Kozielsk, General Anders' Army, the Vatican - unique Christmases of Fr Zdzislaw Peszkowski
Carols stick in our throats
I meet Msgr. Zdzislaw Peszkowski in his flat, the parish house next to St John's Cathedral in Warsaw Old Town.
When I knock at the door a priest in a long dark pullover, with a clerical collar, opens the door. 'God bless, czuwaj' [greeting used by Polish scouts], he says and invites me to come in. I sit on a comfortable sofa in a spacious living room. There are a lot of documents and various notes on the desk at the wall. A small table is loaded with sheets, magazines and boxes with various photos. My attention is directed to a beautiful photo of Pope John Paul II and next to it a photo of Fr Jan Leon Ziolkowski, who was killed in Katyn. The picture of Our Lady of Katyn hangs below.
With a songbook under his arm
Fr Peszkowski spent Christmas in the Vatican for the last few years. The Holy Father John Paul II whom - as he himself says - he loved very much invited him.
- I was invited for dinner on Christmas Day and there were also several more priests who were very close to the Pope. Sometimes I stayed longer and after dinner, together with the sisters who served the Holy Father, I sang carols', Fr Peszkowski recollects. 'I remember that when I stayed to sing carols for the first time the Pope surprised us to have excellent memory of carols. He could sing even several stanzas whereas the remaining priests knew three at the most... For the next Christmas I came with a songbook under my arm', he adds.
However, Fr Peszkowski did not spend all his Christmases in such a joyous atmosphere. There were also such Christmases when joy was replayed by despair and longing for his closest relatives. His heart was bleeding with great anxiety for the lot of his closest relatives so much that he could hardly say wishes.
Wine of raisins
Msgr. Zdzislaw Peszkowski graduated from the Cadet School for the Cavalry in Grudziadz and as a cavalry cadet he took part in the September campaign in 1939. He was a prisoner of war and was transported to the Soviet camp in Kozielsk on 26 September. About 5,000 Polish officers were kept there, in the old monastery that was changed into a prison. The first Christmas, far from home, was especially painful. The soldiers had very painful experiences of Advent. They were to spend Christmas in imprisonment, far from their families. The prisoners of war were persecuted, searched and assembled for additional punitive calls. But in spite of the depressing atmosphere the prisoners tried to do their best to prepare themselves for Christmas. They managed to get some flour to make Christmas wafers and some raisins to make some wine for Mass. On Christmas Eve they were struck with a blow that they did not expect. The silence of that holy evening was broken and there was a special search. All Catholic priests and other clergymen were taken away and they were seen no more. On that special day all desperate prisoners were terribly orphaned. Today we know that the clergymen in other camps: Starobielsk and Ostaszkow met the same fate. - Before the eve we sent the youngest prisoner to check if the first star had appeared in the sky. Then we sat at the tables on which we put what each could get for that special meal: tea, scrag-end, and a piece of herring. The oldest soldier read a biblical fragment from the book of prayer that we hid before the guards. We said wishes crying. We tried to sing a carol but the words and tune were stuck in our throats, Fr Peszkowski recollects. Afterwards each of us wanted to be alone. Our thoughts ran towards our closest relatives. We were tormented by anxiety for our families. One could hear cries of despair in the camp for a long time. Out of those 5,000 only 200 soldiers who were miraculously saved sat at the table on the next Christmas Eve. The rest were laid in the graves in Katyn.
Reward for the effort
After those first Christmases in exile there were other ones in Gniezdow, still in imprisonment, then in Tockoje in 1941, in the Polish army that was restored under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders. Another unique Christmas, which Fr Peszkowski recollects, was in the Holy Land, which the soldiers of II Corps, belonging to Anders's army that had been formed in Russia, reached, and then it was evacuated to Persia and later to Iraq and Palestine.
- Our stay in the Holy Land was a kind of reward for the efforts the Polish soldiers took. We were free. Each had a gun, we were armed and ready to fight, and at the same time we were so far away from our homeland. Our thoughts were still with our closest ones. We were wondering what happened to them, Msgr. Peszkowski recollects.
This year I may run away somewhere
Sergeant Peszkowski was directed to work with the young immigrants in Teheran, Isfahan, Karachi, and Palestine and then in India for three years. He was totally dedicated to the youth ministry. He had the role of scouts' inspector. After the war had ended Zdzislaw Peszkowski began studies at Oxford but before the end of his first year he changed his decision and entered the Major Seminary in Orchard Lake, USA. In June 1954, he was ordained. His war experiences, especially the period of the Soviet imprisonment, were decisive as far as his priesthood and pastoral ministry with Polish young immigrants were concerned. As one of the very few soldiers who survived the Soviet imprisonment he became a promoter of the struggle for memory and truth about the Katyn massacre. Commencing in 1991 he participated in the exhumation of the officers' corps in Kozielsk, Ostaszkow and Starobielsk. He became chaplain for the Katyn Family. On his initiative the year of 1995 was called the Year of Katyn. He has remained faithful to scouts until now and currently, he is the main chaplain of the Polish Scouting Association abroad.
I could listen to his stories for a long time but we must finish. I only ask him where he is going to spend this Christmas.
Fr Peszkowski ponders for a moment. His sad eyes wander somewhere and after a while he says, 'I do not know where. I used to go to Rome to the Holy Father for so many years. This year I may run away somewhere'.