Pope John Paul II has beatified probably more holy persons than any pope before him. One reason for this is that during his reign the secret archives of Republican Spain and the Nazi and the Communist governments have become largely available. With these sources now accessible, it is becoming easier to discover what and why Catholics suffered for their faith in the cruel years of totalitarianism.
On June 21, 1998, the Holy Father, concluding a three-day visit to Austria, declared four Austrian nationals “blessed”. One of the most fascinating of this group was Sister Restituta Kafka, a nun who was a nurse and anesthetist in a Viennese hospital. The account we follow here tells little about her background, but presents a stirring account of her martyrdom. It comes from the London Tablet.
According to The Tablet, Sister Restituta was no ordinary nun. Friends often called her “Sister Resoluta”, for resolute she was: a very independent woman who stood firmly by her decisions. After a busy day at the hospital, following her usual routine, she would drop in for dinner at a nearby tavern and order “a goulash and a pint of my usual” — her favorite beer. If she was set in her ways, she was also unimpressive in appearance. Though short in height, she was also plump in figure, weighing “14 stone” (196 pounds). As an experienced technician, she was probably middle-aged.
For all that, Sister Restituta was a caring woman, very competent in her specialty, and graced with an infectious sense of humor. Her true character was to be tested after the Nazis seized Austria in April 1938.
One of the first steps the invaders took was to close over 1400 establishments that were under religious control. More than 200 convents were suppressed, all Catholic societies and youth organizations were disbanded, and numerous charitable institutions were seized. Sister Kafka was allowed to continue her work, but her hospital was put under the control of personnel loyal to the new government.
Restituta, a woman religious as well as an anesthetist, had always carefully attended to the spiritual needs of her patients. Although religious acts were now forbidden in the hospital wards, she continued to pray, at least privately, with the sick, and see that they secretly received the last rites. The surgeon with whom she worked in the operating room was a fanatical Nazi, but he depended so much on her that at first he kept quiet about her forbidden religious interventions.
Not long afterward, however, when a new hospital wing was opened, Sister Kafka made bold to hang crucifixes in the rooms. She was also discovered making a copy of an anti-Fascist song. The surgeon now decided it was his patriotic duty to report her to the Gestapo. As a result, on Ash Wednesday, February 18, 1942, a group of SS storm troopers came to the hospital and arrested her.
Sister Restituta was imprisoned for a year, but imprisonment did not change her character or her firmness. Although the food allowed her was meager, she gave most of it to others. Thus she saved the life of a pregnant mother and her baby.
After a year of trying to break this unbreakable woman, Martin Bormann, Hitler’s own secretary, decided that it was necessary not only to punish Sister Kafka, but to make an example of her and show others that disobedience would not be tolerated. He sentenced her to execution by the guillotine, that weighted lethal knife that had brought quick death by beheading to so many during the French Revolution. A chaplain was allowed to attend Sister Kafka to the door of the chamber of execution but no farther. He reported hearing the swish and thud of the sharp steel down its tracks.
Sister Restituta had chosen the religious name in honor of a Roman martyr of the third century, who, by the way, had also died by decapitation. The Nazis were aware that Catholics would want to take Sister Kafka’s body and honor it as that of a martyr, so they hurried it off for burial in an unidentified mass grave. She was the only nun to be sent to the guillotine by the Nazis in the German territories.
It is customary at beatifications for the friends of a Blessed to present the pope with an ornamental reliquary containing a bone of the candidate for beatification. Sister Restituta’s reliquary contained just a piece of her habit, the only earthly thing she died possessed of.
In 1995 the street on which her old hospital stands, now a maternity hospital, had been renamed “Sister Restituta Street”. Thus all babies born there now have her name on their baptismal certificates.
–Father Robert F. McNamara