macha is not the first wartime Polish martyr to be raised to the altars, and he is almost certainly not the last, either. The Third Reich intended to reduce the Poles to a nation of slaves that would serve that “Aryan master race.” Thus, the nation’s intellectual and spiritual elites were slated for elimination.
About half of Polish Catholic priests were imprisoned in concentration camps during the war; about one-fifth of Poland’s pre-war clergy was killed between 1939 and 1945. According to Guillame Zeller’s fine study of clergymen imprisoned at Dachau, 84 percent of priests who perished in the camp were Poles. Many lay Catholics likewise bore heroic witness to the faith during this nightmarish time. For example, the cause for the beatification of Józef and Wiktoria Ulma and their six children, executed for sheltering eight Jews during the Holocaust, is advanced.
In Warsaw in 1999, Pope St. John Paul II beatified 108 Polish martyrs of World War II. This number is just a tiny tip of a massive iceberg. As more and more Polish wartime martyrs like Father Macha are beatified, we as Catholics can gain inspiration from these great men and women whose Christian witness proved stronger than the military juggernaut of the Third Reich.
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