The seldom told story of Otto Schimek, a faithful witness to peace for Poland

The tombstone of Otto Schimek, who was executed by his own Nazi forces for refusing to kill Poles during World War II, is seen in this photo from Machowa, Poland. Schimek was just 19 years old, but continues to be seen as a witness to peace for Polish Catholics today.

The tombstone of Otto Schimek, who was executed by his own Nazi forces for refusing to kill Poles during World War II, is seen in this photo from Machowa, Poland. Schimek was just 19 years old, but continues to be seen as a witness to peace for Polish Catholics today.

Michael McCarthy | Special to The Michigan Catholic

The Polish people have a long history of a deep abiding faith, more than 1,000 years now. They have many times been caught in the midst of wars, encroaching on their borders, and been persistent in following Catholic traditions. In southern Poland, during World War II, they were even able to recognize the peaceful valor of a young fellow Catholic, who was a soldier in the occupying enemy Nazi army.

Otto Schimek was 19 years old when he was executed by his own Wermacht German army, because he refused be part of killing Polish civilians. The people in the area of Machowa, Poland, where he was stationed, were amazed to have seen him praying at their roadside Marian shrines, as he walked their highways. After he was condemned to death by firing squad on Nov. 14, 1944, local Catholics took the risk of finding his body, and giving it Christian re-burial.

Otto was brought up by his family in Vienna, Austria, to practice his Catholic faith. In his school years, he was only moderately successful, and was tracked into technical programs. He was the youngest of 13 children, only five of whom survived early childhood. His family lived in a poor tenement area of Vienna, and his mother Maria and he were very close. She taught him his prayers and a strong dedication to the Virgin Mary. When drafted into Hitler’s Wermacht forces, he was distressed to the point of refusing to shoot during a first deployment in Croatia. That led to seven months imprisonment in the Fortress Glatz, a place in southern Poland the German army reserved for special cases.

His next assignment was to the Machowa area, where he met his end for his continued refusal to fight for Hitler’s army. Twenty years later, there were pilgrimages to the parish church in Machowa, twice a year during the period when Poland, and all Eastern Europe, were breaking free of the Soviet Union and Communist control. His name was celebrated in many circles, from the most devout to the purely political. Lech Walesa of the Solidarity Union, leading the way to freedom for Poland in those times, praised Otto Schimek’s witness, that of a 19-year-old Nazi soldier who wouldn’t kill Polish peasants in World War II. Pope St. John Paul II wanted to visit his grave, but instead said these words at a neighboring parish on one of his papal visits to Poland:

“I want to emphasize this aspect of love, this very affectionate person of our people — he was an Austrian — in remembrance he is called Otto Schimek. During the war he was given the command to shoot and kill the civil population. He refused and was killed himself.”

When conscripted into the armies of Hitler, Otto had told his family and others that he couldn’t kill anyone. Then, before his death, he said again he couldn’t kill: “The war was provoked by the Germans and is not Christian,” he said. In his final letter before his execution, he said, “I am in a happy mood. What do we have to lose? Nothing; only our poor lives, as they cannot kill our souls. What a hope! Today, I am going to heaven, where the Father is waiting. May God guard you so that you will join me.”

From the heart of his family faith learned in Vienna, and in sometimes difficult circumstances at different stages of his young life — barely begun and undistinguished — Otto Schimek found the courage not to kill. A young Austrian soldier died by firing squad in 1944 for refusing the orders of an unjust war. If more can only be leaned of the details of his witness, as Pope John Paul II suggested on that visit to southern Poland, “His grave remains among these people [of Machowa], but he achieved so much fame — I would like to say the fame of a servant of God.”

What a hope this gives in today’s world so wearied by wars without end, so well understood by the Polish people, to all of us who take courage in the saving mercy of our God, whose justice transcends all borders.

Michael McCarthy is a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Port Huron and is a leader of Blue Water Pax Christi, a Catholic organization that promotes peace around the world.