Tag Archives: Pope John Paul II

This Day in History 6/20: Kazimierz Piechowski escapes Auschwitz through the front door

On June 20, 1942, a Steyr 220 sedan rolled out of the gates of Auschwitz, the notorious extermination camp in Poland.

In the sedan were four men, apparently members of the SS-Totenkopfverbande, or “Deaths Head” units, SS soldiers charged with administering the camps.

What seemed to be a routine jaunt by four Nazis was in fact an incredible escape from the infamous killing factory–an escape right in front of the camp itself.

Kazimierz Piechowski was a captured Polish resistance fighter who had bounced around different Gestapo camps doing forced labor.  In fact, he was merely a teen Boy Scout–apparently the Polish Boy Scouts were considered a resistance movement by the Germans, thus targeted by the SS and the Gestapo.  He arrived at Auschwitz as a political prisoner (not marked for extermination) in June of 1940, where he was assigned to carry corpses to the crematoria.  

On June 20, 1942, Piechowski led three other prisoners in an escape attempt: Stanisław Gustaw Jaster, a Polish army officer, Józef Lempart, a priest from Wadowice (which was the hometown of Pope John Paul II, so they may have known each other), and  Eugeniusz Bendera, a Ukrainian mechanic in charge of vehicles on the camp lot.

They first go through the infamous Arbeit Macht Frei gate (“Work will set you free“) disguised as a haulage detail pulling a cart.  Then Piechowski, Jaster and Lempart went to a warehouse where they stashed uniforms, machine guns and grenades, while Bendera went to the motorpool to fetch appropriate transportation.  When Bendera showed up with the car, he casually went into the warehouse and put on his SS “uniform.”  The four then go to the car, with Bendera driving.  Piechowski was in the front passenger seat, as he had the best working knowledge of German.  As they approached the gate, the doors wouldn’t open.  Nervously, Piechowski opened the door enough so his SS rank insignia was showing, and barked orders in German to open the gate.

The gate opened, and the four drove off, never to return to Auschwitz.

The Nazis subsequently hauled Piechowski’s parents to Auschwitz in reprisal, where they died.  They even convened a special investigation in Berlin to see how such a brazen escape was possible.  It is believed that after the Piechowski escape, inmate numbers were tattooed on arms to better identify runaways.

Piechowski himself continued in the Polish resistance, and became an engineer after the war.  He even served 7 years in a Communist labor camp for his alleged anti-Communist role in the resistance–which was more than double the time he spent imprisoned by the Nazis.  After the Cold War, he quietly retired and refused all honors bestowed on him.

Bendera, according to Piechowski, was the real mastermind, as he conceptualized the plan and the logistics.  He would live in Poland until his death in 1970.  Lempart, the priest, would leave the priesthood, marry and raise a family before getting hit by a bus in Wadowice in 1971.  Jaster’s end remains a mystery: a book claims that he collaborated with the Nazis and was executed by the resistance in 1943.  It has since been refuted as lacking evidence, and is believed Jaster died in Gestapo activity sometime in the fall of 1943–the circumstances are still unclear.

Attached is the 2006 Polish documentary Uciekinier (“Man on the Run”), an award-winning film about the escape.

 

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The Story of Papal Names; or, Why is there no pope named Jimbo?

English: PORTRAIT OF JOHN XXIII Español: IMAGE...

John XXIII (1881-1963), A great Pope, a not so original name (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that the supreme pontiff, the personification of Christ on Earth, was once called Fabian.

Some were even Silverius, Soter, Zachary, Hilarius, Conon, Anacletus, two Pelagiuses, and even a Sylvester—three of them.

When Benedict XVI announced his resignation effective February 28th, the Catholic Church reeled in shock, even though his Holiness had been hinting at retirement for some time now.  However, I’m sure the cardinals started jockeying for position once their pacemakers kicked in.  With the doors of the Sistine Chapel closed and locked, the conclave of the College of Cardinals will be busy in their voting, politicking and burning of paper in the process of selecting a new pope.

Since any one of these red-hatted guys can get the top job, they all probably have one thing in mind—what will be my papal name?

Since the 6th Century, almost all popes of the Roman Catholic Church have used a regnal or papal name during their reign.  The early popes, being usually in hiding, on the run, or martyred in an arena in cruel and entertaining ways, really didn’t have much time for picking new names.  Yet the acceptance of Christianity in 313, followed by its adoption as the state religion of Rome in 395, gave the papacy some long-needed breathing room for pomp, ceremony, and especially the affectations of monarchy—hence the papal name.

The first papal name was chosen by Mercurius in 533.  Once he was elected, Mercurius decided to change a really pagan name (he was named after the Roman god Mercury) to the more Christ-friendly John II.  It made sense: There were no Roman emperors named Yahweh or Osiris, either.  This change became more commonplace after the 10th Century, and would be de rigueur for all popes since the 16th Century.

The papal names followed no particular pattern.  Most popes chose the names of predecessors they admired, though some chose names of family members, members, even fellow clergymen who shared their ideas of politics and dogma.  The names cover an amazing range of styles (Adrian, Eugene, Boniface), languages (Alexander, Celestine, Miltiades) and perceived moral attributes (Innocent, Clement, Pius).

Until 1978, all popes picked one name.   John Paul I decided to honor two of his predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI (which didn’t help him much since he died 33 days later).  John Paul II continued this tradition, yet his successor Joseph Ratzinger went old school with Benedict XVI—a nice touch for a German theologian who tended to always look in the rearview mirror.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Of the eight Alexanders, most theologians agree Alexander VI was the most ready for premium cable.

Some names just keep coming back: There were 23 Johns, the most of any papal name, with 16 Gregorys, 16 Benedicts, 14 Clements, 13 Innocents (most of whom were probably not true to that namesake), 13 Leos (though not of the zodiac sign of the same name), 12 Piuses (again, you’re just asking for criticism if you choose a name like Pius), 9 Stephens, 9 Bonifaces (an excellent choice of name, in my opinion), 8 Urbans (though none named Rural, oddly), and 8 Alexanders, of which the sixth one you may recognize as Jeremy Irons on Showtime.

Even with the free-for-all in nomenclature, there are some unspoken no-nos.  There is no Peter II, for example.  Peter, as in Peter the apostle, was the first pope, and no one could be pretentious enough to claim they are a second Peter (although Jeremy Irons comes close).  That’s almost as snotty as naming yourself Jesus II; and I don’t have to explain why.

Also, names often go out of fashion, sometimes thanks to one bad apple.  For over 500 years, there was no pope named John.  This was because the last John (John XXIII) was not only an antipope (or false pretender), but he was morally corrupt and such a scheming little shit that even the mention of his name would probably have gotten you excommunicated.  When Giuseppe Roncalli  was elected in 1958, they weren’t sure if he was John XXIII or John XXIV, since that other John carried such a stain.  Roncalli, the kind son of Italian sharecroppers, was no such blight on the name, and took on the moniker of John XXIII, as if the other prick never existed.

So what will the new guy choose?  It’s difficult to say, since rules and fashion continue to shift and change.   For the Neighborhood, we feel the next pontiff might do well to give one of the older, more obscure monikers a try.  We’re not ready for another John Paul.  John, Leo,  Pius or even Benedict (at least now) seems a little safe.

Resurrect old standards like Urban, Boniface, Sixtus or Celestine.  He might even choose Gelasius, Theodore, Paschal or even Zephyrinus.

Whatever name is chosen—in the grand scheme of things, a papal name is not necessarily the measure of a papacy.

Then again, would we ever gain spiritual strength today from a pope named Lando (reigned 913-914)?

Probably not…unless there’s a Star Wars convention nearby.

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