CNA Staff, Apr 29, 2020 / 09:55 am
When the U.S. Army arrived at Dachau concentration camp 75 years ago, on April 29, 1945, the clergy held captive there regarded it as a miracle.
A week earlier, on April 22, the priests and monks of Dachau had consecrated themselves to St. Joseph, fearing that the guards were planning to murder them before fleeing the advancing Allies. If they were spared, they promised they would make an annual pilgrimage to St. Joseph’s Shrine in Kalisz, central Poland.
In fact, they were going to be executed. But two hours before they were due to be killed at the camp -- once described as “the largest priest cemetery in the world” -- a small U.S. Army patrol unit arrived and saved them.
That is the story told by Bishop Edward Janiak of Kalisz in a message marking the Day of Martyrdom of the Polish Clergy, which commemorates the hundreds of priests and religious killed at Dachau and elsewhere. It is observed April 29.
“As it happened unexpectedly, two hours before the liquidation of the camp and several hours before the attack on KL [Konzentrationslager, or concentration camp] Dachau planned by the American command, the fact of the earlier liberation of the camp was considered by the prisoners as a special grace received from God through the intercession of St. Joseph of Kalisz,” Bishop Janiak wrote in the message dated April 20.
Among the camp’s liberators was Leonard Bachmann, an 18-year-old mortarman from St. Paul-Minneapolis. Moved by the suffering he witnessed, the Bronze Star recipient entered the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity in 1948 and was ordained a priest. He served as pastor of parishes in Colonial Beach and Kilmarnock, Va., and director of a shrine in Stirling, N.J, dying in 2000.
The Nazis established Dachau, near Munich in southern Germany, as their first concentration camp in 1933. Over the next 12 years, 2,794 Catholic clergy were sent there, the majority from Poland. They were housed with a smaller number of Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Old Catholic, Mariavite and Muslim clerics in a section known as the Priest Barracks.
Notable prisoners included the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who survived the camp, Dutch Carmelite Titus Brandsma, who died of a lethal injection in 1942, and the Italian Dominican priest Blessed Giuseppe Girotti, who died shortly before the camp’s liberation in 1945, probably also by lethal injection.
Also among the prisoners was Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig, a priest with Czech roots dubbed the “Angel of Dachau” because of his ministry to fellow prisoners. He volunteered to care for the sick in the typhoid barracks, bathing them, praying with them and offering them last rites. He succumbed to typhoid fever on March 2, 1945. Pope Francis officially recognized him as a martyr in 2016.