Dachau’s Priests

    The Nazis established its first concentration camp two months after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of  Germany.  Dachau  lies  15km  northwest  of Munich, a short car or train ride. The concentration camp became operational at a site where a  munitions  factory  once  stood.  SS  Hilmar Wackerie was  chosen  as  the  first  commandant  and  was  succeeded  by Theodor Eicke.

    Dachau was intended for Social Democrats, Communists , political dissidents, homosexuals, and the mentally handicapped. After the Kristallnacht pogrom approximately 10,000 Jews were sent to Dachau and that number increased dramatically. Dachau evolved into a death camp. By 1942 Barrack X a crematorium was operational.

    All prisoners were subjected to overwork, brutal  beatings,  torture, disease, malnutrition, overwork, and deadly medical experiments. Jews in particular were singled out for execution. Dachau evolved into a death camp. In 1941 Soviet prisoners in Dachau were shot to death Official records show that 225,000 persons passed through Dachau and about 50,000 died

    The Nazi persecution of the churches was a combination of” political nihilism and ideological fanaticism.” They set out to destroy the existing social order and were fanatically determined to create a pure Aryan super race. John Conway wrote,” The Nazi radicals were motivated not only by a desire for total control, but an ideological fanaticism that believed it possible to create an ersatz religion of blood and soil.” Their mission was to create a secular substitute for Christianity. The Nazis hatred of the Christian churches and the Catholic Church in particular was pathological. Martin Bormann’s, Circular on the Relationship of National Socialism and Christianity. made it clear,” National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.” The opposition of Pius XI and Pius XII to the euthanasia program of the Nazis, their violations of the Concordat stoked their hatred.

    Cardinal Pacelli had a major hand in drafting Pius XI’s encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, that unequivocally denounced Hitler’s regime. In Deccember 1942 Josef Goebbels recorded in his diary,” The Pope ( Pius XII) has made a Christmas speech, Full of bitter, covert attacks on the Reich and National Socialism.11

    It didn’t take long for the regime to take direct action. On July 21,1935 Victor Klemperer recorded in his diary,” The struggle against Catholic’s,’ enemies of the state,’ both reactionary and Communist is increasing.” Klemperer’s published diaries I Shall Bear Witness, provide a day-by-day account of the interior of Nazi Germany and a compelling chronicle of the evolving persecution of Germany’s Jews, Catholics and Protestants. In 1938 he wrote,11•••   anti Semitism has again been very much in the foreground ( it rotates: now the Jews, now the Catholics, now the Protestant ministers). The next month he noted,” Priests imprisoned, priests expelled from the pulpit…” Reverend Friedrich Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor echoed Klemperer:

    First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.

    Then they came for the Communist and I did not speak out

    because I was not a Communist.

    When they came for the trade unionists,

    I did not speak out;

    I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for  me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

    Soon Catholic and Protestant clergy were to be arrested and sent to Dachau. Parish priests were sent for quoting or reading Pus Xi’s encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge or for providing false identity papers to Jews or POWs. Many were arrested on false charges.

    Father Bernhard Lichtenberg, Provost of St.Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, became known for his evening prayers for the fallen soldiers on both sides, Jews and all the persecuted. Lichtenberg said prayers for the Jews on the evening ofKristallnacht. He called on all Catholics to protect Jews and requested to be deported with the Jews to Poland. Lichtenberg was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned for two years. He died of heart failure while being transported to Dachau.

    According to the best estimate some 2,771 clergyman were inmates in Dachau. The largest number of clergyman were Catholic priests, seminarians, and lay brothers. A disproportionate number were the 1,780 Polish clergy, 866 of whom died in Dachau. Sixty-five percent of the Catholic clergy sent to Dachau were Polish priests. The Nazis decided to send most if not all clergymen to Dachua .By keeping them in one place it would prevent them from infecting other prisoners in other camps with Christianity. Dachau had the largest group of Catholic clergy inmates than any other camp. Protestant and Orthodox priests were inmates however, 95 percent in the barracks were Catholic priests.

    Dachau was a cruel parody of the Nazi totalitarian state that sent them there. All possible measure were taken to dehumanize the inmates and make them live in perpetual fear and anxiety. On arrival inmates were stripped naked and their head shaved from head to toe. Every priest had to give up all things that defined them including vestments, rosaries, missals, and medals. They were made to take scalding hot or freezing cold showers. Priests were outfitted in ill-fitting uniforms, stripped jackets, pants, a cap as well as wooden clogs. To further dehumanize them they no longer had a name, but were known as a number. One such inmate was Karl Leisner, a German seminarian, who became No.22356. All inmates numbers were sewn onto their clothes.

    As soon as a priest entered Dachau he was greeted with insults and kicks. All Catholic clergy in Dachau were placed in three main barracks, numbers 26,28,30. The barracks were surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Each morning came roll call, and then work within or outside the camp began. In bitter winter, some were given the task of removing snow off the roofs with shovels. The prisoners’ diet was calculated to produce hunger and sickness. In the morning there was a mug purported to be coffee and a piece of black bread. In the afternoon a small cup of watery soup, and at night a piece of black bread. After a day of hard labor and malnourishment, the inmates trudged back to a filthy, vermin-infested barracks. Father Jean Bernard described one scene of the hunger among priests. Several priests were taken from the barracks to work near a kitchen. They observed scraps of leak, cabbage, and carrot tops were being dumped by a guard. The priests went to the compost with the hope of eating a few scraps. The guard laughed at them and urinated on the compost, and said, That’s so you’ll lose your appetites.11 The men driven by hunger ate the scraps anyway. On another occasion Father Bernard wrote that while waiting near the compost pile,11  a garbage pail of boiled bones was emptied there. At once we threw ourselves on them. The thought indeed came to me that the bones probably came from the dog kennels…but what difference did that make ?”

    Inmates died from overwork, starvation, typhus, dysentery, or from beatings from sadistic guards and kapos. A few priests committed suicide by throwing themselves on to the electrified fence that surrounded the camp. Some priests despaired or just gave up, but most clung tenaciously to their faith. When the Nazis could not do was to break their faith in God. They either prayed in private or held clandestine group prayer meetings. They set up a makeshift chapel in the comer of one of the barracks. Slivers of the Eucharist were secretly passed from one priest to another. Beatings intensified whenever Vatican radio protested the mistreatment of priests or when it broadcast a critical report of Dachau. Harassment increased during Church festivals. All priests tried to help ease the suffering of their fellow inmates. Catholic priests, Protestant and Orthodox clergy established close relationships and a bond with each other.

    There was the constant fear of becoming sick and having to go to the contagious wards of the infirmary. Inmates were infected with typhus and malaria in order to find a vaccine. The SS guards refused to enter the medical wards. Priests volunteered to minister the sick. Titus Brandsma a Carmelite cleric, teacher and writer and an outspoken anti-Nazi was administered a lethal injection. Micha Kozal a Polish priest attended to the spiritual needs of his fellow inmates died of a lethal injection. The Nazis used Dachau prisoners including priests as subjects for brutal medical experiments. Prisoners were selected for tests to determine the whether they could survive in freezing water after being forcibly immersed. Some died during the experiment.

    Father Giuseppe Girotti a Dominican priest was a brilliant professor, teacher and a student of sacred scripture in Rome and in Jerusalem. This led him to a cultural affinity for Jews, to whom he referred as” elder brothers” and “carriers of the word of God.” He was an active opponent of the Fascist regime in Italy and the Nazi regime. Girotti worked tirelessly to save Jews by talcing them to safe houses and escape routes. He also provided false identification papers. Girotti was arrested after helping to hide Joseph Diena a Jewish professor. The thirty-nine year old priest was sent to Dachau and became number 11355.Girotti joined hundreds of other priests in Cabin 25 in a space designed to house only 180 inmates. The young prelate began so experience severe rheumatic pain and swelling in his legs. He was sent to the medical center and on Easter Sunday 1944 he was injected with a lethal dose of gasoline.

    Priests were not immune to beatings, starvation or medical experimentation. From the moment they entered the camp, prisoners were beaten by the SS guards who tried to break their spirit and faith by physical violence. Father Andreas Rieser, who seemed unbroken, was singled out by one guard and beaten repeatedly. The guard then forced the priest to fashion a crown from a piece of barbed wire, a sick representation of Christ’s crown of thorns.

    One of the most remarkable episodes to come out of Dachau is the story of Karl Leisner. Leisner was admitted to the seminary in 1934 Bishop von Galen, who was a staunch opponent of the Nazis. In 1934, Liesner’s studies were interrupted when he was called to compulsory work service . All of the workers were subjected to Nazi propaganda and bitter attacks on the Catholic Church. The Gestapo considered Leisner dangerous because he organized Sunday mass for his fellow workers. His home was raided by the Gestapo and his personal papers, diaries were confiscated.

    Leisner returned to the seminary after his work service was completed. He commented that it was a pity that Hitler escaped a failed assassination attempt in 1939. The Gestapo who had already had a file on him took Leisner into custody. During the interrogation Leisner did not back away from what he had said.

    Leisner was sent to Dachau in 1940. The 25 year-old seminarian tried to keep up morale of his fellow inmates and helped others to survive every way possible. His tuberculosis which had been in remission became active again. One evening, two SS guards came into his barracks for inspection, picked him out of the group and beat him unconscious. In March 1942, he began spitting blood and was admitted to the dreaded hospital block, where he was placed in a room with 150 other TB patients.

    Four months after the invasion of Normandy, Bishop Gabriel Piquet of Clermont-Ferrand was sent to Dachau for providing false identity papers. While he was there someone suggested that he might ordain Karl Leisner. One priest made contact with a women who bicycled in and out of the camp. She agreed to a risky mission and took letters to Bishop von Galen and

    Archbishop Faulhaber seeking their authorization for the ordination. Eventually, an affirmative message came back. The necessary vestments and materials were obtained through a secret network or they crudely fashioned. Bishop Piquet asserted in his memoir: ” Nothing was omitted, not the least detail of the prescribed rites…an ordination, which is probably unique in the annals of history.:

    On December 17,1944, in a moving secret ceremony, Karl Leisner was ordained to the priesthood. Due to his weakened condition, he celebrated his first Mass in secret, nine days after his ordination. Leisner survived Dachau but the tuberculosis that ravaged his health was in its terminal stage. Karl Leisner died in Cleves on August 12,1945 after the camps liberation. Many priests died shortly after their liberation from Dachau as did their fellow clergymen from other concentration camp-a direct result of the maltreatment and illness that developed while they were interned. The health of survivors suffered after the camp’s liberation

    Catholic laymen were also sent to Dachau. Giovanni Palatucci, a deeply religious young police officer helped to save Jewish refugees in Italy. He was arrested by the Nazis and died ten weeks before the liberation of Dachau. Fritz Michael director of a Catholic newspaper also was imprisoned in Dachau where he died. Henry Zwans, a Jesuit teacher was for distributing copies of Bishop von Galen’s homilies and died there.

    At present hundreds of tourists visit Dachau each day with their own reasons for doing so. Dachau in its present state is an approximation of the reality of over 80 years ago. While one can get a sense of the physical layout of the camp, it’s impossible to recreated in one’s imagination the suffering that took place within. Today the same ominous slogan stands above the entrance as it did in 1935: Albeit macht frei ( work makes one free). There are five major memorials, one to an unknown prisoner and the others to the Protestant, Russian Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic victims of Nazi brutality. The latter memorial consists of a simple stone building with a tall metal tower, a bell hanging inside and adorned with a large gold cross on top.

    Inside is a small altar, a crucifix above it and a row of prayer candles.


    copyright 2018 Patrick J.Gallo all rights reserved


    See: Patrick Gallo, 11 The Road to Dachau,” in Pius XII, The Holocaust, And The Revisionists.

    11 Dachau’s Priests,” Seattle Catholic, March 28,2003.

    Jean Bernard, Priestblock 25487 ( 2007).

    Charles Lewis,” Enduring Faith Amid Horror: The Priests of Dachau,” National Catholic Register ( May 19,2018).

    Joshua Greene, Justice at Dachau ( 2003).

    Guillaume Zeller, The Priest Barracks Dachau: 1938-1945 (2017).

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