The Auschwitz concentration camp as the place of the final extermination of more than a million people seems to be a place without hope. But there were some who, even in absolute darkness, were determined to give support to the inmates. This text is the first of two parts dealing with Christian spirituality in the camp reality and focuses on the clergy. The second part deals with the different forms of religious activities in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Why did clergy come to the camp?
To better understand the issue of the presence of clergy in the Auschwitz concentration camp, it is better to divide clergy in the camp into two groups. Polish clergymen and clergymen from other European countries. Why the split? It stems above all from the fact that, according to the authorities of the Third Reich, the Poles were under the strong influence of the Catholic clergy and, consequently, to make the Polish people completely subservient, they had to be stripped of their leadership, which included the Catholic priests. Therefore, in addition to teachers, doctors and journalists, Catholic clergy came to Auschwitz as the “leadership” of the Polish people who were to undergo the process of acculturation. However, this does not mean that Protestant, Orthodox or Greek Catholic clergymen or religious people could feel safe. Despite the initial concentration of the occupying power on the Catholics, the other Christian denominations soon began to be harassed.
Clergymen from other European countries came to Auschwitz because of their anti-German activities, their resistance against the occupying authorities or their participation in the resistance movement.
Presence of clergy in numbers
Between 1940 and 1945, at least 464 priests, clergy, religious and 35 nuns were sent to Auschwitz from Poland, but also other countries of occupied Europe: France, the Czech Republic, Austria, Holland and Germany. Most of them lost their lives in Auschwitz or in other camps to which some of them were transferred.
The first clergymen in the camp
The first group of Polish political prisoners brought to Auschwitz on 14 June 1940 included Catholic clergymen, among them the priests Jozef Niemiec, Stanislaw Węgrzynowski, Stanisław Wolak and the cleric Wincenty Oberc. With further transport, their number increased.
The first nun imprisoned in Auschwitz was Austrian Sister Maria Cecilia Autsch of the Assembly of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity. She was sent to the camp on March 26, 1942. The reason for their arrest and detention were her critical words about Hitler. She was wounded in a bombing attack on an SS hospital and died on 23 December 1944.
In the following years of the Auschwitz camp, clergymen of other Christian denominations were also imprisoned, mostly for expressing critical views towards the Third Reich or for participating in the resistance movement. Mention should be made of the pastor of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, Jaroslav Bendel, the pastor of the Evangelical Augsburg Church in Teschen, Josef Berger, or Gregor Peradze, the clergyman of the Georgian Orthodox Church. In addition to many men generally associated with the clergy, there were also women of the clergy, including Jane Haining, a missionary of the Protestant Church of Scotland who worked in Budapest during the Second World War.
Situation and position of the clergy in the camp
Like the other prisoners of Auschwitz, the clergy were registered. They were given a camp number and a prisoner category related to the reason for their arrest. The clergy gained a red triangle which was dedicated to political prisoners. There is no separate category or “colour” for the members of the clergy.
The situation of the clergymen was no different from that of the other prisoners. Given the words of SS-Hauptsturmführer Karl Fritzsch, one can even say that the position of the clergy in Auschwitz was weak, closer to the Jews than to the other non-Semitic prisoners.” Fritzsch himself greeted the newcomers with these words:
You have not been sent here to a sanatorium, but to a German concentration camp, from which there is no other way out than through the chimney. If someone doesn’t like it, they can go straight to the barbed wires. If there are Jews who are transported, they have the right to live no more than two weeks, the priests one month, the remaining ones three months.
From the beginning, the Vatican sought to exert pressure on the leadership of the Third Reich to alleviate the fate of Catholic clergymen. Diplomatic talks were initially unsuccessful, but thanks to the inflexible stance of the papal nuncio in Berlin, Cesare Orsenigo Vatican managed to negotiate the transfer of all Catholic clergy to the Dachau camp. A total of 2 2720 priests and priests were appointed. This did not mean, however, that there were no more Catholic clergymen among the further transports to Auschwitz.
Instead of ending
The next test will focus on the spiritual life of the camp and its aspects.