Compiled from the following historical works: PIUS XII AND THE HOLOCAUST, The Catholic League; HITLER YOUTH AND CATHOLIC YOUTH, Lawrence Walker; and THE PERSECUTION OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IN THE THIRD REICH, Catholic Book Club of London.
By now every school child can cite verbatim about the Jewish Holocaust of six and one half million souls by the Nazis during World War II, but there is another Holocaust of greater numbers, that of the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church by Hitler and the murder or imprisonment of other minorities: this other persecution, excluding the Gypsies, was not based exclusively on race, although the Poles, who were exterminated in the camps were considered racially inferior, but derived from Nazi hatred and fear of Roman Catholics. Hitler was Luciferian, an apostate, and hated the Church and it was the Church that alone stood as a moral bulwark and reproach against his evil dominion. This forgotten and or discounted holocaust’s toll is estimated to be the extermination of eight to ten million people who were either Polish and or Catholics, thousands of them priests and nuns, the two most famous being Saint Edith Stein and Saint Maximilian Kolbe.
What the world does not know and what most Catholics have never known is that the prosecution of the Catholic Church by the Third Reich began as early as the assault on Jewry and was every bit as insidious and odious. The canards that the “Pope was silent,” and the charge that the Church is the cause of the Holocaust of the Jews is ironic when the actual historical facts are surveyed. We are indebted to Mr. Gerald Griffin who was able to locate and purchase the latter two texts of the three from which this report is compiled.
The thrust of Hitler’s repressive policies against the Church was two-fold: actual seizure [and other penalties] of Catholic newspapers, offices, soldiers stationed at Sunday Masses to report on sermons, imprisonment of the clergy and religious, that is outright repression and the attempt to influence and thus use for propaganda the powerful Catholic Youth movement in Germany in the 1930s. Hitler formed his own “Hitler Youth” to counteract and subvert and confuse the young. In its earlier years, the Hitler Youth Movement [HY] was little more than an adolescent SS. The Catholic Youth organizations [CY] held out the longest against the claims of the HY because the Pope of the times, Pius XI, personally endorsed their efforts as the best defense against the “Blood and Soil” myth of the Hitlerites. Another source of their resistance to HY was the courage of its members —–their ability to hold their organizations under great pressures owed much to Catholic teaching, particularly the Church’s attitude toward suffering and Martyrdom for the Faith. In the end Hitler was unable to totally corrupt CY, so he resorted to an array of coercive powers against Catholic youth: Young Catholics were placed at a disadvantage in employment or admission to universities. just like the Jews. In the summer of 1935 the Gestapo prohibited to all CY any extra-Church activities and rigidly enforced the law. Beginning in 1936, one diocesan group after another was dissolved by police decree, several of its prominent leaders were arrested, some sent to prison. Hitler thought that if he could control the youth, he owned the next generation. And he was largely right, except for the power of CY and its priests.
Priests were active in the formation and sustenance of the CY organizations. The Church commanded not by the force of guns, but by the force of moral authority, and that he feared. From 1930, the Catholic Church in Germany had increasingly opposed Nazism [National Socialism]. In fact, at least one pastor as early as 1930 forbade any of his young parishioners from joining the HY movement organizations, going so far as to announce that any person joining HY was to be denied the Sacraments. The local Bishop backed up that priest when his opposition became an issue. Nazi policies drew more denunciations by the Church. In 1931 all eight of the Bavarian bishops condemned Nazi racial “doctrine.” The matter of admission to the Sacraments the bishops left to the individual pastor, who was to distinguish between active propagandists and those who were merely drawn into the Nazi propaganda that relied heavily on “patriotism” and the German love of country. In 1932, the Fulda Bishops’ conference, an annual event, denounced the errors of National Socialism. As a result the Nazi party actually began to loose elections after the Bishops intervened and the Center Party, the primary political opposition to the National Socialists, held its ground, depriving Hitler of any sweeping majority. Hitler never gained anymore than a plurality of the votes. He fared even less well in districts heavily populated by Catholics, including middle class voters. In an effort to gain support of Catholics, Hitler effected the Concordat with the Church, ostensibly agreeing not to interfere with Church activities, an agreement never intended to be honored by Hitler.
Attacks on the Church and its organizations continued despite ratification of the Concordat. The Nazi state had enormous power, but that was not enough, for Nazism was not simply a dictatorship but an entire movement which intended to involve the whole society in every aspect of daily life. The Gestapo reports on Catholic priests did not limit themselves to bare facts; they were loaded with indignation, for the writers of these reports hated the priests. Imbedded in the Church’s stand on the CY was the conception that religion goes beyond the church doors and must pervade the whole life. This put the Church and its early stronghold, the CY, on an inevitable collision course with the Nazi state. Since the Kulturkampf [Hitler’s remolding of society through propaganda and forced measures], the clergy in Germany had been the leaders of the Catholic community, as was evidenced by the prominent part they played in speaking on public issues. In the first year of the Nazi regime priests had spoken out. One priest who resisted armed soldiers at his church devotions in 1933, was arrested for speaking against the Nazis. Fr. Klinkhammer was sentenced to six months imprisonment for “characterizing a speech of Goering’s as rubbish.”
Goering was one of Hitler’s top henchman, a practicing homosexual with a penchant for pedophilia by reports circulating at the time. The Hitler cabinet was disproportionately homosexual until they grew so powerful that Hitler got rid of most of them because he wanted no one more powerful than he was, not because he hated homosexuality per se. But in the early years the homosexuals had free reign to persecute the Church as a matter of state policy. Another priest spoke out on the homosexuality of Rohm of the SS, as well as the homosexuality and drug addiction of Goering. For that he was imprisoned for sixteen months. In 1934, Associate Pastor Leyendecker in Ronheide, attacking a speech by propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, stated that he knew that he stood there in the pulpit for the last time, but that another would come in his place and say the same thing. As he predicted he was arrested. Fr. Dionysius gained a reputation among the clergy of the archdiocese of Cologne for his outspoken sermons. Priests were arrested for merely taking down HY posters that were forced onto church property along with the Swastika. The matter of posters brought a host of priests to the attention of the police in November of 1933. On the 12th of that month Hitler had called a plebiscite, asking for the German people’s approval, expressly. Roving groups of National Socialists put up posters everywhere including church buildings and their walls. Priests were denounced for tearing them down.
Another form of aggression against priests was to greet them with “Heil Hitler,” which proved to be deeply disturbing to many of the ordained, including one who accused a Nazi of giving him the “Heil” only to provoke him. This was all too often true. Many priests who objected to the salute tried to find some way to divert it, by replying, for instance, “Good Day,” [“Gruss Gott”] or “Praise be Christ”; many forbade its use during religious instruction in the schools.
Priests Strike Back
Priests were by no means helpless against intrusions into their churches and spheres of activity. When an area was predominately Catholic, and the priest a fighter, members of the Nazi youth organizations sometimes found themselves in the minority. But still the Nazis were in control officially and used the power of the state to manipulate Hitler youth to taunt Catholics. In defense of Catholic youth and the rights of the Church, priests often struck back through the pulpit or in religious instruction. Discrimination against Catholic Hitler Youth as altar boys was a common complaint in the files of police. The diocese of Aachen made the prohibition general for the entire diocese. Patriotic flags had always been used at funeral Masses for military members, etc. But when the Nazis instituted the Third Reich, many priests refused permission for the Nazi flags to be used during these liturgies. This was prior to the known atrocities, which illustrates how prescient the Church was on the evils of socialism, national or otherwise. Recall, that in 1930 no one, including most nominal members of the Nazi party had any knowledge or inkling that Hitler was planning the genocide of whole races. The early history of the party was one of national fervor due to the recession in Germany since the first World War.
The refusal of his sanction to Nazi ceremonials [attempted in churches so as to “legitimize” their agenda with the people] was an area of freedom from which a priest could hardly be dislodged. Although he could be imprisoned or made a laughing stock in the slanderous political cartoons that proliferated in that time, much as is currently the practice in Portugal and here in America, albeit not quite as prolific as yet, there was no ultimate method to force a priest to endorse Nazism. One priest publicly predicted in 1933 a persecution of Christians within one year.
The Support of Bishops
The degree of opposition to the regime offered by Catholic clergy in part depended upon the initiative of their ecclesiastical superiors. One of the most active sees, was the diocese of Limburg under Bishop Hilfrich. He would not permit a Swastika to fly over his cathedral. During the latter half of 1933, when the Nazis demanded that Catholic youth join the Hitler Youth movement organizations, Bishop Hilfrich published a statement in which he exhorted his people to hold true to Catholic youth groups, saying that “the bishops hold their hands over you.” Once, when a HY member entered the cathedral in his uniform, the bishop could hardly contain his anger. The bishop’s priests followed suit, openly denouncing the naturalism and heathenism of Hitler youth. Generally, nuns were more dependent on the good will of the populace for their sustenance and activity in teaching youth. Fewer nuns thus spoke out. And a few bishops, after the Concordat, such as Archbishop Grober of Freiburg, ordered his priests not to speak out. But these minor exceptions do not sully the general activity of the clergy in resisting the Nazi regime. And in those minority of cases where the bishop thought that the Concordat would cause Hitler to refrain from persecuting the Church, and thus the Bishop would be silent, some priests still resisted and were transferred by the silent bishop in retaliation. On the whole the record of the Church was one of early and constant denunciation.
This then, was the climate in the early days.
Part 1: Priests of the Holocaust
Fr. William J. O’Malley, SJ
From PIUS XII AND THE HOLOCAUST, The Catholic League
Somehow the Nazi genocide associated with the word ‘Holocaust’ focuses primarily on those who died in extermination camps. If the word ‘genocide’ means the deliberate extermination of a national or racial group, the 6 million Jewish victims surely qualify. However, so do 9 million or more Slavic victims who were eliminated solely because they were Slavic. Hitler believed Providence intended Slavs to be serfs to the god-like Aryans. Thus all educated Slavs, especially members of a clergy Hitler had vowed to “crush like a toad” after the war, were to be liquidated—–by a year or two of humbling starvation and slavery. As Martin Bormann put it: “All Polish intelligentsia must be exterminated . . . Polish priests will preach what we want them to preach. If any priest acts differently, we will make short work of him. The task of the priest is to keep the Poles quiet, stupid, and dull-witted.”
Ten thousand Poles were liquidated in the first four months of the occupation. Seven hundred Polish priests were shot, and 3,000 sent to camps, where 2,600 of them died. The majority of them perished slowly and methodically from medical experiments and starvation labor.
In the first week of December, 1940, the SS consolidated the 1,197 priests from all the concentration camps into a single camp: Dachau—–where they could be tightly controlled. They were housed in two barracks, #26 and #28, ringed with barbed wire—–a camp within a camp—–so they would be less able to act as priests during their few free hours. By the day of liberation, 2,720 priests, brothers, and seminarians had dragged out their lives in Dachau and over 1,000 died there. These numbers do not include priests executed in cities and towns; of 162 French priests arrested by the Gestapo in February, 1944, 123 were shot or guillotined before reaching any camp. Nor does it count those priests who died in other camps; the International Tribunal at Nuremberg said that 780 priests died of exhaustion in the quarries of Mauthausen alone. Nor does it consider that one quarter to one third of those shipped to any camp were often dead on arrival.
For German priests, refusal to bow to the Third Reich was not only resistance, but treason.
With the complete suppression of the Catholic press, priests went underground, duplicating the sermons of the redoubtable Bishop von Galen of Muenster exhorting the people to resist the pagan racism of the Nazi regime. Any priest was free to defy the Pulpit Law, but it would be his final public word. As the figures in the table below attest, several hundred German and Austrian priests took that risk—–contrary to the view held by even eminent historians that the German Church was shamefully silent.
Dachau opened in 1933, and its first inmates were criminals and those branded “enemies of the state.” Consequently, when the priests arrived, these toughs [which included Communists] were then the trustees of the camp, in sadistic charge of the barracks and work crews. Every morning at 4:30 the Kapos [as they were called] roused the prisoners from their bunks—–where they slept from three to five men on a shelf two-and-half feet wide. After using a latrine intended for only 50 although there were 275 prisoners per latrine, they were given a tepid cup of ersatz coffee and then to roll call. Until midway through the war, even corpses had to be present.
Punishment was frequent, often for no observable reason. As one Dachau commandant said, “Softies belong in a monastery, not the SS.”
The Priests of Dachau:
Died in camp
Note: any discrepancy in figures is because some of the priests were transferred to other camps or died from other causes of the war after being released from Dachau. This data concerns Dachau only.
Further note that the haunting fear was of falling ill with diarrhea, edema, and especially typhus,
which raged through the camps the final two winters, when 200-300 died per day. At one point the SS refused to enter the contagious wards to remove the dead, so 20 priests volunteered, bathing the victims’ bodies with lysol and stacking their bodies in the alleys like cordwood.
Moreover, several barracks served as laboratories for medical experiments. A Dr. Klaus Schilling injected the priests, especially Polish priests, with malaria, TB, and pus to study the effects of various drugs.
For five years, Konzentrationslager Dachau, a short bicycle ride across the sodden moors northwest of Munich, was the sight of the largest religious community in the world. Because many records were hurriedly burned as the American tanks approached in April 1945, the best estimate, based on clandestine lists kept by priest-prisoners in the work office, is that 2,771 clergymen were interned at KZ Dachau—–of whom at least 1,034 died in the camp.
In the first 16 months of the war, 700 Polish
priests died at the hands of the Nazis
The 2,579 Catholic priests, lay brothers and seminarians came from 38 nations, from 134 dioceses and 29 religious orders and congregations. Their community included 109 Protestant, 30 Orthodox, and 2 Moslem clergymen.
That figure, surprising as it might be, does not include the clergy or nuns shot or beheaded or tortured to death in squares and alleys and jails all over Europe. In the first 16 months of the war, 700 Polish priests died at the hands of the Nazis and 3,000 more were sent to concentration camps; more than half did not return. In Dachau, 868 Polish priests perished, 300 of them in medical experiments or by torture in the prison showers. In France, too, by February 1944, the Gestapo had arrested 162 priests, of whom 123 were shot or decapitated before ever reaching any camp. According to the International Tribunal at Nuremberg, 780 priests died of exhaustion at Mauthausen and 300 at Sachsenhausen, and there were hundreds of other camps and satellites in the network. Nor does the total figure of 2,771 take into consideration that one-quarter to one-third of those shipped to any camp often arrived dead.
The Polish clergy in Dachau [1,780] far outnumbered the others. They arrived first, and
most of the 830 who survived did so, unbelievably for five years. As for the Czech and Slovak priests  and the Yugoslavs , the reason for incarceration was, as with the Jews, racial. Hitler believed Slavs were ordained by Providence to be slaves to the Aryan race, a fact their very name “proved.” Any Slav who had achieved an education had, by that fact, flown in the face or his own nature. Moreover, those priests were not only educated Slavs but apostles or a Church that Hitler had vowed to “crush like a toad” when victory arrived.
The German and Austrian clergy at Dachau  were for the most part men who realized that being a good Christian and a good Nazi were irreconcilable as compassion and sadism. These men, being celibate, were freer than family men to take risks. They had run underground presses and underground railways to rescue retarded children from the euthanasia laws and Jews from deportation. Any priest was free to defy the Pulpit Law and speak out against racism and paganism of The Third Reich; but, except for the redoubtable Bishop Von Galen of Muenster, it would be his final public word. German priests were exiled to Dachau for preaching love of neighbor, for insisting that Jesus was a Jew, for warning SS men that they could not abjure their faith to achieve promotion, for offering Requiem Masses even for relatives of Communists. German religious were interned on trumped-up-charges of spiriting funds out or the country to their headquarters in Rome and, in much publicized cases, for seducing boys and girls. Two old priests were sent to Dachau for failing to give the Hitler salute when Hermann Goering and his entourage entered a Berlin restaurant. All the Gestapo needed was to present a paper to any priest: “Evidence confirmed by the State police shows that by his behavior he is endangering the stability and security of the State.”
The 156 French, 63 Dutch, and 46 Belgians were primarily interned for their work in the Underground. If that were a crime, such men as Michel Riquet, SJ, surely had little defense; he was in contact with most of the leaders of the French Resistance and was their chaplain, writing forthright editorials for the underground press, sequestering Jews, POW’s, downed Allied airmen, feeding and clothing them, providing them with counterfeit papers and spiriting them into Spain and North Africa. Henry Zwaans, a Jesuit secondary school teacher in The Hague, was arrested for distributing copies of Bishop Von Galen’s homilies and died in Dachau of dropsy and dysentery. Jacques Magnee punished a boy for bringing anti-British propaganda into the Jesuit secondary school at Charleroi in Belgium; Leo DeConinek went to Dachau for instructing the Belgian clergy in retreat conferences to resist the Nazis. Parish priests were arrested for quoting Pius Xl’s anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, or for publicly condemning the anti-Semitic film, “The Jew Seuss,” or for providing Jews with false Baptismal certificates. Some French priests at Dachau disguised themselves as workers to minister to young Frenchmen shanghaied into service in German heavy industry and had been caught doing what they had been Ordained to do.
The Rev. Andreas Reiser, a German, was crowned with barbed wire and a group of Jewish prisoners was forced to hail him as their king, and the Rev. Stansilaus Bednarski, a Pole, was hanged on a cross.
There is little need to rehearse the conditions or 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 on your knees only once or twice; one small wad of bread and a cup of watery soup; 2 hours of hard labor, dragging 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.
In 1940, it seemed a diplomatic coup that the German bishops and the Vatican had persuaded Heinrich Himmler to concentrate all priests from the network of European camps into one camp, to house them in separate blocks together, with lighter work and a chapel. In early December 1940, priests already interned in Dachau were put into Barracks 26, 28, and 30 at the end of the west side of the long camp street, “Liberty St.” Within two weeks they were joined by 800-900 more from Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Auschwitz and other camps, a Babel of haggard strangers. With the conquest of Western Europe, arrests of priests increased so that, now concentrated into two barracks instead or three, despite the deaths, there were rarely fewer than 1500 men in beds and toilet facilities built for 360. Hardly any priests remained in other camps.
Priests from Dachau worked in the “Plantation” and in the enormous SS industrial complex immediately to the west of the camp. In February 1942, two groups of younger Polish priests and scholastics were chosen for work as carpenters’ apprentices, but they had actually been chosen [at the express order of Himmler] to be injected with pus to study gangrene or to have their body temperature lowered to 27 degrees Centigrade in order to study resuscitation of German fliers downed in the North Atlantic. The Rev. Andreas Reiser, a German, was crowned with barbed wire and a group of Jewish prisoners was forced to hail him as their king, and the Rev. Stansilaus Bednarski, a Pole, was hanged on a cross.
Although a few priests did throw themselves in despair on the electrified wire and a few did sink into the affectless, zombie Nirvana the prisoners called “going Muslim,” most clung to a faith that kept them plodding on. They had been schooled to a charity that was often strained, even with their fellow clergy, by national and ethnic differences. They could communicate at least in Latin across language barriers that divided other prisoners. They were educated men used to using their wits and to taking charge. In early 1943, when the tide of the war began to turn against Germany, and the need to get all the labor possible out of the slaves became clear to the camp commander, the SS saw that it was better to have disciplined, educated secretaries and managers. This allowed priests into offices where they could manipulate the labor schedules, into the hospital where they could minister to the sick, especially during the two horrifying typhus winters, into the package depot where they made sure that packages [now allowed to ease the food shortage] got to the most needy, especially the Russians who obviously had no packages at all, and into munitions factories where they could work minor sabotage, particularly with the planned gas oven at Dachau—–which never became functional, due, at least in part, to their efforts.
But most important to them, they had their chapel. At first it was a single empty room with two tables shoved together for an altar and the contents or two army chaplains’ Mass kits for vestments and vessels. In five years they managed to jerry-rig, “liberate” and sneak in through the “Plantation” road stand the elements of a quite credible chapel. It was to focus their minds and raise their spirits. And when eight months after the chapel opened, the Polish priests were moved to another barracks, the Eucharist spread throughout the camp in tins that had held aspirin and zinc ointment and tobacco. Their greatest triumph, in December of 1944, was the Ordination of Karl Leisner by his fellow-prisoner, Bishop Gabriel Picquet of Clermont-Ferraud, with full vestments made from material “liberated” from the stores, even a biretta for the Ordained, a miter and red shoes for the bishop and a ring and pectoral cross made by a Communist inmate in the Messerschmitt works at Allach—–and the SS never found out.
The most admirable priest-rogue was a Jesuit former master of novices named Otto Pies.
Released from Dachau in the Spring of 1945, as the Americans were advancing, he disguised himself as an SS officer and came back to the camp with a truckload of food —–roasted God knows where in those bitterly foodless days. He drove into the camp, into the priests’ wired-compound, and then drove off with 30 other priests hidden in the back. Two days later, when 5,400 prisoners—–88 of them priests—–were led off into the Alps to be lost in the snow, Otto Pies came back in the same uniform and truck and picked up more.
For such men, Mass was neither duty nor routine. Fr. Riquet describes a “mass” he offered at Mauthausen before being moved to Dachau: They had no wine, but in the corner of a barrack, a dozen men squatted in rags as Piquet read the Epistle and the Gospel of the Day, recited the Our Father and gave them his blessing. At the end, with tears in his eyes, M. Jasper, the consul general of Belgium, whispered, “That was the most beautiful Mass of my life.”
It is important to keep these men’s memory alive. As far as I know there are no Auschwitzes today. But there is a shaming archipelago of Dachaus today still. We cannot say “We never knew they were there.” Although policy makers have many problems at the moment, the Jews have been obstreperous and successful in their concern for the interned Soviet Jews. What of the others? The the voice of the common man in “A Man for All Seasons,” playing Thomas More’s jailer: “You’ve got to understand I’m just a plain, simple man.”
Part 2: The Priests of Dachau
Bl. Karl Leisner
Priest in Dachau
by Elizabeth Haas
My brother, Karl, was born in Germany on February 28, 1915. There were two boys and three girls in our family and we were brought up quietly, as a united and happy Catholic family. We explored the neighboring countryside on foot or on our bicycles. In the evening, we enjoyed singing together. Our family, like many others in the years before television, would sing, read and play games together.
At the age of 13, Karl joined the Catholic Youth Movement. He liked the friends he made and their outdoor adventures. But what he enjoyed most of all was the opportunity to learn a great deal about God. Karl’s heart and mind were opened to God helping him to accept the amazing adventure which became his life . . . a life that included living in Dachau, a concentration camp where innocent people, including priests, suffered and died at the hands of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party. The Nazi Party took over Germany, started World War II and planned on taking over the world including the place you live in.
The first signs of the political troubles which lay ahead for Karl came on July 3, 1933, when he and his fellow classmates were told by the principal of their high school that they must sign a document in support of Hitler and the Nazi party. It said, “The undersigned students agree that they will not work against the power or activities of the Nazi Party.”
But by this time, Karl had already decided he wanted to become a priest and in 1934 was sent to study for the priesthood in the city of Munster, in Germany. Almost immediately, the bishop of Munster recognized Karl’s remarkable talents and told him that eventually he would be needed to look after the young people of the diocese.
Fortunately, Karl kept a record of the day-to-day events in his life. This journal tells us about his personal thoughts, hopes, joys and fears. Our family remained enormously important for him, and at the age of 22 he wrote in his journal, “I feel so at peace at home with my family—–and how we pray for one another!” For a time Karl was tom by the question: did he have a genuine vocation to be a priest or was he really called to be a married man, bringing up a family of children just as our parents had done?
He put his problems to Our Lady, “If I am to be a priest, let me know it and grant me the grace of
overcoming myself—–but if I am to become a bad priest, let me die first.” Eventually the conflict became resolved, and he accepted wholeheartedly both his vocation to the priesthood and the responsibilities for youth which were to be put upon him by his bishop. “My Lord,” he wrote in his journal, “with Your blessing I will accept the heavy duty of leadership of the young; I dedicate all my energy to You, make me Your instrument.”
My brother’s fruitful work was indeed to lead young men and women, boys and girls around the world. But it was to be done through prayer, accomplished in loneliness and with much suffering.
The fact that Karl had accepted responsibility for the diocesan young people had not gone unnoticed by the Gestapo, Hitler’s secret police. In 1936, suspicious of his activities, they opened a secret file on Karl. They noted such facts as on New Year’s Eve, 1937, he had spoken to some of his young people, telling them, “We love Christ and will die for Christ.” Instead, the Gestapo wanted young Germans to want to die for Hitler and the Nazi Party! The Gestapo were constantly watching Karl, checking his movements, reading his mail.
Then on September 29, 1937, the Gestapo arrived at his house at 7:15 in the morning, made a thorough search of his rooms and confiscated his journals.
Greatly agitated, he took his bicycle and rode directly to Our Lady’s Shrine at Kevelaer, knelt down in front of her statue and prayed to her Son. Thy will be done.”
There followed a period of apparent calm and he continued his studies for the priesthood. After a meditation on January 24, 1938, he wrote, “O Christ, if You did not exist I should not want to be. You are. You live. Take me, for I am at Your service.” By this time, Karl had a distinct sense of foreboding, of danger close at hand.
In 1939, Karl was due to be Ordained a priest, but suddenly he came down with tuberculosis in both lungs. The Ordination was postponed because he was taken to a hospital in the Black Forest.
Within six months his health had begun to improve dramatically. But on November 8, 1939 came the news that there had been a bombing attempt to kill Hitler. The following morning, discussing the event with a fellow patient in his room in he hospital, Karl remarked that it was a pity Hitler hadn’t been present at the time of the attack. For this remark, Karl was denounced to the authorities.
The patient claimed that Karl was totally against Hitler, that he was not in the slightest way impressed by any of Hitler’s views and that he saw, quite clearly, that the survival of the Church in Germany would only be possible if the terrible enemy of Nazism were to be overthrown.
Within hours, Karl was arrested. Two days later, my brother wrote secretly in his Breviary, “O my God, I thank You for the days of bondage and imprisonment. There is sense in everything: You Only wish the very best for me.”
Karl was overjoyed when he was allowed a visit from our mother. They both accepted his imprisonment as God’s will, and because it was God’s will, they were able to cope with the situation with complete inner peace and charity. Externally, however, the situation soon deteriorated sharply. Karl was taken to the infamous Sachsenhausen prison near Berlin. Then Himmler, the leader of the SS which included the secret police and storm troopers, ordered all priests to be confined in the same concentration camp, Dachau. Karl, as a sub-deacon, was also moved to KZ Dachau.
In Dachau, as in all the KZ concentration camps, the main objective was to isolate, and ultimately to exterminate, all opposition to Hitler’s Nazi Party. My brother, like all other prisoners in Dachau, ceased to be known by name and was given a mere number. Barracks Numbers 26 to 30 were crowded with priests from twenty-five European countries. A chapel was opened in Barrack No. 26 and here Karl found the Church in Chains.
Mass was said each morning at 5:00 am, just before dawn roll-call. Holy Communion was distributed and the Divine Office was read. Religion study groups were organized. Jesus Christ Himself was in Dachau, and an intense community spiritual life was lived in the camp.
Although he experienced hours of deep depression, I was told that Karl gave no outward sign of the terrible inner trial he was undergoing, and his fellow prisoners remembered him for his cheerful disposition. He continued to long for his Ordination to the priesthood, an event which in the circumstances of the time must have seemed to him highly improbable. Then in September 1944 the situation changed. A new face appeared in Barrack Room 26. It was that of Bishop Gabriel Picquet of the diocese of Clermont- Ferraud in France. Secret messages were soon smuggled from Dachau to Karl’s German superiors—–Bishop von Galen of Munster and Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich—–and their official authorization was obtained for Karl’s Ordination by the French Bishop.
On December 17, 1944, weak and suffering from increasing illness, Karl was secretly Ordained a priest of the Catholic Church. It was the only Ordination of a priest to take place in a concentration camp of the Third Reich. “It is not possible for me to express in words,” he wrote less than two weeks later, “my thanks for the manner in which God has granted me this unique favor, in answer to the prayers of His Blessed Mother. For the past 14 days I have been deeply affected.”
Weak and frail Fr. Karl said his first Mass on the Feast of St. Stephen, uniting himself with Christ in all the misery, all the humiliation, and all the suffering of Dachau. This first Mass of “a priest in chains” was one of the happiest moments in the life of the appalling concentration camp. But for Karl, by now physically broken, his first Mass was also to be his last Mass.
On April 29, 1945 Dachau was liberated by the Americans. Karl, too ill to get up, covered his face and wept. A local Catholic priest, Father Otto Pies, was allowed to enter the compound and five days later, on the Feast of Saint Monica, with the special permission of the authorities and with the help of a somewhat unorthodox passport, Father Pies was able to bring Father Karl out of the camp, carrying with him the Holy Eucharist.
From Dachau, Karl was taken immediately to a hospital in a forest near Munich, where he was received with great gentleness by the resident nuns and doctors. The hospital really seemed like paradise. “Alone! In one’s own room. What bliss!” he wrote in the diary. “How infinitely good is God; He helps me always when the need is greatest. All He wanted was my total surrender. I received Holy Communion here early this morning and am so happy. Otto came to see me after Mass.”
The care of the good sisters began to take effect. “Slowly the buried images of Dachau are beginning to loose their hold on me. I am a free man, hallelujah! I feel reborn! My human dignity is restored. Flowers on the table. The crucifix on the wall. A sister brings in a copy of Stephan Lochner’s painting of Our Lady in Cologne Cathedral. I commend everything to her, my beloved Holy Mother! I pray to her, often, with tears in my eyes.”
Father Otto Pies was able to observe my brother as he lay in the hospital. “During the quiet days of his illness, Karl’s inner spiritual growth—–for which his long years of suffering had prepared him —–proceeded apace, and I believe he developed an increasing understanding of the mystery of atonement.
“In Dachau, Karl had already offered his life to God as a sacrifice for the sake of young people. In spite of his increasing illness, his countenance and speech expressed quite clearly this newly-founded maturity and spiritual depth. He seldom thought about himself and rarely spoke about his own recent past. But everything that concerned the Church was of the utmost interest to him.”
On June 29, 1945, Karl had the enormous joy of being reunited with our dear parents, with whom he had completely lost touch for six long years. “Mother and father are at my bedside, kissing and greeting me! Deeply moving. We are together again. Deo gratias!” But it was clear that the days in the concentration camp had taken their toll and that Karl was weakening. The last entry that he was able to make in his diary was on July 25, 1945. Mass had just been said by his bedside. “Good night, eternal, holy God. Dear Blessed Mother. Good night all Saints, all the loving living and dead, near and far! Bless my enemies, O Lord!”
On August 9, 1945, my sisters and I were able to join our parents at the hospital. The joy of seeing us all together allowed him to rally for a short time, and he carried on an animated conversation with us all. But then at noon, as we sat by his side, he once more fell back on his pillow and uttered his last words: “I must suffer like the Savior on the Cross.” Three days later he died. He was only 30 years old.
Although travel in Germany at that time was extremely difficult, it became possible for us, providentially, to take his body back to our home town. There, at Kleve, the inhabitants received him like a hero. The letters of condolences poured in. I remember that one of them was from Karl’s own Bishop who wrote to my parents: “I believe, with confidence, that you have presented a Saint to Heaven.” The former chaplain of the Kleve Youth Movement also wrote, declaring that in his view a great son of the Church had just died: “Karl is a model for us all; he is our intercessor.” Crowds soon began to visit his simple grave at Kleve, not only as individuals but also in groups, especially youth groups; memorial services and commemorations were held; streets, homes, and a school were named after him.
In 1966, his body was exhumed and transferred to the Crypt of the Martyrs in the local Cathedral. Then in 1973 the Priests’ Council of the Diocese of Munster requested that proceedings should be opened for his beatification. Four years later, having examined all the facts, Bishop Tecchuenberg of Munster went to Rome and proposed to the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, that the cause of Father Karl Leisner should be opened, officially. When receiving the request, His Holiness said: “Karl Leisner, being purified by persecution and by personal suffering, being Ordained priest in Dachau concentration camp in the face of death, sets an example worthy of imitation by more and more priests and believers.” On March 15, 1980, Pope John Paul II gave the final permission necessary for the opening of official proceedings for Father Karl’s beatification. Later, when on his visits to Gennany in 1980 and 1987, His Holiness went out of his way to make specific references to Karl. And again, in October, 1988 when visiting the European Youth Meeting in Strasburg, the Holy Father quoted the priest from Dachau KZ: “Christ is the mystery of European strength,” and held him up as a model for young people.
“Poor Europe, return to your Lord Jesus Christ! Dear Lord, I plead with You, work through me as Your instrument.” These words were written by Karl in June 1945, eight weeks before his death. Today, I know, more and more people are looking to my very dear brother as an intercessor for all young people, and as a powerful intercessor for Christian families throughout the world.
Further Reading: Karl Leisner: Priest in Dachau, by Archbishop Couve de Murville of Birmingham. Also Three Sermons in Dark Times, by Clemens Cardinal van Galen. Both titles can be ordered through the Catholic Truth Society, 38/40 Eccleston Square, LONDON, SW1V 1PD, England.
For additional information about Father Karl, you may write to Internationaler Karl-Leisner-Kreis, c/o Pfarrer Kleinen, Am Hagelkreuz 10, D-4l78, KEVELAER, Germany; or to his sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Haas, Leitgraben 26, D-190 KLEVE, Germany. Please enclose $6.00 (US) to cover costs, and request English language material.
Originally published in THE ALTAR BOY Magazine.
Postcript by the Web Master:
In proclaiming him Blessed on June 23, 1996, Pope John Paul II offered him as an example: “Karl Leisner encourages us to remain on the way that is Christ. We must not grow weary, even if sometimes this way seems dark and demands sacrifice. Let us beware of false prophets who want to show us other ways. Christ is the way which leads to life. All other ways are detours or wrong paths.”
Part 3: The Priests of Dachau
Bl. Titus Brandsma
The life of Titus Brandsma began in the quiet countryside of Friesland, Holland, where he was born on February 23, 1881, and ended some sixty years later on July 26, 1942, in the notorious hospital of the Dachau concentration camp.
Born Anno Brandsma, he completed high school studies with the Franciscans before entering the Carmelite monastery in Boxmeer in September of 1898, where he adopted his father’s name, Titus, as his religious name. During the early years as a Carmelite he showed interest in journalism and writing, two activities which would occupy much of his time later on in life. Titus professed his first vows as a Carmelite in October, 1899, was ordained on June 17, 1905, and after further studies at the Roman Gregorian University, graduated on October 25, 1909 with a doctorate in philosophy.
Fr. Titus’ entire priestly life was spent in education, although always with a keen pastoral sense of people’s needs. He joined the faculty of the newly founded Catholic University of Nijmegen in 1923, and served as Rector Magnificus, or President, of the University in 1932-33. After this time he resumed his teaching duties, and in 1935 made a lecture tour of the Carmelite foundations in the United States.
Just before this lecture tour, Archbishop De Jong of Utrecht appointed Fr. Titus as spiritual advisor to the staff members of the more than thirty Catholic newspapers in Holland; around the same time, the policies of Adolf Hitler, the new German Chancellor, began to be felt in Holland, and were openly criticized by Titus in his teaching and in the press. With the Nazi occupation of Holland on May 10, 1940 began the open persecution of the Jews and the active resistance of the Catholic hierarchy, who announced on January 26, 1941 that the sacraments were to be refused to Catholics known to be supporters of the National-Socialist movement.
While Titus’ involvement with this Catholic resistance to Nazi activity was becoming more blatant, it was the Church’s refusal to print Nazi propaganda in their newspapers that sealed his fate. Titus decided to deliver personally to each Catholic editor a letter from the bishops ordering them not to comply with a new law requiring them to print official Nazi publications. He visited fourteen editors before being arrested on January 19, 1942 at the Boxmeer monastery.
Fr. Titus was interned at Scheveningen and Amersfoort in Holland before being sent to Dachau, where he arrived on June 19, 1942. His constitution quickly deteriorated under the harsh regime, forcing him to enter the camp hospital in the third week of July. There he became the subject of biological experimentation, before being killed by lethal injection on July 26, 1942.
Poem Written by Blessed Titus:
A new awareness of Thy love
Encompasses my heart:
Sweet Jesus, I in Thee and Thou
In me shall never part.
No grief shall fall my way but I
Shall see Thy grief-filled eyes;
The lonely way that Thou once walked
Has made me sorrow-wise.
All trouble is a white-lit joy
That lights my darkest day;
Thy love has turned to brightest light
This night-like way.
If I have Thee alone,
The hours will bless
With still, cold hands of love
My utter loneliness.
Stay with me, Jesus, only stay;
I shall not fear
If, reaching out my hand,
I feel Thee near.
Father Titus Brandsma, O.Carm.