Catholic Priests in a Concentration Camp

CHRIST IN DACHAU. By John M. Lenz (Roman Catholic Books, P.O. Box 2286, Fort Collins, Colo. 80522, 1960/2005 reprint), x + 328 pp. BB $22.95.

Dachau is a small city of about 25,000 people in Bavaria, not far from Munich. A notorious concentration camp for so-called “enemies of the state” was built there by the Nazi government in 1933, the year Hitler took control. In 1957 while I was studying German near Munich in preparation for my theology studies in Innsbruck, an Austrian Jesuit seminarian offered to take me there to see the remains of the notorious death camp.

I shall never forget the impression of horror the place made on me—the gas chambers, the ovens of the crematorium, the execution hill with drains to carry off the blood, the walls and the towers.

Fr. John M. Lenz, the author of Christ in Dachau, was a prisoner there for six and a half years. The story he tells of priests living, dying and surviving in Dachau is very sobering and makes one think of the depths to which human beings can sink. For he describes the brutality of the place, the starvation, the cold, the slave labor, the beatings and executions, the thefts and the murders that were commonplace every day occurrences.

This book should be of special interest to priests because the Nazis gathered together all the priests from other camps and sent them to Dachau. While Fr. Lenz was there from 1939 to 1945 over 2,700 were interned there. Of that number he says that 1,034 died in the camp of starvation, disease, exhaustion or murder.

A special feature of the life in Dachau was the decision coming from Berlin as a result of the requests of the German Bishops and the Holy See that the priests be allowed to have a chapel. So Block 26 was set aside as a Catholic chapel. Through the talent of many of the priests, the chapel was decorated and made an island of beauty in the midst of supreme ugliness and despair. So from December 1941 until liberation in April 1945 the priests had Mass every day and they had the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle made by one of the inmates. As the months went by vestments, chalices and so forth were sent to them and allowed into the camp. Thus the chapel became a powerhouse of prayer to sustain the priests in the midst of the suffering and brutality imposed on them by the godless Nazi system.

Fr. Lenz makes it clear that the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament gave strength to the priests to face each day with confidence in God’s mercy and providence. The priests in Dachau established a Christian community composed of men from twenty different countries and nationalities, all united as brothers in Christ. They exercised a very fruitful apostolate among the other inmates, bringing them Communion, hearing confessions, baptizing converts and anointing the dying. All of this had to be done secretly since religious activities in the camp were strictly forbidden and, if discovered, were punished severely.

The Nazis had a detailed plan to kill all the inmates and destroy the whole camp before it could be captured by the Americans, but the soldiers got there before the plan could be carried out. The soldiers found 1700 corpses stacked up waiting to be cremated or dumped into a mass grave.

Even though the book was published in 1960, and now has been reprinted, it is well worth reading. It reminds one of the gulags in Communist Russia, so graphically described by Solzhenitsyn and undoubtedly there are many similar camps in China, North Korea and Vietnam at the present time.

The title of this book, Christ in Dachau, refers to the fact that the vast majority of the priests interned in the camp lived their faith in trying circumstances and practiced Christian charity towards one another and towards their fellow inmates. The author, in describing man’s inhumanity to man, points out how faith in Jesus Christ is able to triumph over all suffering and adversity. Christ was present there in the minds and hearts of his priests and of the lay Catholics who lived and died there.

Because of the emphasis on the role of priests in Dachau the book is especially recommended for priests and seminarians. As an appendix there are 80 pictures of priests—some perished there and others survived to return to their priestly work for souls.

Kenneth Baker, S.J.
Ramsey, N.J.

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