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Deacon Witold Engel and His Wife Carmen

Archdiocese of Denver

The following is an article about Carmen and Deacon Witold who served at Our Lady of Refuge Parish for nine years. The article appeared in The Tidings on May 5, 2005. In July, 2005 Deacon Witold and Carmen left Our Lady of Refuge parish and moved to Denver, CO to be near their daughter Jenny, son-in-law Tim and grandson Dylan. Deacon Witold and Carmen are continuing their ministry in Colorado.

'Carried by God': A journey of faith

By Sister Nancy Munro, CSJ

An American flag hangs in front of Carmen and Witold Engel's house in Long Beach. The home inside is decorated with "special symbols": photographs of grandson Dylan, including one of Deacon Witold holding Dylan the day he baptizedhim; a painting of Pope John Paul II; small paintings from Carmen's native Guatemala. A framed box holds Witold's sergeant's stripes and pins earned in the Army.
In the dining room is a lectern with a Bible and lectionary printed in Witold's native Polish. Hanging on the wall above the lectern is a ceramic tablet of Mary Stevenson's "Footprints."

Stevenson's famous verses tell of a person walking on the sand with God, and how distressed he is when he realizes that through the saddest times in his life there was only one set of footprints in the sand. "During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints," the Lord said, "it was then that I carried you."

Looking back over his life, Witold Engel says, "God carried all of us. I know God was always with us."

Even, he acknowledges, in times when human decency was not.

Siberia

Born in Stryj, a city in southeastern Poland, about 50 kilometers from the Ukrainian-Russian border, Witold Engel was three years old in 1936 when Russian soldiers took thousands as political prisoners, including Witold, his mother Boleslawa, father Wilhelm and older sister Irena. They went by train to a camp in Siberia not far from the North Pole. As prisoners the men did menial labor and built huts for the Russians. Witold's brother Ted was born in the camp. The family lived there until 1940.

Russian police patrols used tanks to contain the camp, but no fences. Those who tried to escape were shot.

One moonless night a kind Mongolian man came with a wagon and horse with rags on its feet and around the wheels to take the family to back to the border. The journey took a year. They hid during the day and walked at night. At times they could hear Russians nearby. They were never discovered. They ate fish and birds raw, afraid to make campfires.

A year later they reached Kiev. They saw German troops in the distance. The Engels and their guide spoke only in Russian. The soldiers gave them food and then the Mongolian man left for home. The soldiers allowed the family to stay with them and they heard stories about the Polish being slaughtered by the Germans. A Ukrainian family gave them a wagon and horse and, early one morning they used it to get back to Stryj. They begged for food along the way but usually were turned away.

Death camps

When the Engels returned to Stryj, their home near the Jewish ghetto was still intact, but they could hear shots in the streets. German troops occupied the city.

At Christmastime the SS came to their home and told them that they were to leave with them. "We are not Jews," Wilhelm Engel said to the SS soldier. The soldier answered, "You are Polish, Catholic and enemies of the Third Reich. Be ready in a half hour."

Witold's mother told the family to take their warmest clothing. At the train station many others tried to escape and were shot. They boarded cattle cars. "Where are we going?" Witold asked his father. He answered, "Where we are going, we will probably never come back."

Normally not a long trip from Stryj to Auschwitz, the heavy snow meant a 13-hour trek. Many died, and children and babies froze to death. Every so often soldiers opened the doors and threw out bodies.

"As a little boy, I was petrified," says Witold. "I didn't know what was happening."

When they arrived in Auschwitz they saw prisoners in striped uniforms and small blankets; they were shivering. Soldiers were shooting them in the courtyard. "Where are we, father?" he asked. "This is a concentration camp --- a death camp," said Wilhelm. "I didn't want to tell you, my son, but this is where you die."

"What did we do?" asked Witold. His father replied, "Jesus did nothing, too, my son."

Witold was nine years old and went with the men. A letter "P" was sewn on their clothing. Today Witold cries when he relates all that happened. The crematorium was burning. It could be seen and smelled. They could see the gas chambers. Pipes in the courtyard were used to hang people. Electric wires surrounded the camp.

Witold and his father were assigned to remove clothing from prisoners who had just been executed. New arrivals would receive the clothing. Approximately 6,000 a day were put to death. Witold hated the Nazis. But his father would say, "Don't hate them so much, my son. Remember, Jesus died on the cross for all of us and he didn't complain. He said, 'Forgive them, Father.'"

In the courtyard one day an SS soldier beat to death a priest saying the rosary. Witold was next to another man who tried to stop the soldier. The soldier took out his gun and shot the man; his blood sprayed Witold. Then the soldier said to Witold, "You, Polish cockroach, you are Polish, you are Catholic and you believe in God."

Witold stood up and was shaking. "Yes, I am a Catholic and I believe in God. You should be ashamed of yourself. You are a butcher. You shouldn't do this." The soldier took the gun out again --- and then another soldier came up and said that an officer wanted the soldier. Witold was spared.

During the winter of 1944 prisoners' names were called to board a train. First Witold heard his name and then his father's --- and later his mother's, his brother's and sister's. Witold turned to his father and said, "They're alive. They're alive." His father said, "Yes, they're alive." Witold cries today when he relates how he found out they were alive.

All of the prisoners on the train were like skeletons. Those who died on the trip were thrown off. One night Russian planes strafed the train with rocketfire. German soldiers and prisoners who tried to run away were killed. So Witold and his family hid under the train. About 400 prisoners remained and they walked together. A while later, on an open field, they could see troops and trucks coming --- SS men. Again they were put on a train for Dachau.

Though smaller, Dachau was similar to Auschwitz. From the winter of 1944 until spring of 1945 the family grew weaker. Witold, barely a teenager, had been beaten and was unconscious many times. "Let them kill me," he would say after being mistreated. He could only walk a few steps and then would fall down.

Finally, one day in April 1945, Witold and his father, who was lying on a stretcher, were in the courtyard when they heard shots in the distance. Witold was dizzy. He remembers thinking, "Oh, my God, I hope they are not Russians."

Then he saw a white star on the tanks and eight or nine soldiers at the fence --- Americans! German soldiers, who had not had time to cremate the huge piles of skeletons in the middle of the yard, quickly surrendered and their commander was arrested.

The American soldiers had accidentally found the concentration camp. Had they not arrived when they did, Witold believes he would have died in a day or two.

The American soldiers had coffee and food, and the desperately hungry prisoners smelled it and started running toward it. So the Americans fired shots into the air. The prisoners held their arms in the air and begged, "Don't kill us! Don't kill us!"

An American lieutenant from Chicago came up to Witold and asked in Polish (which he had learned from his grandparents), "What are you doing here? How old are you?"

"Thirteen," answered Witold.

"My son, you are free!" cried the lieutenant, picking Witold up and holding him in his arms, caring not at all that Witold had lice and was dirty. Both were sobbing. "You are my countryman," the lieutenant said. "The Germans aren't going to do anything to you anymore. You are free."

Road to forgiveness

The American soldiers stayed with them for two weeks until medical trucks arrived to take them to an Army hospital in Ingolstadt. Many prisoners died anyway, but Witold and his family somehow survived.

Still, Witold was in the hospital for a year. Realizing that he had never received his First Communion or confirmation, a Polish priest worked with him for two years to help him forgive so he could receive the sacraments. Witold asked the priest, "What God permits this?" The priest would reply, "Son, pray. Remember what your father said about Jesus' words: 'They know not what they do.'" Witold began to feel that he had a special calling to serve God and others as a priest.

The family remained in Ingolstadt, a sister and brother were born, and in 1951 --- when Witold was 18 --- the Engels immigrated to the U.S. At the age of 23 he tried to enter the priesthood, but was told he was too old and his English was not good enough. So he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served for six years.

Out of the service, living in Los Angeles, friends encouraged him to look for a wife. One day he filled out a coupon for singles. He indicated his age, phone number and religion. At about the same time a young Catholic woman from Guatemala named Carmen completed the same form.

When Witold called Carmen, she told him he was too old and that it would not work. Undaunted, he tried again a month later, suggesting dinner and a movie, hoping that meeting him might change her mind. Carmen agreed to the date, and Witold arrived at the apartment she shared with her sister carrying a gold box with yellow roses.

They dated for a month and one day Witold took Carmen to church and they prayed together. He then put a ring on her finger and said, "You are mine." He had known from the moment he saw her on their first date that this would be the woman he would marry. After two months Carmen and Witold were wed at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood.

'I need to serve the Lord'

After nearly 30 years of marriage Carmen and Witold began to talk of retirement. She thought that maybe they would travel. He said he wanted to become a deacon. He was a Eucharistic minister, but "I need something else," he told Carmen. "The Lord has been so good to me that I need to serve him." So Carmen said, "OK. I am going to help you and I am going to be there for you."

During his diaconate formation, Witold would help at St. Francis Center for the Homeless and at Skid Row. Just before ordination to the deaconate a priest working with the group of candidates and their wives asked them what type of deacons they wanted to be.

Witold said, "I want to be a simple deacon and to serve the poor. For me the most important part is to go out and serve."

Members of Our Lady of Refuge Church in Long Beach since 1982, Witold and Carmen attended all of the formation classes together. He was ordained a deacon on June 12, 1999, which fulfilled his wish for ordination.

His ministry, he says, is more than he could have imagined. "I love to baptize children, to do funerals, lead rosaries in funeral homes, go to convalescent homes and celebrate Communion services," he says. "I love it."

On Mother's Day, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Witold proclaimed the Gospel during the liturgy to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the ending of World War II. Witold and other survivors of concentration camps were asked to stand and be recognized.

"What a gift for me," says the former concentration camp prisoner, "to proclaim the Gospel in the Cathedral! It was a blessing!"

Now, each morning Witold wakes up, prepares a fruit drink for him and Carmen, and prays the liturgy of the hours. He prays, "Thank you, Lord. I am alive. Thank you for another day. And I thank you, God, that I am just a lousy servant of yours and I thank you for calling me to the diaconate. I love my ministry very much."

"I thank God," Witold says simply, "for everything I have."