In a Vatican News exclusive, Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ, the Under-Secretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, recounts the experience of his family during the Second World War.
In an interview with Johanna Bronkova of Vatican News, Cardinal Michael Czerny talks about the dramatic experiences of his family in (then) Czechoslovakia: their Jewish background, their faith, his mother’s internment in a Nazi concentration camp, the war, and their flight to Canada. Among his memories, Cardinal Czerny recalls his grandmother’s painting, on glass, of the “Flight into Egypt” — an image that was reproduced for the commemorative cards distributed on the day of his creation as Cardinal.
Text of the interview with Cardinal Michael Czerny, SJ:
Cardinal Michael Czerny: My parents rarely spoke about their family’s wartime experiences, for several reasons: the memories were painful; they wanted to avoid misinterpretations of their family history; and they preferred to focus on making a new life in Canada.
However, for this interview, I am happy to fill in some details of interest in the country of my birth, the then Czechoslovakia before relocating to Canada in 1948, and about my grandmother who painted the “Flight into Egypt” image which now commemorates my becoming Cardinal.
Question: What was your parents’ experience or involvement during World War II?
MC: My parents lived in Moravia. My mother, Winifred Hayek Czerny, experienced prison and concentration camp for a total of twenty months during World War II. She was also required to work as a farm labourer. Although born and raised Roman Catholic by Roman Catholic parents, her grandparents were born Jewish and she was classified as Jewish by the Nazi authorities who ruled the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from March 1939 onwards.
My father, Egon Czerny, was also Roman Catholic; not having Jewish lineage, he was spared concentration camp; he was put in the forced labour camp at Postoloprty for the last eight months of the War, due to his refusal to divorce my mother, while she was interned at Terezín.
Q: Why was your mother imprisoned as well as being put in a concentration camp?
MC: The Nazi authorities demanded that everyone whom they classified as Jewish surrender valuables to them. It was discovered that my mother had withheld some family jewellery. She was tried and convicted for theft from the state and served a one-year sentence in a women’s prison in Leipzig.
Q: What was your mother’s attitude to being a Holocaust survivor?
MC: My mother did not think of herself in these terms because “Holocaust” is properly attributed to the Jewish community, while she identified as Catholic. Her attitude was that she was fortunate to survive the murderous insanity of a regime that had no legitimate grounds for persecuting and executing anyone merely because of their background.
My mother returned to Terezín in April 1995, and in the guest book of its museum, wrote “I survived.” She indeed survived a monstrous evil that took human beings, each one a unique person, and rendered them anonymous, first coercively reducing them to numbers and then by gas and fire that turned them into ash, into dust. In her art, my mother reversed that evil. Out of “dust” or clay, she sculpted the likeness of many living human persons, likenesses that will last far, far beyond the normal span of years because, ironically, they have been “fired” in a kiln. Our family donated three of her portrait sculptures, including one of myself, to the Terezín museum.
Q: You have reproduced a “Flight into Egypt” painting by your grandmother, Anna Hayek. Please tell us about her.
MC: As well as a wife and the mother of three children, Anna Löw Hayek was a gifted sportswoman and amateur artist. Her surviving artistic output consists of two dozen watercolours and pages of pencil sketches, plus the folk-style “Flight into Egypt” painting on glass which was reproduced for my card.
She was born in 1893. Both she and her husband Hans were Roman Catholic from birth but were classified as Jewish due to their Jewish forebears. With her husband and two sons Karl Robert and Georg, she was transported to the Terezín concentration camp in 1942 or 1943. She died in Auschwitz a few weeks after the war ended; the other three perished earlier.
Q: So then tell us a bit about your family’s move to Canada.
MC: I was born in Brno in July 1946, and my brother Robert in May 1948. That same year, our family fled. The first of many challenges was to get out, and we had to find a place to go. Our parents made many inquiries. They learned that Canada would let us in if we could find someone in Canada to sponsor us. First, a relative was willing but then withdrew the offer. Then a businessman said yes, he could hire my father, but changed his mind when his factory burned down.
Finally, with our family in ever-increasing danger, a high-school classmate of my parents sponsored us. He had himself immigrated to Canada only a few years before with his own wife and young son. The risk of sponsoring included having to support us for a year if my father could not find work. Nevertheless, this family helped us to enter the country, welcomed us and guided us through the very puzzling process of getting around a new city before learning to speak a new language, how to behave before grasping a different culture, earning a living, finally crossing the ethnic barriers and making friends… yet still continuing to live in the languages and cultures we brought with us.
In Canada, our family lived in a French-speaking neighbourhood for two years and then moved elsewhere in Montreal and finally, in 1953, to the English-speaking suburb of Pointe Claire (at that time called Lakeside). So already speaking Czech, I next learned French and then English, which is now my ‘first’ language.
Q: Did you have any relationship with Czechoslovakia or Czech Republic later on?
MC: As an adult, I returned to Czechoslovakia from mid-October 1987 to mid-January 1988. I wanted to explore the land of my birth and have some first-hand experience of life under communism. In Brno I met several times with the Jesuit provincial P. Jan Pavlik, who lived in his mother’s house and had his “office” there. In Prague I often visited P. Karel Dománek, who lived very discreetly in the building where he had worked for many years as the janitor. I also visited P. František Lízna in Velké Opatovice and we concelebrated the Eucharist at the little altar in his mother’s house.
I returned for a few weeks in April 1989, visiting both P. Pavlik and the Slovak provincial P. Andrej Osvald in Važec, where he was parish priest and also ministered to the Rom.
In all of these encounters, I was impressed by the courage and faith of those who kept the flame of Christian faith burning and the sanctuary of Church life open throughout the Communist years.
No one guessed that a huge change was only a few months away! And since then, I have been in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for meetings of the Jesuit Social Apostolate in Central/Eastern Europe, one at the Jesuit residence of the Kostel svatého Ignáce in Prague in January 1996 and another at the Exercičný dom sv. Ignáca in Prešov in November 1998.
Q: Please explain your coat of arms as a Cardinal.
MC: Since January 2017, I am one of the two Undersecretaries of the Vatican Section for Migrants and Refugees. To reflect this ministry as well as my own life experience, my coat of arms shows a boat carrying a family of four – refugees and other people “on the move” often go by boat. In fact, our family of four came by boat to Canada in 1948, so the water below the boat reminds me of the Atlantic Ocean. The boat is also a traditional image of the Church as the Bark of Peter, which has a mandate from Our Lord to “Receive the foreigner” (Matthew 25:35), regardless of where the Church finds herself. Further, like the symbol of the L’Arche movement, the boat is a reminder of the works of mercy towards all who are excluded, forgotten or disadvantaged. The gold sunburst above the boat is the seal of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. And the green background is a reminder of Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’ which calls upon all of us to care for the well-being of Creation, our common home.
Q: And your motto?
MC: My motto is “Suscipe”, the first word and title of the prayer which St Ignatius places in the final contemplation of the Spiritual Exercises, namely, the Contemplation to Attain the Love of God. So with the one word “Suscipe”, I mean to evoke the whole prayer of giving oneself totally to God as the spirituality of being a Cardinal. In his letter to the new Cardinals of October 2019, the Pope explained what this really means: “The Church asks of you a new form of service… a summons to greater self-sacrifice and a consistent witness of life.” And the scarlet robes represent the shedding of blood – usque ad effusionem sanguinis – in total loyalty and fidelity to Christ.
Q: Your pectoral cross is made of wood. Can you tell us about it?
MC: My pectoral cross was made by the Italian artist Domenico Pellegrino. He took the wood from the remains of a boat used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean from Northern Africa in their attempt to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa.
The material suggests the wood of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, the Son of God, “to take away the sins of the world”. The original nail clearly reminds us Jesus was nailed to the Cross; the Jesuit coat of arms includes the traditional three nails. The poor wood suggests the Jesuit vow of poverty and the desire for a humble, engaged Church. The origin of the wood reflects my family’s flight to safety when I was very young as well as my current responsibilities in the Migrants and Refugees Section.
The cracks in the red paint and the wood are reminders of the wounds, the suffering, the blood spilled in the Crucifixion and when the world forgets compassion and justice, while the lighter colour in the upper portion suggests the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, r and the fullness of life which He came to bring.
With thanks to Vatican News.