When I was a younger woman, I had recurring nightmares about being trapped by the Nazis. Maybe that’s strange, but I was a history major who devoured information about modern European history, had a lively imagination and was prone to anxious dreams.
I would wake up to that heart-thumping, terrifying feeling of being nearly ensnared, followed by the euphoria of realizing I’d been dreaming.
Unfortunately for the millions who suffered during the Holocaust and under the brutality of Hitler’s Germany, the nightmares were real, and awakening only brought a renewed sense of horror.
It was with this in mind that I recently became acquainted with one of the stars in our Catholic constellation, Blessed Restituta Kafka. Her feast day is Oct. 29. Obviously not a household name, Restituta nonetheless deserves notice for the courageous path she took to martyrdom. She sparked something in my imagination. Just who, I wondered, was Restituta Kafka, and where did she ever get that very unusual name?
She was born with, arguably, a much lovelier name, Helene, in 1894. She lived in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later, her homeland would become part of the Czech Republic, but two brutal wars took place before that happened. She was a shoemaker’s daughter, and, according to some sources, her dad wasn’t wild about her entry into the convent, but off she went, where she became a nurse.
Apparently, she was a talented operating room nurse seasoned in the bloodbath of World War I, and she rose to prominence in her Austrian hospital.
There are photos online that purport to be of Restituta, who looks like a solid, no-nonsense type. One picture, however, shows a woman in a stark white habit smiling broadly, the image of someone you’d love to see at your bedside.
It used to be the style, of course, that photos showed folks looking serious and stern. I suppose getting your picture taken was a relatively rare occurrence, so you wanted to pay it the respect of severity. Fortunately, someone caught Restituta’s jovial side at least once.
The striking thing about Restituta’s name is that she took it in honor of a third-century martyr who was beheaded by the Roman Empire. Another empire, another millennium, and Restituta died the same way: beheading, this time by the Nazis. That gives me the shivers.
What was her crime? The Nazis decreed that religious imagery had to be banished from schools and hospitals. When a new addition was added to Restituta’s hospital, she boldly put a crucifix in every room, lest there be any question of her facility’s loyalty.
Perhaps the Nazis had more pressing things to do than monitor hospital rooms, but a doctor who was a Nazi loyalist ratted on Restituta, and she was imprisoned.
Even then, she was given an out: Leave your religious order and go quietly. But Restituta refused. Her last words were: “I have lived for Christ; I want to die for Christ.”
Although many priests and nuns died at the hands of the Nazis, including the great Edith Stein, who became St. Teresa Benedicta but died in a concentration camp because of her Jewish heritage, no other nun in Europe was sentenced to execution by beheading except Restituta Kafka.
The annals of World War II literature are full of heroes who challenge us to question how we would have responded to that real-life nightmare. So here’s one more hero: Blessed Restituta Kafka, pray for us.