By Beth Donze
Dachau, the notorious German concentration camp most associated with the genocide of thousands of Jews during Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, also held more than 2,700 clergy, 2,400 of them Catholic priests.
Amid the horrors of hunger, torture, medical experimentation and mass executions, faith and hope somehow managed to flicker – and often flourish – in the section of Dachau set aside for clergy: Cell Block 26.
One Catholic deacon was even ordained to the priesthood while in captivity, all while escaping detection.
“It was the largest religious community living together in the history of the Catholic Church,” said Dianne Traflet, an assistant professor of pastoral theology and the associate dean of graduate studies at Seton Hall University, addressing permanent deacons and their families July 24 at the 2018 National Diaconate Congress in New Orleans.
“These were priests who lived their faith and their vocations with heartbreaking focus and love and who were determined to build the body of Christ,” Traflet said of the camp’s Catholic clergy, who hailed from 144 dioceses and 25 countries.
Christ illumines death camp
Sharing one incredible story after another from a stage inside the National World War II Museum, Traflet told of how priests donated blood, volunteered to serve in Dachau’s deadly typhus ward and surreptitiously celebrated Mass using consecrated hosts smuggled in from the outside.
In a makeshift chapel set up in their cramped barracks, 400 priests at a time could be heard chanting in Latin: “Christus vincit! Christ regnat! Christus imperat!” (“Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands!”)
Witness accounts describe the priests in regular prayer, arms outstretched, praying for parishes many would never see again.
“Men worshipped God in the very heart of this demonically distorted world. Christ was in the camps,” said Traflet, quoting Father Otto Pies, a Jesuit priest who survived Dachau.
“It was the church in chains, restricted and hemmed in, spied upon and threatened,” Father Otto would recall, “yet it functioned with the power of the freedom of spirit and the superiority of the truth.”
Priestly model of forgiveness
One of the priestly stories traced by Traflet included that of Blessed Titus Brandsma, a Dutch Carmelite friar sent to Dachau in 1942 for treason.
“His crime? He emphatically urged editors of the Dutch Catholic press to violate a new law of the Third Reich and not print any Nazi propaganda,” Traflet said. Father Titus denounced Nazism as “a sewer of falsehood that must not be tolerated,” she added.
“Put simply, (Father Titus) was sent to Dachau for his absolute refusal to accept the contempt that was being promoted for God’s creatures who happened to differ ethnically, religiously or intellectually from the regime of the day,” she said.
Traflet noted how when Father Titus woke up after one particularly severe beating, he told his fellow inmates “not to worry” because he was carrying a hidden consecrated host and was looking forward to spending the night in adoration.
Facing death by lethal injection in July 1942, Father Titus assured the nurse charged with administering the procedure of her goodness as one of God’s children. He gave the nurse his rosary beads and encouraged her to pray. The priest’s example of love, forgiveness and human dignity led the woman to return to her Catholic faith after the war, Traflet said.
“As his own heartbeat came to a stop, Father Titus led a soul closer to the heart of Christ,” Traflet said. “As his body died, Father Titus worked to heal the body of Christ.”
Traflet said Father Titus’ witness – and a firsthand visit to Dachau – would fortify the priestly vocation of Cardinal John J. O’Connor, and inspire him to establish the Sisters of Life, a community of religious women dedicated to protecting and enhancing the sacredness of every human life.
“Imagine such blessings from just one visit to a concentration camp!” Traflet said. “I can’t help but wonder about the priest-prisoners who endured not a few hours but a few years as tortured inmates. Could priest-prisoners also have been spiritually recharged in the darkness of Dachau? Could their priestly vocations have actually grown in the camps? Did their desire to build the body of Christ intensify, even as Hitler sought to crush the Catholic Church?”
Seeds of diaconate revival
From Cell Block 26, Dachau’s priests held theological conversations, Bible studies, conducted baptisms, heard confessions and assembled a multi-lingual glossary of basic phrases so they could comfort the sick and dying in their native tongues. They would also talk and pray about how to help the church, wracked by the loss of so many clergy.
“They said there are images of ‘Christ the King’ and ‘Christ the Priest,’ but we also need an image of ‘Christ the Servant,’” Traflet noted of the priestly discourses, some of them preserved by Dachau escapee Wilhelm Schamoni in his 1953 book “Married Men as Ordained Deacons.”
Dachau’s priests started thinking of the restoration of the permanent diaconate – something that wouldn’t formally happen until 1968 – as a means of multiplying the numbers of ordained men who could bring comfort and news of salvation to the afflicted in eras of priestly attrition.
Moreover, married men could more easily fly under the radar while doing their work in mission countries and in times of religious persecution, whereas priests were more visible targets of hatred because of their more public lives and manner of dress.
“Some of the seeds of your vocation were planted behind barbed wire in the stark darkness of Dachau!” Traflet said. “Don’t be afraid of the darkness of today’s society. Stay close to Christ, the way, the truth and the light.”
The ‘impossible’ happens
Traflet concluded with the story of a German transitional deacon named Karl Leisner, who at the time of his arrest – for making a negative comment about Hitler – was awaiting his priestly ordination and suffering from tuberculosis. Deacon Leisner’s six years of detention were spent primarily at Dachau, with one date becoming extra special: on Dec. 17, 1944, the gravely ill 30-year-old was ordained a Catholic priest.
Pulling off this feat took months of preparation, Traflet said. A young novice smuggled vestments into Dachau, along with the required authorization papers from Deacon Leisner’s bishop and the Vatican. French Bishop Gabriel Piguet, also interned at Dachau, conferred the sacrament using secretly obtained chrism oil. A choir was formed to celebrate the ordination Mass.
The S.S. never found out about any of it, Traflet said.
“Can you just imagine the immeasurable and ineffable joy that this brought to Karl Leisner – not just to him, but to the priest-prisoners, to the campus and, ultimately, to the church?” Traflet said, asking the deacons in the audience to recall their own ordination days and the sight of the happy congregants celebrating with them.
“Now consider what Father Karl saw: hundreds of emaciated priest-prisoners; shaved heads, but glowing and smiling,” she said. “Imagine the joy! Imagine the hope!”
Sadly, Father Leisner celebrated his first and only Mass at Dachau on Dec. 26, 1944, fittingly, the feast of St. Stephen, the Patron of Deacons. Although he lived to see the liberation of Dachau in late April 1945, he succumbed to tuberculosis three months later in a German hospital.
Father Leisner was beatified in 1996 by Pope John Paul II, inside the Berlin stadium built by Hitler to showcase his Olympic athletes. The stadium became “a symbol of the victory of Christ,” said Traflet, adding that Pope John Paul carried the same staff held by the bishop at Father Leisner’s Dachau ordination.
Remember Dachau’s priests
“God continues to call us from darkness to light. Let God’s light shine out in your smiles, in your optimism, and in your hope – we need your joy!” Traflet said, urging the assembled deacons to remember how much Dachau’s priests cherished the Eucharist.
“When you process with consecrated hosts in church or bring the Eucharist to those who are suffering, understand just how powerful the sacrament of love is,” Traflet said. “May your pilgrimage with the Blessed Sacrament be privileged moments of grace for those you meet and for you, too.”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.