Born to a peasant family in Krašic, Croatia, Stepinac lived under four different governments, all of which influenced his life and sculpted his resistance. After serving in the military, Stepinac chose to be a priest and was ordained in 1930. Deep faith and a concern for human rights dominated his life. His voice—which defended people of all faiths—would be his legacy. It would also be his undoing.
Two years after he was consecrated archbishop of Zagreb—the largest city in Croatia—World War II began. Almost immediately, Stepinac used his position to speak out against the treatment of Jews and Orthodox Christians.
He backed his statements with action, instructing his priests to provide baptismal certificates to any in need of protection. Stepinac also allowed people—mostly Jews—to hide in monasteries. Estimates of lives saved by Cardinal Stepinac are in the hundreds.
After the war ended, Stepinac’s battle with Communism garnered unwanted attention: Falsely accused of war crimes, he was arrested and tried in September of 1946. Convicted, he was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor, despite vehement opposition from many Jews who credited Stepinac with saving their lives. He was released from prison in 1951 but put under house arrest, dying nine years later from arsenic poisoning, it is suspected. His memory, though, endures.
What is it about heroism that captures the human heart? I think these brave people exhibit qualities that speak to our own potential.
Stepinac was a restless, righteous spirit: What the Nazis sought to destroy, he fought to save. When nations turned a blind eye to the victimized, he shed light on them. He spoke for those whose own voices were muffled. Simply put, Stepinac wasn’t afraid to stand up.
Stepinac proves that speaking out is a noble act. The many people he saved—and the generations alive today because of him—are the fruits of his life’s work, the echoes of his raised voice.
Alojzije Stepinac’s life exemplifies the passage from the Talmud that reads: “Whoever saves one life is as though he had saved the entire world.”
Featured image: graur codrin