Special Report: Devil in Rome premieres Monday, Aug. 22 at 8 PM ET
A total of 2,579 priests, monks and seminarians were imprisoned at Dachau, Germany's first concentration camp, built in 1933; 1,034 would die there from torture, starvation, beatings, murder and even medical experiments. Polish priests made up the vast majority of those who died — 868 — while 94 were German.
On arrival, clergy were stripped of their cassocks, breviaries, bibles and Rosaries, their heads shaved, and they were forced to don striped suits with a red triangle sewn on them, the symbol designating political prisoners. They were confined to barracks 26, 28 and 30. Priests initially could not offer Mass and had no access to the sacraments.
As punishment, some were confined in a building called the bunker, a dark, dank row of small prison cells. Johannes Neuhäusler, an auxiliary bishop from Munich, was placed there for a week after having been caught hearing the confession of a Catholic prisoner.
Other punishments reserved for priests included forced exercises that lasted from dawn till dusk, including jumping and running on their knees, that — in the priests' emaciated, malnourished state — would often result in death.
Even apart from the punishments, starvation was always a danger. According to Fr. Jean Bernard, imprisoned at Dachau, priests were so hungry they would risk punishment by eating dandelions from the yard, or they would raid the compost pile, happy enough to eat the discarded bones chewed by the Nazis' dogs. Some SS officials would urinate on the compost pile to discourage the priests, but this was not enough to overcome the clergy's terrible hunger.
"For years every dark morning we got up with this horrible feeling of agony and absolute helplessness," wrote Cdl. Adam Kozłowiecki, S.J., who spent more than four years at Dachau. "It was with a heavy and trembling heart that we went to the morning inspection and to our work."
But in the midst of the brutality and darkness, Christ shone a ray of light. After intense diplomatic pressure from the Vatican, the priests were finally allowed to have Mass in barrack 26 in 1941, reserved for the Germans. SS officials placed strictures on the liturgy, forbidding the Polish priests or any laity from attending. Even so, priests risked their lives by secretly distributing the sacraments to Catholics in other barracks or hearing confession.
But the great grace and consolation of Holy Mass helped Catholic priests and laity to endure to the end.
"The priest was saying the same Latin words that all his confreres, at the same hour, were repeating in their morning Masses throughout the world," said prisoner Joseph Rovan.
"No longer could I recall the world of the concentration camp," he went on. "Each one, for a precious moment, was restored to his original, fragile and indestructible dignity. … On the way out, in the pale light of the early morning, one felt capable of facing a little better the hunger and the fear."
"We rediscovered the idea of Love in the midst of suffering, hunger, egoism, hatred or indifference," said Marcel Dejean, another inmate, "and also a palpable sense of calm: the beauty of the altar. ... In the midst of our filth and poverty, tranquillity, recollection and solitude in the midst of constant overcrowding. ... The SS were no longer anything but a sad nothingness beside the splendid, immortal reality of Christ."
Watch the panel discuss the martyrdom of Catholic priests in The Download—The Saint of Auschwitz.