The article, “An American Nun in Siberia,” which appears below, was discovered in our archives at the provincialate in Des Plaines, IL. Originally published in December 1950 in COR, a publication of the Priests of the Sacred Heart in Hales Corners, WI, the article is reprinted here with permission from Mary Gorski, Communications Director for the Priests of the Sacred Heart. The article has been slightly shortened, and you will notice a few corrected words and place names in brackets.
Sr. Celine Bednarska, CSFN, who is featured in this article, died on October 18, 1992 in Philadelphia. From the relative comfort of Philadelphia where she was born through the prison camps of Siberia and beyond, Sr. Celine’s “slow martyrdom,” as it was described in her necrology, was met by her perseverance, courage, conviction, and “spiritual communion with her Lord.”
“Like the unexpected journey of the Holy Family of Nazareth in response to the will of God, the life of Sister M. Celine, Victoria Bednarska, was an extraordinary and unexpected journey which would call for heroic strength and sacrifice and which would take her to the farthest corners of the earth,” begins her necrology. “From the frozen wasteland of Siberia… to the stifling climate of Africa, Sister Celine’s determination was steadfast; her decision resolute. She would spread the Kingdom of God to all she met as a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth.”
After serving in Asia, Africa and Europe, Sr. Celine returned to the U.S. in 1985.
Today, Sr. Celine’s great-niece, Sr. Maria Annette Mallen, CSFN, ministers at Holy Family University in Philadelphia. Her nieces Sr. Loretta Wesolowski, CSFN, and Sr. Regis Wesolowski, CSFN passed away in 2016 and 2020, respectively.
As you read the article from over 70 years ago, keep in mind that Sr. Celine is but one of hundreds of thousands of others who faced the same or, too often, worse fate. In “CSFN Sisters in exile, 1941- 1945,” published in Via Nazareth (a newsletter for CSFNs) in November 2012, Sr. Beata Rudzinska, the then secretary and councilor for the CSFN general administration in Rome, wrote about the dire conditions of those who were deported. She explains,
…The Sisters in the Eastern borderlands of the Polish Republic [during WWII] shared the fate of inhabitants of these lands and those who came here seeking refuge. The Soviet Union, trying to clear the annexed territories from the hostile “elements,” began a deportation process aimed first of all at the intelligentsia, clergy, civil service, military officers, skilled workers, and their families.
Approximately 1,200,000 people were sent to Russia in four “perfectly” prepared large-scale deportations between February 1940 and June 1941; some sources talk even about 1,700,000 deported. In that number, besides Poles and Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and other nationalities, there were more than six thousand priests and religious. Local inhabitants of the Vilnius area were a part of the fourth and last deportation. Among them were 29 CSFNs…
From over 1 million deported only 115 thousand crossed the southern border of the USSR, 20 of our Sisters included….
Hunger, sickness and hard work did not enclose the Sisters within their suffering. They were true missionaries among their fellow deportees and local people; they witnessed to God first of all by their prayer and community life. One of the Sisters wrote down in her journal words of a woman they met…: “You were sent here to forget about your God, whereas you proclaim his glory at every turn. Nobody ever prayed here, and now we pray together with you. You first gave glory to God on this barren land…”
Our wish for the contemporary generation of CSFNs ministering in distant Russia and Kazakhstan is that their evangelization efforts may bring bountiful fruit. A large number of those to whom our Sisters minister are descendants of the deportees, people from whom human dignity and faith in God was being taken away.
(The excerpt is reprinted with permission from Sr. Beata and is translated by Sr. Angela Szczawinska, CSFN.)
by Mollie McGee
This story was told [to] me very simply and I think that is the best way to pass it on. It is the story of an American nun. She was among the hundreds dragged from their convents in Iron Curtain countries and sent to slave labor in Siberia. She was one of the few to return. It is the story of a girl from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania -- Sister Celine, of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth. She told it to me in a railway carriage a year ago. Now that it may be safely told, I pass it on to you.
The day I met her was hot, that unbelievable heat of Italy in summer. The train was dusty, the carriages old and decrepit. They rumbled and jumped on the rails as if trying to throw off the heat. Children stumbled and jostled up and down the narrow corridors, or leaned out of windows trying to get a breath of air. There were over a hundred children, all refugees, for this was a Refugee Train taking them up through Italy, Austria, Germany to Bremerhaven, where they would embark for new lives and new homes.
Sister Celine was sitting on the wooden bench of a Third Class compartment, pillowing two little girls' heads in her capacious lap. They were asleep, lying along the seat, one on each side. Her head was bent drowsily over them, but she was saying her beads, holding her rosary high so that it would not touch their faces and waken them. We talked quietly and they went on sleeping.
Her face was expressive, the round, highly colored face, of the Polish peasant, but she told her adventures as she might have been speaking of ordinary convent happenings, without stressing horror or shame.
Sister Celine was born forty-five years ago in Philadelphia: Victoria Bednarska, youngest of seven children of a Polish immigrant. Her father had come to the States with his family and went to work in a ball-bearing factory. He worked hard and did well, soon making enough money to marry another immigrant who had also traveled with her people from Poland. Victoria attended the school of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart in St. John the Baptist parish, and when she was nineteen decided to become a nun. She entered the community of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth and in 1925 was sent to their convent in Rome for her novitiate. After she had taken her vows she went as teacher of English to the order's convent in Poland.
During the war the sisters stayed in their various institutions, but as the situation became worse, and rumors circulated as to the fate of Russian prisoners, they prepared by collecting civilian clothes and parcels of emergency foods. Sister Celine spent seven months waiting with the community at Vilno - where nuns had been assembled from outlying points. On June 14, 1941, Russian soldiers arrived and notified the nuns they must be ready to leave in three hours. They put on their strange dresses, packed small bundles and waited. They were twenty-nine nuns, among them seven choir sisters. At the given time the Russians returned and escorted them to the railway. There they were packed in freight cars specially equipped with wooden bunks or rather rough wooden shelves. There were about eighty women - including the nuns - in their car. The doors were closed and locked and the train started.
Twice a day the doors were opened and food, consisting of small amounts of dry black bread, and herrings - was thrust in. The women nearly died of thirst as the heat was terrific and only occasional stops were made when they were allowed to leave the car for natural functions; the atmosphere was stifling.
The train went on and on, occasionally jerking to a stop and waiting for hours or even days. Finally the doors were unlocked and the women, most of them so ill they could scarcely stand, were ordered to pick up their belongings and march along a road. They were at Starobielsk in the Ukraine.
Housed in a slave workers' transient barracks, in the remains of an old stone convent, they were crowded into storerooms with no windows. As they lay awake, overrun by bedbugs, they could hear guards laughing and singing in their quarters, the former chapel… All personal possessions other than clothes they had on were confiscated.
At the end of two weeks the nuns and their companions were once again herded into freight cars. This time they knew their destination was “behind the Urals, somewhere in Siberia; probably deep in the forests.”
During three weeks of travel that followed the women were let out of their sordid car only once. Heat was unbearable and thirst became agony. Sister Celine says they became dazed and finally almost mad, banging on walls and doors, crying for water, until a guard finally brought them “red liquid, thick and sour.” They did not know what it was.
Cars were unloaded at Sverdlovsk, and though many of the prisoners were half-delirious, they were pushed into a roadway, ordered to carry their bundles and walk. They walked, many staggering, twenty-five miles, Sister Celine remembers little of this journey. “Some people fell by the wayside, but our guards were kinder than the last lot, and the rest of us went on, somehow."
The concentration [work] camp at which they finally arrived, was the usual assemblage of wooden huts surrounded by barbed wire fences, with high wooden, guard towers: at each- corner. Fires were kept burning outside all night to prevent escapes. Women were collected in one hut, and slept crowded together, on platform-like bunks. There was no bedding, and their clothes had deteriorated into rags. Food consisted of thin soup twice a day,' and a daily ration of 400 grams of black bread per person. Each morning before daybreak, men and women alike were sent out in guarded groups to fell trees and build roads.
Four months went by, each day bringing a toll of deaths. Then, as there were so many casualties, guards received orders that women should have “lighter” tasks. Winter had arrived, the cold was extreme, and the snow deep. Lighter work consisted of gathering branches from felled trees and burning them. It was difficult to get the snow-encrusted, green wood to burn. The women had no gloves and tore their frozen hands, while smoke blinded them. Frostbite was common and the suffering intense.
Sickness increased, for in hope of keeping up their strength the prisoners drank heavily salted water. This caused a condition Sister Celine described as “phegomonia,” with symptoms of bloated stomachs, ulcers, and open sores, then decaying flesh that fell away. There was no medicine. Women, on the whole, appeared to stand the strain better than the men, who were for the most part older, and from the intellectual classes in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.
There was constant petty persecution from guards who shouted and scolded or ridiculed the sisters: “You call yourselves nuns. That is a joke in a world where everyone knows there is no God.” One woman guard in charge of their group was particularly obnoxious. She took fiendish delight in keeping them waiting for hours to go to the latrine, and would make them run in the snow at their work, though they could scarcely walk. “You are not in your lazy convent now,” she would scream.
In spite of their surroundings, the sisters were determined to keep to some small routine of convent life. They arose every morning about three, so that they could have a few minutes prayer together. On All Souls' [D]ay, during their noonday break of work, they sat around a fire and sang Dies Irae and other hymns of the day. Their woman guard stood behind them listening. After a little while they noticed she was crying. “You are lucky to have a God and something to hold on to in this world. How fortunate you are,” was her surprising remark. Next day she was more spiteful and demanding than ever.
At the end of seven months in this camp the sisters received wonderful news. An amnesty for Polish prisoners had been signed by Stalin and General Sikorsky. They were told they were to be freed and were asked to what city they would like to be sent. The sisters chose Nijni-Tagil [Nizhny Tagil], as it was a rail center.
It was January, 1942, and terribly cold. They huddled in the car and tried to visualize what would be their next step, but when the train arrived at their station, their particular car was shifted to the freight yards and, as Sister Celine says, “no one seemed interested in our fate. We had no food, no money, and we did not know where to go.” They prayed and hoped. On the third day a Commissar of the Railroad came to their assistance. He kindly shepherded them to a Community kitchen and bought them soup and bread, then took them to the Secret Police. There they were told they must register at the Labor Exchange, where they would be put on lists as workers.
While they were signing in the Exchange an employer arrived asking for workers for a peet [peat] bog. He made a contract with the sisters as a group, and the next day they were taken out to his camp and wagons and started their new job.
Conditions were better. They lived in white-washed workers' barracks and had mattresses on their beds. “Nothing but the best for the workers,” Sister Celine explained, with a twinkle in her eye. However, they received no pay. It appears that only those who achieve more than their set “norm” of work get any money, and this “norm” is set so high it is almost impossible to reach. So, they were paid in bread cards.
The sisters worked in two shifts, one in the daytime, one at night. They were provided with special clothing against the intense cold. “I never would have believed, or thought it possible, that I should see a group of nuns in padded cotton trousers, coats, and hats, digging peet [peat]. They looked so funny, but it was necessary and we were grateful,” Sister Celine said.
At night it was frequently difficult to find the work area -- hidden by snow. One night just before Christmas, the night shift of sisters on their way to work got lost. They walked for miles over shifting snow, blown by the wind, and finally sat by what they thought was the road. At first they laughed at their plight, then they began to realize how serious it was, and to cheer each other, sang Christmas carols. They began to grow cold and sleepy, then one of the sisters gathered them in a close group to pray. After the prayer they set out again, and a few minutes later saw the distant light of the work lantern. If they had stayed or turned back the way they had come, they would have been frozen.
The sisters worked in the peet [peat] bog for a year and a half. During this time they had opportunities of coming in contact with the ordinary Russian people, but to their horror found children afraid of them and grown-ups disinclined to mix. “They are taught in schools that nuns are immoral women who live with priests and try to keep people backward, by telling them of a non-existent God,” Sister Celine explained…
While the sisters worked in the bog, General Anders, assembling a Polish army, was trying to get in touch with Polish prisoners still in Russia. The sisters received a message to register as Polish citizens and on August 15, 1943, a Polish soldier arrived at their barracks and informed them they were to travel to Southern Russian territory to join Anders’ forces, in one week’s time. “We went nearly crazy,” Sister Celine said. “The soldier made all arrangements and we traveled in ordinary trains until we arrived at Polish Army headquarters at Tashkent.” But disappointment was to greet them, they had missed the last convoy and would have to wait.
They thought the best thing would be to go on working. So they took jobs on collective farms until the day came for their removal. However, they now had protection. The Polish Bishop, in charge of Anders’ army chaplains, took them under his care, and they received food and money. Seven months later they were gathered together and taken to Tehran in Iran where they found their real work waiting for them. They took charge of Polish orphans, children who had straggled through the dreadful years of concentration camps, but whose parents had died.
Thousands of Poles were arriving in Iran from Russia, many of them too undernourished to survive. The American Colonel who assisted in receiving them, has said since that he would never forget the sight. “Some just stepped off the train, kissed the ground, and ceased to breathe.” There is one cemetery of over one thousand Polish graves outside Tehran alone.
The sisters were given a house and once again started convent life. They had charge of one hundred orphans. American and British Red Cross officials provided supplies. Many of the children improved, but for a pitiful number it was too late. Then, there were epidemics – including typhus - among refugees traveling herded together, and the sisters’ school grew as the group of parentless children increased.
Polish refugees were given a year’s transit visa in Iran. At the end of that time, the British Military authorities brought ships into the Persian Gulf and transferred them for Mombasa. The sisters and their charges were taken to a camp for Polish refugees set up at Morogoro in Tanganika [Tanganyika]. They found a friend in the British Commandant who was, according to Sister Celine, “human and kind.” With his assistance they organized a school, then a boarding school in the camp. “It was a happy time,” Sister Celine said. However, the climate did not agree with the children; many caught malaria, and after six months, the British authorities, in co-operation with Polish forces, established a special Polish children’s center at Krongai [Rongai] in Kenya. There, for the next three and a half years, the sisters educated the children, and as they grew older, tried to instruct them in ways to earn their living. Girls were trained in needlework and domestic science; boys were sent to learn carpentry and mechanics. Some were employed at such work in nearby centers.
In 1948 the great mass movement of refugees was started by United Nations organizations. British authorities advised those in their African colonies who could be reunited with relatives to join groups going to Palestine, to the Argentine, Brazil, or back to Poland. The sisters received a message from their Mother General to join parties going to Poland or England. Sister Celine and two other sisters were, however, to remain with about one hundred orphans at a Polish orphanage at Tangeru, Tanganika [Tengeru, Tanganyika], to await transport. In May 1948, they received word to travel to Italy, leaving their charges with a Polish woman, Madame Grosika, who was to act as children's escort officer. A year later the children, also, came to Italy and to the special children's camp at Salerno. They were to be visa-ed for Canada. Just before their journey started, a series of incidents brought to light a sudden interest of the Communist Polish Government. Two children were kidnapped and taken to the Polish Embassy in Rome for questioning, and the trip across Europe was fraught with dangers. So much so, an Envoy from the Vatican joined the train at Rome and stayed on it until it reached Bremerhaven. There Sister Celine, who had come with her former charges from Naples, left them, satisfied they were on their way to safety and happiness in Canada. She went back to the convent in Rome, hoping “that it would be God’s will” that someday she might go back to the States and perhaps visit the children she had guarded so long.
As the train stood at the side station in Rome, I took her photograph with some of the children, she was shy... But she was serene, the long suffering she had endured had left little outward trace. She had kept her sanity and her poise and remained a woman of whom both the country of her ancestors and the country of her birth may well be proud.
To read more about the exodus from Siberia to Africa, we recommend Stolen Childhood: A Saga of Polish War Children, by Lucjan Krolikowski, O.F.M. Conv. (translated by Kazimierz J. Rozniatowski), 1983.
To read another account of deportation during World War II written by a former superior general of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, we also recommend I Remember, and Remember Not: Memories of Childhood and Adolescent Years 1940 – 1950, by Sister Maria Teresa Jasionowicz, CSFN, 1997.