Pfarrerblock - The Priests' Barracks

Part of that history of the Modern Permanent Diaconate was forged at the Dachau concentration camp. The presence of the priests at that camp is a story worth telling on its own – the story of the Pfarrerblock [Priests' Barracks].

When Hitler came to power in 1933, he set his sights on the churches almost immediately.  Initially, when clergy were arrested, they were sent to the nearest concentration camp.  By 1940, the German bishops and the Vatican negotiated an agreement for all clergy to be placed in one camp.  They were to be permitted a chapel and, supposedly, time for religious and intellectual activities. Dachau, just outside Munich, was selected to house the clergy. By wars end, 2,720 clerics had been held at Dachau – 2,579 of them Catholic. Over 1,000 of them died.  Clerics imprisoned at other camps, often under much harsher conditions were often classified as political prisoners and denied treatment as clergy.  Other priests [sisters, brothers, and seminarians as well] were condemned to death when they were captured.

The priests were not only isolated to the camp at Dachau, but they were also further isolated by being assigned to three “barracks blocks” at the far end of the camp. Over the five years Dachau housed the priests, their treatment varied. Priests were allowed a chapel – but were not always permitted to say Mass, even among themselves. At times, the priests were given slightly better rations or permitted mail in an effort to create resentment among the other prisoners. It worked. For the most part though, the priests endured the same brutal conditions as the rest of the prisoners. The guards delighted in finding ways to humiliate the priests in front of the other prisoners. Offering the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist to anyone but another priest was absolutely forbidden, but the priests found ways to do it anyway.  Torture and death would quickly follow when they were caught.  The official history of the camp kept by the Nazis is full of stories of priests taking another prisoner’s place for punishment or death.  When Typhus outbreaks occurred – a sure death sentence – priests volunteered to work in the affected barracks. Other priests were chosen for the medical experiments being carried out there. On one Good Friday, the guards selected 30 priests, tied their hands behind their backs, and at 9am, using chains, hoisted the men up poles until their feet could not touch the ground.  They were left there for the whole camp to see until 3pm.

Perhaps the most improbable tale that comes out of the Pfarrerblock is that of the ordination to the priesthood of Karl Leisner.  He was ordained a deacon in March of 1939 and was arrested in November of that same year. In the hope that it might be possible to ordain him to the priesthood, his brother priests smuggled a proper request for ordination to a local cardinal who granted the request.  The cardinal provided the ritual book and chrism required for the sacrament. Gabriel Piguet, a French bishop, was imprisoned in Dachau in 1944, and he ordained Fr. Leisner in Dec 44. Fr. Leisner suffered from Tuberculosis and his health was so frail he only celebrated Mass once.  He saw Dachau liberated in April of 1945 and was immediately taken to a hospital, where he died three months later.

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