Vatican City, Jan 26, 2016 / 06:03 am
Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig, a young priest with Czech roots serving in Germany and Austria, was arrested by the Nazis on April 21, 1941.
His crime? Preaching against the Third Reich from his pulpit, particularly against their treatment of the Jewish people. He encouraged his congregation to be faithful to God and to resist the lies of the Nazi regime.
As punishment, Fr. Unzeitig was sent to what has been called the “largest monastery in the world”: Dachau concentration camp, which became renowned for the number of ministers and priests within its walls.
The camp housed some 2,700 clergy, roughly 95 percent of whom were Catholic priests from Poland, making it one of the largest residences for priests in the history of the Church – hence the name.
Father Unzeitig was just 30 years old, and two years ordained, when he was sent to Dachau. Born in Greifendorf, in what is now the Czech Republic, in 1911, Fr. Unzeitig joined the seminary at the age of 18 and became a priest for the Mariannhill Mission Society, whose motto is: “If no one else will go: I will go!”
While imprisoned at the camp, Father studied Russian in order to be able to help the influx of prisoners from Eastern Europe, and had a reputation at the camp as a holy man.
Treatment of the priests and ministers at Dachau was unpredictable – sometimes they were allowed to worship, at others they were severely treated. On one particular Good Friday, dozens of priests were selected for torture to mark the occasion.
For several years, Fr. Unzeitig was able to remain in relatively stable health despite the poor treatment he received. However, when a wave of the often-fatal typhoid fever swept through the camp in 1945, he and 19 other priests volunteered to do what no one else wanted to – care for the sick and dying in the typhoid barracks, an almost-certain death sentence in and of itself. He and his companions spent their days bathing and caring for the sick, praying with them and offering last rites.