Today is designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls every year on the anniversary of the liberation of the 48 extermination, concentration and labour camps at Auschwitz in modern-day Poland. Today is the 70th anniversary of that liberation.
Five of the million or so faces that today look down upon visitors when they walk silently through the empty buildings were members of our own family, our brothers, sons of St Norbert. And so, out of love for our confrères, we will share a little of their story, and ask that you pray for them, and to call upon them in your own prayers to further the cause of their beatification. Their names are:
Abbot Paul Soucek, aged 66
Lawrence Novotny, aged 69
Sigismund Zabehlicky, aged 73
Norbert Hrachovsky, aged 63
Siard Nevrkla, aged 32
Three others survived. One of them, Hermann Joseph Tyl, later wrote an account.
Since the year 1211, in the hills of Moravia, half-way between the great cities of Prague and Vienna, the Abbey of Nová Říše has sat peacefully; Mass has been offered up daily, novices have been clothed in the white habit, priests and brothers have been laid to rest in the ground, prayers said, dinners eaten, laughs heard and tears shed.
Until 1942. The doors of the chapel burst open on the evening of May 29th during vespers, and the brethren in choir were arrested by the German SS and Gestapo officers. The occupying forces had been told by a disgruntled former novice called Francis Kriz, that the abbey was sheltering enemies of the state, and hiding weapons for the resistance. Since, only two days before, the German governor in Prague had been shot and lay dying in hospital, the Gestapo were looking for lambs to inflict their revenge.
The canons, still in their choir dress, were led into the cloister, and were told to line up and face the wall. Their goodly abbot, Paul, stood behind them and blessed them.
Paul had already been a priest when he joined the abbey in 1904. He became abbot in 1929 just shy of his fifty-third birthday, and he had received the vows of thirteen of the canons that now had their faces pressed against the hard stone wall.
After he had blessed the brethren, he was led away to the Prelature, when he was interrogated and tortured all night.
When the butchers had finished scourging him, he was led to a car outside. Before he took his last steps out of the abbey, however, he knelt down and kissed the floor. He was kicked, and fell to the ground.
Several of the brethren were taken to a nearby town and kept in prison for three days, and then to Brno (Brünn), before being taken to Auschwitz on a cold Hilarymas morning in 1943. They were sure to make their confessions to each other in the back of the lorry on their journey into “Hell” (as Father Hermann Joseph called it).
Abbot Paul became very sick, and so, two weeks after their arrival, he was put to death on the octave day of St Agnes. We are not certain whether he was murdered in the gas chambers, although it seems likely. His remains were quickly cremated. His three confrères that lived through Hell had to wait two years (minus one day) until their diabolical bondage was loosened.
Four other Canons Regular of Prémontré, whose names are listed above, were murdered and cremated within a month of their Abbot.
After the Germans stormed the abbey, they confiscated the property and converted into the local Hitler Youth headquarters, but the surviving canons returned after liberation – but their freedom was short-lived. A new tyrant had come to power in Czechoslovakia, and the horror continued unabashed. The godless socialists again stormed the abbey in 1950 and arrested the canons. They were all put on trial and imprisoned in labour camps, a fate that awaited many clergy and religious in communist Czechoslovakia.
The abbey became part of a military camp until 1991, when it was given back to the Order, and today canons once again sing God’s praises as the holy martyrs before them did.
The last words will be left to Pope Benedict, here taken from an address he gave when he visited Auschwitz in 2006:
We cannot peer into God’s mysterious plan – we see only piecemeal, and we would be wrong to set ourselves up as judges of God and history. Then we would not be defending man, but only contributing to his downfall. No – when all is said and done, we must continue to cry out humbly yet insistently to God: Rouse yourself! Do not forget mankind, your creature! And our cry to God must also be a cry that pierces our very heart, a cry that awakens within us God’s hidden presence – so that his power, the power he has planted in our hearts, will not be buried or choked within us by the mire of selfishness, pusillanimity, indifference or opportunism. Let us cry out to God, with all our hearts, at the present hour, when new misfortunes befall us, when all the forces of darkness seem to issue anew from human hearts: whether it is the abuse of God’s name as a means of justifying senseless violence against innocent persons, or the cynicism which refuses to acknowledge God and ridicules faith in him. Let us cry out to God, that he may draw men and women to conversion and help them to see that violence does not bring peace, but only generates more violence – a morass of devastation in which everyone is ultimately the loser. The God in whom we believe is a God of reason – a reason, to be sure, which is not a kind of cold mathematics of the universe, but is one with love and with goodness. We make our prayer to God and we appeal to humanity, that this reason, the logic of love and the recognition of the power of reconciliation and peace, may prevail over the threats arising from irrationalism or from a spurious and godless reason.