Here follows an academic paper I wrote in answer to the question of why Catholic Polish priests were singled out for persecution in the Holocaust. The vast majority of my research comes from The Priest Barracks, and this is almost a summary of the book, especially since for this blog post I veered somewhat from my original thesis in order to talk about the priests’ experiences more. I recommend everyone read The Priest Barracks instead of this essay, because it’s a short but powerful book. But in case you don’t, or in order to entice you to read it, I’ve made this for you, dear reader. It’s not a very pleasant gift, but in it lies truth and virtue and sorrow, light in a time of darkness, and you deserve to know it.
The Priest Barracks
1,034 clergymen lost their lives in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, located in Bavaria in southern Germany.1 The camp comprised 30 barracks, 3 of which were dedicated to clergy—priests, monks, and seminarians. Of the 2,720 clergymen imprisoned there, most were Catholic, and 65% were Polish,2 and of the third of these men who died there, the Polish clergy in particular comprised about 84% of the death count—868 persons.3 This begs a question of why priests, in particular Catholic Poles, suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis. An examination of Nazis goals, the beliefs of their leaders, and the experience of the priests in Dachau will grant an understanding of the anti-Catholic and anti-religious nature of the Nazi regime, and the role Dachau played in revealing the evil of the Nazis and the character of these clergy and their faith. This essay will begin by shedding light on the anti-Christian policies and beliefs of Nazi leaders, then continue on to explain the origin of Dachau’s priest barracks and the reasons clergy found themselves there, what sort of treatment the clergy there experienced, and how these men experienced and understood the suffering they endured, and how it defines them.
Nazi Philosophy Versus Christianity
In May 1938, a Nazi propaganda image entitled Der Stürmer depicted a Catholic priest writing in his office at the directive the “Jewish devil,” a satyr-like creature with horns and a nose intended to resemble a Jewish caricature.4 This exemplifies a common theme of Nazi propaganda, that of depicting various ideologies or institutions as fronts for nefarious Jews, like Catholic priests as puppets of the deceptive “Jew,” a coercive instrument of evil. The SS in particular held prejudice against the Church, due to the fanatical leadership of the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. In the 1920s, Himmler “began to develop an anti-Catholic bias that would eventually lead him to advocate the public execution of the Pope and to compel many of his Catholic SS men to leave the Church.”5 In 1937 he wrote, “The mission of the SS during the next fifty years will be to give the German people an anti-Christian concept of the world that is proper to it.”6 Furthermore, in his speech at Reinhard Heydrich’s funeral on June 9, 1942, he said, “We will have to deal with Christianity in a tougher way than hitherto. We must settle accounts with this Christianity, this greatest of plagues that could have happened to us in our history, which has weakened us in every conflict.”7 After describing his own philosophy of god and ethics, “rooted in our ancestors and grandchildren,” he said we must “overcome Christianity.”8 Himmler’s anti-Christian ideology flowed into the General SS and into the SS Death’s Head Units, which oversaw the guards at the concentration camps.9
The Nazis closed 15,000 establishments in Germany, gradually suppressing religious associations, such as Catholic youth associations, which were compelled to disband because of repeated harassment, while enrollment in the Hitlerjugend was made obligatory in 1936.10 Leading figures in Catholicism were assassinated on June 30, 1934, during the Night of Long Knives, including Erich Glausener, director of Catholic Action, Fritz Beck, director of the Aid for Catholic Students in Munich, and journalist Fritz Gerlich.11 Furthermore, the new Nazi rulers of Austria specifically targeted the Catholic Church, repealing the concordat and banning Catholic organizations and newspapers. All this was despite the Austrian Church leaders’ support of the new Nazi regime.12
While reasons for the arrests of priests varied, evidence suggests there was a systematic discrimination at work in the widespread arrests. For those priests in Dachau, reasons for arrest were often varied in type and absurdity. Father Robert Pruszkowski, a German from East Prussia detained in Dachau, was arrested for having heard the confessions of Polish civilians.13 Karl Leisner, a young deacon, was incarcerated on November 9, 1939, for his comment on the failed assassination attempt on Hitler the previous day by Georg Elder: “Too bad.”14 Father Heinrich Hennen was arrested on November 20, 1941, for having declared in a sermon that there no longer existed an objective book on Church history. Father Ludwig Braun was sent to Dachau on March 21, 1942, for “defeatism,” having opined that the German front could be weakened by the enemy. Father Anton Lenferding was sent to Dachau after refusing to marry a divorced woman who belonged to the Nazi Party.15 Camp records often cite the following: “Conduct detrimental to the interests of the State, illicit exercise of pastoral care, . . . illicit exercise of pastoral care to foreigners, harboring deserters, incited children against the State [sic], friend of Jews, refusal to give the Hitlerian salute, protesting against the marriage law established by the State,. . . eternal enemy of Germany.”16 Sometimes reasons for arrests were not given, or were vague—terms such as “hostile to Germans,” or more frequently “protective measure.”17 Concentration camp detainees were given triangular cloth badges to categorize them. For most of the priests in Dachau, they wore a red triangle, the color of political detainees.18 Whatever ambiguity the myriad of charges and cited reasons for arrest were, any notion that the priests were not a targeted group to be persecuted by the Nazis would be destroyed at the KZ, as the concentration camp was called.19
In 1940, after arrests of clergy reached the ears of the Vatican, the head of Vatican diplomacy proposed third-party solutions, such as deporting the priests to a neutral location. This was denied, and instead, on November 9, 1940, the minister of the Reich for ecclesiastical affairs, Hanns Kerrl, sent a letter to the Archbishop of Breslau stating that “the head of the SS and the German chief of police. . . [decided that] all priests interned to date in various concentration camps will be assembled at the camp in Dachau.”20 This decision resulted in an increased number of incarcerated German priests, who previously had managed to stay out of the concentration camps,20 and before December 1940, German Catholic clergy who were detained in Dachau were the exception rather than the rule.22 The decision, however, was not systematic, as evidenced by the fact that some of the last French priests to arrive in Dachau in 1945 were some of the first to have been arrested, but had taken circuitous routes through concentration camps or prisons.23
Why, then, was there such a high concentration of Polish clergy in Dachau? Slavs belonged to the category of Untermenschen, the lowest stratum of the Nazi racial hierarchy, which included Jews and gypsies, and Poland was a significant part of the Lebensraum, the “living space” Hitler intended to acquire for the German people. This made it necessary to destroy Poland’s elite, and in a country as Catholic as Poland, the clergy was among the principal elites and therefore a high-priority target. Reinhard Heydrich, leader of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Chief Office of National Security), or RSHA, drew up a report in July 1940 on the actions undertaken in Poland by Einsatzgruppen, the SS mobile killing units charged with eliminating opponents in the territories conquered by the Wehrmacht (German armed forces). It cited religious Christians, along with others, as priority targets.”24
Father Stefan Biskupski comments on the persecution of Polish Catholic clergy: “[I]t was necessary to overthrow Catholic life completely in the territories wrested from Poland so as to destroy Polish culture forever. And why? Because all of Polish culture. . . had value only because it was deeply based in Catholic principles. . . . The Church had to be destroyed, therefore, in order to destroy the culture of the Polish nation. And to do that, the Polish clergy, who were inseparably tied to the people, had to be destroyed.”25
Arrival at the Camp
What happened once the priests arrived at the KZ? Sam Bankhalter, a prisoner in Auschwitz, tells of the outcome of these arrests and confirms the effect on morale that many believed was the intention of the SS:
Catholic priests, ministers, they all put them down, we had to walk by every day to see them, and they literally died in there, after 6 days, 7 days, something like that, they kept them in there. And this was just the method because you know, you have to, we, we have to understand at that particular [inaudible] the respect for a rabbi or a priest or a minister or a cantor. Was a different perception than today really, when it’s quite different. At that time, you were like God. I mean, the respect was tremendous for these people, and here you see them sitting in the septic tanks, forgive me for the expression, with all this crap up to their neck, and we had to walk by everyday to see them, they made a point to do this. The Kapos used to round us up, and we had to walk by.26
This spectacle in Auschwitz is the effect of Himmler and the Nazi leaders’ anti-Christian beliefs. While Dachau was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, the priests in Dachau also suffered great persecution. Upon arrival in Dachau, they handed over their vestments and religious items including Bibles, missals, medals, and rosaries.27 After November 1940, clergymen were assigned to Blocks 28 and 30—and, starting in 1941, Block 26, for the weakest, most elderly, and sick.28 The priests received along with the other detainees inadequate rations, with insufficient nutrients and fat,29 although the Vatican’s fight for improved treatment of their clergy eventually produced some fruit, and in February 1941, the priests’ situation improved slightly, and they were given some special dispensations, such as obligatory rest periods.30 However, the better treatment for priests resulted in increased violence from the guards and kapos, prisoners placed in charge of fellow detainees. For instance, the priests were given a wine ration, and forced to drink all of it at once—about 1.5 pints. Failure to do so resulted in violent punishment, like when an SS man “struck the cup with his fist so brutally that it sliced the man’s lips and cheeks to the teeth and to the bone.”31 But this period of privilege was brief for the non-German clergy, ending in September 1941. “The most terrible thing was that. . . most of the Polish priests, after the withdrawal of the ‘privileges,’ found themselves in the position called ‘unemployed’. . . . This category of Häftlinge [inmates], in the hierarchy of slaves of the twentieth century, was cast into the very depths of the abyss of misery and scorn,’ Father Biskupski testifies.32
Death, Hunger, and Experiments
After this special treatment ended, there was a severe famine in 1941, lasting through a winter with temperatures as low as -33 °F. The famine reached its nadir in midsummer 1942, by which point the weight of prisoners had sunk below 110 pounds—some to 84, below which death was guaranteed.33
The priests’ actions attest to this hunger. Father Münch said of the 63-yr-old Father Bechtel: “During the the famine of 1942, [he] suffered horribly: for one month, he was allowed to have his fill, such as it was, only at midday. Deprived of bread in the morning, he had to be content in the evening with dishwater. Sometimes I saw him rummaging through the potato peelings in hope of finding some edible leftovers. . . . Finally, he became so thin that he could scarcely walk: it was for him a real martyrdom to drag himself three times a day to roll call.”34 There were exceptions to this hunger, depending on nationality, the work commando one was assigned to, and connections. Usually, these privileged few shared their food with others.35
Due to a new camp commander and authorities calling for a lower mortality rate in the face of total war, there were some improvements after the famine, such as an extra portion of bread, although this did not apply to Poles, who were deemed “lazy.”36 During total war, while not to the level of the previous famine, shortages were prevalent during 1943-1945, as well.37
Death was a part of life in Dachau. “Because of the west wind that often blew, the whole camp was filled with a penetrating odor of cadavers, which depressed the prisoners by reminding them of their approaching death,” Johann Nauhäusler recalls.38 Most of the priests who died did so without precise pathologies. To take a sample from those priests from the Diocese of Trier, 8 out of 10 priests died from a combination of hunger, exhaustion, and illness—and 7 out of 10 died between June and October 1942, the height of the famine. The French, however, who arrived later, died from epidemics, often typhus. Poles, who had a 48% mortality rate in Dachau, 10 points higher than the average, were more often deliberately murdered.39
Dachau’s prisoners, beginning with the criminals and “asocial types,” were the subjects of medical experiments for malaria and phlegmons, In Autumn of 1942, just after the threat of famine diminished, this threat reached the priests. 176 Polish priests, 4 Czechs, and 5 Germans fell victim to research on malaria.40 Father Theodor Koch, a Polish priest, described the conditions of contamination during the first trial in Dachau in December 1945: “We had been gathered in another room where some contagious insects had been trapped. Each of us received a box, then we had to keep our hand on this box, which was covered with a napkin. The session, which lasted between a half hour and an hour, was repeated each day for almost a week. Then a nurse brought us another box, which we placed between our legs, in bed, for a half hour to an hour.”41 The treatments were more painful than the disease, such as scalding baths and then being piled under blankets. The phlegmon medical subjects were inoculated in the thigh, after which the first symptoms of redness, intense pains, and fever began, before forming into large phlegmons. Several of the prisoners had to undergo surgery, such as Kazimierz Majdański, who said: “During the first dressing change. . . you could see the intubations and tell the cost of draining the human muscles: the changes of dressing were atrocious. I saw that the SS agents closed their eyes. I was sick.”42 Father Bernard related the treatment: “The orderly. . . thrust a knife a finger’s depth into the calf that had swollen to the point of deformity; then from the other side her drove a second knife opposite the first. Blood, pus and water flowed in great streams. After that, a small chisel blunted at the front and equipped with a slot passed through the calf bit by bit, then a rag soaked in a liquid was threaded through the notch from the other side and was drawn through the calf by means of a chisel. The scrap of cloth remained in the wound so that it would not close up. Whoever managed to remain standing fled to the yard to escape the horrible stench.”43 “Out of the 40 clerics who underwent inoculations—another contingent of twenty individuals had joined the first—eleven would die, most of them from the group that had been treated with biochemical tablets. The survivors would suffer severe aftereffects for the rest of their lives, loss of teeth, or partial paralysis.”44
While Priests were allowed to say Mass once per day, a time limited to 30 minutes and strictly regulated,45 they were under constant fear of persecution in various forms. Employing verbal assaults, from derisive mockery such as the names “heavenly sorcerer” or “heavenly clown” to using excremental vocabulary and sharing indulgent sexual exploitations, real or imagined, the SS attacked the priests and scorned their modesty. This was especially painful since the priests lived alongside the Blockälteste or Stubenälteste, where the senior detainees, often kapos, lived, who would boast of relationships they had with Russian girls who prostituted themselves for a few cigarettes or a quarter loaf of bread. This verbal persecution was so severe that it was taken into account during the first trial in Dachau in November and December of 1945.46 Humiliating tasks such as carrying and emptying the toilets using buckets without handles were often directed at the priests, especially by Zier, a kapo from cell block 30 known for meticulously inspecting priests’ genitals after shaving sessions.47 Derision of the priests’ faith, particularly the virginity of Mary, was common, as well as contemptuous questions such as “How many little girls have you already violated?”48 Priests were also sometimes urged to defrock—abandon the priesthood—in return for less severe treatment or liberty—only one priest reportedly accepted, left the camp in 1941 or 1942, and later married.49
The priests were subjected to physical persecution as well, which some of them interpreted as demonic possession. “Before Dachau, I had never seen hatred: eyes blazing with wickedness, mouths contorted with anger at the sight of a ‘Pfaffe’ [parson]. Striking, injuring, killing a ‘curate’ seemed to be an instinctive need for some of them,” says Father de Coninck.50 The persecution reached its height during the infamous Holy Week of 1942, when camp authorities instituted a collective punishment on the non-German priests after finding 720 dollars among the personal effects of Father Stanisław Wierzbowski on March 28, 1942. The clerics from Blocks 28 and 30 were assembled outdoors as their belongings were thrown onto the barracks floor, and then they underwent a rectal examination. For the rest of Holy Week, the priests were forced to march and exercise from morning roll call until the return of the commandos in the evening—about ten hours. No one heard from Father Wierzbowski again. He was reportedly lashed 25 times, confined to the barracks for 45 days, and died on April 17.51
Many instances of violent religious persecution occurred, such as on November 23, 1940, before the segregation of priests in the barracks, when Father Robert Pruszkowski acknowledged his priesthood to an SS guard, who immediately called a lay detainee and ordered them to slap one another all night long.Their faces were swollen and bruised for days. Austrian priest Father Siegfried Würl, after being forced to plunge his face into ice water for around twenty minutes, lost his nose to gangrene, and was subsequently known as “the happy priest without a nose;” but he also partially lost his mind. One of the cruelest tortures was “the post,” in which prisoners hanged by their wrists bound behind their back. A Capuchin friar underwent this torture while being forced to recite liturgical responses.52The priests also experienced physical persecution and derision from their fellow detainees, in particular the kapos and the “green triangles” and “red triangles”—criminals and communists.53
The Chapel and the Eucharist
While the priests had been the main targets of the transports for the disabled, which led to a euthanasia center at Hartheim Castle in northern Austria,54 and of the medical experiments,55 one beacon of hope was the chapel in Dachau. The chapel of Block 26 began with a little table that served as an altar, but little by little the priests of Dachau transformed it into a home, including a cross, the stations of the cross, prints depicting Saint Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Father de Coninck recalls: “For Expositions of the Blessed Sacrament [the Eucharist]. . . we had at our disposal two monstrances: a cross of ebony with a lunette in the shape of a sun and its rays, in tin; the other in a light lemon-wood.”56 However, access to the chapel was denied to the lay detainees, which devastated the clergy whose ministry was based upon proclaiming the Gospel and administrating the sacraments;57 although some laymen could attend the Mass clandestinely from 1944-1945.58 Furthermore, in September 1941, the disappearance of the special status for priests resulted in reservation of the chapel solely to the German clergy.59 Non-German clergy could sometimes go discreetly, but not until 1944.60 Father Francis Cegielka, a former prisoner of Dachau, says concerning this: “And also it was. . . for us also a joy when some priest custodian, not allowing according the order of Gestapo enter the chapel to. . . not German priest, that he just closed his eyes and allowed us to enter. And then so from time to time it was for us a spiritual consolation to pray and this chapel was reserved only for German priests and, well, some priests were so friendly to us that they also brought to us some part of the Holy whole.”61 Here Father Cegielka refers to the Eucharist. The Catholic Church holds that the bread and wine of Holy Communion are transformed by the Holy Spirit at the Mass into the Sacrament—that is, the mysterious presence of divine grace and power—of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of mankind; that Jesus becomes really present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, under the appearance and physical sense of bread and wine; that this is the real presence of the mystery of Christ’s Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, received both bodily and spiritual by the faithful. The Eucharist, therefore, would be held by priests at Dachau not as a symbol, but as the hope of Christians and the love of God the Son, Jesus Christ. Thus the Church professes the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, to be “the source and summit of Christian life.”62
The Eucharist remained for the priests a source of comfort and strength for their spiritual lives, and, thus, their emotional and physical lives in enduring the hopeless suffering of the KZ. Hosts (the unleavened bread required for Communion) and wine were provided for in abundance by the parish priest in Dachau.63 Mass was celebrated every day in the chapel, but in a tense atmosphere, as an SS-soldier paced outside the door to ensure that the 30-minute time limit was not exceeded, at which point he would barge in and force everyone into line-up, such as one day when the guard shouted, “Everyone out and line up! Eat up and have done with it!”64 When in September 1941 the chapel was restricted to only German priests, the others were denied Mass and therefore the Eucharist at Communion. The German priests’ fear of breaking the rules resulted in Father Ohnmacht monitoring the inventory of hosts to prevent the other priests from delivering hosts to the non-German priests (as the conditions for unleavened bread and wine are precise requirements for consecration of the Eucharist).65 Father Ohnmacht’s only exception was for the priests selected for the transportation for the infirm, for the gas chambers in Hartheim.66 This inspired feelings of bitterness and alienation among the non-German priests.67
Undeterred “conspirators” still continued to smuggle the host to their comrades, as well as laymen. Father Karl Schrammel would even quickly remove the host when it was placed on his tongue (as was the only means of receiving Communion), break off a piece for himself, and bring the rest to Father Hoffmann, his Czech friend.68 In 1944, this network implemented a daring strategy of providing the host bread and wine for the non-German priests, when on May 16, Josefa Imma Mack, nicknamed “Mädi,” came to the Dachau store to buy fruits and vegetables for her convent in Munich, where she was preparing to be a nun. After Father Ferdinand Schönwälder, a young priest from Sudetenland, implored her help in bringing hosts and wine for his Polish comrades, “Mädi was responsible for bringing seven hundred each week, a task that she accomplished, with conviction and not without risk, until the liberation of the camp.”69 These hosts were then distributed and consecrated with great caution, sometimes between two bedsteads, or, as the Polish priests would do, at the plantation, with a miniature altar planted in the ground. They attempted to make the SS believe they were still working as they broke the hosts into small pieces and said a secret Mass with just a few drops of wine. This also allowed them to reserve hosts for distribution to their sick or dying confreres, such as Kazimierz Majdanski when he was a guinea pig in the experiments on phlegmon.70 Like their fathers in the faith who suffered persecution in Rome, the priests at Dachau used the acronym “ichthus”—Greek for “fish”—as a code for the consecrated hosts. The letters stood for Iesous Christos The Huios Soter: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” Paper envelopes with the word “fish” or the drawing of a fish indicated hidden consecrated hosts inside.71 Edmond Michelet, who had access to the whole camp with the disinfection commando, sought the help of the rest of his commando for aid in distributing the consecrated hosts, and thus “it was that, often, some militantly atheistic communists went to take viaticum [Communion before death] to dying priests.”72
The priests tried to serve Communion to all the blocks in the camp, hiding the consecrated hosts in match boxes or a cough drop box—an activity which shocked some German priests as irreverent.73 In certain cases some even said Mass in the blocks for laymen, despite the risks involved. Father Alexandre Morelli said Midnight Mass in the consultation room of the camp’s oculist, who was also a detainee:
“At Dachau I performed the most extraordinary priestly ministry of my life. . . . One of my greatest blessings was to be able to celebrate a clandestine Mass for Christmas of ’44. . . . In case of surprise, everything was set up so that I could immediately make the glass and the host disappear. And the Mass began. Footsteps of the SS were heard in the corridor. The steps came closer, passed, returned. It was very dangerous. Our hearts throbbed as though they would burst, but we wanted to have our Midnight Mass.”74
The Eucharist’s effect as hope and strength for the priests is evidenced in their devotion to it and the courage it inspired, as well as the mystical effect it sometimes had, such as on Bernard Py. A French layman deported at 19 for acts of resistance, he received a fragment of the consecrated host from the eucharistic network, and slid the folded paper enclosing it into his breast pocket for later. “Then, during the afternoon, he was assailed by dark ideas in his commando; he tells of having a peculiar sensation coming from inside his chest. ‘I felt an expansion, a joy, a tenderness which slowly became more precise and grew minute by minute, overflowing, invading my whole person, an experience that was simultaneously physical, burning, and moral, which stirred me with a love and an unexpected happiness.’”75 Later he found the source, realizing that the host was still in his pocket, and he took it from the wrapper and communicated. “The comfort brought by the Eucharist to the Catholics in the camp, both priests and laymen, remains an established and mysterious fact.”76
“Three years of experiences that I would not have missed for anything in the world.”77 Father de Coninck’s summary may surprise or shock, but his and others’ narratives prove that it is in darkness that the light shines brightest. Several of the priest detainees tell of the camp’s effects in promoting ecclesial unity amid the diversity in religious orders and rites,78 as well as in growing ecumenism, as one detainee tells: “We sought unity in our discussions and our dialogues. . . . In authentic fraternity and common prayer, we laid the foundations for new relations between different churches. . . . The priests in Dachau and the Christian laymen took home with them, to their churches, and their families, the lived experience of unity.”79 The missionary spirit and proclamation of the Gospel also grew out of Dachau, many of the priests going on to become missionaries outside of Europe, such as Alain van Gaver, who was imprisoned in China. Many also returned behind the Iron Curtain to continue their ministries. Of these Poles formed the most important group, but a striking example is that of Czech Father Josef Beran, appointed Archbishop of Prague after three years in Dachau, then imprisoned by the Communist authorities from 1949 to 1963, when he was exiled to Rome and died in 1969 after being made a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.80
On July 7, 1945, Monsignor Bruno de Solages said a homily, still thin and dressed in the striped uniform of the deportees, addressing the misery and tribulation underwent by the priests at Dachau, summarizing their experiences from the perspective of a minister of God:
“Recall, my comrades, our friendship while we were there, that extraordinary, fraternal mutual aid, the piece of bread that one man, although dying of hunger, shared with his comrades in misery; the last cube of sugar that another man sacrificed for a dying man; the smile with which we encouraged our comrades so that their work would be less burdensome. . . . But tell me: was the concentration camp, were the wardens and the Gestapo absolutely necessary for us to learn to love one another as Frenchmen, as Christians? Isn’t the essential feature of our Christianity this love for one another? . . . For heaven’s sake, let us not wait for tomorrow. Even today and right away, right there in the street, in the subway, in the workshop, at the office, in our family, in everyday life, in the name of all those who died who look at us and are waiting for us, in the name of Christ, I beg of you, my comrades: ‘Let us love one another.’”81
Due to the 1940 decision to send priests to Dachau, the camp became a scene of Hell on earth for the priests there, arrested for a number of reasons, from opposing the Reich82 to being seen as potential leaders of Polish resistance. A systematic anti-Christian and anti-clerical action can be seen across German-occupied territories, based upon the ideas that the Catholic Church is subsidiary to the “Jewish enemy” and that Catholicism is integral to Polish culture, and due to leaders such as Himmler holding ardent hatred of Catholicism and its doctrines. The Polish priests suffered greater discrimination and more severe persecution due to their racial classification and their role in Catholic community and culture. While the priests had a unique and defining experience at Dachau, they suffered greatly from hunger, medical experiments, euthanasia, and brutal torture as did other detainees, and the privileges granted some of them were often the cause for more persecution.
Based on her conversations with survivors of Dachau, Dorothy Thompson, the famous American journalist who interviewed Hitler in 1931, is said to have made this observation: “In the midst of the hell that was life in Dachau, so brutal, so demeaning and deprived of humanity, who kept his own humanity and a sound mind the longest? Which persons, forgetting their own misery and their own humiliations, served the other men who were suffering in that diabolical system? . . . There was only one answer, always the same: ‘The Catholic priests.’”83 Despite constant dread, particularly of the fatal transports for the disabled, the priests remain unique in their reliance on their faith. This prayer to the Virgin Mary, one of the most widespread among the priests, attests to this faith amid permanent uncertainty: “Mother of God, I implore you, take me into your arms and help me to get through this day without anything happening to me.”84
Much could be said of their failings in faith and triumphs in holiness, their courage in the face of death and the lasting nightmares of survivors. But we shall end with this example of the effect made by these experiences, as shown by Kazimierz Majdanski. Thirty years after the liberation of the camps, Majdanski, now a bishop, appeared at the Munich Tribunal on November 10, 1975, to testify in the trial of Dr. Heinrich Schütz, one of the SS men chiefly responsible for the medical experiments conducted in the camps, of which Majdanski was one of the guinea pigs. Despite the pain of the memories, he agreed to detail the events he and his companions underwent in the Biochemische Versuchsstation: the injection of the purulent exudate, stupefying fever, the groans of his confreres around him, the incisions, bedsores, and the threat of septicemia, and the after-effects and deaths. After his “low-key testimony,” in which he “omits not one single detail” and his “account distresses those present in the courtroom,” the bishop described his state of mind in making his deposition: “I exclude all motives of hatred or vengeance. . . . I have forgiven them all, and I expressed my forgiveness in my Last Will and Testament that I composed with a view to my death, which could occur at any moment.” The former SS doctor, with downcast eyes, walked up to the bishop he once experimented on, and clasped his hands in his own for a long moment. Bishop Majdanski whispered: “All the same, we can look each other in the eye.”85 It may be difficult to compare suffering among groups and individuals, but the clergy of Dachau bore their crosses of persecution, torture, and death no less than many victims of the Holocaust, and in a way unique to them as Catholics and martyrs. Works Referenced
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- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 112.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 110.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 111.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 61.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 113-114.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 50-152.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 153.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 156.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 157.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 158.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 183.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 140-141.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 141.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 143.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 144.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 145.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 145-146.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 147.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 74, 117.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 162.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 173.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 174-176.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 176.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 179.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 176-177.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 185.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 1990. “Oral history interview with Father Francis Cegielka.” Filmed October 2, 1990. https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn504550.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Liberia Editrice Vaticana—United States Catholic Conference, 2000), no. 1324.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 182.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 183.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 183-185.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 184.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 183-184.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 185.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 185-186.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 187.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 187-188.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 190.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 188-190.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 189.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 191.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, Ibid.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 217.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 217-220.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 223-224.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 226-227.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 229.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 46-47.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 235.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 160.
- Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks, 247-248.