Book Review: Inspiration in a dark place

By J.E. Helm
The Sooner Catholic

Most people are aware of the mass murders, atrocities and attempts at genocide committed by the Nazis at places whose names are linked to the worst in human nature, places like Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka and Dachau.

What people may not know is that Hitler eventually revealed his true hatred of religion in general and Christianity, in particular. At the concentration camp at Dachau, three of the 30 barracks were reserved for members of the clergy. The majority of these inmates were Polish Catholic priests, and this is the story detailed by Guillaume Zeller in “The Priest Barracks: Dachau, 1938-1945.”

Beyond detailed description of Dachau’s horrors, he presents well-researched facts and figures. Zeller writes that “2,579 priests, monks and Catholic seminarians … were imprisoned in the Dachau camp by the Nazis from 1938 to 1945” and “1,034 gave up their lives.” Sixty-five percent were Polish, and Poles made up 84 percent of those who died.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike were arrested, Zeller explains, for “ownership of a forbidden book, clippings from tendentious newspapers, personal letters critical of the regime, signs of religious proselytism.”

“The Priest Barracks” includes an actual diagram of the camp. Zeller explains that each of the barracks, or blocks, was some 109 yards by 11 yards. There were triple bunks with straw mattresses and straw pillows. In autumn of 1941, new arrivals were crammed into this same space, forcing the inmates to sleep several on a mattress and on the floor between the bunks.

Food was supposed to be sufficient to maintain strength, but when these rations were cut in 1942, starvation ensued. The average prisoner weighed 110 pounds; some weighed as little as 84 pounds. Detainees started foraging through compost piles, so the guards began urinating there. The starving men pilfered scraps from SS trash cans, and when it rained, they ate the worms and slugs that surfaced from the soil.

A wall of electrified barbed wire surrounded the camp, and guards with machine guns manned the towers.

The priests were used as slave labor and subjected to the Nazi’s notorious medical experiments to study malaria, infection and hypothermia.

Zeller describes how “Father Anthony Rieser … was forced by an SS guard to make a crown of barbed wire and to wear it.” Other inmates were forced “to dance around him, strike him, and spit on him…in a horrifying parody of the Passion.”

Eighteen priests volunteered to serve in the barracks quarantined by typhus. All of the volunteers “were contaminated by typhus, and several of them departed from this life as a result,” Zeller writes.

Amazingly, the Vatican was able to negotiate on behalf of the priests and obtain for them “the right to say or assist at Mass in a chapel.” Access to the chapel was forbidden to laymen, and eventually the Nazis restricted use of the chapel to only German and Austrian priests.

The light of Christ glowed as a “clandestine networks were set up to distribute communion throughout the camp.” Priests heard confessions while seemingly engaged in casual conversation. One was ordained a priest in Dachau by a French bishop.

Finally, American forces liberated the camp on April 29, 1944. Many priests stayed on to attend to the last of the inmates. The chapel remained open, and all nationalities went there to say Mass. Zeller describes the victorious erection “of a very tall cross, about (39 feet) high and an altar set up on the “Appelplatz,” where the flogging sessions and the executions … used to take place.”

An antidote to the tragedy of “The Priest Barracks” is Elaine Murray Stone’s “Maximilian Kolbe: Saint of Auschwitz.” Saint Maximilian is well known and highly revered for his willingness to take the place of another inmate sentenced to death in the camp’s dreaded starvation cell.

Stone’s book is a complete biography of this remarkable saint. He came from devout parents who, after all three of their sons were placed in the seminary, entered religious life on their own.

The future saint was born in 1894. As a young boy (whose name was Raymond), this saint had a vision of Our Lady as he prayed before a family altar that carried a statue of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the patroness of Poland. Mary showed the young boy two crowns. One was red, symbolizing martyrdom, and one was white, signifying celibacy and chastity. Mary asked the young Kolbe which crown he desired, and he replied that he wanted them both. Our Lady smiled, then disappeared.

In 1910, Raymond entered the Franciscans as a novice, taking the name of Maximilian Maria. He was ordained in 1918.

While still in Italy, he was struck with tuberculosis, a disease which afflicted him until his death in Auschwitz. Despite his ill health, Maximilian began the publication of a newspaper, “The Knight of the Immaculate,” which would go on to become a great success.

The small friary at Grodno from which he published the paper became too crowded. Almost miraculously, Maximilian obtained the land and financial backing to found Niepokalanow, “Marytown, the City of the Immaculate.” “By 1937,” Stone relates, “Niepokalanow had become the largest friary in the world.”

In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and Father Kolbe sent all but 38 friars home from Niepokalanow.

Maximilian was arrested in September 1939, but then the prisoners were released, and Maximilian returned to Niepokalanow.

Father Kolbe was arrested again in February 1941. The Gestapo took him to Warsaw where he was sent to the dreaded Pawiak prison; there, a guard beat him so cruelly that in his already weakened state (with TB), he developed pneumonia.

Father Kolbe by sent to Auschwitz by train in one of the Reich’s notorious cattle cars. Despite his weakened condition, Maximilian was forced to perform heavy labor. Henry Sienkiewicz, a survivor of Auschwitz, later told of how, seeing the priest unable to move a wheelbarrow full of gravel, Sienkiewicz offered to help. Seeing this, a guard became enraged, beat both with a whip, then forced Sienkiewicz to sit in the wheelbarrow as Maximilian struggled to move the heavy load. Maximilian told Sienkiewicz not to lose faith. “Everything we suffer is for the Immaculate Virgin. Even here, we must pray for those who harm us.”

The book has a forward written by Ted Wojtkowski. He was there the day the Nazis selected 10 men to die for one man who had escaped. One man, Francis Gajowniczek, imprisoned for helping the Polish Underground, was selected, and he pleaded to be spared, saying “Please, I have a wife and two children. I’ll never see them again!” To everyone’s astonishment, Father Kolbe stepped forward and said, “I wish to take this man’s place.”

His request was granted, and he joined the nine other men in the starvation bunker of Building 13. They were put into the dark cell completely naked and left to die. Another witness, Bruno Borgowiec, relates that it was his job to enter this cell each day and remove the dead. “Each time, I was greeted by fervent prayers and hymns to the Holy Virgin. “Eventually, they were too weak to sing or pray.

After two weeks, only four of the prisoners were still alive. The camp doctor was called to go in and inject the four with carbolic acid; they died immediately.

Father Maximilian Kolbe was canonized in Rome on October 10, 1982.

J.E. Helm is a freelance writer for the Sooner Catholic.