2,579 Catholic priests, seminarians and brothers were thrown by the Nazis during World War II into Dachau. 1,780 of these were from Poland. Of these, some 868 priests perished, 300 in medical “experiments” or by torture in the showers of the camp.
The remaining priests, seminarians and brothers came from 38 nations. Besides the Poles the largest groups were 447 German and Austrian priests, 156 French priests and 46 Belgian priests.
This post could be filled with the sadistic treatment meted out to these men of God by the Nazi barbarians, but I recoil emotionally from this task. I will suffice with a quotation from Father William J. O’Malley’s, SJ, work on the subject:
There is little need to rehearse the conditions of their lives in the camp. It was a hell before which Dante would stand mute. A good day was one on which you’d been beaten to your knees only once or twice; one small wad of bread and a cup of watery soup; 12 hours of hard labor, dragging the corpses to the roll call each morning and evening; warehoused at night in tiers, sleeping three to each lice-infested bunk; lugging one’s soul from place to place in the fellowship of zombies; the cold, the filth, the endless degrading “hazing”, the typhus, the inhuman joy when your best friend was beaten senseless and you were ignored. For some, hell lasted five years of days.
A more detailed description of what the priests, seminarians and brothers suffered, if one has the stomach for it, may be read here.
Clandestinely, the priests constantly said Mass, always risking dreadful punishments from their sadistic captors. Latin bridged the language barrier between the priests of the Universal Church. The efforts of the priests to help their fellow inmates both spiritually and materially were ceaseless.
The resourcefulness of the priests in this Hell on Earth was often quite astounding. Father Otto Pies, SJ, escaped from Dachau on the Spring of 1945 as American troops, fighting in Eisenhower’s immortal phrase, in the “Crusade in Europe”, were closing in on the camp. Unbelievably Father Pies came back to the camp disguised as an SS officer, with a truckload of food he had commandeered from literally God knows where, for the inmates. After the food was distributed to the starving inmates, he drove the truck into the compound, loaded it up with 30 priests and drove them out of the camp to freedom. The next day he came back for more priests and drove off with them!
Dachau was liberated by the U.S. Army on April 29, 1945.
Sunday, just after the noon meal, the air was unusually still. The big field outside the compound was deserted. Suddenly someone began running toward the gate at the other side of the field. Others followed. The word was shouted through the mass of gray, tired prisoners. Americans! That word repeated, yelled over the shoulders in throaty Polish, in Italian, in Russian, and Dutch and in the familiar ring of French. The first internee was shot down as he rushed toward the gate by the guard. Yet they kept running and shouting through eager lips and unbelieving eyes. Americans!”
From the official report of the Seventh Army on the liberation of Dachau.
The first troops into the camp were the men of I company, third battalion, 157th Infantry, 45th Division (the Thunderbird Division) of the Seventh Army. The troops, hardened combat veterans, were stunned at the scenes they witnessed that day. Before their officers could take control of them, some of the men had shot down some of the SS guards. This of course was against the rules of war, but after seeing video clips of what they saw, and attempting to imagine what it was like to see these things in reality, I cannot condemn these men, and if I had been present I might have acted precisely as they did.
One priest was ordained in Dachau, Blessed Karl Leisner. Dying of tuberculosis in Dachau, Deacon Karl Leisner’s wish to be a priest came true when imprisoned Bishop Gabriel Piguet on December 17, 1944 ordained him. Permission had been secretly obtained from Deacon Leisner’s diocese in Munich. Some of Bishop Piguet’s regalia used on this occasion was smuggled in from Munich, but most of it was secretly manufactured in the camp. A thousand priests attended the ordination. Nine days later Father Karl Leisner said his one and only Mass, dying of tuberculosis in the Summer of 1945 after his liberation from Dachau. Pope John Paul II beatified him on June 23, 1996. His feast day is August 12.
Let Blessed Karl Leisner serve as a symbol of the heroic priests, seminarians and brothers of Dachau who, in a literal Hell on Earth, kept alive their love for God and their fellow man. We live in an often dark world, and God gives us men such as these to give us light.