(picture above:The Blessed Antoni Zawistowski was tortured and died at Dachau in 1942,courtesy Falco van Delft)
Dachau became the camp where 2,720 clergymen were sent, including 2,579 Catholic Priests. The priests at Dachau were separated from the other prisoners and housed together in several barrack buildings in the rear of the camp. There were 1,780 Polish priests and 447 German priests at Dachau. Of the 1,034 priests who died in the camp, 868 were Polish and 94 were German.(Source: “What was it like in the Concentration Camp at Dachau?” by Dr. Johannes Neuhäusler)
Other clergymen at Dachau included 109 Protestant ministers, 22 Greek Orthodox, 2 Muslims and 8 men who were classified as “Old Catholic and Mariaists.”
Many clergy were imprisoned at Dachau. The first Churchman arrived at Dachau in 1935, but from 1940, Dachau became the concentration point for clerical prisoners of the Nazi regime.
According to Ronald Rychlak( an American lawyer, jurist, author and political commentator) the clergy prisoners were treated marginally better than other prisoners, however treatment worsened in the wake of Papal or episcopal announcements critical of the Nazi regime, such as Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas address.
One Easter, the guards marked Good Friday by torturing 60 priests. Tying their hands behind their backs, chaining their wrists, and hoisting them up by the chains – tearing joints apart and killing and disabling several of the priests. The threat of further torture was used to keep the priests obedient. Food was so lacking, that prisoners would retrieve scraps from the compost pile.
The Nazis introduced a racial hierarchy – keeping Poles in harsh conditions, while favouring German priests. 697 Poles arrived in December 1941, and a further 500 of mainly elderly clergy were brought in October the following year. Inadequately clothed for the bitter cold, of this group only 82 survived. A large number of Polish priests were chosen for Nazi medical experiments. In November 1942, 20 were given phlegmons. 120 were used by Dr Schilling for malaria experiments between July 1942 and May 1944.
Several Poles met their deaths with the “invalid trains” sent out from the camp, others were liquidated in the camp and given bogus death certificates. Some died of cruel punishment for misdemeanors – beaten to death or run to exhaustion.
Polish priests were not permitted religious activity. Anti-religious prisoners were planted in the Polish block to watch that the rule was not broken, but some found ways to circumvent the prohibition: clandestinely celebrating the mass on their work details. By 1944, conditions had been relaxed and Poles could hold a weekly service. Eventually, they were allowed to attend the chapel, with Germany’s hopes of victory in the war fading.
Amid the Nazi persecution of the Tirolian Catholics, the Blessed Otto Neururer, a parish priest was sent to Dachau for “slander to the detriment of German marriage”, after he advised a girl against marrying the friend of a senior Nazi. He was cruelly executed at Buchenwald in 1940 for conducting a baptism there. He was the first priest killed in the concentration camps
Father Hermann Scheipers was saved from the gas chamber by his twin sister on 13th August 1942. After a secret meeting with her brother in Dachau she made a private visit to the civil servants in the Central Reich Security Office in Berlin who were responsible for the imprisoned priests. Following a dramatic conversation she received a promise from the civil servants that her brother would not be gassed. This promise also applied to all the other priests. Indeed, from that moment on, no priests were sent to the gas chamber. Thus Anna Scheipers not only saved her brother’s life but those of more than 500 other priests.
In Dachau Scheipers constantly witnessed the cruel treatment and deadly human experiments on the prisoners. Many of them were immersed in cold water to test the limits of hypothermia. The experiments were needed in order to develop special clothing for the Armed Forces. According to Scheipers: “All of them died when their body temperature sank to 27°. Only one Russian held out to 17°”. Nonetheless Scheipers’ faith and reinforced inner conviction prevented his feelings from being deadened. Indeed the opposite was true. He remained constantly full of hope and gave aid to his co-prisoners, in particular the Polish priests, wherever he could. He also began to take an interest in the Russian language.
Scheipers said at one stage his “death certificate” was signed when he was feeling faint during a role call session one morning in 1942, because he had become “completely exhausted from all the work” in the camp, not because he was sick.