The extermination of the clergy was part of the Reich’s policy aimed at denationalising German-occupied countries. KL Dachau became the centre of the extermination of the clergy. Among about 2,800 priests imprisoned there, Poles constituted the largest group (1,780).
868 Polish priests lost their lives in inhuman conditions.
The camp reality of the clergy
Transports with Polish clergy arrived in Dachau from April 1940 until the end of the year. Due to their nationality, Polish clergymen were classified as political prisoners. They were housed in barracks No. 28 and 30, closest to the crematorium. As a result of the Vatican’s intervention, from January 1941, they were able to attend Mass. However, they were quickly deprived of this privilege.
In September 1941, the camp authorities made the carrying out of religious practices dependent on one’s name being included in the German nationality list. Not a single priest consented, which earned the clergy great respect among the fellow prisoners. In response, Polish priests were banned from celebrating Holy Mass. Pastoral services, praying, possessing objects of worship as well providing spiritual aid to prisoners were also forbidden. Nonetheless, they organised clandestine Holy Masses and offered their support to the dying …
Unimaginable hunger was one of the biggest burdens of camp life. “Knowing that I will not be able to relieve this hunger neither tomorrow, nor the day after tomorrow, nor in a week, created a hopeless situation” – Bishop Ignacy Jeż recalled. “I talk about hunger in a concentration camp so often because it was one of the cruel ways of killing people”, emphasised one of the survivors Fr. Aleksander Konopka and added: “To this day, I can still recall those moments when the body is struggling to survive”.
Some people’s bodies were so bloated due to starvation that they couldn’t move. Many weighed about 40 kg. The situation improved slightly after October 1942, when the prisoners could receive parcels. Soon, they organised a camp charity organisation, sharing the gifts they had been sent. They also resigned from their rations of camp bread in order to leave more for those who did not receive parcels.
Deadly work, punishments and experiments
The inscription Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free) hung above the gate in KL Dachau. What it actually meant was death. Polish priests were forced to work beyond human endurance. They died on plantations adjacent to the camp. They were harnessed like draft oxen to wagons, harrows and plows when cultivating land, removing snow from the camp, and even to the roller kneading the road. They were appointed to the hardest labor, including work in the quarries in Gusen – a branch of KL Dachau called the “final solution”.
They died of exhausting work, starvation, cold, illnesses and as a result of violence. They were beaten and punished for everything. They underwent lethal pseudo-medical experiments. The “Invalids” (those unable to work) were transported to gas chambers. Many were gassed in specially adapted cars.
Despite the inhuman conditions at the camp, Polish priests performed heroic deeds. Although they were reduced to being mere worthless numbers, they did not lose their human dignity and sensitivity to other people. Many of them devoted their lives to serving the sick and dying. Some of them were officially deemed “Blessed” by the Catholic Church.
830 Polish priests survived until their release from the camp on 29 April 1945. They gave testimony to the hell they experienced at the camp, as well as the holiness of those whose ashes remained in Dachau. During a Mass celebrated on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, the Archbishop of Munich Cardinal Friedrich Wetter called Dachau “the world’s largest cemetery of the clergy”, stressing that: “Poles made the greatest sacrifice”.
Author: Łucja Marek Ph.D., IPN