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The priests saved from Dachau on a pilgrimage to Saint Joseph of Kalisz

During World War II under the German occupation the Polish people were destined to be exterminated. One of the methods used by the occupier were concentration camps. Many prisoners died there hungry, languished, and tortured.

The Poles, and especially the Polish priests prayed to God by the intercession of Saint Joseph for survival or at least persevering with those inhuman conditions. It was believed that St Joseph would save all the priests of Christ from Hitler’s henchmen. The spiritual condition of the priests held captive in concentration camps (which were very unlikely to escape from) was illustrated in a compelling book entitled “Bright Beams In Dachau” by Bishop Franciszek Korszyński. The following is a fragment of his account: “I came up with the idea to commend myself in a special way to Saint Joseph who is especially worshipped in our country in Kalisz where a benevolent painting of him is located. I followed that idea and so I entrusted my fate into the hands of Saint Joseph. Since then I have commended myself every day to his protection. Fellow prisoners, a priest and some laymen harassed in  Hitler’s prisons and camps followed my example. Other priests and alumni did the same, as well.” On December 8th, 1940 the priests from Sachsenhausen solemnly entrusted their lives to Saint Joseph for the first time. The Polish priests who found themselves in Dachau transferred from other camps followed. 

On 19th March 1941 the Polish priests renewed their act of entrustment to Saint Joseph. On 22nd April they finished a novena to Saint Joseph and said the act of entrustment together. Next, on 29th April (seemingly by coincidence but in fact miraculously) they were saved by a small group of American soldiers. They decided to organize a pilgrimage to the picture of Saint Joseph in Kalisz which would take place a year after the liberation, to propagate his cult, and to create the work of God’s Mercy in commemoration of the Guardian of the Holy Family.

After the war the former Dachau prisoners took their first pilgrimage to Kalisz. It was held from 17th to 19th April 1948. In the entire city the atmosphere on those days was festive. Buildings were decorated with the national flags. A procession set off from the courtyard of the Sisters of the Holy Family monastery. Three hundred priests with bishops Franciszek Korszyński, Franciszek Jedwabski, and Bernard Czapliński, two hundred nuns, and congregation members participated in the procession. They were greeted by A. Bonusiak, the president of the town and the bishop of Włocławek Karol Radoński. Bishop Radoński said: “This town has not yet seen a pilgrimage like that of today. Here are the priests who awaited death in concentration camps. Thanks to the intercession of Saint Joseph they survived and are now here to fulfill their pledges. Together with the priests came worshippers in great numbers (…) I would like to greet you warmly as the bishop of this diocese, the gem of which is Kalisz. Today’s pilgrimage gives us consolation and strengthens the conviction that protected by such a patron we – the Holy Church, and our Homeland are safe.”

A solemn Holy Mass was celebrated on April 18, 1948 at Saint Joseph’s Square. Bishop Karol Radoński was the celebrant, whereas Bishop Franciszek Korszyński (a former Dachau prisoner) delivered the sermon. He mentioned the tragic days of martyrdom of those imprisoned during occupation, emphasizing the abuse of the Polish priests, and their devotion to save their brothers. In the end of his speech he thanked Saint Joseph for the miracle of liberation and asked him for further help and protection. On the last day of the pilgrimage a memorial service was given for all the Polish people murdered in Hitler’s prisons and camps. At the end of the celebration a telegram to Pope Pius XII was sent. In the following years the priests visited the collegiate church every year in a thanksgiving pilgrimage. They came individually or in small groups and none of these pilgrimages was as ceremonial as the first one.

The second pilgrimage of the Polish priests, former Dachau prisoners, took place in Kalisz in 1958. The third pilgrimage which was organized to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the miraculous liberation of the concentration camp was particularly solemn. On the first evening over 300 priests, former camp prisoners, as well as 20 thousand congregation members gathered at St Joseph’s Square. Bishop Antoni Pawłowski, the Ordinary of the diocese of Włocławek welcomed the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński in the following manner: “Primate Wyszyński happens to be visiting the collegiate church in Kalisz for the second time with other priests, Dachau survivors. Cardinal Wyszyński was here in 1946 for the 150th anniversary of the coronation of the miraculous painting of St. Joseph; he is here today, when this ancient town celebrates 18 centuries of its history”. The next speaker was the Primate himself who talked about the meaning of the priests’ suffering. He said, “be patient and your pain will yield a peaceful fruit”. Next there was a thanksgiving service, a renewal of pledges, and a Eucharistic procession across St. Joseph’s Square. A thanksgiving mass was celebrated the following day. Since that third visit, each next thanksgiving pilgrimage has been organized every five years. Another one took place on 28th and 29th April 1965 and coincided with 20th anniversary of the camp liberation. Six bishops and two hundred and fifty priests, former camp prisoners, came, including the Primate of Poland Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.

The chairperson of an organizing committee set up for 25th anniversary of the miraculous camp liberation was Bishop Kazimierz Majdański. Ceremonies were held in Kalisz on 28th and 29th April 1970. The Silver Jubilee was attended by many distinguished guests from Poland and abroad, among them were Primate Stefan Wyszyński, Cardinal Karol Wojtyła and several other bishops. Two hundred and eighty six priests – former Dachau prisoners came, including Archbishop Adam Kozłowski and other bishops from Poland and abroad. The main ceremony was conducted at 4 p.m. on 29th April, at St. Joseph’s Square. The High Mass was led by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła – the Archbishop of Cracow. The sermon was delivered by the Primate of Poland. Bishop Kazimierz Majdański offered a few words of commentary at the beginning of the Mass and renewed the act of entrustment to St. Joseph with all the other priests.

Another pilgrimage took place on April 29th, 1975 and marked the 30th anniversary of the Dachau camp liberation, as well as the liberation of other concentration camps. Several bishops and 200 priests arrived. The High Mass was celebrated by bishop Kazimierz Majdański, whereas the sermon was preached by the Primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński.

To mark the 35th anniversary of the miraculous camp liberation Pope John Paul II sent a special address to” the Polish bishops and priests scarred by the threat of gruesome death in concentration camps”. Bishop Majdański delivered the sermon, the mass however, was celebrated by the Archbishop of Cracow, Cardinal Franciszek Macharski. The following pilgrimages took place every five years, always in a very solemn fashion, always frequented by bishops. Over the years the number of priests and former prisoners has shrunk, nevertheless the remaining ones have continued to visit the Shrine of Saint Joseph and to celebrate the camp liberation of 29th April. In 1990, for 45th anniversary of the camp liberation 86 priests – former prisoners came, including two bishops. Also, three cardinals and nine other bishops participated in the ceremonies.

The 50th anniversary of the priests’ liberation from Dachau (29th April 1995) was particularly ceremonial as it was connected with a National Thanksgiving for a half of a century in peace. Fifty seven bishops with Primate Józef Glemp came to Kalisz to celebrate with the 37 remaining priests, camp survivors. Unfortunately, there was only a handful of worshippers. The Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop of Cracow, Cardinal Macharski. The Primate preached  the sermon. The Holy Father sent a letter to the attention of bishop Ignacy Jeż, the chairman of the priests, former camp prisoners committee. The Pope ensured that he was spiritually present at the celebrations in Kalisz; he emphasized the priests’ testimony of martyrdom. The introduction to the Holy Mass was given by Bishop Ignacy Jeż, whereas the act of entrustment was led by Archbishop Kazimierz Majdański.

The Polish priests, former Dachau prisoners based their faith in the effectiveness of Saint Joseph’s help on a thorough theological reflection. Saint Joseph, Mary’s husband, the virgin father of Jesus, the guardian of the Church was the most caring Protector, Guardian, and  Bread-winner of his Family and the whole Church. He would never leave the priests or anyone searching for his intercession without help. Certainly, the priests’ pilgrimages made the Shrine renowned and the cult of Saint Joseph spread not only across Poland but also in the contemporary world.