People never forgot meeting Maria.
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh described seeing her in 1930s Paris:
“I was walking along the Boulevard du Montparnasse when I saw a café table on which was a glass of beer, behind it sitting a Russian nun in full monastic robes. I looked at her and decided that I would never go near that woman!”
Mother Maria, later known as Saint Maria of Paris – married twice, divorced twice and with three children by two different men – has since been recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Gentiles.
Born into an aristocratic family in Russia, following the 1917 Revolution Maria fled to Paris. There she scraped a living sewing, making dolls and painting silk scarves.
When her daughter died of meningitis, Maria came to believe that God was calling her to serve the poor. She became a ‘revolutionary nun’ – wearing the veil. but remaining in the world.
In Paris, Mother Maria opened a refuge for people in dire need. Soon she was feeding up to one hundred people daily.
“At the Last Judgment, I shall not be asked how many times I bowed at the altar,” she said. “Instead I shall be asked if I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and the prisoners in their jail.”
On 14 June 1940, Paris fell to the Germans. Overnight, life changed for the worse.
Maria had no illusions about Nazism.
“If the worst comes to the worst,” she wrote, “the Germans will shut me up in a concentration camp. Yet people live on – even in the camps.”
When she heard that Jews in the nearby Compiègne internment camp were being singled out for barbaric treatment, Mother Maria started to work with the Resistance, collecting food and smuggling it into the prisoners.
In March 1942, Adolf Eichmann ordered every Jew aged six or over to wear the yellow Star of David.
“If we were true Christians we would all wear the star,” Maria responded.
In July 1942 the French police began the mass arrest of the Jews of Paris. They detained 6,900 in the Vélodrome d’Hiver stadium, near the Eiffel Tower. 4,051 of them mere children.
Courageously, Maria went to help, distributing food she managed to smuggle in.
She even managed to rescue a few children from the crowded, unsanitary stadium, persuading refuse-collectors to smuggle them out in rubbish bins.
In February 1942 the Gestapo arrested Mother Maria for aiding the Jews.
“You brought your daughter up badly!” the Nazi officer taunted her 80-year-old mother. “All she does is help Jews!”
“My daughter is a true Christian,” responded the old lady. “For her there is neither Gentile nor Jew.”
Maria too was now taken to Compiègne. From there, the Germans transported her by railway truck to Ravensbrück concentration camp. She was tattooed with prisoner number 19263.
Maria soon became the same beacon of hope at Ravensbrück that she had been in Paris. In the midst of horror, she organized evening prayers for her fellow prisoners.
“I don’t know what Mother Maria said to them,” a fellow prisoner remembered, “but they went off radiant.”
At Easter 1944, Maria decorated the windows of her barrack block with decoupage made of white paper. “Christ is risen!” she told her fellow prisoners.
Mother Maria took particular care of the younger women prisoners.
“She was full of good cheer…. We were woken at three in the morning and had to stand out in the open in the middle of winter until all the barracks were counted. She used to say, ‘Well that’s that, yet another day completed. And tomorrow will be the same all over again. But one fine day the time will come for all of this to end.'”
By March 1945, Maria was so weak that she had to lie down between roll-calls. Twice she survived selection for death. However, on Good Friday 1945 she could not rise. Prison guards took away her glasses and led her to the gas chamber.
Defying the Holocaust
Mother Maria’s story is not unique. In my new book, Defying the Holocaust, I have told the stories of ten Christians from different church, and various European countries, who helped protect and save oppressed Jews during World War II.
Some Christians chose to stand alongside suffering Jews. But many looked away, knowingly or unknowingly following twenty centuries of anti-Semitism.
Over the course of World War II at least 11 million died in the concentration and death camps. The Nazis murdered approximately six million Jews and at least five million non-Jews. More than one million children were murdered, many new-born or unborn.
It is vital these terrible figures are remembered. Especially this year – 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, and at a time when anti-Semitism is yet again being widely experienced.
It is equally important – and uplifting – to remember the lone figures – such as Maria of Paris – who suffered the ultimate fate for her Jewish neighbours
Historian Tim Dowley’s new book “Defying the Holocaust: Ten courageous Christians who supported Jews” is available online.