Dachau concentration camp wall and guard tower (Wikimedia Commons/Gary Todd)

In December, 1941, I was sentenced to six months in prison by the Brussels Regional Court for having given, in clergy retreats, lectures to priests which included an over-all picture of nazism: the reasons why it attracted so many people, the basic incompatibility of its teachings with those of the Gospel and the best ways in which to combat it. In May, 1942, without any additional court action, I was deported into Germany to a concentration camp. The nazi gentry were convinced, they informed me, that I was the soul of resistance on the part of the clergy. It was a most exaggerated judgment, but I refused neither the honor they bestowed upon me nor the results which they felt should follow. I left for Dachau, where I was to spend three years, three years of experiences which for nothing in this world would I have missed.

When I arrived at Dachau on June 18, 1942, I found some 2,500 priests incarcerated there. When I left on May 13, 1945, there remained 1,100. Some 60 Germans had been released during the course of the last weeks; the remaining 1,300 all died at the camp, and did not die from natural causes.

Every nation was represented among these men. Toward the end the French numbered 123, as I recall. The next largest group were some 80 Czechs. There were 33 of us Belgians. But the largest group of all aIways consisted of Poles. I arrived in time to make the acquaintance and to venerate the saintly Auxiliary Bishop of Woztslavek, the Most Reverend Bishop Kozal, who died of exhaustion in December, 1942. These members of the clergy indeed represented all Europe. They emanated from 138 dioceses and, I believe, 25 religious orders. (A priest from Metz kept the records of our cell block with painstaking care. They were deposited in the presbytery of the village of Dachau.) The Society of Jesus contributed a large contingent— almost 100, whereof 63 were still alive when the day of liberation came. They came from 13 different provinces: Holland, the two German provinces, the two Polish provinces and the providence of the Oriental Rite, the Czech and Austrian provinces, the four French provinces, and the Belgian. All of the Church's hierarchy was represented, from a bishop (of Clermont-Ferrand) down to students in preparatory seminaries. And in the camps were members of all the Christian groups: Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Old Catholic and Mariavite.

Early in 1941 all priests were being transferred to and concentrated in the Dachau camp, and they were sheltered in three prison blocks, block 26, first reserved for Germans (later all non-Poles were moved to this block), and blocks 28 and 30. This gathering together into a single area was, in accordance with an agreement with the Holy See, accompanied by various “privileges”: opportunities for holding religious services, exemption from heavy labor and employment in war industry, a life in an ecclesiastical community, and various dietary improvements paid for by the German hierarchy. The latter in fact amounted only to an excuse for bullying on the part of the SS. For instance, each of us daily received a glass of wine which must be drunk at the command of the SS and returned—empty or full—at its command! This was really no more than an excuse to elaborate on the calumnies charged against the clergy—those gluttonous and lazy fellows. And what is more, these privileges were very soon reduced to living in common, the use of the chapel, and freedom from transfer to other camps.

The three prison blocks were later cut down to two, and during the last months to a single one. By then we were living under incredibly crowded conditions. My dormitory, which contained about 144 square yards of floor space, housed 350 men. During the interval when churchmen were dispensed from heavy work, they were exploited in every possible way. In winter the frightful task of clearing the camp of snow was imposed upon them. All day long we were outside shoveling, piling snow upon overturned dining tables, upon long wheel barrows, which then had to be taken to the river running along the edge of the camp and there dumped. This work, in itself hard and exhausting, was made worse by the fact that it was supervised by “capos,” those poor degenerate brutes, worse than the SS, and the cause of how many innocent deaths!

Twice a day we had to journey to the kitchens in order to distribute the heavy containers of food throughout the camp. Each container weighed 150 pounds and into it were poured 150 pounds of "soup." Then, two of us to a container, shod in light sandals almost impossible to keep on our feet, had to carry the food to each of the cell blocks in the camp. Hardly ever was the task accomplished without someone's stumbling, amid howls of glee from the onlookers who seemed all to be moved by a sort of animal hatred for the “Pfaffen.” When this happened, our own cell block had to replace the contents of the spilled container with one of the containers intended for our use.

In short order the exemption from work was dropped and the greater part of the priests were assigned to teams which labored on what was called the “plantation.” This consisted in the raising of medicinal herbs and luxury flowers, a business belonging to certain Party bigwigs, who, it was said, through good times and bad made therefrom a net annual profit of 750,000 marks. The number of those who died as a result of these labors was frightening. The majority of the priests who quit this world in the concentration camp sacrificed their lives to this business. Worn out by tramping back and forth from work, half-starved, they had to work at their tasks like slaves, from earliest dawn to evening, and in all weathers. If they came back to their quarters wet and muddy, there was no opportunity afforded them to dry out their flimsy work clothes; next day they had to put them on as wet as they had been the night before. And here again the work, hard enough in itself, was made even more inhuman by the “capos” and “sub-capos” and by the SS guards with their snarling dogs.

Yet in the long run our way of life became less difficult and priests were likewise given less difficult tasks to perform. Thus it happened that about a hundred of them were put in the “Besoldung,” which might be described as the bookkeeping department of the SS, Working there, conditions were more humane because the SS members there employed were, in large measure, what might be called slackers. Almost alI of them had a certain amount of education and seemed to belong to the liberal professions. Their attitude was in strong contrast to the unbelievable vulgarity and cruelty of the ordinary SS species. Some 30 of us priests were also attached to the infirmary, either as charge nurses, in which capacity we actually served as doctors, or as clerks in the pesthouse office. 

And thus it came to pass that at the end we alone—or almost alone—constituted the employees of the "Hall of Records." This made it possible for us to officiate at the reception of newcomers, of those frightening columns which arrived during the last months from the various camps evacuated to Dachau. The unhappy victims of these death marches at least were greeted by friendly faces. And it was thus that I myself had the joy of comforting those founders of the Young Christian Workers (JOC), Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet.

It was not toil alone which brought so many priests to their untimely ends. We had also to reckon with the constant ill-treatment visited upon us by the camp's executioners. Before Dachau I had never seen hatred: eyes flaming with ill-will, mouths twisted with anger at the sight of a “Pfaffe.” To strike, to wound, to kill a priest seemed an instinctive need among some of these creatures.


Before Dachau I had never seen hatred: eyes flaming with ill-will, mouths twisted with anger...To strike, to wound, to kill a priest seemed an instinctive need among some of these creatures.

But alongside all these horrors there were also great and splendid things. And these, more than the former, deserve to be remembered.

In cell block 26 we had a chapel. Only the inmates of this building could make use of it, since by the will of the SS access to it was strictly forbidden to everyone else. But little by little courage increased as did the desire to break this tyrannical “verboten,” so that at the end anyone who had a mind to came to the chapel.

This chapel was merely a dwelling unit in which the partition separating the dormitory from the refectory had been torn down. It had been granted as a concession either in January, 1941, or in December, 1941. The altar consisted of a small table, less than a square yard in area. Its entire appurtenances consisted in a traveling Mass kit. And we must remember that its use had to be shared among all Christians. This was always worked out with great charity on the part of all.

Gradually our sanctuary was embellished, with or without the consent of those in charge of the camp. Thus in the end the altar was very worthy, and entirely the fruit of ingenious toil on the part of the prisoners. I might make special allusion to the tabernacle, wrought—obviously against the rules—in the cabinet shop provided for the camp's luxury furniture. It was adorned with decorations at first fashioned out of tin yielded by food cans, and then out of bronze “liberated” from the enemy. The crucifix on the main altar was a naive piece of sculpture whittled out by a prisoner. Later it was turned into a processional cross when there arrived from Muenster a magnificent work of art presented to us by the men of Catholic Action. The candlesticks were also a home product, in very good taste. For the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament—we even occasionally held perpetual adoration—we had two ostensoria at our disposal: one, severely and symbolically plain, was an ebony cross with a lunula in the form of a sun with rays made out of tin cans; the other was fabricated out of light lemon wood.

We were also sent a handsome statue of the Virgin, which the future will see become a center of pilgrimage to Dachau in the Basilica of Reparation. This basilica is to be erected on the site of the Administration Building, which has been handed over for this purpose by the American authorities. The statue of Our Lady was an object of continuous devotion: thousands of souls sought comfort at her feet.

Our chapel walls were soon adorned with Stations of the Cross and a bas-relief and neatly framed prints gave evidence of devotion to the Sacred Heart and Saint Joseph. On the Epistle side a small table served as sacristy. Gradually its equipment improved, until it included really handsome vestments, evidence of the sympathy of the faithful for their persecuted priests. These made possible the celebration of solemn offices. At Easter, 1944, we actually had four large Pascal candles at our disposal. Hosts and wine were supplied us in quantity through the good offices of the parish priest of Dachau, with whom, on the 25th of each month, we were allowed to communicate regarding our needs for religious services. What is more, the equipment of the chapel included about a hundred breviaries in four volumes, supplied by the Diocesan Curia of Breslau. They proved serviceable above all during 1944, when idleness was general and allowed us to pay more attention to priestly activities. In 1943 our cell block was so over-crowded ( 1,100 occupants) that the recitation of the Office became the privilege of a fortunate few.


In our chapel religious observances made a progress similar to that of the physical betterment of the sanctuary itself. At the outset we had only shortened low Masses—begun directly at the Offertory and ending with the Communion. From these beginnings we achieved full pontifical ceremonies after we had been supplied with a bishop and a Benedictine abbot. The history of the liturgy at Dachau would make a chapter all by itself—a very special chapter which I shall not attempt to write. As we all know, knowledge of the liturgy—and I mean knowledge of the rules governing the liturgy—has still some slight progress to make among our clergy. So I shall rest content with describing the life in our prison chapel.

Every day Mass was celebrated before most of the camp was awake; Communion was distributed by four persons, who passed about through the community. In the beginning it was always the same priest who celebrated—such were the orders of the “Lagerführung.” Why? Anyone who has ever lived under the nazi regime knows that there is no need to seek any deep reason for petty annoyances: there wasn't any. Starting with Christmas, 1942 , our circumstances improved. For special reasons the perpetual celebrant might be replaced by another. And thus it happened that I was called upon to say the requiem for Father Ledochowski. Shortly thereafter a rotation system was set up and two Masses were celebrated on Sunday. Finally the number of Masses was multiplied until we reached a point where Mass was being said practically continuously, morning and evening.

On Sundays we had a High Mass and Solemn Vespers. A sermon was preached before the morning Office, at first always in German. I broke the spell of this language in favor of Latin, which was certainly better fitted to so international a group. As time went on we arranged services in which the various nationals could have the comfort of living again in terms of their own tongues .... Lay people attended all these services in large numbers. Typhus, which broke out in 1945, had the effect of putting a stop to draconian discipline, and it was never resumed. At the same time lack of work became the rule.

From thenceforward we had all the leisure we wanted to plan and execute very elaborate services. The musicians among us, and several of them were eminent, even had time to compose. And so there was born a “Missa Dachauensis.” I do hope that, to the greater advantage of sacred art, this polyphonic Mass will be published, a Mass in which the people themselves in the church sing their part as though it were written in Gregorian. I can assure you that the effect was magnificent. And so all the liturgical ceremonies were thenceforth carried out in great splendor: Christmas, Holy Week, Corpus Christi. This splendor reached its high point in pontifical ceremonies: we had two mitres and croziers, pectoral crosses, rings, violet tape and cassock, bishops' tunicles . . . nothing was lacking. And all of these things had been made at the camp itself; materials for them were most ingeniously “organized.” Not for nothing had we all learned the meaning of a “compensatio occulta.”

Those who have never been in a concentration camp sometimes hold idyllic, romantic and thoroughly false views on this subject.

On our third Christmas we arranged for a service of praise by all the nations in honor of the King born in a stable. Each national group was invited to sing its ancient carols in such sequence that the whole of the Mystery was set forth. I linked the various songs together by means of brief introductions, and thus they became the natural expression of the feelings of the whole group. Everyone left this service determined to institute something of the same kind when he got home to his own parish. But what was really the culmination of all our efforts of this sort was the ordination of a deacon from Muenster who had been incarcerated for five years. The ceremony was performed in accordance with all canonical requirements, but was a triumph of secretiveness. That Gaudete Sunday of 1944 will long remain in memory. Perhaps it was the most impressive ordination ever to have taken place: here we were in prison, with hundreds of priests placing their hands upon another man “bound to Christ.” And to round out the story I must add that Protestant minister came in great numbers and insisted on preparing a noonday feast for the new priest which constituted an extraordinary exception to the less than simple diet we normally enjoyed.


When first I arrived at Dachau I was included in a group of four or five hundred fated for the gas chambers. Thanks to a series of circumstances in which the protection of the Virgin was obvious, I was able to avoid being put to death. But for two frightful months I shared the life of those about to die. Since I was newly arrived, I was just about the only one in vigorous health. Hence I felt an obligation to do what I could to comfort the others. I fairly quickly succeeded in obtaining some consecrated Hosts which I broke up into tiny particles—20 to each Host—and wrapped in cigarette papers. Thanks to this method of reservation, with the Sacrament on my person day and night, I was able to dispense this source of help and strength and also on many occasions to give the Viaticum to those on the way to execution.

I likewise organized a secret eight-day retreat in Latin, with three exerciseese held everyday. Daily we had Benediction. My spectacle case served as ciborium and my knee as the thabor upon which I balanced our Treasure. Later on in the infirmary I was able to arrange another retreat for sick priests. Those able to move about came and sat upon the bed of my dear Polish colleague Grabowski and then each returned to his dormitory and repeated the religious instructions to those who were bedridden.

In our own cell block as early as January, 1943, I organized a series of lectures given in one of the dormitories at eight o'clock in the morning. The results were sometimes amusing since very sudden changes of subject became necessary whenever the “enemy” intruded, thanks to the lack of vigilance of the watch we had posted.

A final word or two upon what we were able to do for the laity in the camp. During the last year there was a great deal more freedom and we were able to undertake things which would have been out of the question earlier. A most interesting study could be made on the religious attitude of the prisoners. Those who have never been in a concentration camp sometimes hold idyllic, romantic and thoroughly false views on this subject. It is so easy to imagine that these thousands of men, deprived of all human help and constantly under the threat of death, would impetuously seek God, that priests need only present themselves and say a word or two for the faithful to fall on their knees like ripe fruit from a shaken tree. A great deal would have to be said about conversions “in quacumque necessitate.”


Yet much good was done. Above all we were able to establish contact between people belonging to very disparate and very hostile groups, who thus learned to respect each other. That was a great deal. A Protestant minister told me that he was most happy to have been able to live in contact with Catholic priests. With his own eyes he had seen how false were many of the things imputed to them. There were a certain number of conversions. But I firmly believe that the most fruitful of all were the numerous, intimate and enlightening contacts. Many strangers to the Church learned to know her through their priest comrades, and through the joyfully radiant and devoted lives of these comrades, far more than they would have done through controversy.

We had an organized system for distributing Communion, in which we had to have recourse to lay deacons, to modern Tarsiciuses who gladly fulfilled their office. And above all we were able to carry out a wonderful apostolate among the sick during the 1945 epidemic. An appeal was made to priestly devotion. The response more than met the need, and there were constantly priests locked up with the unfortunate victims of typhus. A few of them died as a result of their charity. But their stay in the infected cell blocks was a real Pentecost. Not a single Catholic, practically, refused to accept the Sacraments; quite on the contrary, they called for them and died with true saintliness.

Many other things could be said regarding the lives of priests in this prison house, but what I have here recounted suffices to outline the general nature of that life. God permitted hundreds of priests to be in chains and hundreds of them to die. But neither their death nor their imprisonment constituted annihilation, it was a sacrifice which, by virtue of the Divine Sacrifice, was redemptive and sanctifying. To this episode in history may likewise be applied the words of the Psalmist: “He who sows in tears shall reap in exaltation.”  

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