Nazi Persecution of Polish Christians (working title)
- a two-hour documentary film-in-progress

by Barbara Kathleen Herbich, Producer

To complete the documentary by June 2003, we are urgently seeking funds to cover post-production costs.
Click here for information on how to contribute.

This documentary film will fill a void in the historical record of World War II. Now, fifty-eight years after the end of the war, much of the world is still unaware that 6 million Poles killed by the Nazis (and Soviets) included nearly 3 million Polish Catholics.

I am convinced that Poland past and present cannot be understood without realizing not only that Hitler was determined to annihilate the Polish nation in order to gain lebensraum (living space) for the “Master Race” (Aryan) but also that he considered Poles along with other Slavs, Jews and Gypsies untermenschen (subhuman).

Although the vast majority of Polish Christian victims were Roman Catholic, the persecution of Lutherans and other Protestants, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons will also be recognized in this chronicle.

For the last two years I have been filming (in the U.S., the U.K. and Poland) the testimony of 50 men and women who belong to the ever-dwindling number of Polish Christian survivors of Nazi death camps. What they recount in their interviews prompts the question: How can the subject of this film have been so long overlooked or neglected in the media and in major history books?

Archival photos and footage will be intercut with interviews of the survivors and commentary by historians to show that the Polish intelligentsia, including the clergy, were the Nazi's earliest targets for extermination. Hitler's plan to reduce the rest of the Poles to a slave labor force is also covered in the film. From the rapid pace of devastating events remembered by Poles interviewed, it will become clear how, from the earliest days of their occupation of Poland, the Germans began implementing their genocidal policies. Nearly 2,200,000 Polish Christians were killed in summary executions or lost their lives in Nazi concentration camps and forced labor camps or in the deadly transport trains. Others died in reprisals in rural areas. (Nearly one million other Poles perished in the Soviet zone.) This documentary is intended to give voice at last to some of the Polish Christian victims who are still alive and to render homage to those who are not.

I believe this long overdue information is essential if confrontations such as have occurred at Auschwitz-Birkenau are to be prevented in the future. When shared suffering is recognized, the respective memorials will not be felt to be or seen to be in conflict. The film is expected to contribute to the efforts of Pope John Paul II toward reconciliation between Jews and Catholics in Poland and elsewhere. The Pope's own memories of the Nazis' victimization of Polish Catholics evident in his beatification of 108 martyrs killed by the Nazis will be seen in archival footage of the ceremony that took place in Warsaw's Pilsudski Square last year.

The story of Father Henryk Herbich, my father's cousin, inspired me to research and begin production on this film. Father Herbich, a priest from Kalisz, was arrested and sent to Auschwitz in the spring of 1941. One year later, he was transported to Dachau, where he died in September 1942.

In the film, priests who survived Nazi concentration camps will recall losses the Roman Catholic Church suffered: In cities and towns, and in the countryside all over Poland, 1,000 priests were summarily executed. Approximately 4,000 of the clergy (including 13 bishops) were transported to concentration camps. 1,100 nuns were also inmates of the camps.

Highlighting the experiences of concentration camp survivors, the film will focus on members of the Polish intelligentsia, including professors, priests, university students and others. Their accounts reveal keen insights into contrasting aspects of camp life not only atrocities they suffered and witnessed, starvation, extreme cold and other inhuman conditions they endured but also the heroism, solidarity, resistance activities and faith that sustained them. Context will be provided by narration and by distinguished historians.

Included in the 90 hours of footage shot to date are:

  • an interview with Stanislaw Ryniak, “Auschwitz 31”, the first Pole in Auschwitz;
  • an annual reunion of Dachau priest survivors in Kalisz;
  • interviews with leading Roman Catholic ecclesiastics: Adam Cardinal Kozlowiecki, Dachau survivor: Archbishop Kazimierz Majdanski, Dachau survivor and victim of medical experiments there; Bishop Ignacy Jes, Dachau survivor; and Cardinal Macharski, who describes the underground activities centered at Archbishop Sapieha’s residence in Krakow and speaks of his fellow seminarian there, Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II;
  • an interview with Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, Auschwitz survivor, who was active in Zegota (the underground organization sponsored and funded by the Polish Government-in-Exile to save Jews) and is now Poland’s Foreign Minister. He explains how invaluable the cooperation of priests [to forge documents for Jews] and nuns [to hide Jewish girls in convents] was to Zegota;
  • an interview with Ewa Deptula, a child courier for Zegota, who describes how the nuns and students in her convent school hid Jewish girls;
  • interviews with female survivors, including Maria Bielicka, who witnessed medical experiments performed on Polish women at Ravensbruck concentration camp for women; and Marylka Ossowska, an Auschwitz survivor, whose husband, another Auschwitz survivor, was forced to work as a clerk for Dr. Joseph Mengele;
  • interviews with historians (and members of the film's Advisory Committee): Dr. Antony Polonsky, member of the Executive Committee of The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University; Dr. Richard C. Lukas, author of The Forgotten Holocaust; Dr. Taddeus Piotrowski, author of Poland's Holocaust; and Auschwitz survivor Dr. Jozef Garlinski, author of Fighting Auschwitz;
  • rare archival photographs and documents (filmed at the Polish National Archives, the Main Commission for Investigation of Nazi Crimes against the Polish Nation, and the archives of Pawiak Prison in Warsaw)

Ninety-five percent of the shooting for the documentary is completed. Remaining shoots include:

  • an interview with a victim of Hitler’s Germanization program. Because they met Nazi racial criteria, these Aryan-looking Polish children were kidnapped from their families (along with 200,000 other Polish children) and sent to re-education camps in Germany. They explain that only 10 to 15 percent of them were ever reunited with their families;
  • an interview with a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp for Polish children who did not meet their racial criteria will explain how children there were subjected to medical experiments and other forms of terror. In one camp alone, 12,000 of these children were murdered.

PBS will air the film nationally on prime-time television. The History Channel has also expressed interest in broadcasting it. Jadwiga Productions will handle international television sales.

The film will be entered in major international festivals. Through Direct Cinema Limited, video cassettes will be available to schools, universities, libraries, community centers, and museums. Special screenings will encourage public discussion at a broad range of U.S. church, civic, educational, and Polish-American organizations.

Two of my previous films, A Stitch for Time, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1988, and USSR Art, recipient of a CINE Golden Eagle in 1991, were broadcast on PBS, The Discovery Channel, The Family Channel and international television.

On Tiptoe: Gentle Steps to Freedom, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject, 2000, was shot by Jan Maliszewski, the film’s Director of Photography.

To date, foundation grants, individual contributions, and in-kind services amount to $195,000. Donors include: The Dr. Stanislaw A. and Mrs. Anita M.K. Milewski Fund of the Kosciuszko Foundation in Memory of Alfred and Sabina Milewski and Jerzy and Maria Dobiecki; The Alfred Jurzykowski Foundation; The Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund; The Holocaust Documentation Committee of the Polish American Congress; The Canadian Polish Millennium Fund; The Adam Mickiewicz Foundation; The Rosenstiel Foundation; Polish National Alliance; American Center of Polish Culture; Pulaski Association of Business and Professional Men; Andrew Rasiej; Dr. John B. Herbich; and LOT Polish Airlines.

To complete the documentary by June 2003, we are urgently seeking funds to cover post-production costs. Click here for information on how to contribute.