Our Sister Martyr: Blessed Julia Rodzinska

Shortly after World War II, a survivor of the Stutthof concentration camp contacted our Dominican Congregation. She claimed that a Sister of our community was nothing short of a saint. While Sr. Julia’s Sisters may have considered her just another unfortunate victim of Nazi brutality, her fellow prisoners saw her as a hero. She preserved their morals, their dignity, and sometimes—literally—their lives. One fellow prisoner, Ewa Hoff, insisted that, amid those of numerous nationalities and religions who saw Julia’s witness, she “will not fall into oblivion.” This is the story of a life that Ewa Hoff and others demanded should be told.

Sister Julia was born Stanislawa Rodzinska in southern Poland in 1899. Her father, Michal Rodzinski, recorded proudly that he had personally delivered this, his second child. Michal was an organist for the parish church, a talented composer and man-of-all-trades who took on various jobs to make ends meet. His wife Marianna helped where she could, but a long-term illness took her life when Stanislawa was only 8 years old. Times must have been tough for the whole family—Marianna left two sons and two daughters—as Michal battled rheumatism in his fight to provide for his kids. Then, only two years later, he died from pneumonia, leaving Stanislawa and her siblings orphans.

Practice ‘n’ Prayer

Holiness in Light of Blessed Julia Rodzinska Thoughts from Sr. Felicity

Holiness often seems to be killing me. “There’s no way I can live without X!” I protest to myself, or, “God can’t expect me to do Y!” Then I hear of martyrs giving up their lives with aplomb and wonder, “How can they do that?” That’s why I find Blessed Julia’s story so encouraging (link to biography): she shows that holiness doesn’t come in one heroic moment, but from day-to-day choices to live out one’s faith.

Being open to the Holy Spirit, she recognized the needs of her countrymen during the Nineteenth Century by acknowledging the role of women in the active apostolate, such as preaching and teaching the Word of God. She sent Sisters out into the villages to reach out to the needy people and proclaim to them the Truth, the Word of God.

Holiness is not all about negation, you see. Although it does include self-denial, it builds on the recognition of the immense value and dignity God has given us. Sister Julia’s life shows that—long before the concentration camp put it to the test—she practiced recognizing and building up the dignity of those whom society and circumstance beat down: the sick of her home village (link to ‘Shaped by Sisters’); the sensitive orphans in her care; the poor among her students (link to ‘Mother of the Orphans’); and the elderly priests and Sisters left without support (link to ‘War comes to Vilnius’).

This practice made it natural for Blessed Julia to sustain and revive human dignity in Stutthof, an environment designed to destroy it. (link to ‘Stutthof…’) It made her love visible to others “in a camp where everyone forgot what love meant.” It makes me ask myself: how do I daily, concretely, practice loving those around me? Do I behold their human dignity?

Blessed Julia also demonstrates that holiness is not stoicism: she shed tears because she knew she wouldn’t see her loved ones again. Yet she still chose to sacrifice her life to serve others in the Stutthof concentration camp. (link to ‘She gave her life for others’) So what enabled Sister Julia to become a heroic martyr rather than just one more victim of Nazi psychopathy? How did she find the strength to enter a hellish “death-house” of typhoid victims, knowing she was choosing her own demise? The answer was no secret in her busy life as principal, orphanage director, and religious Superior; it sustained her through a year of tortuous isolation; and made her shine in the humiliating and degrading conditions of Stutthof. Her lifeline was prayer.

I imagine that Julia’s Sisters weren’t always pleased when she exhorted them to be faithful to prayer. Her students surely thought sometimes, “There she goes again…preaching prayer!” Could they have known that prayer would carry this ordinary woman through so much? Can I predict the power of prayer for my own future? Who can know, unless I stay committed to my daily prayer?

One final way in which Blessed Julia touches me is that her fellow prisoners—who were mostly Jewish women—recalled how enthusiastically she described religious life (link to biography). This gives me pause to think. Do I appreciate the life God has given me, even in the mundane—no, especially in the mundane? Whatever one’s state in life, it shouldn’t take a concentration camp to make us grateful for the little rituals, the tiny perks, and the daily joys of one’s vocation. And the little monotonies, tiny downsides, and daily peeves? As much as it may kill me to admit: they’re an opportunity to practice holiness and prayer instead of stoicism or despair.