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Saved by Saint Joseph - the story of Dachau

Sunday April 29th, 1945 will always be remembered by the priests imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. On that day they were to be slaughtered, yet they survived. They owe saving their lives to St. Joseph’s intercession.

By order of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler the first concentration camp was set up in Dachau near Munich in 1933. It became a penal labour camp for over 30 thousand prisoners, 3 thousand of whom were clergymen. The largest group consisted of 1773 priests of Polish origin. Those priests who were claimed to be handicapped were sent to gas chambers and then to crematoriums.

Hunger, toil, typhoid, and death were the prisoners’ everyday companions at the camp. After 6 hours of sleep and a roll call the prisoners had to stand all day at the camp square or carry cauldrons which weighed 100 kilograms with food for the whole camp. Even the convalescents released from hospital were not allowed to stay in the block. Every day workers were chosen to do casual work: shoveling off snow in winter, distributing linen at the store, moving beds, as well as loading. The prisoners were beaten and humiliated.

They were forced to fall down into the mud, which was called “doing sport”. The Nazis would bludgeon them on their heads and trample over those who while prostrating themselves did not keep their face deep enough in the mud. They used mainly priests for pseudo medical experiments carried out by Prof. Claus Schilling. In the early days of the camp refusal meant death. They were infected with malaria in order to put to trial new treatments for German soldiers. They were exposed to low temperature and low air pressure to establish how high it was possible for airmen to fly. The situation slightly changed after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad in 1943 when young SS men were sent to the Eastern Front. The new staff consisting of older Germans were more humane. The hard discipline code was softened and the prisoners were allowed to receive food parcels.

The strength that came from the Eucharist

On 22nd January 1941, for the purpose of Hitler’s propaganda, clergymen were allowed to access a chapel in block 26. The Holy Mass was celebrated there and the prisoners could take communion every day. As the survivors claim, on numerous occasions it helped to withstand the hardships at the camp.

However, it lasted only until September 17th when all the German priests were separated from the rest of the clergymen and moved to block 26. From that moment the chapel stayed closed for Poles. Sometimes secretly the German priests shared their host and wine to enable Polish priests to celebrate the Holy Mass in the barracks between bunk beds. Some priests had a chance to celebrate the Mass in this way at least once during their few years’ stay in Dachau. The host was broken into twenty or more pieces so that everyone was given at least a bit. The Eucharist was delivered stealthily to the ill in the camp hospital, as well as to the dying of typhoid. Jesus present in the communion bread gave them the strength to survive or helped them to die with dignity. Although it was forbidden, they gathered for prayer, sermons, and lectures. Rev. Franciszek Korszyński (later vicar general in the Diocese of Włocławek) even managed to organize a divinity school at the camp.

Trusting in St. Joseph

Polish priests helped and supported other prisoners. They initiated the prayer to St. Joseph since it was him who had protected the Son of God from death. On December 8th, 1940 in the chapel of Sachsenhausen camp a group of priests from block 18 entrusted their lives to St. Joseph of Kalisz. Priests from other blocks were to do the same, but on 13th they were brought to Dachau where they renewed the act in their personal prayers. They also entrusted their lives to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The convicts’ prayer

By the end of the war the SS men took several groups of people outside the camp to kill them. As a result, the prisoners became afraid of extermination again. That is why they repeated the act of entrustment to St. Joseph. This time both clergymen and laymen were being prepared spiritually for this event. There was even a committee headed by Rev. canon Franciszek Jedwabski to supervise the preparations (e.g. talks and conferences). However, what seems the most significant was that the convicts said a novena to St. Joseph for the intentions of saving their Homeland, their families, and themselves. The Polish prisoners gathered for 9 days in the German priests’ chapel asking the Saint for the miracle of liberation from bondage. During two Holy Masses on the last day of the novena (22nd April 1945) about 800 people surrendered themselves to the guardianship of St Joseph of Kalisz. What is more, the priests pledged to spread the worship of St Joseph, and after being saved to pay homage to him during a pilgrimage to the Kalisz collegiate church. Moreover, they promised to contribute to the work of God’s Mercy through his intercession. According to Bishop Franciszek Korszyński: “we were the largest group at the camp who gathered in public to pray for the miracle of liberation”. At that time the priests did not know that in a secret order Reichsfuhrer SS Heinrich Himmler had planned the annihilation of the camp. By that order no prisoner was to be taken by the enemy alive. Seven days later (29th April) at 9 p.m. a fire was supposed to be set as a signal for the SS “Wiking” division, which was stationed nearby, to raze the camp to the ground.

Miraculous liberation

However, 4 hours before the order was carried out the camp guarded by armed men was taken over by a handful of allied soldiers. They belonged to General Patton’s Army which was heading for Munich. As soon as the prisoners got to know about the American soldiers, 32 thousand of them fearlessly and happily ran out of the barracks. One of the sentinels on the tower opened fire. Not realizing the fact that the Germans outnumbered the allied soldiers by one to six, the Americans fired back. Right after the liberation the American commander summoned everyone to say “Our Father” as a thanksgiving prayer and they sang “Te Deum” hymn in the chapel. In the meantime the forces of the SS “Wiking” division were defeated by the American army. For the priests it became clear that they owed saving their lives to the intercession of Saint Joseph. They believed he was the intercessor with God on their behalf (856 priests were on that day at the camp).

As they had promised, in 1948 the survivors came to The Shrine of Saint Joseph of Kalisz in a thanksgiving pilgrimage. Every year they renew their pledge. The Chapel of Martyrdom and Gratitude and The Institute of Family Studies in Lomianki were created as a votive offering. When visiting Kalisz in 1997 John Paul II thanked the priests (former prisoners of Dachau concentration camp) for “the initiative that originated in the dreadful days of the camp”, and for the fact that “they continue to show gratitude after being saved” and “on their pilgrimage to The Shrine of Saint Joseph of Kalisz (…) they pray for their persecutors” and those brothers “who did not survive the camp”.