Joseph Kowalski was born at Siedliska, Poland, a little farming town near Rzeszow, on March 13, 1911, the son of Wojciech and Sofia Borowiec. The family’s faith was deep and practical. He was baptized on March 19, feast of St. Joseph, in the parish church at Lubenia, about 2½ miles from the town, which at that time did not have a church.
Following his parents’ wishes, after finishing his elementary schooling, at age 11 he went to St. John Bosco School at Oswiecim, where stayed five years. In these years he was distinguished by rare piety, diligence, joy, and a spirit of service. Everyone liked him, and he was counted among the better boys. He belonged to the Immaculate Conception Sodality, was president of the mission club, and led religious and cultural activities among his schoolmates. It was hardly strange that there grew in him the desire to follow in the steps of his teachers, who saw in him the signs of the grace of a genuine vocation.
The educational environment and Christian formation of his teen years are suggestive of all the characteristic elements of the Preventive System: a youthful environment, a trusting rapport with his teachers, groups with commitments, the more mature boys taking responsibility, devotion to Mary Help of Christians, frequenting the sacraments.
That in this environment Joseph pursued his own personal journey toward holiness as he “imitated Dominic Savio” is shown, among other ways, in some pages of his “Private Notebooks”: “To die rather than to offend you by the slightest sin”; “O my good Jesus, give me a will that is persevering, firm, strong, so that I can persevere in my holy resolutions and can attain my lofty ideal: the holiness that has been appointed for me. I can and must be a saint.” The same notebooks document his very personal attachment to Jesus Christ, which continued to mature with the years, in particular after his religious profession: “Jesus, I want to be truly faithful and faithfully to serve you…. I dedicate myself totally to you…. Keep me close to you always and faithful to you until death and maintain my oath: ‘To die rather than to offend you by the slightest sin’…. I must be a holy Salesian, as my father Don Bosco was a saint.”
Fr. Kowalski as a young Salesian
As a young student of philosophy in 1930, he had written in blood on a page in his diary, after he had sketched a small cross: “To suffer and to be despised for you, O Lord…. Fully aware, with a decisive will, and ready for all the consequences, I embrace the sweet cross of Christ’s call, and I wish to carry it until the end, until death.” He asked to become a Salesian, and in 1927 he entered the novitiate at Czerwinsk. There followed his years of college and philosophy at Krakow (1928-1931), practical training capped by his perpetual profession (1934), and his theological studies leading to his priestly ordination in 1938.
The provincial, Fr. Adam Cieslar, called him immediately to be his secretary, and he fulfilled that role for the next three years. He is described as a confrere who was notable for an amazing self-mastery and exceptional esteem for each of his brothers: helpful, courteous, always calm, and especially very hardworking. As much as his duties allowed, he put himself to studying languages (Italian, French, German); he read with interest biographies of the Founder and prepared his homilies most carefully. The duties of provincial secretary did not prevent him from carrying out pastoral ministry. He was always available to preach or give conferences, especially among the youngsters, and to hear confessions. Gifted with a keen musical ear and possessing a beautiful voice, he took care of the parish youth choir, adding to the solemnity of the liturgical celebrations.
This zealous priestly activity among the young is exactly what the Nazis had in mind and was the reason why they arrested Fr. Kowalski on May 23, 1941, together with 11 other Salesians. They were jailed temporarily in Krakow’s Montelupich prison. After a month he and the others were moved to the Auschwitz concentration camp (Oswiecim in Polish). Here he saw four of his confreres killed [on June 27, 1941]. They included his director Fr. Joseph Swierc and his confessor Fr. Ignatius Dobiasz. He became prisoner no. 17350 and underwent a year of hard labor and mistreatment in the so-called “hardship corps,” where few survived. His transfer to Dachau was decided, but at the last moment it was halted in circumstances well described by witnesses who were deposed during the process investigating his martyrdom, also reported in the process of beatification of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He remained in the “hardship corps” at Auschwitz.
Fr. Kowalski’s prison ID
The prison camp became the field of his pastoral ministry. He united his suffering to diligent attention to his comrades, especially to strengthen their hope and sustain their faith. We report some facts to which some testified: “The chiefs of the SK (Strafkompanie, punitive unit), knowing that Kowalski was a priest, harassed him at every step, beat him at every occasion, ordered him to the harshest work.” But he never stopped offering to his comrades all the priestly service possible: “Despite a strict prohibition, he absolved the sins of the dying, strengthened the discouraged, spiritually comforted the poor men who had been sentenced to death, secretly brought around Communion; he managed even to organize Mass in the barracks, led prayer, and helped those who were in need.” “In that death camp where, according to the expression of the commanders, God was absent, he succeeded in bringing God to his fellow prisoners.” His interior and exterior attitude during this entire Calvary was shown in [his last] letter to his parents: “Don’t worry about me; I’m in God’s hands…. I want to assure you that I feel his help at every step. In spite of the present situation, I’m happy and completely at peace; I’m sure that wherever I may be and whatever may happen to me, everything comes from the fatherly Providence of God, who in the most just manner directs the fates of every nation and of all human beings.”
Two facts speak eloquently of his heroic pastoral zeal. The first is the organization of daily prayer in the camp: “When we’d barely come out of our blocks in the morning, we used to assemble, while it was still dark (at 4:30), forming a little group of 5-8 persons, near one of the blocks, in a less visible spot (the discovery of such a gathering might have cost us our lives), to recite a prayer that we repeated after him. The little group grew bit by bit, even though it was very risky.”
Forced labor in a Nazi concentration camp
The second happened on June 2, 1942. An order came from the concentration camps high command: 60 priests were to be deported from Auschwitz to Dachau. That was another extermination camp, where 3,000 priests were interned. Fr. Joseph Kowalski was among those selected for the trip. The 60 priests were stuffed into a bathhouse to be disinfected before they left. The scene that unfolded has been narrated under oath by Fr. Conrad Szweda: “We were gathered in the bathhouse, waiting our turn to be disinfected. [SS Gerhard] Palitzsch came in, the most pitiless of the executioners of Auschwitz. He noticed that Fr. Kowalski had something in his hand: ‘What do you have?’ he asked brusquely. And without waiting for an answer, he struck the hand with his whip, and a rosary fell out. ‘Step on it!’ he shouted. Fr. Joseph did not move. He was immediately separated from the group and transferred to the special discipline unit.”
The events of the last day of his life, July 3, 1942, were even more tragic. Every deed and every word of those last 24 hours are clothed with a particularly important meaning. “When our work was done,” one witness tells, “his comrades led Fr. Kowalski to the block; he’d been ill treated by the officers. After his return, I spent the last moments together with him. We realized that after the slaying of our bunk mates (of five, three had already been killed), now our turn was coming. In that situation, Fr. Kowalski was concentrated in prayer. At a certain moment he turned to me and said, ‘Kneel and pray with me for all these men who are killing us.’ We both prayed until the roll-call was done, till late in the evening on the bunk. After a little bit Mitas came to us and called Fr. Kowalski, who rose from the bunk with a tranquil spirit, because he’d prepared for this call and for the death that would follow. He gave me the portion of bread he’d received for supper, saying, ‘You eat it; I won’t need it.’ After these words he went knowingly to his death.
“Before the final act, which would occur early on the morning of July 4, on the 3d a sacred play was enacted, in which was revealed the heroic dignity of a genuine testimony of faith. The commanders had gone mad in their mania for killing. They enjoyed themselves immensely with the cruel spectacles they created. On this day they continued their sadistic morning’s entertainment right through their lunch break. One they would drown in the nearby cesspool, others they would hurl from the high embankment to the bottom of a great canal that was being excavated, full of muddy clay. Any victim who moaned, not yet dead, was shoved into a big barrel that was missing a bottom, which served as a kennel for the dogs. They made them imitate the baying of the dogs and then, pouring some of their soup upon the ground, they compelled the dying men to lick it from the dirt. One of the officers yelled with a raucous laugh: ‘And where’s that Catholic priest? He can bless them for their trip to eternity.’ Meanwhile other tormentors were beating Fr. Kowalski down into the mud for their amusement. Then they led him, hardly resembling a man, to the barrel. Naked, he was dragged out of a muddy pool, holding what was left of his tattered pants and dripping from head to foot with that sticky mix of mud and dung. Driven by blows, he came to the barrel where some lay dying and others dead. The executioners thrashed Fr. Kowalski, mocked him as a priest, and ordered him to climb upon the barrel and impart to the dying ‘according to the Catholic rite, the last blessing for their trip to Paradise.’
“Fr. Kowalski knelt on the barrel, made the Sign of the Cross, and began loudly, as if inspired, to recite slowly the Our Father, Hail Mary, ‘We fly to thy patronage,’ and Hail, Holy Queen. The eternal words of truth contained in the divine strophes of the Lord’s Prayer deeply impressed the prisoners who from day to day, from hour to hour, expected in that place a sudden death, like that of those in the kennel who were leaving this valley of tears, so disfigured that they no longer looked like human beings. Curled up on the grass, not daring to raise our heads lest we expose ourselves to the view of the executioners, we relished Fr. Kowalski’s piercing words like material food that gave us a desired peace. Upon that ground soaked in prisoners’ blood, our tears now flowed and sank in as we assisted at the sublime mystery celebrated by Fr. Kowalski against the backdrop of that macabre scene. Nestled near me on the grass, a young student of Jaslo (Thaddeus Kokosz) whispered into my ear: ‘The world has never before heard a prayer like this. Maybe not even in the catacombs did they pray like that.’”
From a careful reconstruction we learn that he was killed in the night of July 3-4, 1942. He was drowned in the camp sewer. His fellow prisoner Stephen Boratynski, who saw his completely filthy corpse left in front of the block of the so-called “punishment unit,” testified to this under oath.
The decree of Fr. Kowalski’s martyrdom was published on March 26, 1999. He was beatified [with 107 other Polish victims of Nazi persecution] on June 13, 1999, by St. John Paul II [who, as a university student, had known him in the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Krakow’s Debniki neighborhood].