Four Priests of Dachau
The Nazi regime established Dachau as their first concentration camp on March 22, 1933. All subsequent camps were to follow this prototype. Although not primarily an extermination camp, over 32,000 prisoners died there because of mistreatment, hunger, or disease. Initially, Dachau was for German political prisoners, but others arrived in due course: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, and criminals from all over Europe. By 1940, it also became the centralized camp for members of the clergy, of whom 95% (2,579 occupants) were Catholic priests, monks, and seminarians. Though the regime granted some concessions, such as the celebration of daily Mass, the clergy nonetheless faced brutal treatment and harassment. This article considers four Dachau priests beatified in recent years.
Blessed Engelmar Unzeitig (1911-1945)
This priest distinguishes himself as “The Angel of Dachau,” for his marked solicitude toward suffering inmates. He was born Hubert Unzeitig on March 1,1911 in Griefendorf, Moravia (now the Czech Republic). He grew up on a farm with his four sisters and mother. His father died of typhoid fever in a Russian prison camp in 1916, the same disease that would claim Engelmar’s life. As a young man, he felt called to the priesthood, particularly to the missions. He joined the Mariannhill Missionaries in 1928 when he was seventeen years old. He received the name Engelmar at his final vows in 1938, and was ordained to the priesthood on August 6, 1939, one month before the outbreak of World War II.
As a young parish priest in Glökelberg, Austria, he was not afraid to defend the human rights of Jews and Gypsies. He likewise declared that God’s authority was greater than that of the Führer. These words led to his arrest by the Gestapo on 21 April 1941. Without any trial, they sent him to Dachau, the “largest monastery in the world,” on June 8, 1941. Despite the fierce hardships, Fr. Engelmar had a heart for the sufferings of others.
Thus, overlooking his own hunger, he made an effort to collect food for the most neglected, namely, the Polish and Russian prisoners. He likewise learned Russian to minister to their spiritual needs. His manner was quiet and peaceable, but also intelligent because any sort of ministry to lay prisoners was strictly forbidden. He tried, moreover, to preach by example, not by way of fanaticism.
Whatever we do, whatever we want is simply surely the grace that carries us and guides us. God’s almighty grace helps us overcome obstacles ... love doubles our strength, makes us inventive, makes us feel content and inwardly free.— Fr. Engelmar in a letter to his sister
Two waves of Typhus swept through Dachau. The latter epidemic of 1944-45 was widespread and required severe measures of isolation. Unfortunately, those prisoners normally assigned to these barracks as managers, reassigned themselves to less contaminated areas. This left the victims of typhus in extreme dereliction, with none willing to help them – except the priests.
In all, eighteen priests volunteered to help in these barracks. Their duties involved removing dead cadavers, cleaning the soiled bedding, giving moral support, and bringing spiritual aid to those prisoners who desired it. Their decision to help required extraordinary courage and charity, as it meant almost certain infection. In fact, all eighteen were contaminated and most of them died from the disease. Among the volunteers was Father Engelmar. His devotion made such a lasting impression that the sick gave him the memorable title, “the Angel of Dachau.” The disease ultimately claimed his life on March 2, 1945, one day after his 34th birthday.
Blessed Hilary Paweł Januszewski (1907 -1945)
This Carmelite friar was also among the eighteen volunteers in the dreaded typhus barrack. He well understood that his choice meant almost certain death. As he bid goodbye to a fellow inmate, Fr. Bernard Czaplinski, he said, “You know, I will not come back from there, they need us” This decision was indeed heroic as Germany’s capitulation and the camp’s liberation drew near. After 21 days of serving the sick, he succumbed to the disease on March 25, 1945.
Blessed Hilary was born Paweł Januszewski on June 11, 1907, in Krajenski, Poland. He joined the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance in September of 1927, and received the name Hilary. During his philosophical studies in Krakòw, his superiors realized his potential. They sent him to Rome to complete his theological training; there he graduated at the top of his class in 1934. His fellow students, including Kilian Healy, the future Prior General of the Carmelites, recall the lasting impression of his “studious, contemplative presence.”
Fr. Hilary was ordained a priest in 1934 and returned to the Krakòw, where he assumed a number of duties as community bursar, sacristan, and chaplain at a Marian shrine. The Provincial appointed him superior of the Krakòw monastery in November of 1939. Germany already occupied Poland at this time and Fr. Hilary’s calm presence helped keep the community in relative peace. He moreover made room in the monastery for displaced persons from Poznań.
Perhaps in response for hiding civilians, the Gestapo raided the monastery on September 18-19, 1940, and arrested several members of the community. The thirty-two-year old Prior was spared and did all he could to release his brethren from the Montelupi prison in the following weeks. The Nazis returned to arrest another member, Fr. Konoba. Fr. Hilary persuaded the Gestapo that Fr. Kanoba was old, whereas he could be more useful; “I am younger and will be able to work better for you.” They arrested him instead on December 4, 1940. The Carmelites went first to Sachsenhausen then to Dachau.
While interned in Dachau over the next five-years, Fr. Hilary revealed that he was more than a scholar. He was an optimist by nature and consciously spread this spirit to strengthen the morale. The terrible famine of 1942 likewise revealed his hardiness as he gave away his meager bread portion to the suffering. His words of encouragement were better than bread, as a fellow inmate attests; “Not only did I have him in my camp as a friend; there were many among the priests who valued his goodness and his helpfulness. He refused his help to no one. He was gentle. Many gathered around him like a needy child.”
With the Allied forces making rapid advancement, news of the camp’s proximate liberation caused joy among the inmates. Nonetheless, the Gestapo challenged the priests one day - if they truly lived what they believed, why didn’t they help in the typhoid barracks? Eighteen priests offered to help the helpless, including Fr. Hilary. Twenty-one days later he was dead, aged 38. He emulated Christ’s offering; “Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (Jn 15:13)
Blessed Titus Brandsma (1881-1942)
Like Fr. Hilary, Blessed Titus was a Carmelite. He was born Anno Sjoerd Brandsma in Holland to parents who were dairy farmers. He and his five siblings grew up in a devout home with all except one sister entering the monastic life. Anno joined the Carmelites in Boxmeer, Holland in 1899, receiving the name Titus (after his father). His intellectual abilities became evident and he eventually earned a doctorate in philosophy. His superiors assigned him to teach in various schools.
He helped found the Catholic University of Nijmegen in 1923, where he taught philosophy and mysticism. He became Rector Magnificus of the school in 1932. He traveled widely, giving lecture tours, including the United States and Canada in 1935. Though a first-rate scholar, the students remember his friendliness and availability. He wrote extensively in Catholic newspapers and was the ecclesiastical adviser to Catholic journalists. It was in this capacity that he particularly earned the ire of the Nazi Party.
German Invasion, Imprisonment, and Death
The German Wehrmacht invaded Holland in May of 1940 and routed the Dutch Army in five days. The Nazi party sought to suppress all channels of intellectual formation that might threaten their ideology, namely, schools, the press, and the radio. As early as 1934, Fr. Titus criticized Nazism. He was particularly effective at showing up the weakness of an ideology based on hate and race superiority. The German newspapers named him the “Crafty Professor.”
After the Nazi occupation, however, he had to exercise greater caution as the authorities carefully monitored his efforts. When the Nazi’s sought to advertise in Catholic newspapers, the editors resisted. Fr. Titus sent a circular letter to all Catholic journalists on December 31, 1941, telling them not to give way to the pressure, even if it means loss of work. In consequence of this, the Nazis arrested him on January 19, 1942. The report after the interrogations described Fr. Titus as, “genuinely a man of character with firm convictions…[who] is anti-Nazi in principle and shows it everywhere; thus he is to be considered a ‘dangerous man’ and confined accordingly.”
The Nazis indeed thought he was one of the most dangerous men in the country and sent him to various prisons. His last destination was in one of the three clergy blocks of Dachau. The guards beat him often and after one particularly severe beating, he was confined in the infirmary. They deemed his physical condition hopeless and made him a victim of cruel medical experiments. He died on July 26, 1942, after receiving a lethal injection.
Blessed Karl Leisner (1915 -1945)
This priest distinguishes himself as the only person ordained in Dachau. He was born the eldest of five children in Kleve, northwest Germany. As he grew older, he formed a youth group, Sankt Werner Gruppe. Their activities combined prayer with outdoor activities such as hiking and cycling. Karl proved himself a natural leader. When the Nazis came to power, he often took his group across the Dutch border to avoid conflict with the Hitler youth.
He entered the Munich seminary in 1934. The legendary Bishop von Galen of Münster ordained him a deacon in 1939. Not long after, a medical examination revealed that Karl had tuberculosis. While receiving treatment at a sanatorium, he learned of a failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. A fellow patient heard him say, “Too bad.” The Gestapo arrested him and sent him to various concentration camps until he finally arrived at Dachau on December 14, 1940.
Internment, Ordination, and Death
During an inspection, two guards beat him unconscious. This episode along with cold weather and poor nutrition only aggravated his tubercular condition. After spitting up blood, he was sent to the dreaded infirmary, where patients deemed incurable were executed. Somehow, he managed to survive and returned to the priest block.
Karl should have been ordained in 1939, but his arrest prevented this. With such poor health and no bishop in Dachau, his hope of ordination dimmed. This situation changed unexpectedly with the arrival of Bishop Gabriel Paguet of Clermont-Ferrand in 1944. The bishop readily agreed to ordain Karl on condition that he received the necessary authorization from the bishops of Munich and Münster. A laywoman named Josefa Mack miraculously obtained these documents and smuggled them in. As such, Karl was ordained on December 17, 1944. He only celebrated one Mass in his life because of extreme weakness.
Despite the odds, Fr. Karl survived his internment. His family brought him to a sanatorium in Planegg. Although his spirits remained high, his health was far too wasted. He died on August 12, 1945. Blessed Karl gives a remarkable example of constancy in the face of hard trials.
When these priests first entered the seminary, none could have imagined their future trials. Had they lived ordinary lives as pastors or teachers, history would have swallowed them in obscurity. As it is, circumstances placed them in a severe crucible where they shone like gold. Brutalization and hunger proved their patience, charity, and constancy. Though none of us will likely endure such trials, it is well to keep such examples in view. It helps to keep our daily struggles in proportion by contemplating true heroism.
The Priest Barracks: Dachau, 1938-1945, by Guillaume Zeller, Ignatius Press, 2015
Prophet of Fire, by Kilian Healy, O.Carm., Institutum Carmelitanum,1990
Titus Brandsma: Friar Against Fascism, by Leopold Glueckert, O. Carm., Carmelite Press, 1987
An article on Blessed Karl Leisner
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