The Holy Barracks of Dachau
A deeper dive into "Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau" by Fr. Jean Bernard
“There is one road to freedom and its milestones are
Obedience, Diligence, Honesty, Order, Cleanliness,
Temperance, Truth, Sacrifice and love of one’s country”
--Dachau camp motto
The atrocities of World War II knew no bounds, and the extent of the horrors may never be fully realized. Much attention is given to the suffering of the Jews, and rightly so, but the extermination of people was varied, from the disabled to gypsies to mere dissenters. One such group that was attacked mercilessly, both for their overall resistance and for aiding their Jewish brothers, was Catholics, specifically priests. Father Jean Bernard’s book, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, recounts the author’s experiences in Konzentrationslager Dachau, a tragic tale both horrifying and beautiful. The trials he suffered were shared by all priests housed in the Dachau barracks, which were made holy not only by their actions, but also by the Eucharistic presence of Jesus who was often hidden in napkins and desk drawers.
The Nazi concentration camp at Dachau “...was the site of the largest religious community in the world...the best estimate, based on clandestine lists kept by priest-prisoners in the work offices, is that 2,771 clergymen were interred at KZ Dachau—of whom at least 1,034 died in the camp.”1 Catholic priests made up the largest portion of this group at 2,579 souls, although this number only reflects the Dachau prisoners and not the innumerable clergy who were shot, beheaded, or tortured before they ever reached the camp. How poignant it is that, at the site of the pinnacle of evil, God’s people were the most numerous. The vitriol directed at Catholics by the Nazis in Poland had, as its ultimate goal, the destruction of the Church. “German occupiers understood that killing priests and destroying the church, is, ultimately, the most effective way to undermine both fabric and foundations of the Polish nation”,2 effectively attacking both the country and the Church in one blow.
Father Bernard’s testimony recounts tales of horrific physical abuse, starvation, cruel mind games, and persecution of the worst kinds. Punishments were meted out as camp guards reacted to anti-Nazi broadcasts from Vatican Radio. Father Bernard, along with other clergy, were given the choice of supporting Nazism in order to save their families and fellow religious. “This proposal...reveals the cruel logic of totalitarian power, which works partly by scrambling and subverting the moral norms of its victims, by forcing even the righteous into circumstances where some form of sin is the only response. The costs of resistance are intolerably high—in the Netherlands...[resistance] led to the deportation of tens of thousands of Dutch Catholics—but so is the price of collaboration.”3 Unique forms of mental torture were employed against clergy. Father Bernard describes his excitement when brand new breviaries arrived in the camp, only to be told that the books could not show any signs of use. “But how are we supposed to use a book ‘without leaving any trace that it has been used?’ After a few bad experiences the books remain in perfect order on the shelf, and we are as bored as before. Later we are permitted to ask for our own breviaries to be sent from home.”4 Priests were sent gifts like breviaries from Catholics outside the camp, only for those items to be used as a source of mental torture by camp guards.
Father Bernard’s struggle was not unique. “Fr. Leon Stępniak (1913-2013), who was imprisoned at Dachau from 1940 to the end of WWII in 1945, remembered the following incident: “The commandant of the camp and the guards came up with the idea of ‘Harassment Day of Polish Divines.’ Carrying heavy stones on their shoulders, the prisoners were forced to run along a line of guards armed with sticks. That August day, 38 priests were brutally killed.”5 Priests were tortured annually on Good Friday—another example of physical torture made especially cruel by the unnecessary introduction of mental torture. Physically torturing priests is cruel enough, but doing so specifically on Good Friday heightens the evil.
Although there was an environment of cruelty and hopelessness, the site of the largest concentration of religious necessarily also contained compassion and salvific hope. Father Karl Leisner is an example of this light in the darkness. After making an off-hand private comment about his disappointment that the assassination attempt on Hitler failed, Leisner was arrested at the hospital while ill with tuberculosis. The arrest came shortly before he was to be ordained, and he entered Dachau still a seminarian. However, this turn of events did not end his vocation. “Karl Leisner was secretly ordained a Roman Catholic priest in the Dachau concentration camp during Advent 1944.”6 Miraculously, proof of the ordination was successfully smuggled to his brother: “Not only was a written report smuggled out but also photographs of his brother in priestly robes.”7 Hopelessness cannot triumph amid such a concentration of holy men, and numerous ways, such as the ordination of Father Leisner, were found to keep lit the flame of hope and love.
The writings of Father Bernard are but a small slice of clergy experiences in Dachau, and combined with other religious testimonies we can clearly see the presence of a compassionate God in this ‘world’s largest’ concentration of holy men at the height of human atrocities. In order to wrap up the experiences of the priests at Dachau, we can turn to the story of a final novena. On April 22, 1945, nearly 1,000 Polish priests and lay inmates engaged in the last prayer of a nine-day novena dedicated to St. Joseph of Kalisz. The group promised to devote themselves to the saint and to return on a yearly pilgrimage, if the saint would intercede and save their lives. Little did they know that the camp was scheduled to be liquidated on April 29th, and they were only a week away from certain death. The camp was scheduled for liquidation on this date at 9pm, but “...at 5:25 p.m., a unit of valiant American GI’s took over the camp and guarded it until the arrival of reinforcements.”8 The inmates were saved just hours before their scheduled deaths. Bishop Franciszek Korszyński commented on the event, saying it was “...a miracle that Dachau was liberated three hours before all remaining inmates, numbering 30,000, were to be executed by the Germans.”9
The endurance, compassion, love for Christ, and endless hope displayed by the Catholic priests in Dachau made their barracks a holy place against which the gates of Hell could not prevail. Despite physical, mental, and spiritual torture, the love of God endured. It is in this love of God as a buffer against evil that we must focus our attention, as it is the only thing that will effectively defeat evil. “Dachau will forever remain a symbol of European Golgotha, an ominous warning to future generations against a world without God, a world which becomes “a hell” filled with selfishness, broken families, and hatred between individuals and nations. A widespread consensus on godless ideologies will sooner or later result in an oppressive form of government. As John Paul II said: ‘A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly-disguised totalitarianism.’”10 A godless worldview will always cause such atrocities. Without the foundation of Christ to shape our hearts and actions, we are destined to endlessly repeat the evils of history. Yet, the faithful will never be trampled if we endure, ease suffering, and keep our eyes on the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
William J O’Malley, “The Priests of Dachau”, America, 14 November 1987, vol. 157, no.14.
Agnieszka Gerwel, “Letter on a Polish Priest in Dachau”, retrieved from http://midwayreview.uchicago.edu/a/8/3/gerwel/gerwel.pdf
AO Scott, “A Cruel Choice for a Priest Manipulated by the Nazis”, New York Times, May 27, 2005.
Jean Bernard, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, (Bethesda: Zaccheus Press, 2004.
Paul Suski, “Miracle in Hell”, Catholic Journal, September 9, 2020.
William Downey, “Priest ordained at Dachau beatified for defying Nazis”, National Catholic Reporter, June 28, 1996.
Paul Suski, “Miracle in Hell”, Catholic Journal, September 9, 2020.