At Dachau, the Memory of Martyred Priests Remains Vivid

May 13, 2020

On April 29, 2020, the Polish clergy paid tribute to the priests who died, often heroically, in the Dachau concentration camp. Opened in 1933 and located in Bavaria, the first concentration camp of the Hitler regime is the largest cemetery of priests in the world. Many of the victims were Poles.

On April 29, 1945, death hovered in the camp just liberated by the American army: haggard priests before them thanking God. One week earlier, on April 22, the priests and religious of Dachau decided to make a vow to Saint Joseph: if the guards spared them, every year they would make a pilgrimage dedicated to the glorious spouse of the Mother of God, to the sanctuary of Kalisz which is in central Poland.

On the German side, the decision was made: the religious must all die. But two hours before their scheduled execution, an American army unit managed to enter the camp and take possession of the premises. The prisoners are saved.

Exemplary Priest Figures

Among the prisoners who died in Dachau was a priest of Czech origin, Fr. Engelmar Unzeitig, who is venerated as “the angel of Dachau” because of his ministry and his constant devotion to other prisoners. He even volunteered to treat the sick in the typhoid pavilion. He assisted them with his prayer and his care, and was able to bring them the aid of the sacraments before succumbing himself to the illness, on March 2, 1945.

Another priest worth mentioning: Franciszek Drzewiecki was a Polish religious belonging to the congregation of the Sons of Divine Providence. As he dug the ground, suffering from frostbite and malnutrition, he secretly adored the consecrated hosts he kept on his person. Because he was too exhausted to continue working, the camp authorities decide to execute him. Shortly before his death in 1942, he declared to his companions: “we offer our life for God, for the Church and for our country.”

Liberation of the camp marked more than one American soldier: for example, Leonard Bachmann, an 18-year-old boy from Minneapolis. Moved by the sum of the sufferings endured by the clergy of Dachau, three years later the soldier entered the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity. He became a priest there, exercising his ministry in several parishes until he was recalled to God in the year 2000.

After the war, the Polish clergy who survived Dachau remained true to their vow. The pilgrimage to the sanctuary of St. Joseph in Kalisz has been organized on April 29 of each year. In 1970, a chapel was built in the crypt of the church. An votive offering thanking St. Joseph for “liberating us from the abyss of death” was placed there.

On April 29, 2020, Bishop Edward Janiak, Bishop of Kalisz, again led the pilgrimage of thanksgiving, 75 years after the liberation of the camp. On this day dedicated to the religious who disappeared in Dachau, he went to thank St. Joseph for his protection and his intercession.