By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — It was synergy. Bronia Roslawowski and Notre Dame de Sion High School fed off each other’s love.
“She loved the Sion kids,” said Bronia’s daughter, Alice Jacks Achtenberg. “These kids gave her life for years. They probably gave her another five years.”
It was five precious years that Adolf Hitler took from Bronia when she was the same age as the high school girls she grew to love.
Holocaust survivor Bronia Roslawowski, a native of Poland, would come to Sion every year to speak of her experiences at an annual Holocaust memorial prayer service, in keeping with the charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, the French order of religious women who hid hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish children from the Nazis during World War II.
It was both an honor and a duty for her to speak, Achtenberg said.
“She always told us she promised God that if she survived, she would tell the people what happened so that it would never happen again,” her daughter said.
Bronia Roslawowski’s life was ruled, not by the hatred of the Holocaust, but by love to the moment of her death on July 14, 2010, from complications following surgery.
And that love was returned by the Sion students who adopted the elderly woman as one of their own, even inviting her to their prom five years ago. They also came, individually and in groups, to Bronia’s home to do odd jobs, or just to listen to a remarkable woman tell her life story of love’s triumph over evil.
At this year’s Holocaust memorial service, held on April 11 in Bronia’s honor, senior Rachael Ungashick told of the first time she heard Bronia speak. Suddenly, the Holocaust became more than a history lesson from a book. It turned into a real event that affected a real person, standing right in front of her.
Ungashick heard Bronia tell of beatings, of taking her sister’s place on a truck headed from Auschwitz to the gas chambers of Birkenau only to jump out in the freezing cold and somehow slipping back into Auschwitz.
“I completely lost myself in Bronia’s story,” Ungashick said. “I wanted to cry, but found it near to impossible to do anything.”
After hearing Bronia speak, Ungashick said she stood in line with her classmates to greet her.
“I felt like I didn’t have any bones in my legs, and I could feel my face growing warmer and warmer the closer I got to Bronia,” Ungashick said.
“When I finally did approach her, she wasted no time and pulled me into a warm embrace, and kissed my cheek,” she said.
“Bronia, you will be remembered,” Ungashick said. “Your story will be retold and retold from grandparents to their grandchildren. The number that was tattooed onto your arm in the camps will be tattooed onto the heards of generations to come.
“Bronia,” Ungashick said, “I will never forget.”
The world must never forget, said Sion Sister Audrey Doetzel, associate director emeritus of Boston College’s Center for Christian and Jewish Learning.
Sister Audrey told the Sion students that immediately after World War II, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion rewrote their constitution to “witness by our lives God’s faithful love for the Jewish people.”
She told of her own pilgrimage to Auschwitz and Birkenau four years ago.
“It just took hold of me,” she said.
“If you sit in a holy place, where people pray, you’ll find that there is something in the atmosphere,” Sister Audrey said.
“What you find in the atmosphere at Auschwitz is evil, the extreme horror, the pain, the suffering, the immensity of the evil that happened there,” she said.
On June 10, 2009, Sister Audrey was attending a two-week seminar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Also inside the building were several children attending special classes.
Just before 1 p.m., white supremacist James Wenneker von Brunn, 88, burst into the building and killed security guard Stephen Tyrone Johns, before being shot and wounded by other security guards. Von Brunn, who had sent an e-mail that morning saying that “it was to kill the Jews,” recovered from his gunshot wounds but died six months later awaiting trial.
The museum, still a crime scene, was shut down the next day. When it reopened two days later, Sister Audrey was surprised to see that the same school children had returned.
“These children had lost their innocence that afternoon, and would never be the same,” she said. “They had been up close to the violent expression of an evil mind.”
Sister Audrey asked a group of children why they returned.
“We’re not going to let him win,” one of them told her.
“What that child expressed was what it means to be a Sister of Sion after the Holocaust,” she said.
“We are not going to let evil win,” Sister Audrey said. “That is why we need you to help us to remember. Together, we are not going to let evil win.”